Musings of a roaming nature nerd

Archive for February, 2012

Who goes there?

Tracking. The art and the challenge of reading and following the clues animals leave behind, while piecing together who passed by and what happened. Anyone who prides themselves on being highly skilled at tracking, be it for survival, for science or for fun, might find my definition lacking in the technicalities, which give this incredible skill its credence. However, as someone who knows just a little bit about a lot of things, this description suffices!

For the layman (yours truly) winter is by far the most interesting season for tracking. Animals’ “foot prints” easily embed and remain in snow and half-frozen mud. Their scat (yes, their poo) also lies visible, darkly glistening against fresh frosty whiteness. The world seems to come alive with activity in the winter. Of course many animals are much more active in other seasons, but it is harder to see what they’re doing. Unless you move with the utmost stealth you aren’t likely to see too many animals as you walk through the woods. A few brave black-capped chickadees chattering at you; a chipmunk darting between the rocks of a stonewall; maybe a white-tailed deer crashing away through the underbrush. When you learn to read tracks, even on the most basic level, you have just learned to read what happens in the natural world when you aren’t around. A storyline unfolds, written into the earth itself.


Gray Squirrel tracks and a bit of a human boot print.


Think about your own backyard. Maybe you regularly see squirrels raiding the bird feeders and the neighbor’s cat occasionally wanders through. You don’t seem to have much activity in your little suburban enclave. But check out your yard the morning after a fresh dusting of snow covers the brown matted grass. You’ll notice tracks crisscrossing that little space. Tracks of a small canine meander through and stop near the compost pile. Why? Well, another set of teeny tiny tracks with teeny tiny toes meets the canine tracks and then disappears under some frosty leaves. Without ever seeing the animals themselves, you have just discovered that a teeny tiny deer mouse must have scampered into the compost pile, peaking the interest of a red fox who paused to sniff around for this potential meal. If you follow the tracks further, you might learn more about the fate of that little mouse!


Teeny tiny rodent tracks with my wedding ring for perspective.


During a recent snowy hike in a beautiful Pennsylvania state park, Jason and I found ourselves following the trail of three coyotes who had passed through ahead of us. Periodically one set of tracks wandered off, presumably to sniff something; occasionally marking a tree (and the snow!) before rejoining its mates. One coyote must have gotten a little ice or a thorn in its paw because a bit of red blood stained a single track for several paces before fading. All three sets of tracks stopped, moved in a circle near a tree surrounded by squirrel tracks and then headed into the forest away from our path.

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Stories and encounters as read through tracks in the wild, often add another level of interest and excitement while hiking and exploring. A few months ago in Utah, we took a walk in a muddy wetland near the Colorado River. We had seen a number of mule deer, rabbit and raccoon tracks as we quietly walked beneath the trees. Suddenly from around the bend, not 15 meters away, came a thud, a crashing sound and then silence. Uncertain what had spooked we hurried ahead and entered an open sunny spot with a fallen cottonwood slanting horizontally just off the ground. We peered into the underbrush. We listened. We saw and heard nothing; until we looked down. Mountain lion tracks covered every inch of the ground! Back and forth to the river, deeper into the wetlands, and to and from the sun-drenched cottonwood. We likely startled this cougar from its warm napping spot! With all the deer and rabbit tracks nearby we should have considered that this quiet spot by the river could make ideal territory for a young lion. Although we never saw an animal (except for a few ravens) during our walk, the clues in the landscape allowed us to start piecing together that particular habitats ecological story.


Young mountain lion tracks with Jason's hand for perspective. These were just under 4 inches.


Scat, pellets and other signs provide insight into the identity of an animal, its whereabouts and even its health. The lack of snow during this particular winter has meant relying on many of these other clues while tracking. In New Hampshire, the mostly snow-less ground is covered in funny little tube shaped scat and bits of churned up leaves and dirt. This might not sound like much, but these are signs of Wild Turkey making the rounds as they kick up the duff looking for insects and seeds. The small patches of snow deeper in the forests are covered in their tracks. As we explore these forests, Jason and I look for splattered white-wash and pellets at the base of evergreens. These sings indicate the favorite perch for an owl. When we’re lucky we might see the owl high in a tree peering down suspiciously!

It is easy to learn a few common tracks and signs by picking up a field guide or browsing the internet. And with that new knowledge intriguing stories may be revealed. Reading the clues left behind by our wild neighbors opens an unseen world in the backyard and beyond.

New Hampshire turkey tracks


Red Squirrels often leave behind little midden piles of tasty seeds and pine cones they've been eating. Finding this sign indicates a favorite dining spot!


A gigantic pellet of this juvenile Snowy Owl.