Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Aging Sign and Seeing Shine

I was contacted a few months ago by Texas Monthly magazine to help with an article on Sign Cutting appearing in their regular column “The Manual”. It was a little difficult to discuss or explain sign cutting and tracking over the phone, but Texas Monthly did a good job and the article appears in their February 2012 issue. At least they didn't make me out to be a bigger idiot than I already am.

I was also riding in the desert with a group of ladies (much preferable to riding with men) and we came across Oryx tracks. If you have never seen an Oryx, google Oryx or click here. The Oryx is an African Antelope imported decades ago into New Mexico to provide a exotic game for hunters. The Oryx doesn’t have a natural predator here,...maybe Mountain Lions, so they do very well.

The soil underneath the top layer was fairly moist from a rain about a week earlier, so the toe of the Oryx’s hooves left a very sharp and deep pressure release. Combined with deeper and softer sand a few yards away I estimated that the Oryx prints were about 3 or 4 days old. The ladies were asking question on what I was looking at when determining the age of a track, so I explained that a pressure release softens and rounds over time. Comparison to other parts of the pressure release, the rounding or dispersion of the toe dirt kicked up with forward momentum and the evaluation of the same tracks in different soil will let you determine the rough age of sign.

While the photo to the right are horse tracks rather than Oryx, the single set of tracks on the left hand side of he photo are 7 days old. The horse tracks on the right are fresh. While the discoloration isn't too different or not different enough in lieu of the seven day difference, the tracks to the right depict a large amount of toe dirt and a deeper pressure release because the natural element of the wind has not degraded or reduced that yet. The horse that made the tracks on the left was walking slow and dragging his feet up from the soft sand - see the drag marks leaving the pressure release?

When I was discussing sign cutting with the Texas Monthly writers I talked about losing sign then changing the distance and angle from your eyes to the sign would allow you to see sign you may miss being over the top of it. Sometimes you can look in the general direction the tracks are going then see an obvious shine or color change, which may allow you to jump forward quickly (leap frogging) to save some time or to make up time. If an animal crossed through grass, even a suburban lawn, often the bruising of the grass or dispersion of any moisture will leave a tell tale path visibl from the shine.

You may have to change your distance and angle from the Sun to the tracks to see it. Look at the bottom of the photo to the left and find the disturbed ground, then carry your eyes up to towards the top of the photo and you would see a different in the shine or texture of the ground caused by the displacement of the natural ground.

The photo above shows one week old and two week old horse tracks. In the one week old horse tracks, A depicts the degraded walls of the pressure release caving in and gravity displacing that soil to the bottom of the pressure release; B shows the still evident pressure release of the frog of the hoof; C shows the deeper part of the pressure release indicating direction of travel; and D shows the degraded toe dirt after substantial displacement by the wind.  The two week old track is heavily filled in by wind blown sand and gravity.  The wind even blew some small sticks that settled into the pressure release, however the deepest part of the pressure release is still visible indicating direction of travel.    

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