joys of tracking
Winter provides us with many opportunities that the other three seasons cannot. Skiing or cuddling in front of the wood stove may come to mind. For some of us a thin layer of fresh snow calls out for tracking.
Traditionally a skill associated with hunters and wilderness rescue, tracking in the winter is a fun and active activity that anyone can enjoy. The Museum hosts or leads several tracking-focused activities each winter and they are always an adventure.
If you want to start your tracking adventure this winter here are few tips:
First, get prepared.
1. Get a good field guide that includes straddle and stride measurements. Many will also include some natural history information that will help you figure out who you are following even with old or indistinct tracks. Look at it before you go out, and focus on wildlife found in your area. The Museum usually uses one produced by local author Lynn Levine
2. Dress for the weather, if you are uncomfortable, you won’t have any fun. A good general rule for outdoor activity in the winter is to dress in layers. This allows you to remove or add clothing to stay comfortable. Remember, sweating is just as dangerous as shivering in winter conditions.
3. Tell someone where you are going or bring some friends along. This can be a great group activity and fun for all ages.
4. Learn about your local wildlife. What the tracks “do” is as important a clue as the number of toes in the track. This will also help you narrow down your options. In Vermont, a large canine track is most likely a domestic dog, not a wolf. Follow it anyway, just to make sure.
Now you’re prepared, so go out and start looking!
1. When you start following a track don’t step on them, walk alongside so that if you lose the trail you can go back and more easily pick it up again. Unfortunately, in our experience dogs do not understand this rule and can ruin a tracking outing. Unless your dog is a trained tracker, leaving him at home will make your walk more enjoyable.
2. By looking for specific characteristics in the trail you can quickly narrow down your options for
what animal might have left them.
a. Look for the track pattern. The body shape of different animals causes them to leave distinctive patterns of tracks. If there is no pattern you might be looking at random snow dropped from the branches of trees or a powerline, look overhead and re-evaluate what you are seeing.
b. Look for clear toes, claws, tail drags and other clues and compare them to what you see in the tracking guide. Use multiple tracks when comparing to the guide for more accuracy.
c. Guess the animal’s size. You can base that on stride and the size of the print. Compare the depth of the print to your own and to other tracks in the area that you recognize, this will give you an estimation of the animal’s weight.
3. By now you should have it narrowed down to only one or two possible animals even if you can’t see details of the track (step 2.b.).
4. Follow the trail! With a little imagination you can visualize the actions and behaviors of the animal you are following. You will also find more clues along the way. Did it climb a tree or dive into the water? These are examples of actions that should narrow down your options even more.
5. Keep an eye out for additional sign. Droppings, feeding sign, maybe even a glimpse of the animal that you are following will all add to the experience.
Tracking is a great activity for many reasons and can continue all year long for those of us who want to take the learning a little further. It helps us to improve our observation skills, attention to detail, problem solving and physical health. Learning about the animals that share the landscape with us is also an important and rewarding activity.
If you are uncertain about your woodcraft skills seek out someone who has more experience in the woods to help get you started or check with your local nature center, state fish and wildlife department and environmental educators to find a formal course or workshop near you!