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Any reader who has come this far in our account must be interested in observing the mammals described. A number of them can be seen and enjoyed by the visitor who seeks them in a proper fashion. Animals that have never known trap or gun are relatively unafraid of humans. For the bighorn, protection came too late. Some forms are quite rare. Many are difficult to identify in the field. Others are abroad mainly at night. Still others are rarely surprised above ground. However, cultivating the “seeing eye,” being alert as you travel the roads and trails, will prove rewarding.
A little, furry ball scurries across the road in front of the car. Is it a meadow mouse, or a whitefoot? Perhaps a shrew? By process of elimination, often a determination can be made. At night, a larger mammal may dash across the road, then stop and look back. At such times a spotlight or flashlight will be of great value, if the car can safely be stopped (no close following car, a clear road, not on a curve) and backed up in time. Certain mammals, notably coyotes, may get off the road before the car comes along, and watch from along the shoulder.
Whether travelling by car or on the trail, school yourself to note the slightest sign of movement in the country about you. Travel on the trails as quietly as possible. For a rest, or lunch, select an inconspicuous spot and be quiet.
If a mammal is running away, oft-times it can be stopped or slowed by a sharp whistle or loud smacking of the lips. You may often have a better look at an animal that you have discovered at work, if you continue casually on your course right past it, as though you have no intentions of stopping or molesting it.
If you intend to take a photograph, get your camera set when well away from the spot, then, as you walk past, take the picture, almost without interrupting your course. There is also the obvious pleasure in simply watching with stony patience a den or burrow that you know is occupied until the owner comes forth.
To see the most mammals, get away from people. For example, in Yosemite Valley, chances are better if you travel the 34 miles of trail than if you stick to the roads. At night, the roads at the extreme upper and lower ends of the Valley are richer “hunting” than the populous central portion, except perhaps in winter.
The sounds made by mammals can add to the pleasure of your visit. The calls of the chickaree, the squeaking of bats overhead, the primeval howls of coyotes will give a thrill to those who have come to the park for a change from an urban environment.
Great satisfaction can also be gained from tracks and other signs, even if their makers are never observed. Part the grass in the meadows and look for runways of small mammals. To find the most signs, go on the trails and keep an eye to the ground. To interpret every sign found requires years of experience and profound knowledge, but certain elementary points will help to understand a few things about mammalian signatures:
1. Know what species belong to the region, what the possibilities are.
2. Learn some basic track patterns. Mr. Anderson’s photo in the margin demonstrates fundamental squirrel pattern: large hind feet. Hind feet show direction of travel. This squirrel went from the bottom to the top. When the animal hurries, it swings hind feet past the front, plants them, then takes off with the front ones, and so on. Rabbit resembles squirrel, except that the latter, being a tree climber, travels with front feet nearly parallel, while the bunny, mainly terrestrial, a “runner,” staggers the front paws.
Some mammals “register,” nearly or exactly superimposing hind foot marks on those of front, as in the case of coyote, wildcat, or fox:
These are also “singlefooters,” making an almost straight line of tracks instead of in pairs alongside each other, as do the bounding weasels, by and large:
White-footed mice do this. Usually they leave a tail mark, as the weasels sometimes do in snow. Short tail of meadow mouse does not usually show, likewise the shrews, unless snow is proportionately deep. Detailed knowledge must come later, with study and practice.
From cast by M. V. Hood
Rabbit tracks. Direction of travel, to the right.
3. Detail revealed in a track depends on condition of ground or snow. Do not expect always to find every hair and toenail in tracks as pictured in books. Mrs. Hood’s excellent casts represent many hours of searching during a number of seasons.
Photo by Anderson
White-footed mouse tracks. Note center track
4. Always examine a muddy place for tracks, but f mud is soft, tracks larger than average, maybe huge. Wet, sandy beach good tracking too. If track in snow is old, it will melt out to a larger size; wildcat’s print becoming the size of that of mountain lion. In many of our pictures of casts, a six-inch lead pencil has been added to aid in judging the size of tracks.
5. Remember to practice when you go back home. The dog provides a primer for trailing a coyote; the house cat for a wildcat. Mrs. Hood’s hobby of making plaster casts is intriguing; consult the public library, practice on domestic animal tracks.
6. Scats, or droppings, tell much about mammals. Idea not revolting, if you take a common sense approach, particularly in the Sierra, where normally dry climate causes scats soon to become dessicated and innocuous. Many times you can tell at a glance something interesting about an animal’s food habits. Identification cannot be discussed here. Consult the old master, Seton.
7. Watch for tracks, scats and other signs at likely natural shelters, such as under rocks, holes in the earth or trees. Sometimes a few hairs attached where rubbed off the owner, as it used entrance.
8. Kitchen middens, or piles of refuse left after mammal has dined, will give clue to presence of certain species and their food habits, as will food stores, such as cones laid up alongside log by chickarees.
9. If you are a camper, smooth out a dusty spot near your camp before you go to bed; sprinkle it, if you wish. Then look the next morning to see “who” has been around. If it looks as though a man had walked past barefooted, Lady, that was a bear!
From “Mammals of Lake Tahoe” by Robert T. Orr. Courtesy of publisher, California Academy of Sciences.
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