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Tracking Animals

cougar tracks
This is the point in the season where you get really sick of the snow. The holidays are past, you’ve done inordinate amounts of shoveling/snowblowing/plowing (not to mention ice-breaking, roof clearing, salting …), you’ve already gotten your skiing in, and you’ve got no use for the white stuff anymore.

But since the snow isn’t going anywhere for another month or so, rather than grouse about it, we need to find a way to deal with it. The best way to enjoy a snowstorm (absent a view of the falling snow from a supple couch near a fireplace, a smooth beer on one side and an even suppler and smoother Kate Winslet on the other)?


Yes, animal tracking. Tracking a wild animal is one of the most invigorating and healthy – both physically and psychically – things you can do. If you’re a walker, you’re already halfway there; the only aspect you have to add is to start paying close attention to the stuff around you. You’ll be amazed at what you see. Everything has meaning, from broken twigs and skinned saplings to scratches across the snow’s surface and ripples in the water. When you’re in a tracking mindset, these typically imperceptible things start screaming out at you, and they draw you in, revealing a story. It makes you feel connected.

And you don’t have to escape the city to do it. Your local park has all the fauna you need to experience the essence of tracking. In fact, the NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation is offering a tracking class next month, and NYC Parks Dept. Deputy Director of Public Affairs Philip Abramson has passed along some tips to Green Among Gray readers:

· The best time to track animals is after a fresh snowfall or when the ground is muddy or wet.

· Look for “gait patterns” – the pattern that an animal uses to walk – such as one foot in front of another, walking parallel and how far apart their steps are spaced.

· A cat’s tracks do not show claw marks but dog tracks do show claw marks.

· Besides mammals, birds also leave tracks when they walk on the ground.

· Tracks are part of “animal sign” which also includes scat (natural term for excrement – one can ID what animal left it, what it ate, how fresh it is), scratch marks on trees, and hair/skin that is shed by the animal.

· Common animals in NYC parks that one can track include dogs, cats, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, opossums, birds and ducks.

· Tracks tell a story about animals without even seeing them. They put clues together and read the landscape.

We also had the pleasure of trading e-mails with master tracker Mark Elbroch, whose book, “Mammal Tracks & Sign,” is a must-have for any tracker. Elbroch took some time out from studying cougars in California to give some insight into exactly what tracking is all about.

How does tracking inform your everyday life, and how might it inform the life of the average person who normally doesn’t give much thought to tracking?
As a working biologist, I rely on tracking for nearly every aspect of my trade. It guides the questions I ask about wildlife and their interactions, and provides me a means of finding animals, catching them, and of course provides a rich data set in terms of recorded behaviors, presence/absence data, habitat use, etc.

On a more regular basis, tracking skills allow me to know what wildlife are around and what they are doing in whatever environment I'm in. Just this morning on the University of California campus, I encountered a carpet of cut twigs under some almond trees. This was the sign of industrious Eastern fox squirrels, harvesting the twig ends to eat the swollen buds. The folks I was with thought it like magic that I would know what had happened.

For regular folks, tracking provides an avenue to participate in their surroundings, to achieve real relations with wildlife.

What tools are required when starting out tracking – both equipment-wise and mindset-wise?
Focus (discipline) and imagination. Both are free. No equipment needed – just clothes you don't mind getting dirty.

What part of the U.S. is your favorite for tracking?
I like tracking large carnivores – bears and cougars – so that influences where I like to be. But I also love fishers and bobcats so am also happy in the Northeast. I love snow – it is easier tracking – and thus frees the mind to focus on what you are learning about wildlife behaviors and natural history. But I also love the desert earth. There's something to enjoy wherever I am.

Our audience might be surprised to learn more than just squirrels can be found in a city. What relatively uncommon birds or mammals might leave sign in/around city centers?
I lived in Boston several years and had wonderful encounters with kestrels, red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons – once watched a falcon very close up eat an entire pigeon. But while there I regularly tracked skunks, raccoons, opossums, and red foxes. The occasional coyote too would slip into town.

Any other insight on tracking in an urban environment?
Pay attention. Wildlife are surprisingly adaptive and often live invisible lives in between us.

What do you find rewarding about tracking, and what one specific experience in the field best represents this?
I think what continues to keep me tracking is that it provides me tangible relations with wild animals. As a wildlife fanatic this is like an addiction. Tracking is a way to interact with animals, without ever seeing them. To be reminded that we, too, are a part of natural systems.

