Learn to Track Series
Part One: Before You Go!
|Bobcat in mud (front right):
All of the cats have very large
heel pads and no claw marks
showing in the track.
Tracking is a doorway to a greater understanding of the wilderness. It teaches you to become knowledgeable of the local flora, fauna, seasons, and the behaviours of wildlife. The novice may find delight in simply noticing and identifying various tracks and sign; whereas, the intermediate tracker will understand the behaviours of the local wildlife and even make accurate predictions from the clues found. Advanced trackers are seeing more in a single track than most would ever notice by seeing the animal making the tracks. All movements, hesitations, behaviours and individual traits are written in the tracks. If each track were a letter, each trail a word, then there is poetry in piecing it all together.
To get started, it helps to know what to look for. This occurs before you step foot into the woods. A good tracker will be mindful of recent weather and knows that temperature, sunlight, and precipitation all factor into reading tracks and animal behaviour. For instance, a track will change in physical size with the weather, in some conditions by 50 percent or more. Another consideration is the habitat that one is heading into. This is important, not just to know what species will likely be seen, but the reasons they may be there. When one is thinking in these terms, the tracking has already begun.
Although no specific gear is required when tracking, there are some items that even advanced trackers like to use. Beginner-intermediate trackers will want to bring these items most of the time. The tracking kit should be the size a small camera bag. The items that it should be able to carry (with easy access) are the following: hand lens (magnifying glass), thirty 3×5 inch cards, notepad and pencil, small bright flashlight, small roll of tape, six inch ruler (ideally a scaled calliper), small (metal) measuring tape (at least 6 feet), and some small plastic bags. Sometimes, it is nice to bring some plaster along for casting a track.
The hand lens (or loupe) is very handy for small and large tracks. When starting, the lens will help you see the small toes and nail marks of tracks. When learning to age tracks, the lens will help you see the displaced grains of sand and dew pockets. Other times you will want to look closely at hair or any number of clues found. Even more advanced trackers use the lens for seeing hesitations within a track and much more while on the trail to being a good tracker.
When you go tracking, don’t bother taking a book. It is clumsy and big. You will learn a lot by writing things out and your own system will be much more convenient and quicker to use. The 3 x 5 inch cue cards are extremely useful! On these cards you will have created a profile of all the local species that you will likely see (one per card). On one side of the card you should include the basics, such as track size measurement (front and rear), stride, trail width, typical trail pattern, body size and weight. On the reverse of this card, include items such as habitat, lifecycle, and any interesting tidbits of information. All of this information comes from researching. I personally used five or six of my favourite tracking books to synthesize this information. That was over twenty years ago and I still flip through them from time to time. However, one tracking book is a good start for this. Once your cards are complete, carry them with you all the time. When you have time, flip through the cards and memorize all of them. There is no rush, and you always take your cards tracking anyway as a beginner. After some experience, you will notice that the tracks you come across can be narrowed down to two or three species. That is when the cards come in handy.
Animals need cover, and most the tracks you come across will be heading from or to cover. The small and large rodents use tunnels and cavities all the time. Predators go from tunnel to tunnel as well in search of a meal. The light will reveal much insight into the underground world of tracks/animals/clues. But, it must be a very bright/powerful light. If you go tracking in the winter your eyes are adjusted to the reflective snow, and you will not easily see much in tunnels without a good light.
A small roll of sticky take is handy for collecting hair. If you are not finding hairs while tracking, you are not looking very closely and are missing a bunch of other clues too. Collect hair even if you have no clue what it is from. When you get home, place your hair samples someplace safe. Tape can also be used to secure teeth and small bones you find.
Bringing a ruler will help you identify a track to the specie level. This is where you can separate the mice and voles, the weasels, and the rest. Even chew marks can be measured and checked with resource books. A calliper is ideal! It has a scale (metric and imperial) and has various tangs to take measurements with. Otherwise, a simple six inch steel ruler will do. The measuring tape is for the longer measures of trail width or stride et. cetera. The ruler is a must when learning. But it is also a good idea to use your hand digits as a measure too. So know the width of your thumb, finger, hand, and combinations thereof. Eventually, you will not need the rulers at all (or hands for measure either).
Plastic bags are for the serious tracker or those whom wish to bring home the skulls, bones, feathers, and scat. All of these can be identified with the right books. It is a kind of forensic tracking. Note, that there are health hazards collecting such materials, such as breathing spores in some types of scat to handling tainted flesh and blood.
Lastly, the note pad and pen. This is the most important of items. I have solved tracking mysteries seven years after the fact by taking notes. I have also never figured out certain mysteries from not taking proper notes. The note pad is for taking down measurements and clues of the mysteries you find. These can be researched when you get home. The tracker’s notes can and should go into the details of recent weather patterns or pending storms. Remember, it is these little clues that make all the difference. There are many more exercise that you can do with a pad, pen and tracks. We will get to these later.
Tracking Tip: When you identify a familiar specie from its tracks, you really have learned nothing. It is only by following the trail, finding clues and patterns that one learns new information. In other words, do not settle for the familiar! Look closer as there is always a lesson to be had.
In closing, many fascinating finds await all trackers–regardless of tracking abilities. A walk in the woods (or backyard) will reveal tracking mysteries worthy of the best Sherlock Holmes. Do not plan on sticking to human walking trails; instead, follow the trails of evidence and don’t forget to bring your magnifying glass!
In the upcoming articles of this series, I will post tracking techniques, photos, and many tips to help you make the most of your time tracking.