“This intensive, highly educational process is globally recognized as an unparalleled tool for learning about local wildlife and landscapes while preserving and advancing tracking skill.”
Seeing through new eyes
Every time I go out into nature, I see something new, something that amazes me and something I want to learn more about. I’ve spent my adulthood learning from books and track and sign internet groups. When I learned about tracker certifications last year, I thought it was time for hands-on learning. All of the certification courses for 2023 were full. I got on waiting lists for three evaluations within a 4-6 drive. In December, Sara Lamar with Swan Valley Connections reached out about a spring class. Due to a conflict, I couldn’t attend the weeklong course, but she assured me that the two-day certification would be educational. “It’s more like a workshop.” I didn’t care about a certificate; I just wanted to learn. I signed up the next day.What is Cybertracker?
CyberTracker Conservation was developed in the early 1990s to celebrate and employ indigenous ecological knowledge of southern African trackers for wildlife research and conservation. Many of these trackers, unable to read and write, were exceptionally ecologically literate, able to interpret complex wildlife activity across vast landscapes with remarkable accuracy. To advance this skillset in modern research, an icon-based handheld-computer software called “CyberTracker” was developed for trackers to catalog their field observations.
At that time, tracking knowledge was in steep decline and threatened to mostly disappear from the region altogether. The Tracking Evaluation aimed to identify the remaining few who possessed superior tracking ability, help rebuild a body of tracking knowledge, inspire younger generations, and provide an avenue for cultural preservation and economic opportunity by reviving tracking as a modern profession. The engaging and rigorous process would go on to become a worldwide standardized assessment of tracking skill and observer reliability and a tool that rapidly develops skilled trackers around the globe. (Adapted from cybertracker.org).Swan Valley, Montana
Thursday, March 23rd, I drove four hours to Condon, Montana. Safely passing through the deer gauntlet that is State Hwy 83, I arrived at The Barn just before dark. The welcoming committee greeted me in the muddy parking lot.I shared a dorm room with two other women in a converted barn. There was a bathhouse and a separate kitchen cabin on the property. This old Beck homestead is nestled along the braided swan river in western Montana, about an hour north of Missoula. The Evaluation
At 8 am Friday, nine students/candidates, our evaluator, Michelle Peziol, and three facilitators piled into two vehicles and headed out to the Piper Creek area. The evaluation will consist of 56 questions about track and/or sign. There’s a complex scoring system (maybe designed to keep us focused on the process and not worried if we’ll pass because it’s impossible to tell). In a nutshell, there are three categories of questions ranked by difficulty. A correct easy question earns one point, but three points are subtracted for an incorrect response. A moderate question can earn two or cost two points, and a hard question gains three or loses one point. There are also three bonus questions, seemingly determined at the end as the hardest of the bunch. For these, you can earn three points, but you can’t lose any points for a wrong or incomplete answer.
We strapped on our snowshoes and snaked up a steep incline for the first three questions. For anyone who’s spent time in these woods, these are easy. It’s easy to find the common, easy things, and it’s a confidence-builder and puts everyone more at ease.We wander the woods trailing the trackers who are spread out, looking for good evaluation material. When they find something, they confer, and we wait. Then they call for a clipboard holder (a previous student who returned to help administer the evaluation and learn more themselves) and a few students. Our evaluator, Michelle, shows us what she’s looking at and asks the question. What’s happening here? Who did this? etc. Once we’ve investigated, we write our answer in our notebook and discreetly show it to the clipboard holder, who records the response. After all the students have answered, we discuss what we’re seeing, what details point to the identification, and why it doesn’t fit some other answers. It’s a dialogue. We are welcome to make a case that there is another legitimate possibility. With most of my wandering located in the Midwest, grouse are not prominent in my mind. I recognized this as a crop full of seeds and wracked my mind for who was this size, with these kinds of feathers. I guessed quail, which I like to think isn’t that far off from a grouse. Track and sign is as much about reading the immediate environment as knowing what you’re looking at. I recognized the teeth marks as pine squirrel feeding sign, but it took some investigating to figure out these were galls. They are hard; they look and feel like wood, but they’re the shape and size of nuts, seeds, or cones. Then I saw the galls in the nearby pines. I learned that squirrels prefer the galls because the bark is thinner, and it’s easier for them to get to the nutrient-rich cambium layer. Strips of bark lay in tatters on the ground, and the exposed wood was scored with vertical groupings of parallel scrape marks caused by a black bear’s incisor teeth. In the spring, bears eat the cambium to get energy from its high sugar content. I did not know that bears ate cambium. Or that there are no porcupines in this valley. I lost points, but I learned a lot! We snowshoed through the woods down to Piper Creek. What’s a photographer to do while waiting for my turn to inspect the track and sign? Photograph lichens, of course!
Most animals have a preferred gait. Cats like to walk everywhere. Canines (coyotes, wolves, foxes) trot most of the time as it’s their most energy-efficient gate. Since this is a cat, the gait is a walk until proven otherwise. I couldn’t find any reason to think this was anything but a walk.
Under the bridge at Piper Creek, we looked at an American dipper’s nest. I’d never seen one before. It is reminiscent of swallow nests. Dippers fly and walk underwater, feeding on fish eggs, small fish, and insects. They are categorized as aquatic songbirds. These birds have white eye rings that allow them to communicate with one another above the noise of rushing water by blinking. How cool is that!?
Also under this bridge are beaver chewed sticks; some have the ends chewed at a characteristic 45-degree angle and show teeth marks, and others floating in the water have been peeled bare.
We regrouped to drive to a new location, where Murphy (his person not far behind) greeted us. Murphy was polite enough to take the time to greet each of us, paying particular attention to those grabbing a bite to eat. Nothing a golden retriever likes more than attention from people!