Mark graciously provided an excerpt of a draft for a new guide he’s working on to be published by UC Press in their California Natural History Guide series (working title: “Animal Tracks and Sign”). “In the story,” Mark says, “I ‘dance’ with a mountain lion – and yet never see her. Only tracks betrayed the story:”

Suddenly fresh cougar tracks were beneath me. I love that part—the appearance of tracks on the landscape. Even when I expect to find them, it always seems so unexpected. It’s as if the whole world is slightly out of focus while my mind wanders and then suddenly I see just one thing in perfect clarity and my chattering mind stops—the tracks of some beast. The tracks belonged to a mature female cat and she’d been walking down the drainage heading in the direction from which I’d just come. It was there that she abandoned the soft sands of the wash and traveled northeast into the manzanita, pines and juniper. After a deep breath to focus and quiet my mind, I began to pursue. The afternoon was fast slipping away, so time was short, and I followed as quickly as possible. Yet within an hour of starting on the trail, I found myself confused. I looked down at the fresh tracks of a male cougar—had she really been a he? No, for just around the corner I found her trail again—there were two cats, one following the other. But I was wrong again, for I then noticed the trails of at least three different cougars converging among the dense manzanita bushes and winding up and over the folds of the desert canyon. I paused to reassess, kneeling down, and feeling the large pad of a cougar’s track—that which shows more clearly in difficult tracking terrain. Where was that cat at that very moment?

The mess of tracks could have been a family group. Or perhaps a kill was nearby. That’s what I hoped for— a fresh kill—something I could photograph. At the time I knew it didn’t really make sense—a mature male and female at the site of a kill, unless one were stealing from the other, but the sun was too low in the sky to give anything much thought, and the trailing demanded all of my attention. I began to jog along the cougars’ trails, circling in on myself and jumping from trail to trail, all the while peering into every shadowy bush and dense growth for the dark telltale mound of a cougar’s cache. Several times I stopped to scrutinize the large nests of woodrats, but recognition came quickly and I’d move on. As fast as I tracked, the sun moved quicker, and soon it was turning orange above the mountains to the west.

I popped out on the wash again, up drainage from where my adventure had begun. I’d followed numerous trails, looped in on myself countless times and had turned up nothing. I’d not even revealed where any of the cougars had departed the confusion of converging trails. But with sunlight at a premium, I decided to backtrack the female up the wash to see if a piece of the larger story lie behind her. It did. A male lion had been following her and had cut into the bush up drainage, where I hadn’t initially seen his tracks. Eventually their trails veered south and left the wash on the other side of the canyon.

As the sun moved below the mountain range to the west and the entire canyon was bathed in rosy shadows, I jogged on, reluctant to leave such a beautiful trail; the tracks were like food, and I was starving and couldn’t stop eating. Higher and higher I climbed but the light faded with increasing speed. Eventually the light was so low, I found myself moving at a crawl, losing the trail more often, and walking in a bent crouch so that my eyes were closer to the ground. I stood on a steep slope and appraised the areas that I had covered in the valley below and to the north where the cats had spiraled in on themselves. Temperatures were dropping quickly as I began my trip back to camp.

By the time I reached the wash, it was full dark and the brilliant stars were twinkling overhead. The simple notes of poorwills sounded in the distance, but otherwise the night was eerily quiet, and my footsteps in the sandy, gravelly wash seemed abrasive and loud. Niggling nervousness began to work its way into my mind, but I threw it off as the usual fears associated with being alone in the wilderness surrounded in fresh cougar sign. I walked on.

“Crunch, crunch, crunch,” my foot falls echoed along the wash and out into the scrub. I moved quickly to fight off the dropping temperatures and to stop from shivering. The nervousness in the back of my mind hadn’t resolved itself completely, and furrowed my brow. Then real fear seized me like a slap in the face, my gut twisted and I froze. The moon had just crested the canyon’s ridges, and its ghostly light filtered through the bushes and trees creating shadows and shapes that suddenly appeared menacing and dark. “A cougar could be sitting trail side and you’d never see it,” I thought to myself. I picked up a few good throwing rocks and began to massage my right arm to prepare for action in the cold.

