A Tracker's Journal
Linda Jo Hunter

September, 2012

This summer I decided to study tracking instead of teaching it.  It is really true that you can't know what it is that you don't know.
 Thanks to taking a few evaluations, described below, I can at least see that more study is needed.  I share part of my journery here:

This vegetation was gathered by a Pika . . in the rabbit family they live in rocks and have fascinating lives.

This pile
of hair and bones accompanied other cougar signs.
 I called this the lunch log because I had eaten my lunch on the same log before this sign was here.

Learning the little tracks is part of it.

A tracker must use all the tools avaliable to learn everything you can possibly learn about the natural world.
This skunk was caught by my backyard remote camera, a tool that has confirmed tracks I see there.

April, 2012

Winter tracking in Baja this year consisted of following up on learning insect tracks, studying small mammals such as the Kangaroo Rat and White Footed Mouse.
There were mysteries and new finds.

Fall 2011

Tracking Evaluation from Wildlife Tracking in North America


In conjunction with hosting the International Society of Professional Trackers yearly conference, I helped Steve Engle put together a tracker evaluation as a pre-conference event.  We were fortunate to have three highly qualified trackers come to my area to do this evaluation; Mark Elbroch, George Leonick, and David Moskowitz.  I signed up to take the evaluation along with some local Portland trackers who I have known for many years.

Once I was committed, however, I started to have doubts. I doubted I could score very well because I had been teaching beginners and not stretching myself to learn more for quite a while. I also had sort of specialized in bears, ignoring other signs in the field. Finally my arthritic knees and ankles have made me slow down a bit.

I was worried, but I thought that the opportunity to be out in the field with some of the best trackers in the world would be worth it. I just hoped I wouldn’t get too embarrassed.
This worry sparked me to study hard in the weeks leading up to the event. I spent time with the field guides; Practical Tracking, Elbroch, Liebenberg, Louw, Mammal Tracks and Sign, Elbroch, Bird Tracks and Sign, Elbroch and James Halfpenny’s guide to Mammal Tracks.  What I realized, though, was that books do not a tracker make. No, it takes being out and seeing the stuff in person. Personal experience with tracks cannot be obtained by short cuts either.

So, that considered, I started a period of intense fieldwork with my good tracking friend Terry Kem. Terry and I studied squirrels, opossum, deer, elk, bear, raccoons, rabbits, frogs and we saw a lot of those “What the hell is that?” signs out there. Terry was able to set me straight on one of my big challenges, which oddly enough, turned out to be raccoon tracks. As long as the raccoon is using the usual walking gait, which leaves two tracks side by side I was fine, but should a raccoon lay down an odd print by itself or in another pattern I thought it was any other animal, stretching my imagination to the impossible. We had some very laughable moments, needless to say.

I solved most of my hiking problems when I bought a new expensive and waterproof pair of boots that supported my ankles. I still had a little trouble crawling over a large log jam, but for the most part I was able to easily keep up.

The tracking problems I wasn’t able to study for were the tricks your mind plays on you when you get nervous. The first day of the evaluation I thought I was relaxed.  It was good to see my friends again and I was very happy to see David Moskowitz among the instructors. The first question showed me what an ignoramus anyone who thinks they can track can be. There was a pointer (popsicle stick) pointing to a Douglas fir cone on the ground that had been eaten by a Douglas squirrel. I knew the squirrel as Terry and I had tracked one in that very area a few weeks before. I knew the feeding sign, as it is one that happens in my yard all the time. What I didn’t know was what the stick was pointing to. I thought that the two depressions in the duff right there were tracks and that was the question. They were side by side so I said “raccoon”.  Fortunately, I got the next two questions right .  . one was a mole hill and the other was horse biscuits and anyone could have gotten them.

Let me stop my personal saga for a moment and explain the evaluation process.  It is really, really cool because when you go through it you will never forget any one of the little details of a question you missed or got right. The evaluators go out in an area and mark about five or six signs with circles and pointers and give each one a number. The trackers go to each one, look over the sign, and make a determination, which they write down in their notebook.  When they are ready, they walk over to the person who is the recorder (we had some great ones, thanks Ian and Tim) and give your answer. This is done silently if possible and the recorders keep a straight face, no matter what. When all the trackers have gone through the group of questions, the instructors gather them together and one at a time discuss the sign and give the answers.  The scoring system is explained in detail on the website, so I will let you read that for yourself.

