Tracks in the Sand

Story and photos by Amy Erickson, LPCI wildlife biologist, Portales, NM

Although the sand dunes of eastern New Mexico are full of wildlife, you would hardly know that by walking around them. Save for the occasional lizard, the sandy hills seem devoid of life. If you want to discover the life of the dunes, you have to look closely and allow your imagination to run wild.

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Sand dunes of eastern New Mexico

Often, all you see of lesser prairie-chickens and other prairie wildlife are the tracks they leave in the sand. The lesser prairie-chicken that made the tracks below took an abrupt turn–did it see a predator? An Ord’s kangaroo rat passed by as well. Its paired tracks are distinctive, and often there will also be a line in the sand where the kangaroo rat dragged its long banner-tipped tail. Its genus name Dipodomys means “two-footed mouse.”

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Tracks of lesser prairie-chicken and Ord’s kangaroo rat

The Ord’s kangaroo rat is extremely common throughout the Great Plains. I see signs of them everywhere, their tracks crisscrossing the dune blowouts. Signs of their passing assume other forms as well. Barn owls often take up residence in the many abandoned buildings on the prairies of eastern New Mexico—lonely reminders of the shattered dreams of Dust Bowl days. Barn owls regurgitate pellets of undigested bones and hair, and I like to dig through those pellets to see what the owls have been eating. It seems as if 90% or more of a barn owl’s diet here in New Mexico’s prairie country is kangaroo rats—testament to the amazing numbers that survive in this dry landscape.

Tracks of Ord's kangaroo rat

Tracks of Ord’s kangaroo rat

What must life be like for a kangaroo rat? These little seed-eaters are food for so many other prairie species—barn owls and great-horned owls, red-tailed and ferruginous hawks, northern harriers, coyotes, grey and red foxes, bobcats, badgers, snakes of all kinds. All are watching, waiting for the rat to make one small misstep, venture an inch too far from the safety of its burrow. Death or danger waits around every corner for  kangaroo rats and for their prairie neighbors, the lesser prairie-chickens, something we can hardly comprehend.

Bobcat tracks

Bobcat tracks

Every time I get to spend a day outdoors I feel so lucky to  experience things that so few others do. For me, there are no worries out there,  alone with the plants and the clouds and my thoughts. Spend a day out on the endless prairie and your worries will be gone—at least temporarily—erased by the wind like tracks in the sand.