There are always clues created by wildlife for us to decipher, telling a story of their habits and lives. By learning the language of track and sign we gain insight into Nature’s mysteries. Who left this track? How did this feather get here? Why are the birds all calling from over there?
Beginner students will learn a new way to look at the world and experienced trackers will be challenged toward a greater understanding of Nature.
$50 per participant 10am to 4pm January 23 2021 Litchfield CT
Last minute need to get in the winter mood? This Saturday Jackie Ryan and I are facilitating this short retreat to help you warm up, open up and slow down to the speed of winter. Check out the link and pas the word.
Snow is on the ground here in Connecticut and the animals are leaving their stories plain for us to see if we know how to read the language of tracks. I will be leading this class with Two Coyotes Wilderness School. Come learn to read Nature’s newspaper.
As I write this the ground is covered in heavy snow. The story I am about to share took place a few months ago during a particularly hot and buggy August.
My friend Justin and I went into the woods here in New England to do some primitive camping.
We made the fire by friction and used the landscape to protect us from the worst of the heat and bugs.
Water guard, a bark bucket and twined basket I made and brought along. Justin stuck much closer to the old ways with his food and gear than I was able with buckskin clothing, dried deer meat and a buffalo hide as blanket.
There was a fair amount of plant food in this upland wood to supplement what we had brought along. Here Justin is harvesting wild grapes. They were some of the sweetest I have ever had.
After setting up camp, gathering some food and firewood we spent the night on the ground by the fire. The next morning we went down to the meadow to practice with our bows. Once there we decided some time sitting on the edge of the meadow to watch the squirrels was the thing to do. It was hot and buggy again and a bit challenging to be still. Justin had found a spot somewhere behind me and after a rather short time I heard quiet intermittent movement from his direction. This annoyed me as it would scare away the animals. I heard it again and considered that maybe he had spotted a squirrel or something and was repositioning to get a better vantage point.
After the gentle crackling of sticks a dead leaves persisted beyond tolerating I finally turned to look. It was a huge black bear, 300 plus pounds walking slowly between us. Over the bears shoulder I could see Justin sitting against a tree with wide eyes. It had walked rather slowly through the woods behind him and come up between us about 15 or 20 yards from us both.
I was a little slow to get out the camera so the images are after it had passed between us and had gotten far off. Here it is in video and still photo walking away through the meadow.
What seemed remarkable to me was that it did not once turn to look at either of us. I had turned out into the meadow in easy view and Justin even broke a stick to get its attention and not even a twitching ear as it ambled through the meadow. It even stopped to scratch its ear.
My hypothesis is it knew where we were and chose not to look at us. Maybe this is what bears do to prevent unwanted confrontation as eye contact is menacing in the animal world. I like this idea as it hints at a mutual respect between large predators, the bear respected us by not displaying any challenging behavior and we reciprocated by keeping our distance.
After a time we looked over the big animals tracks. Above is where he (I assume male due to the bears size) passed through some ferns to get back onto a trail near some mushrooms we had harvested. Below are the tracks left in the meadow as we watched him go by. They go from back right to center foreground. On back tracking him a ways we surmised he may have come from the spot we had gathered grapes the day before.
Justin and I had eaten grapes and mushrooms, slept on the ground, felt the heat and insect bites all same as the bear. He felt the master of the forest with his easy power and patience of movement. To be as connected to the land as that big bear would be a great blessing indeed.
A few days ago I got to go out tracking with some friends. We came across some great stuff I’d like to share with you including ritual bear trails and moose sign.
One of the first things we came across were little tubes made of pine needles like the ones above. They hold a moth larva that overwinters inside. I had never noticed them before.
Kersey had been here before and brought us to this ritual Black Bear trail. The bears walk in the footsteps of past bears, grinding their feet into the ground, leaving sometimes obvious and long lasting impressions. It is hard to see in the photo though they were quite clear in person.
This sign is usually associated with marking trees though we didn’t find any. We were more focused on something else.
Lee is from South Africa where he runs Nature Guide Training which teaches guides and other students about African wildlife. He was intensely curious about everything.
Kersey runs Original Wisdom which also trains people in wildlife tracking and other Naturalists studies. She is generously mentoring Deneen and I in trailing wildlife (the act of following tracks to the animal who made them). More on that later.
