After a break from the glorious recent rains, I went out to ‘read the mud’ on some hiking trails and admire the sandy landscape of a creek sandbar that was cleaned like a blackboard at the Ancient. I was also hoping to do some reading in the snow, but recent snowfalls in our county haven’t brought down enough of the wet, white stuff to create a literary animal landscape for tracking creatures in the snow. I don’t always know what tracks I see, but going to the same places over and over gives me a pretty good idea, since I know what creatures I’ve seen there in the past. When I’m not sure, I consult my two trusty follow-up guides, Northern California Animal Tracks by Chris Stall or North American Scats and Traces by James C. Halfpenny, Ph.D. A few years ago, it was fun to find California gray squirrel tracks in the snow on a recently felled oak tree that bridged the creek. While anthropomorphizing, I liked to think that Mr. Squirrel found it very convenient to now have this new path to the lands across the creek, especially when it contained a snowy velvet blanket to hang out on.
During the shelter-in-place, I stayed put for the most part and, like many others, took many Zoom courses online. One course in particular that sticks with me was taught by Meghan Walla-Murphy through Sonoma State University’s Center for Environmental Investigation, titled “Deep Dive: Animal Tracking Art and Science.” Walla-Murphy has an impressive resume, including wildlife ecologist, author, Santa Rosa Junior College instructor, California Naturalist Program workshop leader, worldwide following, and more. Walla-Murphy pointed out that when tracking, an animal’s tracks are just one way to read the environment. It is also possible to read the environment via plate tectonics or changes in geological features. Additionally, you can read water traces by noting patterns or any changes in the flow of a stream or the movement of a body of water. Often, tracking involves paying attention to patterns in nature. Of course, another method of tracking, noting animal droppings, can often explain which creature passed. Because animal feces can sometimes be difficult to discern, a telltale sign to look for is any scratching in the dirt along the feces. A bobcat will kick back in a scratching motion on the ground near its droppings. Since Walla-Murphy’s work took her around the world, she discovered that “a line of people stand behind us”, and that we are all descended from trackers. We inherently know how to track, since our ancestors used tracking skills to locate plants and animals over time. While in Africa, she learned that what she loved to do, tracking, was called “kyk mooi” to look at something beautifully; look deeply while slowing down to truly honor what there is to see.
As I try to “kyk mooi”, I notice a couple of brown birds, still unfamiliar to me, come closer and closer to where I’m sitting. Since standing still, I’ve been rewarded with a closer look at my companions for the day. I also notice a piece of puzzle bark scattered under a fir tree. The bark contains nicks and squiggles like a child’s crayon drawing, which makes me wonder what woodland creature carved the bark.
I enjoyed learning about deer tracks. I know, we’ve all seen them, the hoof marks that look like inverted hearts, but did you know you can tell the difference between a doe and a buck by her footprints? Since the female has narrow shoulders with wider hips, her hind foot would naturally produce a more sideways footprint, while a male who is built with broad shoulders and narrow hips would display a track that represents her hoof. rear angled naturally inwards. Both the doe and the buck, being ungulates, have smaller rear hooves than the front.
Today we can’t need to rely on our ability to decipher the signs of species around us, but it has become important to scientists as an indispensable tool to aid in wildlife investigations, along with creature cameras, night vision goggles and thermal imaging technology. Tracking can teach us to pay attention and surrender to the wonders of our world. And just like in the past, today tracking tells us stories from the landscape showing us that we are all connected.