Wild Ideas: Tracking more than footprints

Helpful guides

While learning from an expert is the best way to get to become a good tracker, there are some good references available that can help. I’ve found Tom Brown’s — “The Science and Art of Tracking: Nature’s Path to Spiritual Discovery” and an earlier work, “Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking” — to have the most holistic approach. Other field guides that are more portable include the Peterson field guide “Animal Tracks,” which covers all North American animals, and for local native wildlife, the Falcon Guide “Scats and Tracks of the Mid-Atlantic” and the tiny but highly useful “Track Finder: A Guide to Mammal Tracks of Eastern North America” are great. Most of these guides are available at the Rappahannock County Library in its special conservation collection.

When I was a kid, I fancied myself to be a great tracker. When I was roaming the forests and meadows near my suburban home, I imagined I was a Native American, since we kids learned from Westerns that they were the best trackers. The goal was to find and observe animals, and ultimately to become part of their world.

During a recent walk along the Rappahannock River, I found on the snowy trail tracks showing that many animals had passed before me and left their mark in the now-melting snow — deer, turkey, opossums, squirrels and more. Animals are like humans in that most prefer to take the easy path from point A to point B. Many roads started with a deer track. The trail I was following along the Rappahannock undoubtedly started that way but was now wide enough to easily handle the tractor used to keep it clear for local horse-backers.

Most of the tracks I found were not hard to identify, a deer’s being the easiest, with its distinctive cloven hooves. When it came to the turkey track, it was as much a matter of the location of the tracks as the size and shape. While other birds have a large foot, no other species of wild bird that size in Virginia is likely to walk for such a long stretch down a trail without taking flight.

I also had no trouble sorting out who belonged to the tiniest paw prints, sets of two inside two more that were similar. That pattern, where all four tracks are almost in a horizontal line, is the mark of a hopper. As these prints showed tiny paws with differentiated toes ending in claws, they were not those of a rabbit. Rabbit tracks are more blunt, and those made by the rear paws (on the outside) are longer than those of the forepaws.

Most of the tracks on a recent hike were easy to identify. This one took some study. Do you know what animal left these? Photo by Pam Owen.

The tracks were too small for our native Cottontail Rabbit anyway, and their abundance everywhere along the trail also indicated they belonged to an animal that was very common to the forest through which the trail wound. The fact that the prints went back and forth to nearby trees was the clincher — they came from a squirrel.

Then it got down to the hardest tracks to identify — four paw prints about 2 inches long and wide that overlapped and seemed to vary between forepaws and hind paws. What animal has paw prints that size, with differentiated toes that ended in claws? It could have been a young raccoon, but the shape was not quite right.

I could barely make out in the melting snow the two identifiers that would indicate an entirely different species: The middle toes of the forepaws appeared to be grouped together somewhat and, even more telling, the rear right paw track showed the left-most toe was large and stuck out at slightly more than a 90-degree angle, like an overextended human thumb. This opposable toe is the mark of an opossum, an avid climber who uses them to get a good grip around branches. The opposable toes are on all feet, but with overlapping tracks such as the ones on the trail, only one stood out.

Because these opposable toes usually appear almost at a 180-degree angle to the other four in opossum tracks, it took looking through a few references to be sure. Fortunately, I had also taken some photographs and used the basket of my hiking pole to make a print next to the track for scale. A ruler would have been best, but I hadn’t brought along the pack in which I usually carry such tools.

Over the years, I’ve acquired the ability to identify some of the tracks, scat (poop), and other evidence common animals leave behind, but I never put in the effort to become a real expert. I still haven’t — but I am working on it. Tom Brown, the author of some of the best books on tracking, did put in the effort, becoming not only an expert tracker but also someone who understands the greater ramifications of following an animal’s journey. He learned much of this from an Apache elder, Stalking Wolf.

Brown studied with Stalking Wolf, whom he called “Grandfather,” for many years and details this in “The Science and Art of Tracking: Nature’s Path to Spiritual Discovery.” Brown makes it clear that, to be a good tracker and benefit personally from the experience, you need to understand more than the shape of an animal’s footprint:

“Grandfather did not and could not separate the concepts of tracking and awareness. To him, they were both part of the same consciousness. One could not exist or be whole without the other. Awareness without tracking became a shallow experience, where no understanding of the psyche of animals could be achieved nor, for that matter, could the entire fabric of nature be comprehended. In fact, the awareness of animals and the life forces of nature would be forever out of reach as well as incomprehensible. Tracking without awareness makes a prison of the trail, where nothing exists outside of the trail itself.”

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 283 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”