Here to return to
TRACKS AND TRACKING
ON the snow the study of the tracks of birds and beasts is an interesting one, although often of short duration, limited to the winter and to favorable snowfalls; but at all seasons, in the white fields of sand he who runs may read the history of the dune inhabitants. In the exposed places the wind may speedily efface the records, or the frosts of winter may render parts of the surface unyielding to the impress of feet, but there are always places in the dunes where the tracks are wonderfully perfect. In the summer, creatures that never are seen in the winter, and consequently never make tracks in the snow, such as toads, snakes and grasshoppers, spread their strange hieroglyphs over the sand.
WRECK ON THE BEACH ABOVE THE ICE WALL
The most favorable time for the study of tracks is in the early morning when the oblique sunlight makes deep shadows, when the morning dew moistens the surface so that it retains best the shape of the imprints, and before the wind has arisen to obscure them with the blowing sand.
The dune lover comes to recognize the common tracks as quickly as he does the face of an old friend, and the study of the new and less familiar ones is always enticing. Not only can one learn the nature of the animal that makes the tracks, but often a good deal about its manner of life. In the case of most of the makers of tracks, with the exception of birds and insects, the creature is rarely or never seen, and all the insight we can get into- its life is from the telltale footprints and perhaps from its droppings. This is the case very largely with the mammals, for most of them are nocturnal in their habits, lying concealed during the hours of daylight when their deadly enemy, man, stalks abroad.
One of these night walkers is the Virginia or white-tailed deer, that charming animal which, thanks to the well-enforced protective laws, is more abundant in densely settled eastern Massachusetts to-day than it has been for over a hundred years, and it is possible that in some localities it is even more abundant than has ever been the case. At first thought this seems a rash statement and an unreasonable conjecture, but it is within the bounds of possibility, for not only has white man ceased to persecute the deer, but he has eliminated its natural enemies, such as wolves, lynxes and panthers, as well as the Indians. Thoreau wrote in 1853: “Minot says his mother told him she had seen a deer come down the hill behind the house and cross the road and meadow in front. Thinks it may have been eighty years ago,” — that is about 1770. I was told that half a dozen deer were recently seen in one field in Concord, and single deer are almost every-day occurrences.
Since about the year 1900 deer have been appearing in increasing numbers in this seashore region, but not until 1906 did I have indubitable evidence of their presence in the dunes. In May of that year I found the tracks of two deer in the sand, but, although I occasionally saw deer in the daytime elsewhere, it was not until 1910, owing largely to their nocturnal habits, that I actually saw the animals in the dunes. I have no doubt, however, that I have frequently passed close to them in the sunlight as they lay crouched in the dune thickets. Their presence has not been an entirely unmixed pleasure to all, for the lone farmer of the dunes, whose arable land and orchards were first covered by the sand, and whose planted peas were later scratched up by the imported pheasant, has recently been obliged to erect high wire fences around his small, sandy vegetable gardens to prevent their total consumption by the deer. Near the farmhouse on Castle Hill are some Japanese yew trees which prove in winter a most attractive diet for the deer. To protect these, scarecrows of red flannel wave their flimsy arms in the breeze, and I have recently been obliged to protect in a similar manner some of my own white cedars to prevent their total destruction. However, the occasional sight of these graceful animals, and the more frequent discovery of their delicate tracks, is well worth while.