It took me most of the first morning to get into what I call my tracking rhythm.  That happens when I have a clear mind and am able to not only take in the sign I am looking at but keep in mind the big picture of what is happening and has happened recently around me. All other clues such as smell, wind direction, heating a cooling of the air and the other observable facts that seem like they are your sub-conscious speaking to you.  For instance, the second day we visited an area where an elk had recently been killed. The question was who made this white mark on the ground. The obvious answer was that it was bird droppings but they wanted to know what bird. This was a question you could easily over think and no matter how much you studied the white circular mark on the ground there was nothing in it to tell you what bird left it. Fortunately for me, I was in my tracking rhythm at that point and answered raven, which was correct. The predominant bird in the habitat right then were ravens, who were everywhere watching us with beady suspicious eyes from every nearby tree. They were afraid we were going to steal their stinky old dead elk. I was able to answer that question with confidence because I had stopped letting the situation speak to me and started letting the habitat talk in my inner ear. What an incredible lesson that was for me.

It didn’t, however, make it so I could answer all the rest of the questions correctly, although I did do very well on the second day. There was some sign I have never seen before and I am sure I have walked right over it for years. The real beauty of this whole evaluation was being around the instructors who have so much experience with different animals from around the world that they know just what it is they are looking at. Of course, I didn’t miss any of the bear questions, but the cougar sign was new to me. I am so thankful to be able to say that I can now spot cougar scentmarking spots and even tell if it was male or female. The evaluation team found sign and scat of a very large male cougar that they were able to ask us about and then explain in detail. Mark Elbroch has been on cougar study projects of tagging, tracking, filming and handling wild cats and has a wealth of information you can’t find in books . . well, maybe it is in his new book.

The result of this whole experience is that I did better than I expected, earning a Track and Sign II patch, and that I am more excited about tracking than ever before. I also got a copy of Mark Elbroch’s new book “Behavior of North American Mammals” by Elbroch and Rinehart.  This new book is sort of the missing link in all your field guides. For instance, I remember last winter finding badger tracks in a Baja desert and wondering if I remembered anything about what the animals looks like and what it does. This new book has pictures and answered all those behavior questions that tracking field guides don’t.
It is also a collection of all the latest information from many different studies on the mammals and will be a landmark book in our understanding of our animal brothers and sisters. 

I can’t wait to take another evaluation from Wildlife Tracking in North America and, someday, I would love to visit Africa where Louis Liebenberg started the whole thing.

2011 Summer Tracking Season

 This year's tracking classes included some new skills. This year I had several trackers who wanted to take the basics a little farther. It is very difficult to translate the training exercise of step by step tracking into practical tracking if you don't know what the additional skills that you need feel like. This year we tried a form of beginning sign cutting. I used my bicycle to move down the trail and students were told to sign cut around my bike when they found it laying in the trail.  I left what I consider intermediate tracks off to an area where I hid. I gave them thirty minutes to figure it out and then let the helium balloon I was carrying drift upwards. They were able to see where I was and then connect the tracks they found to me.  This exercise served several purposes. One it is an intial shock to realize that the graduation from step by step exercises to being able to seperate out and see sign in a different context is a long difficult learning curve. To their credit, the students were able to learn quickly in this way and we were able to keep each part of the exercise shorter so that we could do it mulitple times. I learned it was possible to do a meaningful exercise with only one instructor if you use props.  A great time for all of us.

Here are some Photos from Summer 2011

"Oh Lord please give us this day our daily trash can." Michael Stevens

Skunk - Hind

This sign was posted on a remote tree plantation this spring. All around it were bear tracks and the post was covered in bear fur.
The sign had claw marks in it. The lower picture is of one of the trees inside the fence. It is a proven fact that bears can't read but
they can climb fences . . or maybe they can read and the sign gave them ideas because this is the first time I have seen
damage to that extent in this area.

Skunk - front

Black Bear track in forest duff.

Here is the skunk that left the tracks.  This summer I got a remote trail camera to put in our backyard by the creek where mulitple animals visit for water.
So far this year I have photos of coyote, racoon, skunk, opposum, cats, dogs, deer, gray squirrel, crow and jays. It is instructive to go tracking in
the backyard and then download the pictures for confirmation.  I will be taking the camera to Baja this year.

Last day of 2010 Tracking Update

Mike and I left for Baja in early October, 2010.  My tracking objectives for the winter in the southern deserts was to get pictures of scorpion tracks and, if possible, I really wanted to find tarantutla tracks.  I am happy to report I was able to get both! 

These scorpion tracks are lightly etched in the sand but this particular substrate registers everything as you can tell from some of the other tracks.

These scorpion tracks show some of the behavior of these interesting little scaveners. Scorpions like to hide in rocks during the day and travel at night to find cockroaches and other bugs to prey on.  I have watched them at night with my ultra-violet flashlight and found that they are actually shy. When they hear human voices they hide, at least most of them do.  If they get cornered or threatened they assume an aggressive posture.

