TrackingThe skill of determining what animals have been using the area, what they were doing, and where they went.
Tracking is a valuable outdoor skill. It allows a naturalist to draw connections between the environment, plants and animals that would not be apparent without the ability to reliably read animal signs.
Are you ready to be a nature detective? Start out by finding some firm mud, sand, loose soil or fresh, moist snow. These surfaces are the easiest to start off on since they hold the shape and details of tracks well.
It is best to practice in the early morning, since many animals are nocturnal or diurnal. The tracks of these animals are most likely to be found fresh and undisturbed in the early morning hours.
There are two types of trails left behind by an animal. One is the scent trail. Only animals with a well developed sense of smell can follow this trail. The second type of trail consists of tracks, scat, disturbed leaf letter, and other visible signs of the animal. Unless you possess extraordinary olfactory powers, it is the second type of trail that is of interest.
When you find animal tracks, follow this sequence in your observations. First, identify both front and rear tracks and their arrangement. The rear feet are generally bigger. Do the tracks appear distinct from one another, or do they overlap, the back paws stepping into the impressions of the forepaws? In tree dwelling animals such as squirrels, the front tracks will generally be parallel with one another, whereas those of ground dwelling animals such as rabbits will not be parallel with one another.
Second, estimate the distance between the front and rear tracks. This will vary by species and also by the speed at which the animal was moving when it made the tracks. Does the trail meander, or is it fairly straight? It is useful to sketch both individual tracks, as well as the pattern of tracks. This both allows for better recall later due to the attention you must pay to the details when drawing, as well as providing a record of your observations for future reference.
Third, observe the depth of the tracks, as well as any difference in depth between the front versus back tracks. This will give an indication of the size of animal, as well as the speed at which it was moving. In general, heavy animals leave deeper impressions with both front and rear paws. A running animal will leave deeper tracks with the hind feet than the front feet.
Fourth, search for feeding signs and scat. Try to deduce the actions of the animal from these signs. Was the animal resting in this area? Was it feeding? Passing through? Fleeing? Stalking its prey?
It is useful to bring along a field guide to help you with identification of the tracks you find. By using the above observations and a field guide, you will be able to reliably identify many different animal tracks, and over time, you will become proficient at interpreting signs on your own.