Tracking across Sisters Country


Last updated 2/20/2024 at 9:53am

Photo by Scott Bowler

Raccoon prints on a log over Whychus Creek.

Oh, wow - what's that print?

I'm sure you've had that same reaction numerous times when encountering animal tracks. "What is it?" is the most obvious question to ask upon seeing tracks in dirt, mud, or snow, but it's especially interesting to explore "why is that here?" and "what was the animal doing?" Tracking can take a lifetime to learn well, but the obvious first step is to get out there to try to find and identify tracks, follow some trails, and piece together the story of what happened. Note that I'm using "tracks" very broadly here to include other clues and signs, such as chew marks, food stashes, lost feathers and fur, egg shells, shed skins, bones, and burrows, nests, or other homes. It can be complicated, but field investigation is a fascinating way to "see" wild animals.

Where to start? First, find a good place and time-not too hard actually, because animals are everywhere. However, some times and places are better than others. Generally speaking, areas further from people, cars, and dogs are going to be more productive. This time of year, overnight snowfall (or rain) makes some of the best conditions possible, so get up and out the door early to beat the morning rush of dog walkers, commuters, and cars. Local sidewalks, gardens and parks, passages between unfenced yards, and transition zones between urban and "wild" areas can all yield good results, but it's more fun and productive to go further afield because you'll find greater animal diversity with less human disturbance.

All of us are creatures of habit, and we like an easy, safe, familiar route-or nice short cut. Try to think like an animal: what's the more direct route; where is it easier to walk; what cover is there; where are the hiding places or nesting areas en route (tree hollows, debris piles, brush, logs, etc); is there an escape route? Water sources are vital and reliable places to investigate, and you will always find trails leading to and from water, along river banks, sandbars, and lakeshores. Fresh snow, or even heavy frost, allows you to easily find trackways. 

Look for combinations of space and shelter that define a habitat, in biological parlance the "ecotones" between one resource and another. Rock piles shelter pika, mice, voles, chipmunks, and squirrels. More open and brushy areas have rabbits, hares, mice, and deer. Woodlands house squirrels, chipmunks, and porcupines, shelter deer and elk, and host a great many birds. Fields and grassy patches provide seeds and bugs for birds and a variety of small rodents. Waterways and marshes feed and shelter large varieties of critters, including otter, beaver, mink, and waterfowl. Where there's prey you'll find owl, hawk, coyote, bobcat, cougar, and now even wolf predators taking advantage of the hunting opportunities.

In every case, the earlier you get out, the fresher the snow or mud, and the further from  crowds, the better. That said, you don't always have to travel: I've tracked deer, raccoon, coyote, bobcat, several rodent varieties, many birds, even a cougar, on the roads and trails leading from my front door.

Local hot spots include: 

• Indian Ford Creek, especially restoration areas at Glaze Meadow and Black Butte Swamp, or Calliope Crossing wetlands, all west of Sisters.

• Whychus Creek, upstream of the pedestrian bridge in the habitat restoration area, off Elm Street/Three Creek Road, south of Sisters.

Photo by Scott Bowler

Porcupine-chewed ponderosa pine twigs (feeding on the fresh cambium), Indian Ford Creek.

• Whychus Creek Preserve, a few miles downstream of Sisters, has excellent variety, as does the Alder Springs area.

• Peterson Ridge Trail System, especially the southern segments along the escarpment, shelters many deer and I've twice tracked a cougar there.

• Around Suttle Lake and downstream along the outflow creek can be good for otter.

• The Deschutes River Trail, particularly early in the mornings between Lava Island and Benham Falls, is excellent for many types of birds, coyotes, and otter.

• The more remote areas around Cline Buttes and Tumalo Canal have many dusty/muddy trails, rock outcrops, and old junipers that house plenty of rodents and deer.

• Around the base of Lava Butte, south of Bend, where the trees abut the rock piles, is an especially productive area to look for pika.


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