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Learning gaits

I’ve been working hard to learn animal gaits.  What, you may ask, is that?  Its the pattern you’re going to see on the ground when an animal is moving, either walking, running, loping, trotting, hopping…you get the idea.

I’d been studying track identification for a number of years.  When I was in California last month I went to my old tracking club that meets once a month at Abbot’s Lagoon in Point Reyes.  We walk about a mile to reach a sand dune spit which is always full of life–bobcats, deer, coyotes, raccoons, otters, skunks and more.  This particular morning was a coyote and a bobcat station.  Both stations were about gait analysis.  The coyote switched from a trot, the natural rhythm for a coyote, to a side trot, then looked to the side, then stopped and started walking.  I really was confronted with my limited knowledge of gaits.

Gaits overwhelm me.  I have gait dyslexia it seems.  So what I did was use stiff cardboard and cut out footprints–F for front and R for rear.  Then I’ve been arranging them, using Mark Elbroch book ‘Mammal Tracks and Sign‘ as a guide, in different typical patterns.  Once arranged, I use all fours and mimic the gait.  I think its the only way to get this into my brain, as a kinesthetic exercise.  I once heard that you have to see an advertisement 300 times before its in the brain.  Probably I’ll have to do each gait 300 times before it begins to connect.

Straddle trot turning into a Side Trot (canines)


Transverse Lope

And of course, then you’ve got to go to the field.  Today I went out to a well-traveled back road that’s closed in the winter.  Well-traveled that is, by bunnies, coyotes, and especially the local wolf pack.  Last week the snow was very deep, but today it was hard packed with mostly wolf prints running back and forth.  I still am not very good at figuring out how many wolves were running down the trail, especially since there were tons of prints in both directions.  But at least 4 or 5 wolves.  I could see where they’d made a kill on the other side of the creek, but only a few parts were visible through my binoculars.

As I traveled further up the trail, one wolf was occasionally dripping blood.  I thought it might be too early for her to be in estrus.  The wound though wasn’t coming from the foot.  At one point the wolf shook and there were drips of blood in either direction of her trail.

I followed one wolf track that went off to the side of the trail.  The track stopped at a wide swath of compacted snow, like a lay.  But it didn’t seem that it was a wolf lay.  For one thing there were ungulate hairs in the depression.  Also the wolf’s tracks were fairly unbroken.  Koda was very interested, digging and sniffing the outline.

The bigger track is the front foot

We trekked a bit further to another spot where the wolf went off to the side again, with another depression.  Koda began digging furiously, and came up with a fresh deer skull!  That wolf had stashed the skull there.  Probably the other spot was a possible stash area, but then he changed his mind and stashed it further up.  That was fun and revealing for me because I had wondered if maybe that wolf had laid down.  But it didn’t add up with the ungulate hairs and no deer tracks leading to or from it.  Tracking is kind of like solving a mystery.

Koda, upon finding that wolf’s ‘stash’, took that deer skull and stashed it somewhere else.  I told him that that wolf would be mad with him for messing with his ‘stash’!

The wolves veered off the old road, under a fence line and into the woods.  I followed them out to where they crossed an iced over portion of the river.  They were just making their rounds and I was getting an idea of their route.  Interestingly enough, I saw some old bear tracks.  They were very degraded but were certainly bear.  Yet they weren’t that old because they were in the snow.  Although the winds have been blowing for days, this was a protected area under cover.  But our last snowfall was about a week ago.  These tracks were fairly fresh.  The fact that some bears are out still gave me pause.

So far in the last week, I’ve noticed a few things relative to the wolf pack here.  They use the easy routes to patrol the area.  They like to go up and down the main dirt road, then cut across the meadow through the willows to cross the river.  They circuit around from the closed road on the north side of the creek back to the main road.  When I walked the closed road all the way to the Game and Fish (which is closed during the winter for wildlife habitat), I’d thought the wolves would have continued on their trek through the boundary line.  Elk are in the meadows up there, but the snow is deep, so they use the easier routes for now.  Last year for certain they were coming and going through the habitat boundary, but last year held much less snow.

Also, last year the kills I saw were mainly elk.  So far this year, in just the two weeks that I’ve been watching along the road, they’ve killed not only elk (I saw one elk kill) but a yearling moose and now this deer.

Abbie Nelson out of University of Wyoming, worked up here for 2 summers and fall doing a wolf study.  She told me deer were the preferred food in summer when the elk are gone.  With thousands of elk now in the valley, all along the meadows beside the roads, I was surprised to see this deer kill in the creek bottom.

Tracking animals always gets me into their mindset.  And if I can begin to learn gaits, then I might be able to get in to their heads even more.  You can see which way an animal was looking, if they paused or speed up, and  then you ask yourself ‘Why?’.  It is a real study for sure.  I’m working on it.

4 Responses

  1. It’s always a pleasure when I receive a little note on Google reader telling me that “the human footprint” has another post for our enjoyment. In light of your recent post on Synchronicity – I’ve been reading Angela Carter’s short stories, especially those about wolves and wolf-people. Her description of the gaits of wolf-women is very similar to your own. Thank you for allowing us these delightful glimpses into your life, your thoughts, your experiences, and your beautiful world.


    • Thank you so much for those kind words. Its always nice to receive encouragement and know that others are reading and enjoying as much as I enjoy being here.


  2. Great post here. I too am weak with my gaits, but this post has inspired me to work on that. I love the hands-on method you use. Excellent!



  3. Elbroch’s book is excellent. I’ve heard the best is to make the gait cards out of cake box. That way its stiff and one side is white while the other…pink.


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