JACK RABBIT TRACKS, IPSWICH, 1903
I shall never forget a splendid buck with spreading antlers that trotted over the broad marshes one beautiful summer morning in full view of my house. Into the tide he plunged, and swam until he came within sight of some boats at their moorings. Turning in alarm he regained the bank and by leaps and bounds disappeared over the marsh in the direction of a wooded island. The Virginia deer takes to salt water as to the manor born. On a bleak March day in 1909 I landed with Ralph Hoffmann and Glover Allen on Milk Island, a good half-mile off the end of Cape Ann, to watch at closer range a snowy owl. The owl flew to the mainland, but to our surprise a lovely doe began bounding over the low bushes, throwing up her white flag of a tail in a manner that seemed to light up the whole islet. It is impossible to accept Abbott Thayer’s ingenious theory — which only an artist could have invented — that the white tail against the sky in the night-time so cuts up the outline of the animal that the wolf, stealing up for the fatal leap, is confused at the crucial moment and the “obliterated” deer escapes. A stuffed deer, skilfully disposed by the enthusiastic artist, seems to prove this theory so forcibly that some are led to ‘accept it, forgetting the wonderful sense of smell on the part of the wolf, which must be so overwhelming at such close range, that, even blinded, he would leap true. The strongest argument against such a fantastic theory, however, is that in the daytime, as well as in many situations at night, when the trees or hillsides cut out the sky, the flashing tail does not obliterate, but renders much more conspicuous its owner, even to the crouching foe. I once saw two deer at dusk in a meadow surrounded by woods. The light was so poor that I could hardly distinguish the creatures until in alarm they raised their white tails. Even when I assumed the position of the “crouching wolf,” the white tails were most conspicuous and advertised the deer. It was impossible to bring the tails against the sky. If there were not some other reason for this flashing tail it would on account of its conspicuousness long ago have been itself obliterated by natural selection. There are many facts in nature that are difficult to understand, and it is far better to admit ignorance than to accept an untenable theory. In the case of this deer, however, as in the case of other creatures similarly marked, the theory that the white spot is intended to be conspicuous and to be used as a directive mark or as a danger-signal to others of the same species seems a common-sense view, and will answer for most naturalists as a good working hypothesis.
Early one May morning, while the sun was still low over the sea, I was walking up wind along the beach, when I noticed a doe standing like a statue with ears erect, gazing out into the east, a worshipper of the two greatest mysteries, the sea and the sun. Although I stopped and myself stood motionless, the nervous twitching of her tail from side to side showed she was uncertain as to the identity of the object on the beach, but when she turned and ambled off into the dunes her tail remained down, the flag did not show, and I concluded from the absence of this instinctive danger-signal of her race, that she had not recognized me and was not alarmed.
One January day in 1912 I had been watching a herd of twenty seals on the bar, and many sea birds in the water, when I looked towards Steep Hill and saw, standing in the snow and against the sky line, a group of seven deer — two stags and five does or full-grown fawns. The stags, with heads erect and splendid spreading antlers borne on high, stood like statues peering at what they suspected was evil but did not know, for the wind was not in their favor. The does with feminine curiosity stretched their slender necks in my direction and erected their great ears. The group formed a picture long to be remembered. Finally one stag, more knowing than the rest, raised his white flag, spread the long white hairs on his rump, and ambled off, and the others at once followed suit.
Deer tracks in the dunes are often abundant and easily recognized. Usually the marks of the split hoofs only are seen, but in the softer sand the imprints of the two additional dew-claws show. When the animal trots the hind feet are placed so exactly in the marks of the front, that one rarely sees the double imprint, but when the deer bounds away in fright or play, all four feet strike the ground separately. One such set of bounding prints I measured and found that each jump was four feet long. One can almost see the graceful animals as one follows the clean-cut tracks, sometimes of a great bounding stag, sometimes of a doe with a little fawn. Usually these two trot along together, but sometimes the fawn springs about in small circles near its sedate mother.
When the prairie-hare or western jackrabbit was introduced in Ipswich I do not know, but throughout the nineties and up to about the year 1907 it was common in the dunes, and its tracks were everywhere. In the last named year it began to diminish in numbers, and in 1909 it was no longer to be found in its old haunts, and to-day is, I am afraid, entirely extirpated. Whether this extirpation was due to the foreign and unfavorable environment, or to the fox, which has increased considerably in numbers since 1907, is an open question, although the jack-rabbit ought to be able to escape the fox in a fair race. Seton calls it “the speediest wild four-foot left on the Manitoban prairie to-day,” and says it can outrun the fox. The fox, however, does not restrict himself to fair means and the open chase in obtaining his prey, neither does he decline the fat and tender young.
When jack-rabbits were common, I could almost always in a day’s walk start one, and I never ceased to be astonished by the creature that looked almost as large as a calf, as it bounded off through the dunes.