We found this scorpion in a house we were housesitting for.  It was one of the largest I have seen so far and here it is in an aggressive posture after one of my friends prodded it with a stick. There seemed to be no other scorpions in the house and I believe this larger one was acting territorial and also keeping the population of other bugs under control, as when we searched the house this was the only bug we could find. The house has a palapa roof, so it is relatively easy for bugs to live in it. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on you point of view, this one ended up in a vacuum cleaner when the women came to clean for the owner's arrival.  Fortunately we found another one this size on the grounds, so the scorpion population is not threatened there.

I though I would never get to see these tracks as it is very hard to find a tarantula here in winter.  Mike and I were walking to some friends house for dinner at sunset when we saw one which was about four to five inches in diameter crossing the road. The tarantula walked slowly in front of us, changed directions and came to investigate us.  It was almost dark so no pictures were possible. The next morning I got up before sunrise and hiked back to the spot with my camera. Here is one of the photos of the sun just hitting the tracks.  Tarantulas have eight legs and here it shows the gait of a walking one with a four inch spread to the trail and each track group showing four "footprints".  I now recognize this pattern and have seen tarantula tracks on the beach here.

AUGUST, 2010

Tracking this summer has been very good, but it has also been a very busy summer. I started the season with a Joel Hardin man tracking class in assocation with the Washington State SAR conference which was held here in Stevenson.  Some time before the class I had been told by my eye doctor that my contact lens perscription needed to be updated, but somehow I forgot about that until I started tracking this spring and realized I wasn't seeing things the same as always. I ordered new lenses and they came the day after I finished my class. It was very frustrating to take a class and know you are not seeing well. The very next time I went tracking with the new eyes I was amazed at how much easier it was. My classes started with a two day class on personal safety. We had a very productive quiet sit and a fun class with some friends from Idaho.  Shortly after I found some cougar tracks in the mud in one of the areas we covered.  

As you can see the substrate was deep and the tracks are a few days old because of all the debris in them.  I was able to bracket the time they were made by the fact that I had been there  four days before and the rain happened the day after that. So these tracks were made two or three days before I found them.  They were still there 14 days later, although they were getting dried out.  The last class was fortunate enough to see quite a few bear tracks and in the process of following on we came upon a coyote who was jumping around in a meadow eating grasshoppers. Here is his startled look at us when he finally noticed we were there.

He/she was a beautiful animal, blending in well with the surroundings.  Of course, tracking season is far from over . . several classes are still to come as well as weather for some solo tracking.

APRIL 7, 2010

Snow tracking - after all those months in the desert it was very strange to be snow tracking again.  I didn't use snow shoes as the road I was on had just been opened for the season and it looked like there had been a truck drive through. I just walked in the melted tire tracks and looked for crossing tracks.

I found some delicate Bobcat tracks which were double register and neatly placed by a relatively small cat.  The tracks with their characteristic uneven four toes were only 1 3/8 inches round even though the snow was melting out fast.  The tracks were too fresh to be expanded much. (and the light was too flat to take a good picture)  As I followed these truck tracks I wondered what the person or persons were up to as they took a side road that I knew was a dead end in a few miles.  I followed and finally some fairly large boot tracks showed where a person got out. The tracks were at a sign that said "End of Woodcutting Area".  I assumed (never do this while tracking) that he or she stopped there to answer the call of a full bladder so I didn't look too closely.  As I made my way up the hill I found tracks of lots of elk.  Some of the elk tracks were on top of the slush in the truck tracks, so I knew the truck was probably not there anymore since it looked like the elk had moved in the morning before the snow started to melt more with the day's heating.  Soon I came to another spot where someone had gotten out of the truck and I noticed that the tracks went right up to a tree with another orange sign on it.  YES . . the person was the one who put up the sign!  As I walked the rest of the truck tracks I found all the rest of the signs and the last one, where the truck turned around.  A mystery solved. I relaxed knowing  then that the truck was gone and what the person had been doing.  On my way back down to my car, I took a picture of a fresher elk track, one that had passed over the road while I was further up.  

ELK and my mitten.  
At a steep switchback I heard another vehicle coming up the tracks.  I decided not to be seen and took a short walk into the woods where I could still see. A little pickup truck
was in the melted out tracks heading towards the turn off on the side road where I was. Whoever it was must have decided the side road looked a little dicey as they turned around and made their way back out before they got to where I was watching. I knew that all the animals in the woods probably slide out of sight at the noise just like I did.  Since there was little chance I would get a glimpse of the elk who had just passed by, I stopped being quiet and headed back to my car.  A good day all in all.

