Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Nov. 30, 2022

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‘Trackers’ hunt for animal clues along Columbia River in Vancouver

Our 'pretty cool wildlife corridor' contains ample evidence of the critters in our midst

By , Columbian staff writer
7 Photos
When you spot animal tracks, said Conley, analyze them closely and ask detailed questions: How large are they? How many digits are there? What direction do they seem to be headed?
When you spot animal tracks, said Conley, analyze them closely and ask detailed questions: How large are they? How many digits are there? What direction do they seem to be headed? (Elayna Yussen for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It may have looked like a pleasant, sunny stroll through some riverside wetlands. In reality, Saturday morning’s outing was a crime-scene investigation.

Fifteen sharp-eyed folks who participated in a city-sponsored “Following the Tracks” walk between Vancouver’s Water Resources Education Center and the Columbia River on Saturday morning wound up deputized — cheerfully and informally — by science educator Ashley Conley.

The group studied spotty evidence of animal tracks while hiking through a strip of forest, then emerged onto a sandy wetland that was teeming with footprints of all sorts. Conley and AmeriCorps volunteer Maya Markillie planted flags and got out some helpful animal-track manuals while their group of amateur sleuths spun theories about animal visits and activities here.

Put your powers of detailed observation to the test, Conley cautioned the group. Don’t jump to conclusions, but take your time and ask questions:

How large and deep are the tracks? How many toes are there? Are there claws? What direction are the tracks headed? Can you differentiate front paws from back and left from right? If there’s scat, what’s that like?

Different animals walk in very distinct ways, said Conley, who got down on all fours to demonstrate the signature gaits of local wetland visitors like raccoons, possums, coyotes, mice and even skittering shore birds.

Conley pointed out holes in downed logs, the telltale signatures of beetles going in and coming out again. When one walk participant noticed a bird nest hidden in the brush at eye height, Conley analyzed its size, construction and materials — grass, branches, moss and mud — and decided it probably belonged to a robin, “the classic mud-building and nesting bird,” she said.

Saturday’s crime-scene investigation kicked into highest gear when the group discovered a dense tangle of different animal tracks — a profusion of short lines and small dots — plus a scattering of small, fluffy feathers near a hunk of driftwood. One of the feathers appeared to have blood on its shaft. Conley said the feathers looked cleanly yanked out, not broken.

CSI conclusion: Not too many hours ago, an eagle or other large raptor swooped down here and attacked a smaller bird, perhaps a pigeon. The raptor may have perched on the driftwood, leaving little evidence of its identity. After the crime was committed and the criminal had fled, other scavengers — including a mouse and some other shore bird — foraged the scene for leftovers, leaving that profusion of small tracks.

“We’re still in migratory season, so there are lots of different possibilities here,” Conley said. “It’s a great time to go tracking, and we’ve got a pretty cool wildlife corridor here.”

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