TRACKS OF FOX AND CROWS
Both Coues and Seton describe this starting up and bounding away of the jack-rabbit so vividly that I cannot do better than quote them here. And first Seton: “You never know where you may find a Jack — no one does — you never see it till it leaps at close range and lopes away in stiff four-cornered bounds, rising without effort, like an Antelope, and switching its great white brush from side to side like a miniature White-tailed Deer; blazing with snowy white and punctuated with sharp black spots on his ears, it is the king of all his kind, the largest and finest of the Hares.” And then Coues: “The first sign one has usually of a Hare which has squatted low in hopes of concealment, till its fears force it to fly, is a great bound into the air, with lengthened body and erect ears. The instant it touches the ground it is up again, with a peculiar springy jerk, more like the rebounding of an elastic ball than the result of muscular exertion. It does not come fairly down and gather itself for the next spring, but seems to hold its legs stiffly extended, to touch only its toes, and rebound by the force of its impact.”
In running rapidly this great hare spreads its foot-prints in a line so that the track suggests that of a fox until the marks are critically examined. At a slower gait it jumps like the familiar little cottontail, also found in the dunes, putting its hind feet in front and outside of its fore feet, and the tracks appear in patterns of fours. I have often followed the tracks of a jack for long distances, as he bounded in and out among the dunes, sometimes going down to the beach or up to the top of a sand peak. The abundance of tracks on the tops of some lofty dunes would suggest midnight sessions of the tribe. It is a great pity that this interesting animal is a thing of the past here, for he was certainly a charming feature of the dunes.
My most intimate relations with a jackrabbit occurred on January 27, 1907. Snow was spitting in biting gusts from the northeast and the thermometer was only twelve degrees above zero, a day when bird and beast might feel fairly secure from man. But the jack, whose tale I now relate, reckoned without his host, for in an Eskimo koolatuk and on snow-shoes I could comfortably defy the storm. My friend, the late Mr. Julian Dodge, who was ranging in front of me in the dunes, suddenly threw himself like a foot-ball player on a ball, and emerged from a snow-drift with a great kicking jack-rabbit. He afterwards explained that he had caught sight of the rabbit’s eye among some protecting grasses under a curling snowbank, and without hesitating a moment had pounced on his prey. To one who has tried to shoot this swift-running, elusive beast the tale may sound apocryphal, and I must in justification quote the following from Seton: “It is well known that the English Hare and the Common Cottontail will lie up, under stress of bad weather, letting the snow drift over them. There they continue several days without eating, and in a semi-torpid state, until aroused by some outside change for the better.” This description fits the case exactly, except that the outside change was for the worse!
Reynard the fox now reigns supreme among the dunes. He has been a large element, doubtless, in the infant mortality of the jackrabbits and their untimely destruction. All is game, living or dead, that comes in his way, and he is fond of the fish and birds washed up on the beach, but the various wild mice are probably his chief dependence.
His tracks are everywhere in the sand, but should be carefully distinguished from those of his cousin the dog, who unfortunately also ranges the dunes at times. As a rule the tracks of the fox have such a clear, clean-cut appearance that they are easily recognized. Each foot is put down with care; there is no slouching or shuffling, and each step is usually a stride. Most important of all, each footmark of the fox almost always shows two toes and claws projecting in front, while the footmarks of most dogs are nearly round. The one is slender and aristocratic, the other stubby and commonplace. One cannot always be sure of the identity of every track, but long practice lessens the chance of mistakes.
On a hot August day I followed some fox tracks, made evidently the night before, until they crossed the path of a toad. Suddenly the leisurely gait changed to bounds, there were some conspicuous scratch marks, and the toad tracks ceased. After that the fox tracks ambled on as before.
Near some other fox tracks I found a dead white-footed mouse with no mouse tracks near. Foxes apparently have a way of carrying mice in their mouths, and this must have slipped out unnoticed from an overfull receptacle. Captain Cartwright in his Labrador Journal speaks of finding inside a trap, which had been sprung without catching the fox, “five large mice, which the fox had dropped out of his mouth.”
TRACKS OF TOADS
TRACK OF SNAKE
Some years ago, from a study of tracks in fresh snow in the dunes, I concluded that crows sometimes spent the night roosting on the ground. With the increase of foxes there, I am inclined to think that this is no longer the case, but in April, 1910, I found fox tracks and the remains of a crow, — but this of course may have been only a dead crow feast. Live crows are generally well able to take care of themselves; they need no protective coloration and have none.