March 22, 2010

This fuzzy track picture is a "photo shopped" version of a track I kept finding in the southern Baja region I stayed in this winter.  I tried to increase the contrast and shadows so I could see the track clearer.  The substrate, as you can see, was larger grains of soft sand, which frustratingly do not hold track details very well.  No claws registered, but poking the sand with a sharp point illustrated that claws might not show because of the nature of the sand.  I thought the track looked like a little bear track and the measurements I could get on it were fuzzy too. It was about 1 5/8" wide and 2 1/2" long.  I looked for a second track to find out more about the stride and gait but this one track was nestled in between the craters of range cow tracks and no trail was to be found.  What a mystery!  Finally, on another day I found some more nebulous examples of the track but was able to trail them for long enough to find this:

This den, which measures around 10" in diameter and had a back door which was hidden in the brush, along with many similar dig spots in the area was the clue I needed to identify the track as that of a badger.  I didn't even know badgers exisited in the southern Baja area but the field guides assured me I was not mistaken.  Another mystery solved.  

December 8, 2009

In Baja the tracking is almost too easy.  The sand if mixed with clay and shows even the tracks of insects. Scorpion tracks are hard to find because the little buggers really know how to hide and so far the ones I have been watching usually have a home spot where they stay out of sight until dark. This scorpion I have taken a picture of with a blacklight flashlight lives not far from this spot on the rock.  It goes into a crack that is narrow enough that you might be able to just slip a business card into.  It is less threatening to live around scorpions when you understand their habits.

Here is a photo of crab tracks.  If you look carefully you will see the two crossing tracks look different. When I first saw there tracks years ago I thought they were mountain bike tracks.  These tracks were still confusing to me though as they looked so different.  Then I stayed out late to watch the crabs come out and guess what. There are two different kinds of crabs in this area.  The area was on the west coast of the Baja peninsula in a spot where coyote packs sang all night and the insects where thick.  Because the insects were thick, the birds were thick and the morning song fest was almost deafening. There were beetles, stink bugs, cockroaches, scorpions, ants of many varieties including the tarantula ant, wasps,  bees, spiders, and many moths and butterflies of all colors.  Huge moths came by but we couldn't catch up to them to get an ID.  Birds were everywhere in the sand dune brush and were mostly heard but not seen.  Then there were all the ocean birds and beach birds as well.  It would take a month to see what all lived there.  We were there three days and I think we drove out without any hitchhikers but who knows.  

September 25, 2009

Just in time for Halloween what should I find on the trail?  Mummy Mouse!

Actually it is really the remains of a vole or small mole but it is an interesting body left in the middle of the road.  I could'nt figure out what killed the vole, but it looked like a bird, perhaps an owl had done the deed and left the body in the hot sun. If you look carefully you can see the organs inside and the pushed back backbone.  
After taking photos I collected the body and it now rests in a plastic box in my art room.  I may give it to someone for a present . . . hummm maybe you would like it?

Notice one of the front paws is chewed off and laying near the bottom of the photo . . the head was missing and the tail is chewed as well.

August 24, 2009

It has been a busy summer so far this year and today was the last of the summer series of tracking classes. We have some great experiences in class. Today we played a sign cutting game I call "you will know it when you see it," a great quote from one of my tracking friends Bob Brady.  The game went well until it got too hot and dry and the light changed on us to bright sun and deep shadows when everyone's eyes were good and tired.  The fall class sessions will be four classes mainly in the classroom and concentrating on animal track identification and animal behavior.  I look forward to September when the woods become quiet again.  Even though it is black bear hunting season right now I have only seen two hunters and there are great tracking days to be had between now and the start of rifle hunting season in early October.  I should have some more great track photos to put here, along with their stories, soon.

July 8, 2009

I saw a redhaired black bear today in the area where I have been tracking bears all summer.  I noticed last week that this bear has taken to sitting on top of the fence posts that I show in an earlier post.  He has been shredding the tops with his claws as he balances there and then there is a huge divot whre he lands when he jumps off.  Today he crossed the road in front of my car as I was leaving the area and I stopped to see his tracks.  He did leave tracks in the middle of the road and I was taking a picture of them when I looked up to see that he had come back out of the brush and was balanced on his back legs with his front  paws relaxed looking right at me.  His eyes got huge as I looked back at him and started laughing because he looked like SUCH a red haired character! He spun on his back paws and ran down the road.  What a special experience. Here is a photo of his track with a daisy for size.  This track was made in the middle of a gravel road within 30 seconds of when I took the photo for those of you who are interested in ageing.  The bear was in a full gallop when I saw him make this track.

