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By Aosha Wells
This article is written by a young naturalist who has been involved in many levels in our mentoring community at PWC. He is currently involved in Samara Circle and is serving as a counselor-in-training in our camp programs. We are grateful to him for sharing this adventure and this information with us here.
I have been learning tracking for about four years. Throughout that time, I have realized how much tracking increases the excitement of being in the woods. There’s so much more to see. Tracking is not what most people think. It’s more than looking at a footprint that an animal has left behind. A track can range from something as big as an antler that has been shed to something as small as a misplaced grain of sand. If you study enough, you can tell a lot about an animal just by just studying its tracks, i.e. is it hunting? Is it Male? Or is it Female? Is it running? Or Walking? I love tracking because it’s almost like having a link to the animal that I know will lead me to it if I follow it long enough.
The following is an account of a tracking experience I had on Dec 20 09
It snowed last night and there was a good layer on the ground so I put on my boots and went out into the woods on my land to see if I could find any tracks. When it first snowed, it was warmer, the snow melted. It then froze over so there was a crust which is hard to track on unless you are tracking a large animal. As soon as I got into the woods, I saw some tracks that looked like a dog of some kind. I decided to follow them. They were pretty hard to identify because they went all the way through the crust, but the overall shape and the trail pattern told me they were a coyote (Canis latrans). I was excited because I didn’t know they came so close to my house. I had only heard them fairly far away in the distance. I followed them along the edge of the yard through some deer trails which made it harder to follow because of the already present deer tracks. The trail went towards the pine forest where another set of tracks of the same kind crossed over. It made its way down to a barbed wire fence where another coyote came and joined it. They went across a creek then headed up the hill towards the back field. The other coyote then split off and I followed the first tracks up to the field. When I got out into the field, I then found where the second coyote had come in from the other direction. They met, and there I found a dead bird (of which kind I’m not sure). I studied it and it didn’t appear to have been eaten. One set of coyote tracks went off into the field and the other one headed back towards the woods. I followed the tracks to the woods and lost them in a mess of deer tracks.
I went back to the house to get my camera. When I came to take pictures, I found a couple sets of gray fox tracks (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) nearby in the field. I got down on my hands and knees and tried to follow the trail but the fox was so much lighter than the coyote that it didn’t sink through the crust. It was very hard to find the tracks. Usually to preserve tracks, I use plaster of Paris (which is the best to use in tracks), but it can’t be used in snow because it heats up as it dries. I decided to try something new. I sought out a clearer set of tracks nearby and I with my knife I cut around the tracks and gently lifted them out. I brought them back to my freezer! So whenever I want to, I can take them out and look at them.
One thing I learned tracking on the crusted snow is that you have to get the perfect angle to see the tracks in such a hard substrate, and when you do, it’s amazing how seemingly invisible tracks can jump out at you. I always take advantage of a good snow because there is a never ending flow of animals I can see, even when they are no longer there.
Here are some things that anyone who is interested in tracking should know:
There are seven categories that most mammals in the piedmont will fit into when it comes to tracking. This will tell you how many toes on each foot, whether or not they show claws, and the general shape of the track. Considering these factors will help you narrow down the possibilities to better identify what animal you are tracking.
Dogs (coyote, fox, domestic dogs) 4 toes in front, 4 back, oval shaped tracks, claws.
Cats (bobcat’s, feral cats, domestic cats) 4 toes in front, 4 back, more circular shaped tracks, no claws.
Weasel (mink, skunk, long tailed weasel) 5 toes in front, 5 back, rectangle shaped tracks, claws.
Rabbit (eastern cottontail) 5 toes in front, 4 back, and shape of tracks look different depending on the substrate, claws.
Human-like (bear, raccoon, possum) 5 toes in front, 5 back, and tracks are shaped like a hand, claws.
Deer (whitetail deer) 2 toes in front, 2 back, and tracks can be described as being heart shaped, has two appendages called dewclaws which may register just behind the track.
*Rodent (mice, rats, beaver, groundhog) 4 toes in front, 5 back, claws and back foot has a group of 3 toes in the middle.
*note that shrews are insectivores, not rodents!
The morning sun was shining across the fields when I arrived at camp this morning. Counselors, children and teens were playing and exploring together. Some children were sitting in the counselor’s laps, deep in the meadow, quietly musing. Others were playing games and laughing.
Two campers came up to me, talking excitedly about the deer trail they found. I asked them to show me their discovery and they brought me to the edge of the forest where they pointed out broken twigs, scuffs in the leaf debris, and a rough trail through the forest. We followed the deer trail through the woods, and they paused along the way, showing me faint tracks and traces that the deer left behind.
Then the campers eagerly asked if we could go and take a look at the tracking box on the way back to camp. Walking up towards the sand-filled box, we saw that there were signs of digging and a few fresh tracks. Looking at them, one of the campers noticed that there were four toes. What animals have four toes, I asked. Dogs, foxes, coyotes. Is that all, I asked. Cats and bobcats.
We looked carefully at the tracks, noticing the depression at the top of the heel pad and the asymmetrical toe pattern. I never gave the answer, but the two girls figured it out on their own.
I stifled a smile, knowing that the campers were demonstrating one of my favorite signs of the success of our programs: Eagerly wanting to learn on their own. When the people that we teach are inspired to spend their free time going deeper with what we have been giving them, we know that we have planted seeds that are beginning to take root.
When we arrived back at camp, some campers were playing a running game and others were crouched in a circle, quietly stalking something hidden in the grass. As I approached, I saw that there was a black rat snake in the center of the circle. It had slid into the grass from a nearby bush honeysuckle. Its scales were smooth and black with the sheen of the morning sun. The snake was flicking the air with its tongue. The children were looking in rapt attention by the snake. For many long moments, we watched with both respect and wonder as the snake moved through the grass like a long black river, tasting the air with its tongue. It approached people in the circle, slowly, one at a time, and finally, finding safe passage, slithered out of the group and out into the wider field.
We have spent all week like this:
Discovering crayfish, mayflies, watching a Great Blue Heron soaring across the swamp, finding one of its wing feathers floating in the water below, getting camouflaged and hiding in shade of the forest, meeting raptors up close, and discovering many more ways to get deep into nature. We have had lots of opportunities to bring forward the natural curiosity that is brimming underneath the surface of the group.
Again and again with the people who come to our programs, we notice that spending time in nature brings natural curiosity back to life. It is the feeling of being alive, awake, curious, eager. The Lakota have a word for this feeling: mitakue oyasin. Extreme desire to learn. This is a quality that is purely natural to people of all ages, but is very undernourished in our lives.
I asked the campers today to share the most amazing things that they have seen in nature recently. I might as well have opened up a floodgate. What poured through the circle was story after story of amazing nature experiences. It was as though the campers had been waiting for a long time to share their stories and they were desperate to begin. Each story, in turn, lead to another. For a long time, we listened to one another. The stories were so vivid, and every one had one to tell, even the shyest among us were soon sharing stories.