An interest in animal tracks and sign is something of an affliction.
If you become hooked, country walks can become very slow affairs. You certainly have to have understanding walking partners.
Once you start looking, there are signs of animal activity everywhere…
In fact, after you tune in to the evidence of wildlife activity in your local woods and fields, you’ll certainly see tracks and sign of animals a lot more frequently than many of the animals themselves.
A Glimpse Into the Animal’s World
Most animals are wary of humans; many are nocturnal.
Spotting and interpreting their tracks gives an insight into a world that can otherwise be hard to access.
Identifying tracks, sign and the animals that left them provides a greater understanding of an environment and helps provide a wider knowledge of nature.
An interest in animal tracks cuts across all outdoor activities – I see tracks while out for a leisurely walk in local woods, while winter mountaineering in Scotland, while on canoe trips in Canada, while cross-country skiing in Norway, snow-shoeing in Sweden, while bush walking in Africa or Australia…
There are always tracks to be seen.
An interest in animal tracks encourages greater observation. An awareness of which species of animal are around also improves outdoor safety.
Clear Print ID
Clear tracks are the easiest to identify. Clear tracks give you a good idea of the animal that left it.
Clear prints are most readily seen on snow, soft mud or clay, fine soil or wet sand.
In addition to the shape of the print helping determine the species, so does the size help us determine a positive identification. Knowledge of the habitats preferred by various animals as well as their range, can also help narrow down identification.
If you have multiple prints one after the other, this will also indicate the gait of the animal – that is, was it walking, running, leaping or bounding. In addition to the size of the footprint, the gait of the animal can also help indicate its size.
Animal Tracks Tell a Story
Tracks give away more than just who left it. Even a single footprint can tell a story; a story that helps bring the animal to life in our mind’s eye. It’s easy to imagine a moose having a little slip on the damp earth of the portage trail from the track in the photo below….
In the photo above you can see the sandy earth pushed back as the baboon was running. It was running from the Hadza hunting party we were with.
If the medium is good then you can even spot tracks of smaller animals. The squirrel tracks in the photo below were in the fine clay mud left in the bottom of a rut that was slowing drying out after rains. The marks from some of its claws are very distinct.
A fine medium can sometimes capture tracks that are seen relatively rarely. This is often the case with small, sleight creatures. Below are the tracks of a newt, again in fine clay mud. Newts have four toes on the front feet and five on the rear. It’s rare to see this so clearly – if at all – in tracks. You can also clearly see where the newt has dragged its tail.
An Extended Play
If an animal has been active on an extent of a particular medium where all its tracks are clear and distinct, then we get an even greater insight into its activity.
A few years ago I was undertaking a ski tour in Norway, crossing the Hardanger Vidda. The Hardanger is a large mountain plateau in the south of Norway that is approximately 100km x 100km. It can be subject to some of the worst weather in northern Europe and is certainly wild. Despite its harshness, this environment still harbours wildlife, even in winter. Reindeer, ptarmigan, lemmings and artic foxes are amongst its inhabitants.
Our trip had started with some bad weather and we’d been confined to a hut for 48 hours due to the strength of the winds. Once the weather broke, we carried on. The winds had scoured the trails of tracks and the following day there was some light snow in the evening. The next day we headed out with the aim of covering around 30km.
After a few km the route we were following was joined by the tracks of an arctic fox. The routes between huts in this part of Norway are marked with birch saplings stuck in the snow. The fox had clearly been running along the trail and urinating on these trail markers to mark its territory.
Kilometer after kilometer the fox had stayed with our trail. Imagining the fox galloping along was eventually like having a little companion running along with us. Its tracks were clear every step of the way.
We passed a summer trail marker – a stone marked with the familiar DNT ‘T’ in red paint – normally hidden beneath the snow but that had been uncovered by the scouring winds. The fox had approached and urinated on it too.
Every so often along the fox’s trail there was a significant disturbance, where the fox had been digging in the snow, probably for lemmings. Lemmings spend a lot of their time under the snow and foxes can smell and hear them.
A little while along the trail after the above disturbances, the fox had obviously caught something. There was digging again with even more disturbance this time. And there was blood on the snow. Not much, but it was there. The fox had also urinated and defecated in this area.
The fox’s trail continued to coincide with our own route for a while further. As we contoured a rounded hill and the valley opened up on our right, the fox’s track took a right-angled turn away from ours and headed out into the white expanse. In the foreground we could see that the fox had again been digging. After that we could see that the animal had continued to gallop across the snow, into the distance.
It would have been great to follow our little imaginary friend to see what further adventures it had had. But we still had a good distance to cover, not least because of our stops to study the fox’s activities. So we continued on our way.
It’s on days like this, though, that you can truly say you’ve fully experienced the joy of tracks.
We Should be So Lucky: The Reality of Tracking
Following tracks takes us into the realm of tracking.
We don’t usually get to follow such clear prints as the arctic fox over the Hardanger Vidda.
As trackers we often have very few, if any, clear prints at all.
As trackers, we don’t follow footprints, we follow sign.
To recognise and follow sign, you must have a good understanding of The 6 Key Characteristics of Sign.