Animal Tracking… Isn’t that all about following footprints?
Yes and no. Following footprints can be a really important part of tracking. It’s like the first step in the learning process.
The reality of the situation is that a lot of the time in the field we don’t necessarily have clear tracks to follow. Maybe we haven’t found a fresh trail yet or maybe the substrate just isn’t conducive to holding clear impressions.
Tracking therefore actually starts even before we find the first footprint. We have to know where to go and what to look for in order to get on the trail in the first place.
There is a whole host of other subtle and not so subtle signs that indicate the presence of an animal even without footprints.
Things like scrapes on trees, droppings, feeding sign, and frequently used runs all play into our ability to locate and learn about the animals of an area.
What tracking is truly all about then is finding and learning about animals with our human senses.
This is a skill that requires no technology because our human sensory systems are pretty much designed to be effective tracking machines.
When you follow a trail in the woods and actually find the animal, or learn something totally new about it’s life cycles, it’s one of the most amazing feelings in the world.
Can effective tracking only be done in sand or snow?
It depends on your skill level. Sand and snow represent ideal learning conditions. These conditions give you an opportunity to follow trails pretty easily and start to piece together the bigger picture of whatever animal you’re following.
As your knowledge of an animal increases through learning in ideal conditions, you’ll begin to derive more information about the animals from more subtle sign.
As the tracking substrate gets more difficult we have to rely more on our accumulated knowledge of the animal to predict where it’s going and what it’s doing. This makes it possible to stay on the trail even when the footprints aren’t very clear or are entirely absent.
The more practice and “dirt time” you put in, the easier it will be to stay on a trail in more and more challenging conditions.
How much can we learn about a landscape by tracking?
You can learn an incredible amount about a place by tracking.
Since tracking is a holistic skill that uses all the senses and looks at nature from an ecological or systems perspective it really requires you to develop eyes & ears for more than just tracks & sign that relate to wildlife.
It’s equally if not more important to understand how the animal relates to the various plant communities, forms of water, the seasons, and cycles of days and years.
You can eventually get so precise as to look at the natural ecology & have a pretty good idea about what kinds of animals should be there, what they’ll be doing and when they’re likely to be doing those things.
Learning this way requires an attitude of exploration, curiosity, dedication, and openness.
If you stick with it you’ll develop a deeply embodied awareness that will impact your ability to notice and track all the subtle information in nature.
How can I learn to track animals?
The most important thing when you want to learn to track animals is that you have to put in time in the field.
There is a very direct correlation between the skill of a tracker and the amount of ‘dirt time’ that individual has spent sketching tracks, taking measurements and following trails.
The process for getting to know the wildlife on a deeper level can be facilitated by choosing one or two study areas to focus on.
This can be a sandy beach that edges up against a forest or walking along a wooded trail with muddy ‘track traps’. Anywhere you have opportunities to look at clear tracks is a great learning spot.
A good practice is to set up a regular route that you travel in this place over and over again.
As you familiarize yourself with the tracks that you see, you’ll notice changes from week to week in terms of what animals are present and where.
There’s lots of great field guides that can help you start to narrow down the possibilities of what animal left any track & sign that you find.
As you become more and more comfortable with identifying what you find on your route you’ll inevitably have a need to explore other areas of the landscape in order to piece together the rest of the story.
You can learn more about the animals by going off trail and really making an effort to explore all the different parts of the landscape.
If you find any fresh trails made by animals then its a good idea to follow them and see where they go.
Anytime you find an interesting sign, or feeding browse or scat, take a minute to look around you and think about where you are.
Ask yourself what this sign is telling you. Why would this sign would be here and not somewhere else?
It takes patience and persistence but the reward is well worth it.
Just continue getting out there. Explore the land. Learn to identify any track & sign you find. Follow the animal trails and you’ll be well on your way to learning some great tracking skills.