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The sometimes subtle clues birds leave, including tracks

Tiny piping plover tracks left in damp sand on an east coast beach will not be evident for long. Photo by Keith Corliss1 / 2
The indelible handiwork of a pileated woodpecker is exhibited on this early spring tree. Photo by Keith Corliss2 / 2

As a young teenager I found and read a book about tracking animals. The idea that creatures leave prints, signs or some clue to their having been present in a place was—and still is—mystically alluring to me. Those old western movies we watched as kids probably started it. It seemed like all the scout had to do was look down at the dust and he'd instantly know how many guys they were after and how long ago they passed along with other relevant information. It was heady stuff.

To this day, I maintain a collection of animal skulls I have stumbled upon over the years; skulls being described by some as the "final track." I have beavers, I have a badger and I even have a mountain lion among them. I'm not entirely sure why I have them; maybe it's a subconscious way to stay physically connected to the world outside.

We don't often think of tracking birds, but after observing them and being around them for a few decades, I've come to appreciate the myriad ways these winged creatures reveal their presence to those willing to expand their awareness. Some bird sign is quite permanent, lasting exhibits to their work. Things like woodpecker-drilled nest holes or large stick nests come to mind.

Other vestiges of a bird's presence, however, are rather ephemeral; these are the fleeting moments that come and go in the blink of an eye. If thought about deeply enough, nearly all of us would likely recognize many of them.

Let me start with the passing shadow. I can't even count how many times I've had my eyes trained on the ground when a shadow brushes past. Quite often I'll look up to find an interesting bird such as a soaring turkey vulture or red-tailed hawk.

Equally short-lived is the sound of air through wing feathers (notice we aren't even addressing bird songs today). Most of us have been somewhere when a flock of Canada geese flies over us. The whoosh-whoosh-whoosh from their wings is easily heard under quiet conditions. Perhaps my favorite wing noise event took place while hiking a ridge top in Arizona some years ago. Here was the playground for the fastest flyer in North America, the white-throated swift. As each speedster whirled and pulled and turned over my head, a brief but audible rush would touch my ears.

One subtle give-away for the presence of feeding crossbills is a thin cascade of flitting floating papery husks from pine or spruce seeds. These things just don't fall from cones, something is eating them and it's almost inevitably crossbills.

A favorite among the transient signs is classical tracks themselves. Fresh snow or damp beach sand or soil will often exhibit the imprints of bird feet. More delightful still is finding wing sweeps in snow, especially ones that tell a story such as when animal tracks come to an abrupt end at a point where wing brush marks appear on either side. Snapshots such as these predator-prey scenarios are thus briefly captured in this temporal medium.

Once, while looking out the window into my backyard, I caught a curious sight in the middle of the summer: snow. Or what looked like snow. A fairly steady stream of wafting "snowflakes" was floating gently to the ground so I pressed closer to the window to investigate this incongruity. The origin of the fallout wasn't a cloud. It was a merlin perched on top of the power pole plucking feathers from a freshly killed songbird.

In each and every one of these cases, the evidence of a bird's presence passes quickly. A gust of wind or a few raindrops is all it takes to blur and ultimately erase the evanescent clue. The spoor, the sign, the hint, the apparition is gone leaving nothing but a quickly fading trace.

Birds' lasting tracks—neat horizontal rows of eraser-sized sapsucker holes in tree bark, for instance—are interesting in their own right. It's the transitory signs, though, that stick with us. These are the short twinklings that linger in our heads much longer than the actual physical evidence did, the ones that require us to be present in the moment, to be aware. For me, these are the memory makers.