One thing I'm constantly on the lookout for when I'm in the field is animal sign. Tracks, scat, kill sites, hair, bones, nest sites, scrapes anything that alerts me of what crawls, climbs, digs, flies, runs, nests, dens, etc. in the area I'm exploring. You can learn much about animals by studying what they leave behind.
In the sandy road I find a single canine track in the sand. It measures approximately 2 3/4" long and 2" wide and fits the dimensions and appearance of a coyote track. I have found other coyote sign in this locality such as splintered deer bones and scat. The roads around here are mostly made up of coarse sand and act as excellent track traps. I have also found the tracks of foxes, bobcats, skunks, raccoons, deer, proving the presence of each of these animal in this area.
On the way to my destination I find several small patches of hair on the ground next to the barbed wire fence that runs parallel with the trail I was on. I looked at each barb on the fence and found one that had trapped several hairs matching the ones on the ground. Near the hair on the ground were deer tracks. I speculated that the barb snagged the deer’s hide as it leaped over the fence. Barb wire fences are excellent areas to look for animal sign. It can also snag the hair of other animals in the area such as bobcats, cougars, coyotes, foxes, anything that rubs up against it. It's deliberately set up by scientists studying bears in order to snag hair samples for DNA analysis which enables them to keep track of populations. Enough DNA can be sampled from hairs that will tell the gender, species, and identify the individual. When available Shrikes uses barbed wire fence barbs to impale prey, which serve as food larders. Studying these larders help you understand the diet of these birds.
Not far into the woods I came across a small mound of fresh rabbit scat. Each pellet was about 1/2" in length, and had the appearance of "squashed spheres". They were an earthy green color and consisted of plant material. The strange thing is that normally rabbits only drop one pellet at a time. An accumulation of pellets means that the rabbit for some reason stayed in one place for awhile. Had there been a predator nearby that caused it to freeze on the spot? Scat from animals can provide diet information and as with tracks prove existence in a particular area.
While resting on a log I discovered a hardwood snag that had two nice woodpecker holes about 15 foot up. They were about 1 1/2 feet apart and the lower hole was slightly taller that it was wide which points to a pileated woodpecker, which I see in this area quite often. Most times pileateds will nest in a new cavity each season in a another tree, but at times will excavate another one in the same tree, just above or below the previous one, as with this example. The top hole though has a squarish appearance and I'm thinking what happened here is that a squirrel, which at times nest in old woodpecker cavities, may have gnawed on this hole making it easier to access. There is one other large woodpecker that carves out oval entrance holes of this type, one that there's been lots of talk about lately....the ivory-bill. Though it would be nice I doubt very seriously that an ivory-bill is responsible here, especially due to the habitat it is located in. Ivory-bills prefer remote swampy old growth woods, which is getting scarcer by the day due to forest fragmentation (clearcutting, lumber harvetsing, etc). This spring I plan on setting up my ground blind nearby in hopes of observing what uses these holes. There are several good books on animal sign that I highly recommend by Mark Elbroch- "Mammal Tracks and Sign", "Bird Tracks and Sign", and his new book "Animal Skulls: A Guide To North American Species", and there's also a book by Paul Rezendes "Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign". When in the field don't only look for the animal itself, but also for its sign. All you have to do is open your eyes and pay attention. It makes being outdoors that much more interesting.