In my article last month, What Birds Can Tell You, I described how bird vocalizations can help you find, among other surprises, animals that are hidden just out-of-sight along the trail.  This month, let’s add a slightly more tangible skill to your repertoire: interpreting animal tracks and other signs left by animals along the trail.

Next time you’re out there, see if you can spot an animal track.  Don’t try to identify it though.  At least not at first.  Jumping to a conclusion about the identity of a track foolhardy, and it’s often not even the point.

What I’ve discovered after 20 years tracking animals is that every time, tracking is a chance to be a detective, to solve a mystery, and unravel a great story.  Real detectives assume nothing because they know that assumption is the mother of mess-ups.

The Mother of Mess-Ups

We are fortunate in our region to have one book that can take care of identifying almost all tracks, while also teaching the art and science of tracking:  David Moskowitz’ new book Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest.  David’s book, along with a good bird guide and Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Pojar & MacKinnon, are the only resources I carry into the field nowadays.

Last year, I visited David during a weekend trackers training he was running.  It was a beautiful spring day up the North Cascades Highway, and we split into two tracking groups.  We noticed an above-average sized cougar track just off-trail, with the tracks of the other group seeming to follow it backwards toward the river.  Turns out they had actually seen the cougar cross the trail and go uphill.  The group decided it would be best to not follow the cougar forward.

© Chris Chisholm

We studied the track and determined that it was a fairly large male cougar.  When we caught up with the other group, they were now studying tracks of a black bear that seemed to have been there that morning.  That’s when I heard the distinct, periodic cracking of sticks, just out of sight in the woods, that bears tend to make when foraging for berries.  The group decided it would be best to not follow the bear either.

We eventually continued our hike, crossing a footbridge over the river, and went off-trail to find animal signs.  I followed a well-worn game trail with recent deer prints on it, and felt nervous rounding a bend that negotiated a big, downed log.  Great place for a cougar to hide, and sure enough, there appeared on the other side a distinct body-impression of a crouched animal.  Maybe that big male earlier in the day?

About to wet my pants, I called David over for a second opinion.  He asked me to share with the group what I thought.  I was focused on trying to pinpoint a track that would make absolutely certain it was cougar that made the impression.  I was actually wondering out-loud whether the boot print I didn’t notice that I had just made might be the animal’s track, when someone in the group said it was a boot print.  Ah, how I’ve seen tracking humble many large egos.  It’s so fascinating, but gives so many opportunities for assumption, mothering many wild-goose-chase mess-ups.

Five Questions

But as a great photographer told a friend of mine, it takes 1,000 mistakes to get good at something, so get busy and start making them!  So let’s start by creating some common vocabulary, with compliments to naturalist Jon Young who made a wonderful improvement to the pedagogy of wildlife tracking which he called the Five Arts of Tracking.  Simply, the arts of tracking consist of answering the five “question words.”

Question 1:  Why?  The Art of Habitat: If you studied ecology in college, this is the broad view of nature that your professor probably presented.  You would learn why an animal would be in any given area; what food, water and shelter would available; what effect people, water, weather, geology, plants, and other animals have on an area.  This kind of knowledge is critical to all the other arts of wildlife tracking, because context is key.

Question 2:  When?  The Art of Aging Tracks: When did an animal leave its sign?  To answer this question, you will need to study the substrate, such as by pushing your thumb into the soil to determine its “give.”  You will have to know how much water is in the soil, because water is what holds a track together in sand and other soft soils.  Further, if you are looking at sign like bruises on a leaf, it’s important that you know how long it takes for leaf bruises to change color.

To “age” a track, it is very helpful to know the effects of recent weather in the exact spot where the animal laid its sign.  It is rain, sun, wind, dew, frost and all sorts of other weather that affects how fast tracks deteriorate.  Aging a track is perhaps the most challenging of the five arts, so have patience with your lack of information.

Question 3:  Where?  The Art of Trailing: Where did the animal go, and where did it come from?  This is the art that hunting guides must know, and that search and rescue trackers focus on.  In search and rescue tracking, as with animal trailing, we train ourselves to follow the tracks of one particular species, because each species will have distinct characteristics.

To learn this art in general, I recommend mapping an area to display trails, feeding areas, bedding areas, dens, nests, scrapes, trees, plants, water and any other important markers that you can find.  Noticing different kinds of trails is of particular importance to hikers and backpackers, not only to stay aware of what kinds of animals frequent an area, but to stay on human trails rather than getting side-tracked by animal trails which are notorious for getting people lost.

Have you ever come to a point where a trail seems to disappear?  Next time it happens, think of it as a good thing, because that’s the place where you’ll become a tracker.  Find a stick and measure the distance between tracks you can see.  Then measure the distance to where another track or sign should be, and notice any slight disturbance you see.  That’s probably your next track, and then you’ll know what “invisible” tracks look like!

Some other tricks to following tracks include looking at them from a severe angle.  In other words, get down on the ground and look at tracks from the side.  Also, try to place yourself on the opposite side of a track from the source of the greatest light.  The tracks will stand out a lot better because from that direction, you will see shadows cast within the tracks.   Finally, take a lot of breaks so that your eyes don’t get worn out.

Question 4:  What?  The Art of Interpretation: What was the animal doing?  To answer this question, see if you can figure out front vs. rear tracks, and/or right vs. left using David Moskowitz’ book.  Then try sketching the gait pattern to figure out if the animal was pacing, stalking, trotting, bounding, loping, galloping etc.  Watch out for “double register” tracks, where the rear foot goes directly into the front track.  Often, there will be a succession of tracks that each look like one track, but they are really two tracks in one.

Does it seem this animal might have been eating or hunting?  Does it display domestic or wild behavior?  Does it display behavior of an older adult, or young animal?  Does the animal seem to be in good shape, injured, or anxious?  By observing animals, and then by going over and looking at their tracks, you will begin to know how tracks that are left in certain patterns tell what an animal was doing.

Question 5:  Who?  The Art of Identification: Who made the track?  Besides comparing your track measurements to those in a field guide, there are other things that can help you identify its maker.  Always remember that you are only guessing until you have eliminated all possibilities save one.  That’s when you can finally jump to a conclusion without assumption!

Explorer of Earth

To learn more about how to track animals along the trail, check out Chapter 7 of his Wolf Journey Earth Skills Training Course or join him at one of his upcoming courses, including his Wolf Trackers Training workshop from 1-4 PM on Sunday, June 12, 2011 near Puyallup WA, and his Wildlife Trackers Training course running July 10-15, 2011 in association with Wolf Haven, Int’l near Olympia WA.

Leave a Reply