“It is hard to over-value the powers of the clever tracker. To him the trail of each animal is not a mere series of similar footprints; it is an accurate account of the creature’s life, habit, changing whims, and emotions during the portion of life whose record is in view.” — Ernest Thompson Seton, Boy Scout Handbook, 1911
The other day while driving beside Myrtle Creek I saw a bobcat beside the road as he quickly disappeared down the creek bank. I walked to the site where he left his distinct tracks in the snow. The tracks were fresh and I visually followed the prints to the bottom of the creek bank and around a bush. No tracks came out so it was obvious he was hiding there. I waited until he came out to cross the creek and I snapped a photograph of him. I was lucky to locate him from his tracks and predict his probable actions.
Never lose the chance of the first snow if you wish to follow tracks. Winter is prime time for animal tracking, as the prints are easy to find in the snow and can be followed for a long distance.
One may not realize how much wildlife is out and about until a light snow blankets the ground. Take a walk immediately after the snowfall. Look down for telltale tracks in the snow.
Begin by looking at familiar tracks. A dog’s track is different from a cat’s in that the dog’s prints show claws while the cat’s do not because of its retractable claws.
This is also true for wild and domestic canines and felines. Because of the way a fox walks, its tracks form a single line while a dog’s gait leaves two pairs of tracks. A rabbit’s tracks, with its pair of large hind feet and smaller fore feet, are distinctive and easily identified.
A field guide on animal tracks is helpful to both the novice and experienced tracker. By carefully studying tracks, one can identify the animal that made them and what direction it went. Tracking also includes trying to deduce why this animal was moving and what may have occurred during its journey. Trackers soon discover an abundance of winter activity.
When wildlife tracking, the key is to step back to try to see the bigger picture of what is in front of you, so that disturbances become more obvious. Tracks are just a small disturbance into the greater picture, or the baseline, and they are the evidence left behind of animals that were once there.
Once you are ready to begin tracking, a good place to start is up high on a ridge or down low in a valley. Predators like to be at a higher elevation for a good perspective when stalking smaller prey. Valleys and low areas tend to be animal highways consistently being walked, trotted, crawled, hopped, and run through. Patience is the name of the game here, and tracking isn’t something that can be rushed. Take your time, and when you do find some tracks, stick to them to see where the adventure leads!
So when the winter blues bring you down and cabin fever abounds, look to the outdoors for a new experience.
Quietly wander alone and look up, down and inward. The winter air is silent, snow muffles sounds. Listen for the rustling of birds and other wildlife seeking food and cover. Listen as the trees sway and groan in the wind.
Train your eyes to see the patterns created by icicles, cracks on a frozen pond and tracks in the snow.
When you finally feel like you belong in this picture, you will enjoy this newfound world. The spring won’t seem so far away and maybe it won’t even matter.
The most important tracking tip of all: “Don’t get lost”!