“Stop it!” I told myself. “Get control of yourself. Its just the willies. Just irrational fear associated with a still, silent night spiced by fresh signs of cougars. Nothing to worry about. Another mile and a half and I’ll be safely back at camp.” And as the mind seemed to be playing tricks on me, I decided to play one back. I told myself, “You have permission to be afraid if you see her tracks atop your own.” Not likely, I thought.I walked perhaps fifty yards further down the wash before the moon rose high enough to bathe its floor. “No, it can’t be,” I thought. I knelt to get closer to my tracks from just hours before. Yet there was no denying it: there were the fresh tracks of a female cougar atop my own, and she was tracking me. I stood quickly and looked behind me. Suddenly that fear didn’t seem so irrational after all. I studied each shadow intently, willing my eyes to penetrate their black depths to discover the form of the cougar which no doubt was watching me at that very moment. I worked my throwing shoulder and rolled my first rock in my hand. Finally, I broke the spell and began to move quickly down drainage. I stopped with regularity to listen for footsteps behind me, and to look for a cougar’s form in pursuit. I avoided any area where she could attack from above, winding my way down the shadowy wash which seemed to stretch on for eternity. But I arrived safely back to camp, more tense than I’d have liked, and decided to sleep in the bed of my truck. With great relief, I slipped into my sleeping bag, and with the comfort of steel beneath me and the twinkling stars overhead, I soon asleep, thrilled to have shared an evening with another predator.

I awoke during the night with the certainty that I was being watched. The moon was straight overhead and bright. I sat up and peered into the contrasting landscape of dark shadows and reflecting moonlight. Nothing but trees, shrubs, shadows and crisp cool air. The canyon was utterly silent. I coaxed myself back to sleep, but in what seemed an instant, I was wide awake yet again. I gazed out over the edge of my truck bed and beyond the open tailgate at the pines and canyon slopes. I was starting to wonder if I should have closed the tailgate for additional protection. Still nothing. Eventually I fell back asleep and then awoke with the first hints of light, when the air seemed thick and somehow more tangible.

It was still cold, but I was eager to head up drainage to discover where the cat had been when we encountered each other in the wash the night before—which I was certain was the moment when my gut screamed be afraid. I layered up and grabbed a water bottle to fill at the spring. But I was stopped at the perimeter of my camp, perhaps 10 meters from my truck where I’d slept. There were her tracks, and she was accompanied by two large kittens, perhaps 10-12 months of age. No doubt the first time I awoke in the middle of the night corresponded with this initial visit. I followed her as she circled my camp, where at intervals she approached where I slept to have another look. She appeared curious. The kittens too, but they never approached as closely as she did. Then she led her kittens down to Nettle Springs for a drink. I continued to follow her as she circled up hill behind the springs and back to where I had slept. She had peered down at me from above—likely the second time I’d woken and sat up.

It took the remainder of the day to piece the entire story together, having followed her tracks in every direction to relay this story: She’d followed my tracks for a half mile up drainage to where we’d met in the dark. No doubt she heard me coming. She moved off to the north side of the drainage, lay sphinx-like in the shadows of a manzanita bush, and watched me as I passed by, massaging my throwing shoulder and trying to look every direction at once. Less than twenty yards from the wash where I’d walked, she’d remained invisible to me. From there, she worked her way up the hillside, cutting east as she climbed, paralleling the wash below. Soon, she began a more vertical ascent to the north, before dropping into a tiny hidden canyon. It was there she’d left her kittens.

Together the three cougars dropped back into the wash and followed my tracks towards my camp for well over a mile. She came into my camp, circling, investigating and then eventually took her kittens to drink. Likely they’d been at an old kill site, for cats often move to water after a heavy feeding. After circling above my camp for another look, they climbed to the mesa above and headed towards Pine Mountain , several miles to the east. It was the direction from which she’d come when followed by the male, so perhaps somewhere near the mountain she’d cached another deer to feed her growing kittens.

One more tracking definition before we start: Tracking provides us the opportunity to participate in genuine relationships with real animals in a real world. I tracked the cougar, the cougar tracked me. Tracking also allows us the opportunity to recognize our participation in natural systems. If I’d been unaware of the tracks about me, I’d only have hiked in a beautiful canyon. Perhaps I’d have experienced an instinctual alarm of fear, but I’d never have been able to substantiate its cause. I’d have departed Nettle Springs, never having seen a cougar, and therefore completely oblivious to the dance we shared in the moonlight. Some might argue that I’d have been a poorer man indeed.

Thanks to Mark for the eloquent, feels-like-you-were-there account. Admittedly, it’s probably not going to be a cougar you’ll be “dancing” with. But if you’re just starting out tracking, the experience of gaining insight into an animal and its behaviors – even if it’s just a plain ol’ gray squirrel – is incredibly rewarding.

If you try it out, let us know your impressions by posting a comment below.

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“Tracking Animals”