Although foxes are abroad largely at night, I have not infrequently seen them by day. When first started they bound away in great leaps, showing the edges of their white bellies in contrast with their red sides; later they streak along, to use an appropriate slang phrase, close to the ground, their great brushes held straight out behind. As they disappear into a distant thicket the white tips of their tails are the last to show. One winter’s day I followed some fresh fox tracks till they led me to some bushes overarched with a snow-drift. As I cautiously approached, a splendid fellow bounded out and fled to the peaked top of a dune several hundred yards away, where he deliberately sat down to watch me. I returned the compliment by levelling my binoculars on him, and found he was not the common red fox, but of the color-phase known as the cross fox. As I was watching him a flock of snow buntings swirled about him like a miniature snow-squall. He crouched low, with his eyes upon them, but they avoided the trap and swept on.
At another time I heard sounds of anger and indignation from the mouths of crows, and discovered three or four of these birds in the act of mobbing a fox, who, however, sauntered along, apparently not a whit disturbed, with his brush held straight out behind.
One can learn a
good deal about the ways of the fox from these tracks without ever catching
sight of the animal. Another source of information is the droppings, which are
easily recognized and are common in the dunes. As these are made up largely of
fur and feathers, and have been exposed to the purifying action of the sun and
sand, they are as clean as balls of worsted. In fact their unravelling, with
here and there an object in the form of a bone, a tooth or a claw, recalls the
old form of lottery once popular at church fairs, where for a stipend one might
unroll a ball of worsted until a prize dropped out. In both instances there is
an element of chance which makes the game interesting, — it is more or less of
a gamble. Sometimes there are no prizes, for the fur composes the whole of the
droppings, which then resemble tapering cylinders of felt
TRACK OF MEADOW-MOUSE AND OF A WOOLLY BEAR CATERPILLAR
TRACKS OF WHITE-FOOTED MICE
As a result of many unravellings of fur and feathers, I am able to present the following fox menu: portions of sand-fleas and sea-scuds and other small crustaceans; portions of June beetles and tiger beetles; bones of toad and frog; feathers of domestic fowl and of wild birds, large and small; bones of birds; claws of night heron and portions of skin of foot; sclerotic or eye bones of some bird; fur of mice and rabbits; bones of mammals; teeth of meadow mouse; teeth of young skunk.
The weasel bounds like a hobby-horse and leaves his foot-marks in pairs on the sand, — round impressions about the bigness of one’s thumb nail. These tracks are not common, but it is easier to find them than the beast itself, which, however, does not appear afraid when seen. I once heard the piteous squeaking of a meadow mouse, and saw a weasel bounding along, carrying the dying mouse in his jaws. He dropped it and retired to some bushes, but soon reappeared and bore off his prey, although I stood within a few feet of it. The brown summer coat of the weasel is exchanged in winter for the royal ermine — pure white with the exception of a black tip to the tail. One winter morning before it was fairly light I was walking to the dunes when I saw what appeared to be a piece of white paper blowing towards me. Within a few feet it suddenly developed into a lovely ermine that scurried by and disappeared among the snowdrifts.
The mink — midway between the weasel and the otter — is both a land and a water animal. Although I have often seen him on pebbly shores of the ocean bordering on woods, running out slyly and unconscious of my presence as long as I was motionless, I have never caught sight of him on the sandy shore of Ipswich. In the salt marshes, however, he delights to roam both summer and winter, swimming the creeks and tidal pools in the summer, and climbing in and out among the ice cakes in winter. In the latter season he is a conspicuous object, for he does not turn white like his cousin, the crafty weasel, and his rich glossy brown fur contrasts well with the ice. One of these fellows, wandering among the ice floes stranded on the marsh, met death at my hands in those days when I “observed” as frequently along the shining barrel of a gun as through a glass, and his beautiful skin still serves in arctic weather as head-gear for his slayer.
A dozen small fish left on a log on a marsh island during a cold night disappeared utterly, so that my breakfast was a scanty one, while a mink was undoubtedly pleased with this singular change of habitat on the part of the fish.
If the mink combines in himself the weasel and the otter, he also shows some relationship with the skunk, for he is capable of producing a most abominable odor, but little inferior to that of the latter well known animal. His tracks I have often found; they resemble those of the skunk but are considerably smaller, and the claws are more prominent. A drop of bright blood near his tracks stamps his murderous character.