June 24, 2009
These black bear tracks look so perfect . . that's because they are underwater. The bear entered a puddle and walked in a circle in the water and then exited leaving drips of water off his paws on the rocks at the edge of the puddle. I knew these tracks had been made within the last two hours when I saw them because I had examined the puddle on my way out this road. When I returned on my bike, I glanced at the puddle not expecting anything new there but almost fell off the bike when I saw this.  I had already collected some black bear fur off a scratching post I found and seen some scat filled with ants and some kind of protein but these tracks were so perfect . . you almost never find this.
The little puddle is a persistent one that lasts long after others have dried up and is occupied by water bugs and rough skinned newts, which I have observed mating in this puddle before. I suspect the bear was after a newt . . and since there was only one left when I took photos of the tracks perhaps the others will be in today's scat.

If you look closely at this fence post you can see black bear hair snagged in the barbed wire.  There was so much of it that I was able to collect a fair amount and still leave some there. Some of the claw marks were old and some were very fresh.  Shortly before I took this photo I was in this field and woke up an elk who stomped around for a few minutes until she spotted me.  I sat down on the spot and waited until she went back to her bed before I continued on. All in all it was a great tracking day.

JUNE 3, 2009

Spring snowshoeing in the Gifford Pinchot National forest.
The snow was melting so fast that my snowshoe tracks were melting out behind me so when I found this trail of good sized black bear tracks I knew they were fresh.  I followed the trail for 50 yards or so to determine if there were little cubs somewhere, but if there were, they were well hidden in some thick small firs that I didn't want to push through with the tracks in front of me being so fresh. Instead, I retreated to the snow covered road, found a spot where I could see around me and set up a "human day bed" to wait and see if the bear would show itself.  After a very quiet forty minute wait I concluded that the bear was much better than me at moving quietly through slushy snow and had moved on.   

April 21, 2009
The Gifford Pinchot Task Force volunteer tracking program got off to a great start with 15 people showing up for the first field tracking class. To see more about thsi program go to the Gifford Pinchot Task Force website.  
The bears are venturing out already and so far I have found them to be eating bugs in rotten stumps and the first skunk cabbage plants. There is still snow in most of the woods, but they seem to be coming down low at night for that tasty green up.  The current good weather will probably cause the ant hills to be active soon and I will be there to check for tracks.  Happy Spring!

Bobcat track found on April 17, 2009 in the Trout Hill area of the Gifford Pinchot

March 17, 2009

It is time for spring tracking again here in the Gorge.  Here is the story of one of my first ventures in the snow this year.
Coyote Story

When we got out of the car there were tracks in the fresh snow of someone who had just left.  The person, who I guessed was female, walked two dogs off leash, one of which had three legs.  The dogs romped and played in the snow while the walker took them under a fence and around the meadow, then back to the car.  We put on snowshoes and planned to walk outside the circle of human and domestic dog tracks and see if any wild animals were about.

Down the snow packed, closed road a ways there were a line of tracks skirting the brush. I looked into the 5” deep holes and saw canine tracks at the bottom of each one.  Looking closely I noticed that I was seeing a hind track on top of a front paw track. . a classic double register walk.  The animal stopped at one point and looked towards the area we had parked. How do I know?  In one spot in the line of tracks the left front paw was misplaced and cocked out to the left, supporting the head of the animal as it swing the head out away from the line of travel.  The tracks looked fresh and in new snow that means that they were probably less than an hour old and might have been made around the same time as the dog walker’s tracks.  Ultimately, they led into deep brush in the swamp and I didn’t want to go there so we backtracked the animal instead.  At one point in the line of tracks my guess that these were tracks of a coyote were reinforced when I saw a spot where the animal had jumped straight up in the air and landed facing the way it had come and left a nose print in the snow right in front of it’s just previous tracks. Then the animal jumped back and landed in a line with where it had been going in the first place and the gait changed from a comfortable double register walk to a very slow, deliberate stalking gait.  From here we tracked forward to a spot where the animal had deviated from its path to investigate something.  We came across bones first.  They were part of an elk carcass and the tracks showed the animal had been worrying the bones for a little while.  Tracking forward about twenty more feet we found the spot where the animal had dug up the bones from deep in the snow.  Down in the hole were more bones, still uncovered.  The coyote had left the bones and headed straight to the swamp.  Looking a little further we saw where the three-legged dog had run off from the walker and examined a few scattered bones on top of the snow close by.  The three-legged dog didn’t touch them but bounded back to its walker very quickly.  We weren’t there to see this sequence, but it is possible that the walker didn’t see the coyote but that the three-legged dog did. 

Every snowy, un-tracked up road has a hundred stories like this. . . there just isn’t time to read them all, but I can try.

