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Volume 16, Issue 3 - January 17 - January 23, 2008

Earth Journal by Gary Pendleton

We Are Not Alone

Tracks are legible proof of the presence of other members of our Chesapeake family

The sandy beach is flanked by a pair of tall clay cliffs. It is 8am; the pink sky turns blue, and a mist lifts from the cold water to shroud the cliffs, about a mile or so distant. A loon calls from out on the Bay, and the scoters make a rustling sound with their wings.

Behind the beach are a marsh and a swamp. A slow, shallow creek draining the marsh breaches a short dune, bisects the beach and flows into the estuary. From the brackish water, a sleek four-legged animal emerges and crosses the narrow beach into the thick phragmites.

I’ve briefly glimpsed River Otters on two other occasions. This time the view was equally brief, but the otter left something behind. Pressed into the sand across the 15-foot span from the water’s edge to the marsh was a set of prints. The track was legible proof of the otter’s presence.

Common name: River Otter

Scientific name: Lutra canadensis

What to look for: Shallow prints, roughly circular, 11⁄2 inches long with 5 toes.

What to bring: Peterson Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus Murie.

Where to look: Beaches, muddy creek banks, snowy ground.

Places to go: Bayside Park (Brownies Beach), Chesapeake Beach. Fort Smallwood Park, Pasadena.

Raccoon, deer and great blue heron, too, had walked the beach that morning or the day before. The sand said so.

Beaches, snow-covered ground and muddy stream banks are good places to look for animal tracks.

With my camera, I captured an image of the otter prints. At home I compared my digital images to Olaus Murie’s elegant pen-and-ink drawings in the Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks, published in 1954. I was delighted to see the legendary naturalist rendered a close match to the early 21st century prints I captured digitally.

Murie explains how to be a wildlife detective, advising on how to read and interpret the marks that animals leave behind: not just tracks on the ground but also signs such as claw marks on trees and tooth marks on twigs. He devotes lots of text and illustrations to scat.

Westmoreland State Park on the Potomac in Virginia was the setting for my recent otter sighting. With its high cliffs loaded with Miocene marine fossils, it is remarkably similar to many places along Calvert County’s Chesapeake shoreline. Anne Arundel County has no shortage of sandy shoreline good for finding animal tracks, either.

Take along your camera and a copy of Murie’s Guide. Or be like Murie and bring your sketch book to record your findings. You can go one step further if you follow the author’s instructions on making plaster casts of animal tracks; it’s easy and fun.

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