Only occasionally, when there is plenty of water in the dune bogs, do the tracks of muskrats appear on the sand, and strangely enough I have found them leading from one bog to another over dry stretches of dune land. The marks of the webbed hind foot can sometimes be plainly made out, while the median groove formed by the dragging tail is a conspicuous feature, and makes the diagnosis easy.
The skunk is certainly a beach-comber, but his visits to the strand are with very rare exceptions made only at night. The beach is a happy hunting ground for him, because, like the fox, he enjoys the varied and gamey diet that the place affords, and his tracks abound there. They are also spread like a network over the dunes, with here and there a small pit where he has dug for grubs or cut-worms. The footprints are often beautifully distinct in the sand, and show each toe and claw, and these as well as the gait are characteristic.
TRACKS OF A SKUNK IN A HURRY
I once had an excellent opportunity to study the gait, not merely in the tracks, but in the living animal. With a friend I came upon a skunk on the upper beach, and, by heading him off from the dunes, we were able to drive him down to the edge of the waves, although we always kept at a discreet distance and watched his tail. The animal was evidently enraged by our manoeuvres, and showed his displeasure by turning and facing us from time to time and stamping his fore feet on the sand. One of us then walked behind him as he ran along the beach, while the other prevented his escaping from the water’s edge by walking between him and the dunes. When once started, this triangular procession continued along the beach for about half a mile. At the end of this march, owing to human caprice, the order became single file, with the skunk in the middle, and the extremities of the column closing up on the centre. Each of the out-guards endeavored to drive the centre towards the other, but each out-guard was secretly and cowardly prepared to turn and flee, if the centre showed the danger-signal by elevating its tail. The climax was disappointing and unsensational, for the skunk, no longer debarred from its haven, the dunes, made off at right angles for this refuge and disappeared, leaving the end-guards discomfited, but in an atmosphere undefiled. However, my notes say that the speed of the animal along the beach was about four miles an hour, and that the gait was a peculiar one in that the fore legs trotted while the rear legs seemed to hop or gallop, so that the front part of the body kept an even level while the back part bobbed up and down.
Although the ordinary gait of the skunk is a very leisurely one, I once found tracks which showed that the animal was bounding over the sand in long strides or leaps, because his four feet came down in linear patterns with considerable gaps between each set. He must have been frightened by a ghost for, well armed as he is, he is afraid of nothing made of flesh and blood.
The odor of the skunk is almost never noticed in the dunes. Its presence generally means a meeting with a dog or a gunner.
Skunk droppings are often made up wholly of insects, such as beetles and crickets, although I have found the bones of birds and mice, their feathers and fur, as well as bits of grass and seeds. It is possible that the last named were accidental additions to the diet.
Mice tracks in the dunes are for the most part made by white-footed mice and meadow mice. The former often bounds along, leaving tracks in fours like a miniature rabbit, while the meadow mouse leaves his tracks in a line or in pairs, and near together. The marks are often very clear, showing all the toes and foot pads. Noticing a multitude of tracks of the white-footed mouse near an old log in the dunes, I lifted it, and there curled up in a soft nest were a pair of these delicate large-eyed mice.
Occasionally one comes across tracks of a larger size made by rats. Where the beasts come from I do not know, but it is evident that they exist in these sands, for they once made an entrance into my dune camp and left traces of their destructive work, which might have been serious had it not been discovered early.
By far the commonest of all-the-year-round bird tracks in the dunes are those of the crow. One can observe the force with which the birds alight, the fact that after alighting they sometimes bound forward once with both feet together, and that they are very apt to drag their middle toe or even all their toes when they are particularly tired or lazy. Nevertheless they walk with long strides, and on rare occasions only do they hop. Their toe-marks show knobby protuberances, as if they suffered from the gout. As they rise into the air, their wing-marks are sometimes imprinted on the sand, and I have seen places on the snow where they have slipped in walking and spread out one wing to save themselves.