October 17, 2008

"Brown bear pause"

As hunting season approached and berries were frozen and dried up, animal tracking became harder. Human tracking on the other hand became necessary.  My lastest adventures include a log truck coming downhill around a blind corner so fast I had to drive on the shoulder to miss his swinging trailer, elk and deer traveling alone and in deep cover, or coming into "town" to graze peacefully in neighborhoods. The bears here are loading up on calories by finding every wild fruit tree or orchard they can.  They will turn to "squirrel food" soon and spend time carbo loading on nuts and seeds. Bear tracking has been good when I went to the spot where the food was.  I have a new powerpoint course on bear tracking which will be presented next Friday night, the 24th of October at the Portland Audubon.  
 I had an interesting human tracking adventure which I included in my Red Room blog.  
You can read it at: REDROOM
Do an author search for Linda Jo Hunter and click on my blog.

September 9, 2008

In July I went back to Redoubt Bay Lodge with Amy Shapira to spend 10 days with the bears in Wolverine Cove. It was an incredible experience to be there and not be working so I could take in the habitat more fully, however, the bears and fish were so plentiful at the cove this year (probably because it was cold and rainy) that we didn't get out to any of the other habitat. Instead, we stayed in one spot, anchored in a "flatboat" and let the bears get used to our predictable behavior. It took them about two hours. As you can see from the photo above they fished and played close to us. This is a photo of the bear we call Baylee as she takes a big bite of air to get more scent of us.  Notice that her pupils are focused away from me.
For more of the story of my trip to Alaska go back to the first page and pick UPDATES.

July 15, 2008
Tracking by mountain bike can overload your senses by seeing so much so quickly. It's a good thing to go by yourself when you do this so you can concentrate.  I found some elk herds yesterday and was pleased to find three bulls laying down in the still flooded meadow. When they finally stood up, after an hour or so, they seemed to wonder how I got there and what I was. It was fun to practice my stalking skills.  Fortunately for me, I was able to slip away without making them run, which is one of my stalking goals.  These elk looked in good shape and were getting enough of what they needed in this lush meadow.  It was 85 degrees in the shade and I was surprised they spent mid-day in the sun.  There could be all kinds of reasons for that, but in this particular spot I haven't seen elk here in mid-day for years. I usually find them early in the morning or late afternoon.  I thought they would be in the background woods during the day.
I had to leave before I could explore the woods for tracks because, once again, tracking made me later for dinner.  


June 9, 2008

As I teach in my animal tracking classes, in order to track a particular animal you need to be so familar with the shape of the track that you can recognize parts of it at a glance.  Bear tracks are my favortie, so even on my mountain bike going about 10 miles an hour certain shapes call to me.  I found these bear tracks yesterday on a dirt road that was packed clay and not showing much in the way of clear tracks.  It was a sunny day after several days of hard rain, so when I saw a cresent shape of just slightly darker dirt out of the corner of my eye as I rode past it called to me.  I rode about 50 feet further while the image was making itself a nagging pull in my mind. It was near the end of the ride and I was already late for a dinner date,  but that shape would not let me go on without investigating.  I stopped, got off my bike and walked back.  Bear tracks!!  And, very fresh ones at that.  With my bike now laying down I grabbed my camera and tracked the indistinct marks until I found a set that were clear enough to photograph.  What a great find.

As you can see from the first photo, a bear track has a sort of cresent shape to it.  This shape is what made me stop. The lower photo has two perfect tracks . . on top is the back paw which landed just ahead of the front paw below it.
This is a typical walking pattern for a bear. The bear's paws were wet and these tracks were made from the dampness of the paws being placed on the hard clay.  No drying was detected so the bear was probably watching me as I photographed the tracks. Even though in the photos the tracks look like grizzly tracks, if you look closely enough the little toe is well below the straight line across the inter-digital pad.  The claw marks showing are also close to the digits. 

May 6, 2008
The spring season is very interesting this year.  The back country here has plenty of snow left over and not many roads and trails are open. As a result, both humans and animals are limited to lower elevations. This last weekend I taught one of my Woods Wisdom classes offered by Skamania County Facilities and Recreation Department.  I had a great group of students and we had some interesting finds.  The Saturday tracking part of the class were blessed with bear sign.  We found large ant hills which were recently torn up by a black bear with the milling ants just starting to repair the damage. Close by, in a muddy elk trail, we spotted clear bear tracks to confirm the ones we saw at the ant hills in grass. Yesterday, I went back by myself to the area to see if I could trail the bear.  I am currently nursing a sprained ankle so I couldn't follow exactly the path, but the bear did lead me to some more clear tracks a distance away. It was interesting to me that the bear seems to be sticking pretty close to the main part of the elk herd, at least these last couple of days.  Here are two tracks I found, some distance from each other but still in the main trail of the elk.

The track to the left is just about 4" wide, allowing for the depth of the mud and only measuring the minimum outline in the pad.  The white object
is one of my cards to give a perspective of size in the picture. This appears to be a right front paw as the small digit is inside, barely visible
in the vegetation. The track is a classic black bear shape with the little toe falling mostly below the line of the top of the interdigital pad.

