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Mar 4, 2019 11:12 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

A Look At Wildlife Spoor And The Secrets It Holds

A caracal, native to Africa, the Mid-East and Asia, photographed February 19 on Millstone Road, Southampton. CHRIS CHAPIN
Mar 5, 2019 10:01 AM

Well, March certainly came in like a lion—we’ll see if it leaves like a lamb.This is the month that many consider the “transition” month from winter to spring, yet one needs to look very carefully to see any signs of the latter in the landscape by month’s end. It remains a very wintry scene on Eastern Long Island come April Fool’s Day.

It seems that the increasing daylight and slightly warmer temperature cues stir more changes in the members of our local animal kingdom than in our native plants. By month’s end, hibernators such as the Eastern chipmunk and woodchuck will emerge from their winter quarters, river otters and red foxes give birth to young in their respective dens, and recently weaned gray seal pups will make their way from their pupping grounds off Nantucket to our bay and ocean beaches.

Alewives begin their spawning run from our bays up our small, shallow tidal creeks to quiet stretches of freshwater, where they mate and lay eggs, a journey that attracts many piscivores, including one of our most conspicuous migrants, the osprey.

While leading a “Wildlife Tracks and Scats” program for the South Fork Natural History Museum over the last weekend in February, Taylor Ruhle found unusual-looking scat in Vineyard Field Nature Preserve adjacent to the museum, and contacted me, thinking it might have been left by a coyote. I contacted Callie Velmachos, a colleague with extensive experience studying wildlife track and sign with some of the best trackers in the Northeast, and with extensive “dirt time” deciphering track and sign in the field. We arranged to meet at the museum.

Scat is one of several sign that also includes tracks, scrapes, browse and dens, left behind by wildlife and collectively referred to as spoor. Wildlife biologists study spoor and use it to determine the presence of secretive and largely nocturnal species that are otherwise not seen or heard.

Many people are understandably squeamish about inspecting wildlife scat, but once you realize the wealth of information it can provide, it’s hard to pass by an interesting one without taking a close look.

I was first introduced to “scatology” back in 1983 by a 72-year-old, retired professional guide and trapper. He was leading a snowshoe outing for a local Audubon chapter in southern New Hampshire and came upon some old bobcat scat. Taking off his mittens, he reached down, picked up the scat, and broke it open to get a better look at the color and length of the hairs it was composed of. “Beaver,” he announced.

There wasn’t one carnivore scat that he didn’t stop to pick up and dissect that day: bobcat, coyote, fox, otter and fisher. The latter, he announced, had killed and dined on porcupine. Then he pulled a quill from the thin, twisted mass of fur that had passed through its entire digestive system … amazing! I was hooked.

A word of caution: Raccoon scats may contain the eggs of a roundworm parasite. Handling raccoon scat could result in the eggs becoming airborne and, if inhaled, developing a serious and potentially fatal infection.

The size and shape of scat, its composition, and where it was left are all important clues used to decipher what left it. In the case of the scat that Taylor found near the museum, it was found on a game trail used by deer and rabbit, and close to a freshwater pond frequented by waterfowl, and was composed of tightly compacted fur in the rat-to-squirrel range (smaller than deer or raccoon, but larger than mouse) with a few small bone fragments.

Obviously a carnivore, we measured its width (nearly an inch) and, after lining the segments up, its length (9 inches), ruling out our most common carnivore (actually defined as an omnivore, based on its diet), the red fox. That left two possibilities: Eastern coyote or a domestic dog that happened to catch a rabbit or squirrel. We were in the general range of the coyote that, to my knowledge, was last sighted on the South Fork not far from the museum last spring—but something didn’t look right.

Our canines (gray fox, red fox, Eastern coyote and domestic dog) are all omnivorous, while our sole member of the feline group on Long Island, the domestic cat, is strictly carnivorous. Distinguishing between feline and canine scat can be tricky when examining scats composed of fur. Feline scats will be more tightly compacted, feeling hard to the touch and, as described by another tracking colleague, are broken up into marshmallow-like segments, not unlike what we were looking at.

Posting the photos to a site shared by other wildlife track and sign experts in the Northeast, the consensus was bobcat. Then, I recalled receiving a photograph from Chris Chapin taken on Millstone Road on February 19. It was the caracal, a bobcat-sized feline native to Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, that’s been roaming the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor-Water Mill area since the fall. Apparently, this was one of a pair of pets either released or accidentally escaped from its owner. The male was found dead on Noyac Path last November, and was not de-clawed, as many pet wild cats are.

The caracal measures up to 20 inches tall at the shoulder and weighs up to 40 pounds, very similar sizes and weights as the bobcat. One very distinctive feature is its long black ear tufts. It has oversized paws and an amazing jumping ability (easily able to touch the rim of a basketball hoop), both adaptations for catching birds in mid-flight. Favored prey are birds and small mammals, but it can take down a small antelope in its native range.

Russ Burke from Hofstra University offered to have the scat tested in the lab for its DNA, a process that enables both the predator and its prey to be identified. I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

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