As we sit and wait for the snow to start (and stay), I find myself chomping at the bit, anticipating another season of animal tracking. For some people winter means skiing, while other folks get excited about winter birding. For me, though, winter means we finally have obvious signs that we are not alone, that we share the Park with various animals that mostly escape our notice the rest of the year: martens and fishers, otters and mink, foxes and hares, porcupines and grouse.
Sure, there are people who see these animals during the rest of the year. We all hear the coyotes yipping and howling at dusk. Deer, well, deer and turkeys are about as common as fleas on a dog these days: anyone who’s driven through the Park has likely seen either, or both, along the side of the road. Paddlers routinely report having watched otters at play. Squirrels abound in every yard and on every tree in the forest. The woods and wetlands are full of bird songs and the calls of frogs and insects. By late summer beaver activity is painfully obvious.
What I’m talking about, though, is the sudden realization of just how present wildlife is, especially within the boundaries of our habitations. Once winter’s snows have blanketed the land, every animal’s movement becomes obvious, even to the most casual observer. Did you know that a raccoon has traveled through your back yard all summer long and follows a regular path? Has that fox den always been there? When did that fisher move into the neighborhood?
And yet, the even most seasoned tracker cannot claim to know every animal’s secrets. We can learn to identify footprints, learn which gaits certain animals prefer, but that’s the easy part. From here tracking becomes an art, where the tracker tries to decipher the animal’s story based on the signs in the snow. A master tracker can tell by the tracks if an animal is male or female. If the animal is part of a pack, the tracker can tell if it is dominant or subordinate within the pack. A good tracker can tell if the animal knows it’s being followed, or when it becomes aware of prey nearby. A master tracker can follow an animal across snow, sand, a field of grass, a rocky shoreline, and can tell you just how long ago the animal passed that way.
I am not a master tracker, but I love to read the stories the tracks tell me. Last year I found some of the best tracks of my career to date. I was walking the dog down near the golf course and we came across a whole mess of coyote tracks. It was January or February, about the time coyotes would be mating, and there in the snow was the evidence that the time was right. Tracks danced about. There were droplets of blood in the snow (sign of a female in heat). And the pièce de résistance was a set of tracks showing exactly where the male mounted the female. Very cool.
Every year as winter approaches I review what I already know. I reread the tracking books in my library. I brush up on field ID of tracks and scats. And then I try to learn something new. This year I’m going to focus on some of the more subtle animal signs: feeding and evidence of passing (like hair and fur caught on twigs and bark, or claw marks on tree trunks). I really want to find porcupine signs. I know they’re around, I’ve seen them, but I’ve never seen their tracks or their chew marks on trees.
One of the things that has helped me learn tracking basics well is teaching them. Throughout the winter I teach tracking to kids from area schools, and to adults who sign up for our programs at the VIC. Teaching tracking has refined my observation skills, for program participants can ask some pretty penetrating questions. But there’s nothing like getting out in the woods and simply following the tracks. Experience is often the best teacher.
That said, signing up for a tracking class with a great tracker is also worthwhile. If you are interested in learning tracking, check out some of the tracking programs taught in the Park, or just outside the Blue Line. There are some great teachers out there who are willing to share their knowledge with those who want to learn. And once you have the basics under your belt, you will find that the winter landscape is suddenly transformed into a giant storybook and you are now equipped with the translation key.