The track to the right was in wetter mud and the paw seems to have been actually squeezed by the mud as the print came down at an angle.  The white line is my tape measure on which you can barely make out the four inch mark.  Although this track was a few hundred yards from the one above, the line of more indistinct tracks indicated it was the same bear.  If you look closely you can see the fine lines in the pad of the paw.

I did smell the bear a little further up the trail, but since it was a sunny warm day and getting warmer by the minute, I figured this bear was heading for a dark cool place.  I left the bear and the bedded down elk herd in peace.

March 27, 2008

Another way to track animals is to let them find you.  This squirrel was going about the business of making a living today by searching around an oak tree for last fall's acorns. I had come there earlier and found a comfortable place to sit.  At first when I sit to wait I have the "figets" - I look around, move around, get into my pack, scratch a foot etc. till finally I can sit quietly and only breathe.  Then I get into a state where moving at all is a chore.  As soon as I get to that state, animals show up. This squirrel worked its way down the hill in the tall grass making as much noise as an elephant as it moved twigs and rocks in a search for left over food.  This photo shows the result of the shutter noise of my camera as the squirrel looks up and gives me a direct stare. 

March 16, 2008

Racoons are incredible little animals . . they are sort of like little bears. This racoon is standing up to look at me as I take it's picture.  Just like a bear they stand up to smell and see better.  This one was eating cat food on a neighbor's porch when I caught up to it.  All three of it's friends took off when they saw me and this one just couldn't believe I was going to walk over to them and take pictures.  
Later, I tracked them to one of their temporary homes in a drainage pipe. They look cozy in there while they wait for spring to heat up so they can go back to sleeping in trees.

February 17, 2008

Winter has left an abundance of snow at even relatively low elevations this year.  As a result the ungulate population has had to thread their way down closer to civilization and the Columbia River to find anything to eat.  The predators who depend on these animals have to follow. Where the snow is still three or four feet deep, in their usual winter range, I am only finding the tracks of smaller animals like racoons, porcupines, possums and coyotes. 

This tree has been chewed pretty well.  At the base of the tree the only fresh tracks were of a coyote who I had been following as it stalked between the trees in a scanning pattern. The clear teeth marks and the height off the ground indicated porcupine. The bark was still softly peeling off and falling on the snow, incidating very fresh activity. On closer examination of the area, I believe the quill pig who ate this cambian layer traveled to this tree via the overlapping branches of another tree and never really had to come down to the snow.
 I will go back and check this site later for more clues.

December 28, 2007

Snow tracking is fun, but challenging.  Snow conditions change so fast that a tracker can easily be fooled, or the tracks register so clear and the story be so obvious it gives you a false sense of being able to see sign.  In the photo above there are deer tracks in several directions.  This photo, above,  was taken in crisp, cold snow with quite a bit of wind filling the tracks quickly.

The tracks to the left look interesting.   They are about 3" wide and have a "stride" of about 14".  However,  if the photo showed you what was right above the tracks. . an overhead phone line, you might conclude (correctly) that it is the pock marks made by the wet snow falling off the phone line.  Wet pock marks are a common thing in wet, heavy snow like we get here and one of the reasons why a tracker should always ask themselves for three reasons why a track is of a certain animal before making a decision.  

Racoons travel in groups in the winter, at least around here.  The teenagers seem to stay with the family through the cold months in this area because they all sleep together for more warmth.  There is food available to them 24/7 in our neighborhood, so they roam both night and day.

October 4, 2007

Fall colors have started to show in one of my tracking spots.  The tree on the right has repeated scratches in it of different ages. Considering the view, the habitat and the width of the scratches I thought there might be a cougar who leaves a scratch mark here periodically. There was a multi-use animal trail that was very well used, but recently rained on. It was about 12 inches wide and cut deep into the surface, showing that it has been used extensively for a while. The trail passed close to this tree and disappered into the high scree. There were a couple of pika's living in the rock and they were very vocal about my presence for a while. It is a climb to get to this spot, but I will check the trail again when tracks might be registered there.  There were tracks of elk on the trail, but noting else was clear enough to get an ID. The gaits going up a steep hill are not very easy to decipher.

The nearest mud puddle had coyote tracks in it. (I put the pen in for size reference.) They were 2 inches wide and 2 and 3/4 inches long, measured using Dr. Halfpenny's method of determining minimum outline.  This example to the left doesn't show claw marks and at first glance one would think of a bobcat.  The two middle digits are even and pulled together though.  The tracks were very fresh. The clear one, on the left is probably a hind paw coveing the front paw print which is slightly to the right. The other tracks were in wetter mud and quite messy, all showing claws in front of the two middle digits.

