Tracking for the Joy of it

snowy den with tracks leading up to it
A snowy den at sunset, with tracks—maybe fox?—leading to and from the entrance

From the perspective of an apprentice:

I know basically nothing about tracking. I don’t have any guidebooks, I usually forget to bring a ruler along with me, and my smartphone doesn’t work (except as a camera) in the woods. So I’m not gaining knowledge very quickly. But I LOVE going out after a snow and following all of the paths as they loop around the fields and woods, speculating on the identity and motivations of the animal and the timing of the tracks. Even when the tracks are blurred by powdery snow, there are intriguing clues. This animal stopped to urinate on the same clump of grass that was marked by my friends’ dogs last weekend. This path continues on the other side of the sheep fence, and the animal tunneled under. This other path also crosses the fence, but this time animal seems to have gone through the roughly 4″x6″ mesh with no apparent struggle. Is it the same animal? Same species? Maybe someday I’ll have more answers.

In the broad, white field, a scuffled path with no discernible footprints ends abruptly with two deep indentations within a larger, shallower one.

Following the trail in the opposite direction yields clear wedge-shaped impressions of feet near a tree. So a bird, then, (I hypothesize), dragging her tail as she walked. But did she lift her tail when making the clear prints? Or was the consistency or depth of the snow different around the tree? And was she landing, or taking off? Every answer leads to more questions.

I continue towards the woods, where I usually find well-trafficked deer trails. Not today though (Why not? More questions.). Today I wander in the general direction of a den that I want to investigate. The dogs had found it last weekend, and I’ve been waiting for fresh snow to arrive, to hold tracks. As I walk, I stumble upon these distinctive tracks.

Four prints together, and then an impressive nearly three foot jump, and another four feet together. And these tracks, unlike the ones in the field, are very clear, with no snow blown into them. So, they were made recently? Or maybe there’s just less blowing snow in the woods? In answer to my question, I realize that there is a trail running parallel to the one that had first caught my eye. This second trail seems to clearly be made the same species, with the same large hops. But these prints are blurred with snow. It snowed just yesterday, and before it snowed, the ground was hard and icy, and not accepting prints. So both of these trails have been made in the past 36 hours, at most, and must have been separated enough in time to explain the difference in their appearance. How COOL that even though I don’t know a damn thing about tracking, oh wait, yes I DO!

“I was bred and born in the briar patch, Brer Fox,” he called. “Born and bred in the briar patch.” And Brer Rabbit skipped away as merry as a cricket.
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