Crows give an easy clew to their feeding habits, as they have a custom of ejecting from their mouths pellets of partially digested food. These pellets are plentifully distributed in the dunes, especially in certain localities where the birds roost. They are one or two inches long, tapering at the ends, and a half to three-quarters of an inch thick. In summer these pellets soon fall to pieces, but in freezing weather they retain their shape. Their most common constituents, by which they may be recognized at a glance, are bayberry or wax myrtle seeds. A few of these seeds are ejected with the waxy coat still intact, but most of them are entirely denuded of it. Cranberries, whole and in fragments, the red furry seeds of the sumach, the seeds of the poison sumach, of grapes and of the bitter-sweet are also common. I have found pellets that were made up almost entirely of whole cranberries or whole bitter-sweet berries, so that it would seem as if their greediness had led the crows to adopt the old Roman custom, that they might gorge the more.
TRACKS OF A CROW
HUDSONIA PLANTS, TRACKS OF WHITE-FOOTED MOUSE AND OF PHEASANT IN SOFT SAND
Besides seeds and berries the pellets are very apt to contain the shells of the little black-footed univalve — Melampus — so abundant in the salt marshes, as well as those of periwinkles, sea-snails, mussels and clams. Portions of crabs are also common, and occasionally one finds bits of June bugs and of tiger beetles, and bones of fish, frogs and mice.
The fondness of crows for other birds’ eggs was clearly revealed to me one May day. A few broken remains of a red-winged blackbird’s egg, surrounded by the tracks of a crow — that was all, yet it explains the insistent ferocity with which red-wings chase crows from the thickets. The bill of fare of the crow is a varied one!
The ring pheasant frequently strides among the dunes, leaving tracks very different from those of the crow; the three toe-marks in front are widely spread, and there is no mark of the hind toe except where he goes down an incline or the sand is soft, and then only a dot shows. In an ordinary walk the distance between the foot-marks is seven or eight inches, but when running the bird sometimes strides twenty-two inches.
I once watched a bald eagle perched on a dune overlooking the sea, and after he had flown away the markings of his tail and wings, as well as of his feet, were plainly to be seen where he had stood in the sand.
Prior to 1904, the tracks of piping plover might occasionally be found in the spring spread thickly about the spot where their eggs were laid in slight depressions in the sand of the dunes, but now these birds no longer breed there.
In the latter part of the summer, tree swallows alight among the dunes and leave tracks of their brief walks made with short steps, bordered here and there by marks of unmanageably long wings, and punctuated with an occasional dropping containing bayberry seeds. Footprints of many birds are always to be found in the sands, but when the winter birds come in great flocks, — the snow buntings, horned larks and Lapland longspurs, all walkers, — then indeed is the sand well inscribed. All of these, but particularly the last named, have long hind toes and claws.
TRACKS AND EGGS OF PIPING PLOVER
TRACKS OF SAVANNAH SPARROW AND SAND DUNE SPIDER AND HOLE OF LATTER
It is very seldom that one finds the tracks of flickers, but they are easily distinguished by the two toes in front, the two behind and the hopping gait.
Although gulls often alight and leave their tracks in the dunes, the footprints of sea birds are best studied on the damp beach, and a chapter might be written on this subject alone. The most characteristic of these tracks are those of the shore birds, and one can easily distinguish the records of plover from the records of sandpipers, both by the footprints and by the bill-marks. Flocks of plover spread out irregularly on the sand, and leave tracks running in various directions and constantly crossing, while the sandpipers have more team play, and run along the beach, up and down before the advancing and retreating waves, but always together. The sandpiper, with head down nearly all the time, drills the sand with his long bill, and leaves behind him an almost uninterrupted series of holes close together for the space of a foot or more, then a blank space where only his footprints show as he hurries along, swallowing his prey, then another series of holes, and so on. Not so the plover; he strides along with head up, but every few seconds he strikes the sand a blow with his short bill for a minute crustacean or worm below the surface. These dabbings of the semi-palmated or ring-neck plover are small, while those of the black-bellied plover are large and are usually two or three feet apart and generally double, which means that the eager bird struck the sand with bill partly open. The footprints show three toes wide apart.
At night the beach is often lined with night herons, and their tracks, as well as those of their much larger but less common relative, the great blue heron, and also of the small green heron, are easily recognized.
