Off the Beaten Path

Off the Beaten Path

Wildlife tracking is making a comeback, attracting outdoor enthusiasts and biologists alike. For some it's an engrossing hobby; for others it's a critical contribution to conservation.  

By Victoria Schlesinger/ Illustration by James Joyce
Published: September-October 2011

The next morning we meet northeast of Seattle at the Bob Heirman Wildlife Preserve, a wet, verdant riparian valley with towering maples and willows. Moss dangles from their thick limbs, and fog hangs over a large pond. Along a muddy footpath several tracks have been circled, and everyone's pant legs and knees are slick with mud. When we review the answers, Moskowitz argues strongly with McFarland over whether a vole or rat had made the print until the rest of the group, exasperated, moves on. It is Moskowitz's first wrong answer.

Brian McConnell, a third evaluator, explains the next set of muddy tracks, pointing to four small paw prints. One of only two certified "trailing" evaluators in the country, McConnell grew up in Arkansas hardwood forests and speaks with a southern twang. His mother used to toss him out of the house on Saturday mornings with no invitation to return until evening, so he learned to hunt and fish and quietly follow animals for the fun of it. He explains that trailers--whose goal it is to find an animal--use track and sign skills to help them. "A really good [trailer] looks like they're taking a walk through the woods, and they use the tracks just to confirm where they already think they should go."

McConnell describes how the deep mud makes it challenging to accurately identify the Douglas squirrel prints' typical features--long, slender toes, a significant distance between the metacarpal pads and toes, and two front tracks that are usually paired close together. We are all peering at the marks when Moskowitz interjects, "No, it's an eastern gray," and begins to defend his answer.

"Could we have somebody else talk for a little bit," someone asks, and the group erupts in nervous giggles. Tkaczyk argues that the front tracks don't turn in like those of a Douglas squirrel, until Moskowitz breaks in, stating that the width between the tracks suggests a gray squirrel. McConnell and McFarland concede the question was difficult and that maybe they would throw it out, but just then Elbroch returns from a walk and crouches down to examine the evidence. "To me it's very simple. Just look at the picture. Look how big that is," he says, pulling out a field guide with life-size gray squirrel tracks. Holding the picture next to the actual ones, he says, "It's friggin' huge."

The tense back-and-forth continues for a good 15 minutes. But it strikes me as progress, and just the sort Louis Liebenberg and Wilson Masia sought: watching a hunter, an environmental educator, and an emerging scientist passionately debate the measurements of a Douglas squirrel track.

Several test stations later, the evaluation concludes beneath a highway underpass where the fine dirt is littered with tracks from an opossum and an American robin and the difficult-to-identify trails of a salamander, a Western jumping mouse, and a shrew mole. Some of those being assessed work on wilderness corridor projects trying to locate the routes animals use to traverse urban development, and in many cases they choose the clear areas under highways.

In the end, of the 12 test takers, only Moskowitz earns the specialist certification. Dave Scott, a former guard at Guantanamo Bay, missed it by half a point. He stares at the ground, hands in his pockets, looking shocked and sad. He had studied hard. Now an environmental educator who is coauthoring a book on feather identification with McFarland, he just can't believe his near miss. But less than five minutes later he's grinning and seems to have the right perspective. "I'm a better tracker today than I was yesterday morning," he says.

The same holds true for Tkaczyk, Knight, and Martin. All four earned their Track and Sign Specialist certificates this past spring.

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Victoria Schlesinger

Victoria Schlesinger is a freelance reporter whose work has appeared in Harper's and Mother Jones and on PBS Frontline. 

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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