Mike is a tracker and forager who is on his way to great renown in the world of survival skills. He was also known on this day as Samwise sans frying pan.
We also found some of the largest Red Squirrel middens I have ever seen. Red Squirrels store food in large amounts, usually underground, in what are called larders. They eat this food while perched in a favorite spot leaving a big pile of scraps, in this case pine cone parts.
In another area of the woods where more bear sign in the form of torn apart rotten logs. Bears dig through them looking for grubs to eat. I especially like the one below as the bears hind feet pushed down the ferns below the logs giving a better impression of it movements. The destruction seems intense however I bet it is quite a deliberate act on the part of the bear, possibly even slow and methodical.
A bear had been up this big old maple tree leaving some claw marks. They may eat the maple seeds up there though that is just my guess.
Another cool find was the fruiting body of a type of foxfire fungus. There are several types of fungus that are referred to as foxfire because they are phosphorescent (glow in the dark). I have yet to determine the species here. It is the one responsible for the greenish blue rotten wood one often sees in New England.
The main purpose of this trip was to practice trailing. Deneen was not able to be with us this day so it was me and Mike under the tutelage of the experts. We had found some old moose sign early in our time.
Eventually we found a trail to follow. Below is a track, one of the very few obvious to me.
The tracks were very difficult for me to find. Some were clear, two or three or four in a row, then nothing. The terrain was not what would be called easy.
After loosing the trail and finding it again (usually it was re-found by one of the others) we would come across something really obvious. When Lee called us over to this moose scat he said, in that dry humor of experienced outdoors people, “I think it may have been here.”
I wasn’t going to find a moose that day, the trail was a little old and really difficult to follow. That was fine with me because I was following a trail further than ever before. Sure in snow I have followed trails for miles, even catching up to the animal. That’s easy. This was challenging. I searched for occasional clear sign like the image above of crushed logs and sticks, loosing the trail again and doubling back to the certain print to start over.
I had one really good sequence that I had found by myself and followed a few dozen yards with confidence. In that moment it was pretty clear that I was made for this stuff.
It was also quite humbling as I stumbled around, to be with two people who routinely track lions in Africa this way.
The snow is slowly leaving us here in New England. Before it turned to slush and ice I got out to do some tracking in beautiful conditions. In this video I go into detail on how to distinguish Red Fox from other species without using measurements. I also include a good explanation of a few ways to tell canine from feline and, we see a bit of hunting behavior by our friend the fox.
Thanks for watching. Please like and subscribe. If you want to learn more about tracking first hand go to my school’s website www.threeredtrees.com
Squirrels often leave confusing tracks in deep snow. Below is an example of a Grey Squirrel’s tracks that don’t match what is typical for their bounding gate pattern, the snow or other factors causing all four feet to leave only the two “holes” in the snow. I have noticed a particular feature that seems to be a consistent clue to help confirm squirrel tracks from other similarly sized animals also capable of leaving this tracks pattern such as weasels and rabbits.
Some foot morphology is in order before I explain my observations. Above are all four feet of a squirrels track. Notice the arrangement of the toes of the hind feet (upper feet). The middle three toes of each foot group together in a line, while the outer toes seem separate. When the toes are splayed, which often happens in deep substrate, this separation becomes even more exaggerated.
Here is a clear example of splayed hind tracks of a squirrel (in this case the lower tracks in the image). This snow was not very deep so the toes are rather clear and identification is not a problem even though it is not the typical squirrel pattern.
The images above and below are trickier. However, take a look a the image above and one can see on the outside of each mark the edges show the effect of the outside toe of each foot splaying. I have attempted to mark this with an arrow in the text below. I very often see this effect of the clawed spayed toe and have come to use it as a quick identifier of otherwise less than obvious squirrel tracks.
This is also evident in the example below, though much harder to see. Its more of a widening of the track in that area. Try comparing the more clear tracks above to these to identify which part of the foot leaves what part of the track.
I am interested in feedback from other trackers. Is this consistent and do other animals tracks ever look similar? Please leave your feedback in the comments.
An instructional video on wildlife tracking where I spend some time considering a trail in the snow, asking questions and gathering an impressions on the makers species, activities and mood. I point out where to find the clearest tracks, what to look for in unclear tracks and more.