When the herring gull alights on the beach, both feet come down together, or nearly so, with considerable force, and thrust slightly forward, as is shown by the deep impressions in the sand at the back of the track. Occasionally the birds strike so flat-footed that the tarsus cuts the sand like a long hind toe. Their webbed footprints sometimes cover the sand thickly for many yards, with here and there a pellet of fish bones, and with feathers as thick as in a poultry yard. If there is a strong wind, gulls are able by a step or two directly toward it to launch their great aeroplanes into the air, but on calm days they run forward vigorously with wings spread, and, as they are gradually borne aloft, the feet still push at the sand until the tips only of the claws make imprints. The distance of the run is inversely proportionate to the velocity of the wind.
TRACKS OF HORNED LARKS
A curious habit of herring gulls leads to peculiar tracks. I refer to the fact that they not infrequently drag dead fish in tortuous courses from the upper beach down to the water. A dead hake eighteen inches long I found had been dragged one hundred and thirty-four paces to the water, and, from the tracks, it was evident that the gull had laboriously walked backwards all the way, pausing from time to time and relinquishing its beak-hold on the fish. The fish was certainly gamey enough to need a salt water souse, but the gull’s object was possibly to soften it. This action on the part of the gull seems to me to deserve credit for something more than mere instinct. I cannot help thinking that the lower animals, in unusual actions of this sort, display an intelligence akin to our own, and that the sharp line between instinct for them and reasoning power for us should not be drawn. The Lord only knows how much of our own boasted intelligence is merely instinctive; I have known dogs that have shown more reasoning power than I have seen displayed by some stupid people. I have a parrot that shows its intelligence in the same manner as the gull by taking hard bits of cracker to its water jar and soaking them before it eats them.
The common habit of herring gulls, as well as of crows, of dropping’ clams, sea-snails or crabs from a height in order to break their shells, accounts for the multitude of these objects both in the dunes and on marsh islands. As its prey falls, the bird drops down after it, and sometimes repeats the process again and again.
On disturbing a pair of sheldrakes or red-breasted mergansers one calm day from their comfortable nap on the beach, I found in the sand record that they were obliged to stride forward twenty-nine yards before they could push the beach away from them. Their strides were three feet long, and the duck led the drake in the race. They were unable to head for the little wind that was stirring, for I was on their windward side and the ocean was to leeward, so they were doubly handicapped. Had the wind been blowing harder, they would undoubtedly have risen against it, — towards me. The case of the black duck is very different. Its leisurely walk, with short steps and toes turned in, is easily traced in the sand to where the track ends abruptly as the powerful wings take the bird straight up. The final footprints are not perceptibly deeper than those that precede, showing that it is their wings and not the push of their feet on which they depend.
It is not often that double-crested cormorants or shags alight on the beach, but their tracks are worth recording. With their stiff tail feathers they scratch the sand in places, while the base of the curious foot makes a deep depression in the sand, and the three front toes with nails are plainly shown, as well as the nail of the fourth toe, which makes a mark at the side; in places there are indications of the web which connects all the toes. In rising both feet strike out together in a hop instead of a stride.
On some desert sands the tracks of many reptiles are found, but in these northern seashore dunes it is rare that one comes upon the winding track of a snake. A member of the group of batrachians, the common or garden toad, here, however, so sandy in color as to deserve the name of dune-toad, leaves his tracks everywhere in the summer, and from their bizarre shape and great abundance they are certainly a surprise to the uninitiated. Concealed in the daytime beneath a board or log or in a burrow in the sand, the toad is rarely seen, but he makes up for his sluggish days by great activity at night. I have often followed a toad track until I became tired of the pursuit, for the animal travels surprising distances, often, curiously enough, in a straight line over hill and dale among the dunes.
Of insect tracks in the dunes there is a goodly quantity, from those of the grasshopper, which, owing to the multitude of footprints, suggests a milliped, but whose hop-marks are deep and abrupt, to the transitory ones of the restless tiger beetle, as he alights for a moment, and from those made by the excursions of the staghorn beetle to the worm-like marks of various larvae. Like the toad and the Ipswich sparrow, the dune grasshopper, and to a less extent the dune tiger beetle have become sandy in appearance — protectively colored.
STAGHORN BEETLE AND TRACKS
Another creature that is protectively colored is the sand dune spider — or to speak more correctly, the male sand dune spider, for he alone spreads his tracks in the sand. The female, who lives in a hole, needs no protective coloration.
The study of ichnology and scatology in these sandy wastes is as absorbing as a detective story.