A tracker ponders the meaning of tracking

Rebecca Reid Coyote footprint

PHOTO Rebecca Reid Coyote footprint

By George Leoniak For the Gazette

Published in print: Saturday, January 30, 2016

What is tracking? Trying to pin down an answer to this question is just as elusive as the animals I track.

I’ll track an animal all day with the hopes of catching a glimpse, even though 99 percent of the time I will not see the animal at the end of the trail. Yet I continue to follow the tracks as they pull me deeper into the world of that animal, deeper into my world and deeper into the world we share.

So what is tracking? It’s easy to look at it as a simple activity. It’s about learning to identify the various footprints, scats and other signs made by wild animals. A common analogy used by trackers is that learning to track is like learning the alphabet. Tracks are like the letters, and stringing these letters together creates the words that the tracker reads while following an animal across the landscape.

Learning the ABCs only required remembering 26 letters neatly printed on a page. In the case of animal tracks, when you include birds, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, there are thousands of shapes to learn, and the majority of prints found will not be the perfect image that we see represented in field guides. Nonetheless, field guides and other resources that teach the finer points of identifying and interpreting animal signs are extremely useful in learning the ABCs of tracking.

However, one can’t really learn to track from a book. The pages that need to be read are outside the front door.

The fun part about tracking is that you can start trying to read before you even know its ABCs. You can learn by doing, and following an animal through various landscapes puts a tracker right into the story and mystery of that animal’s life.

Many questions emerge while trailing an animal. Where did the animal go? What was it doing? Why? Some questions may be answered by experience — either yours or that of a mentor or field guide. But many questions might not have an answer, and not knowing the answer is just as much a part of tracking as knowing the answer.

There is another part of tracking that’s not based on learned experience, namely observing. Observation is so fundamental to tracking that it’s easy to forget that we’re always carefully observing while tracking.

Many times while trailing an animal, my mind will be racing, trying to identify who made the tracks. During these times, I’ll search my data banks of experience to help me figure it out, and every few steps I take along the trail the tracks will present a case for a different animal. One minute I’m following a bobcat and the next it’s a fisher, or maybe a fox. From what I’ve seen of the trail I’m following, experience alone is not providing an answer. In fact, my experience and prior knowledge may be altering what I’m actually seeing by trying to make it fit into the image of what I think I’m seeing.

Regardless of what I think I’m seeing, observation is still happening. I’m recording every little detail of the track. I’m seeing the various shapes, colors and textures that form the outline of the tracks while at the same time noting the sounds of the forest, the temperature of the air and the smell of the air that surrounds me. Of course, I’m too caught up with my internal debate to realize what I’m observing in the moments that pass. So I ask, “Am I really observing, or do I just think I am?”

It’s at moments like these that tracking provides an opportunity for an answer to come to me, rather than for me to go frantically searching for an answer. Following the tracks I described in the example above does not require a great mental debate and an exhaustive search of one’s data banks. Following the trail, observing and viewing the moments of an animal’s life provide an opportunity to become that animal for a short time, see the world through its eyes and move through the forest the way it moves. Observe, and you’ll see for yourself at the end of that trail. Oh yes, and it might even help you figure out who made the tracks.

What is tracking? Well, that mystery is still waiting for an answer, but in the meantime — have fun!

George Leoniak has avidly tracked wildlife for the past 20 years. He is recognized as a Senior Tracker by Cybertacker Conservation. Teaching tracking is one of his passions and he conducts workshops and evaluations around the world to share his knowledge. His tracking business is called Leoniak Tracking Services in Marlboro, Vermont and he writes about tracking on his blog trackingthoughts.com. Leoniak will be teaching a class in the Hitchcock Center’s Phenology Club series Feb. 21. Call the Center at 256-6006 for more information or to register.

The Hitchcock Center and Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary are cosponsoring two classes on mammal tracking with Susan Morse on Feb. 6. Call Arcadia at 584-3009 to register.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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