16) Domestic dog scat. This is differentiated from coyote and wolf by the uniformity of color and texture. As Michelle said, “It looks like Purina.”
Number 17 was an ungulate feeding sign (deer or elk, no moose here). The tips of a dogwood bush were coarsely snipped off. Since they don’t have upper incisors, only lower ones, they use those bottom teeth against their upper lip to tear branches, leaves, and browse.Number 18 was up on a stump where mustelids (martin, mink) like to mark. It looked like sawdust. I couldn’t come up with any reasonable guess. Porcupines eat wood, but they are rodents and poop pellets. This is definitely a vegetarian diet so that rules out carnivores. I can hardly even categorize this into a broad category, let alone the required species. Number 19 isn’t too far away and a bit larger. I thought the white coating was frost. I was stumped. These are both grouse scat. (Michelle said there’d be no trick questions!) . Grouse roost in snow caves or on stumps overnight and leave a latrine of feces behind. Nineteen is a melted-out snow cave! I will never misidentify a grouse sign again (feathers, scat, got it!).
22) Deer or elk rub on a small tree (similar to question #7). No picture available.
Bear claw marks tend to be on vertical surfaces (whereas felines like to scratch horizontally). The bear marks are also blunter. I love how the tiny claw digs into a broad mark, making it look like a footprint on the tree.Red squirrels are very territorial. It’s no wonder because they larder-hoard pine cones in caches that can be 15 to 18 feet wide and three feet deep. Each store can contain 10,000 pine cones. Also, they are well-known to steal from each other’s caches. Look at how you can see the individual tooth marks.
25) snowshoe hare scat (my snowy yard is covered in this!)
26) What feather? Grouse (finally getting to know this common bird!) tail feather. Tail feathers are symmetric and have a step-down on the shaft near the bird’s body, unlike flight feathers.
This next site tells a wonderful story. This is why I want to hone my track and sign skills. We often don’t get to witness wild lives, but being able to piece together how they spent some time is second best.27) With the matted grass, this is definitely a bed of some sort. There was short white hair and deer scat nearby, leading me to suspect a deer.
28) The size and character of this scat suggest a large carnivore. Wolves have twisted scat that tapers. Cats have hard, segmented feces. I have a hard time differentiating the two.
29) Not far from the bed and scat was this feeding site under the umbrella of a large pine tree.Now, let’s tie it all together. The white hairs on the bed are shorter than deer hair, making this a mountain lion bed. While lions have longer hairs on their bellies (for insulation from the cold ground) which could be confused with a deer, a deer’s hair shaft will kink or break when it’s bent (it’s hollow), and cat’s hair will bend without breaking. The bits of bone in the bed suggest kittens playing. Michelle called this a “cuddle puddle.”
Knowing this, the scat then is feline. We walked 20 yards uphill from the bed to a latrine at the base of another pine. Cats prefer to eliminate in one area, and since they stay with a kill for a few days or more, there is always a latrine near a lion kill site. Heading up the same hill, this time from the feeding site, we tracked deer hair and mountain lion sign looking for the take-down site.
A previous cache site was readily identifiable by another cluster of hair and the deer’s rumen (a big, grass-filled stomach chamber that carnivores carefully dissect out and leave behind). The base of a nearby tree and the surface of a fallen tree showed sign of lions scratching at the bark. We followed the trail up further, seeing blood spots in the snow before losing the trail in the forest.
Moving on to a New Location
32) Under a bridge, on an icy, slippery slope, was a branch cut at a 45-degree angle. I didn’t go down to investigate further. It was late in the day, and most of us didn’t look closely. It turns out there were no teeth marks. It’s a smooth cut, which means human. This was a lesson in looking and not assuming. Use all of the information available to you.
On the opposite side of this same bridge, we can see tracks crossing the river. Michelle went down in boots and sank. She recommended snowshoes, which I already had on. I was the last to go down, and most (maybe everyone?) others had gone down and come back up in boots, leaving post holes that grabbed my snowshoes. The first time I got stuck (not two steps from the road), I was able to pull myself free. The second time I got stuck, the force of my pulling to free my uphill foot plunged my downhill foot deep into the snow, where it was held like a vice grip. I somersaulted down. It was soft, deep snow and a good roll. My camera and I emerged unscathed.These tracks were hard to see. The snow is so bright. The tracks are small and have snow that’s fallen into them. The gait (lope) and location suggest mink. It’s the best guess. The slide is more typical of otters, who are related (also mustelids), but much bigger. Otter slides are usually about two palms (of your hand) wide, whereas mink slides tend to be one palm wide or narrower.
My waterfowl identification skills are not great. But I can recognize a mallard (aka “ordinary duck”). This carcass has the characteristic tailfeather curl, (faded) orange feet, yellow bill, and iridescent neck feathers. If you look closely, two punctures are evident on the neck. This duck appears to have been buried (or cached) in a pine squirrel midden. The punctures and caching behavior point to a bobcat or fox kill.
The last question of the day. It was easier to see the detail in these prints in person. The images are tough to capture with white on white.I saw gorgeous beaver prints along the Little Missouri River in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. There are so remarkable with their large webbed hindfeet and tiny little front feet (like hands!). I will never forget them. At 5 pm, we’re back at the barn; 20 more identifications to go tomorrow. I should’ve looked up who lives here before I came. There are no porcupines or fishers here (a mustelid, bigger than a mink, smaller than a wolverine). My porcupine feeding sign answer was out of left field! I think I’m on the brink of a passing score. When I started out, I wasn’t interested in the certification; I just wanted to learn. But now that I’m here, and it seems attainable, I want to pass.
If you’re interested in purchasing or licensing any images you see here, please email me: SNewenham at exploringnaturephotos.com, and I’ll make it happen.
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