I suspect this second track is a double register of the hind foot landing right on the front track as the outline was messy, but the inner track was crisp. This track tells more about the animal than the clearer one. Even in this soft mud the digits are tight, a sure sign of a muscular wild canine paw on an animal that works for a living.

August 18, 2007
While laying tracks for my class on Saturday I found this Argiope suspended in the long dry grass. Every step I made flushed fifty grasshoppers, but I was surprised to see this spider about knee height and about the size, including legs, of a my flip cell phone. The yellow "eyes" on the top were facinating so I grabbed my camera and took this photo, in the process messing up my beginning line of sign.  I had never seen this spider before so I went back to my car and pulled out my insect field guide. Nothing like it was in there. When the class joined me to look at tracks, we found a second Argiope suspended a little lower in the grass, but the same size. It wasn't until later, when I had had time to do an internet search that I found the name of this impressive animal, and just a little bit about it.  The picture I found showed one eating a grasshopper. Humm. . do these spiders follow grasshoppers? Which came first the grasshopper or the spider? The area we were in is one I visit frequently and so far I had not observed grasshoppers there. . or spiders.  How do they know where to find each other? According to the University of Michigan it is a female pictured here and the squiggly white part of her web you see is called a stabilimenta and scientists speculate it is either for web stabilization or to attract prey.  Email me if you know more about them than I do and I will add your information here.  Keep tracking as you never know what you might find next!!

August 12, 2007

The pictured track was found on a steep bank of a dirt road.  It is easy to see where animals have gone up and down these cuts, but often you cannot tell the animal because the tracks are indistinct, there are too many of them, or the animal slid, obscuring the details. When you don't have track details you can often get a idea of the animal by the gait if you can spot several groups of tracks. This track shows clear details of a 4 inch wide, 4.5 inch long front paw of a black bear. The rest of the tracks were messy slurs, but this one was worth a photograph.  Today, while exploring this huckleberry rich area, I found a bit larger track with clear marks of the claws registering in the dust. This area, which I have been visiting lately has yielded bear tracks every time I have gone there.

July 24,2007

5:45 PM
A sunny, cool and windy evening.  I found bear tracks on a spur road off the 43 road in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. There were 34 clear tracks on the road, probably made in the early morning when the road was wet with dew. They were fresh looking except for the light crust the sun had made when they dried. In this photo you can see my blue measuring tape, but not read the numbers. The track's minimum outline, taking into consideration the spread of the dirt with the bear's weight, was
3.5 inches wide and 4 inches long. The bear's gait showed the back foot registering in front of the front paw.The length of each "group" of tracks was between 28 and 30 inches. While I was examining the tracks I was serenaded by a young great horned owl trying out his hooting abilities. I later consulted with Susan James, my owl expert, to get this interpretation.

The bear appeared to use the road for a short distance, then he ambled up into the trees, where their was a wonderful hollow created by the fall of a huge cedar tree's roots. It looked like he spent some time there before moving on.   So did I.

May 18, 2007

This drawing was made  on May 18, 2007 on the day I saw my first bear this year.  I saw the bear along side the road as I was driving to kayak a spring lake which only appears with snow melt. As soon as I saw the bear in the brush at the side of the road I pulled off and parked. When I got out of the car there was a puddle I hadn't driven through that was muddy and churned up. Close examination yielded these clear tracks, which I then drew. As I was drawing in my journal I heard the bear moving up the hill on the other side of the road, so I decided to track him.  First I looked carefully at the rest of the tracks around the puddle and discovered, as the puddle cleared, I could see my reflection in it. There were no tracks in the puddle but there was evidence that this bear had batted at his own reflection, stirring up the mud. From there he wandered towards the road leaving muddy tracks on the asphalt which had dried to a fine dusty pattern. After he had crossed to the east side of the road, he traveled south in the ditch leaving some mud on the vegetation and some pressed down clover in the shape of his paws. He was in the ditch when he saw my car and did a very long leap landing on all four paws just inside the thick brush. Then he sat, where he thought he was out of sight, and waited for my car to pass as most cars do. When I stopped my car and looked him in the eyes. he spun and moved up the hill. 

The weather was partly cloudy with a good wind which had suddenly come up, probably the sound of the wind had obscured the noise of my car approaching. Before I left the area I backtracked the bear for a short ways from the mud puddle into the lava beds which are on the west side of this road. I was down a slope out of sight and my car was parked behind a hummock when I heard another vehicle coming up the road. I wondered if they would see the tracks on the road. I watched unseen as they cruised on by; two people looking ahead. They seemed not to notice anything unusual. As I listened to the sound of the car fading in the distance I realized that the bear had been so surprised because he expected me to do the same thing.

Since I had spent an hour putting together this story from the tracks the bear left, I decided to leave him in peace and continue my trip.

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