Tracking in summer and fall

While Eric and I were outside in the back field picking our crop of blackberries last week, we couldnít help remarking on the evidence of bears. During our second picking of the delectable fruit, we could tell we were not the only ones enjoying the wild harvest.

Here and there, we could see that something large had walked through the berry bushes. Plants were bent and broken, and we could imagine how the large mammal had plucked off the berries with its lips and teeth.

Piles of scat, or droppings, was further evidence that bears had been by. Yet another indication of their presence was a third ďbear scratch treeĒ where the bears have stood on their hind legs to mark their territory.

Tracking is a fun occupation that you can learn to do yourself. Again, getting the right book is key, and Tracking & the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes is my personal favourite. Iíve written about this book often, and simply have not found a better guide. (ISBN 0-944475-29-9)

While on our recent trip out west in British Columbia, I wished that Iíd taken this book along in my backpack. After having a roadside picnic just west of Lillooet, I crossed the backroad to check out some Ponderosa pine. I always look into wayside ditches: I suppose itís a habit of mine because they are great collectors of all sorts of things.

And, being a low point beside a roadway, ditches are often moist. This is important to nosey folks like me who like to see whatís been walking along before me.

What a wonderful story was trapped in the once-moist muddy ditch!

There were two extremely clear sets of tracks: one was canine, one feline. How I yearned for my tracking book.

How do I tell a wild dog and cat track apart?

Letís refer to Rezendes himself.

ďThe most obvious [difference] is the generally round appearance of a feline track compared to the oval shape of a canineís (which is especially pronounced in the coyote but much less so in the domestic dog).Ē

Other tell-tale signs are that cats have retractable claws and thus, depending upon the conditions and material being walked upon, a catís prints do not show claw marks. A canine print usually does show the claws.

The cat track I found was, I believe, a bobcat, not a lynx. But, not being a specialist, Iím not 100% sureÖ I think it was bobcat largely because of the size of print: Lynx range from 3-1/4 to 3-3/4 inches long by 3 to 3-3/8 inches wide. The tracks I found were smaller: more in what Rezendes claims is a normal bobcat size, being 1-7/8 to 2-1/2 inches long by 1-7/8 to 2-5/8 inches wide.

The domestic cat is considerably smaller and besides, there was no house in site. We were in the backcountry, in mountainous country approaching the east side of the coastal range.

It wasnít a mountain lion, either. Rezendes tells me that a mountain lion heel pad is from 1-9/16 to 3 inches wide vs. a bobcatís which is 1-1/8 to 1-1/2 inch wide.

In contrast, the canine print was dramatic, large (about 3-1/2 inches long, minimum, by roughly 3 inches in width).

What could it be? Wolf, or western coyote?

Because of the terrain, I expect it was a coyote, but honestly I cannot be sure. Itís so frustrating not to be able to be 100% accurate in determining what animal has passed by.

But it is better to be observant and to continue trying to decipher the clues left behind: this is the way of learning.

Another difficulty in the canine print was that it was smeared: the animal had obviously slipped a lot in the mud. The claws were deeply gouged into the muck, whereas the bobcat had been walking by later on, as its tracks were almost perfectly recorded in less-wet mud.

Back here at home, we have the same species: wolf, coyote, bobcat and lynx. When Iím leading my hikes in Gatineau Park, I always encourage class participants to watch out for puddles and shallow ponds, as well as ditches.

For instance, in the shallows of lakes and beaver ponds we often come across the large tracks left by blue herons as they patrol for frogs and small fish.

Here at home, our pond is frequently visited by these birds, so Iím well-used to seeing their tracks.

Other tracks you may see on canoe trips (such as down the Black River) are otter slides, where these playful creatures have scooted down embankments into the water on their bellies. One year I was delighted to find these concave-shaped, ďtunnel-likeĒ impressions in a muddy bank. The otters had evidently propelled themselves along a little sandy beach before plunging into the river. What fun it must have been!

So, there you have it: tracking can be fun. Keep your eyes open, as you walk, fish, ride, bike and play in the Pontiac. Whether you are in the water or out of it, thereís always something to observe.

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Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based near Quyon. Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com