Park Happenings: Spending 'dirt time' at Leadbetter

<I>Julie Tennis/Washington State Parks</I><BR>Tracking Club members analyze footprints in the sand at Leadbetter Point.

"Learning to track animals in the wild requires many hours in the field, much of it on hands and knees, studying animal signs up close. Trackers have come to call this 'dirt time,'" according to Dennis Deck (http://dirttime.ws).

On Dec. 19, the Leadbetter Tracking Club met for the first time. Six of us gathered at the main parking lot at 10 a.m., braving the cool, wet weather. We began our search for animal sign on the bay side of the Bay Loop Trail (formerly known as the Green Trail).

Leadbetter Point is a superb location to study wildlife. The park and refuge properties combine to provide over 2,700 acres of forest, shoreline, and wetlands. It is a vital rest stop for migrating shorebirds and provides a large enough forest to support elk, coyote, bobcat, black bear and deer, among a myriad of other smaller creatures. The point also features several miles of shoreline where evidence of the diverse invertebrate life of the bay lies exposed at low tides.

This day, our group found the beach covered with tracks. Most of them were from people; second in abundance were dog tracks. (Dogs are not legally permitted at Leadbetter Point except during duck hunting season.) The dog tracks provided good, clear tracks for our group to practice sketching and to discuss track morphology.

Canine tracks are distinctive because they have four toe pads visible around the top of a triangle-shaped heel pad. Each of the four toe pads has a claw mark near the top. Feline tracks, which are quite similar to canine tracks, generally lack the claw marks. More telling is the shape of the heel pad - in a feline print the top of the triangle has two points.

Possibly the most interesting tracks we found were those of a raccoon. Not only are raccoon tracks interesting to look at, with their human-like five-toed prints, but they also have a different gait than longer-legged creatures like deer and coyote. When traveling at a normal pace, raccoons move in a bear-like waddle that leaves the footprints side by side. The coyote and deer tracks we'd been looking at earlier showed the back feet had stepped right on top of the front prints in a process called direct register.

The sand substrate of Leadbetter Point provides excellent tracking conditions, both in the forest and along the shore, but not all animal sign is tracks on the sand. Other types of sign include scat, scratches and rubs on trees, shells, carcasses and feathers. The low tide allowed us to inventory some of the marine invertebrates that live in Willapa Bay by observing the shells scattered all along the beach.

The Leadbetter Tracking Club is free, open to the public, and meets on one Saturday each month, specific dates vary. The next meeting is Saturday, Jan. 16, at 10 a.m. Please join us in this fun way to experience the outdoors! Call 642-3029 for more information.

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