Today I took my first seminar for credit--like a mini-class, instead of the various introductory presentations they've been doing for us newbies. The subject was tracking, something I was never all that much interested in before, but I signed up for it on a whim and my whim these days seem to be good.
I hadn't known until that morning exactly when it was going to be (something that made trading work shifts with someone more challenging), because the weather had to be right. Today it was--it snowed a few days ago, and the weather has been dry and cold since then. It's the first time in days I've been out of uniform, and my waterproof suit felt weird. The sky was that amazing, rich blue that happens only in winter, and the world was silent and soft with the smell of snow.
Charlie, the groundskeeper and ecology teacher, was the instructor. It was funny, when we met together in a group outside I didn't see him at first because he looked like one of us, dressed as he was in blue Goretex; I guess I've gotten used to identifying masters by uniform color. Charlie wasn't a complete stranger to me, of course, but I'd never spoken to him. He's a short, stocky man with thinning grey hair and a strong Boston accent. You don't hear that as much in people my age, I guess.
He'd marked off a large square in the woods, maybe an acre, using orange-colored stakes driven into the snow. There were ten stakes on a side, not counting the corners, and twenty of us, so he had us pair off and line up along one side, one pair per stake, and then we all walked forward in a straight line to the opposite side, recording any tracks we saw. Then we did it again going the other way, so that when we were done we had made a big grid. This was all after he had taught us how to use a compass to walk a straight line and how to measure distance by counting our paces, by the way. Then, after lunch, he showed us a map he had made of all our compiled recordings.
One odd thing is...w.hen you go on a field trip as part of a class, the teacher is using the field trip to illustrate some larger point, right? Or there's some skill you are expected to retain. But Charlie didn't seem to have a larger point and he didn't care whether we retained the skills. It was like a field trip without a class, just for its own sake. I had a lot of fun, though.
I was partnered with this girl named Joanna, another yearling from my dorm. Charlie gave us a clip board with several copies of a form on it, a simple gridded map of the square we were working on, and a basic digital camera. The first line we walked, I held the compass and kept track of paces while Joanna recorded tracks, then when we went the other way we switched.
Almost immediately, we found deer tracks. Joanna thought two of the deer were smaller than the third, but I wasn't sure. Then there was nothing for a while, though we could hear the team to our left talking about deer tracks and wondering if two of the deer were fawns. That was cool. Then there was a confused area where there was something I thought was a dog on one side and something else with very small feet on the other--I thought it was a cat, but Joanna disagreed. Neither of them crossed our line, but they came very close. Then we found something that looked like a hairball. I guessed it was an owl pellet, and Joanna decided to bring it back for Charlie to look at. Then we saw the dog again and what looked like another dog, and then nothing at all. till the end.
Then we realized Joanna had lost one of her mittens when we picked up the owl pellet, but we didn't want to go back and risk stepping on any tracks. I offered her one of my mittens, but she accused me of being sexist, which I honestly don't think I am, but there's no arguing because that's just what a sexist person would do. She liked my second suggestion better; that we pick a second line to walk that would intersect with our first near where she lost the glove and look for it then. We did that. Our second line found all the same types of tracks as the first, plus some squirrels and little hopping bird-tracks, and of course a lot of boot-prints, including ours. I told Joanna her tracks looked very small. I thought, for a moment, that she was going to call me sexist again, but she just laughed and said "my feet are even smaller," and pulled off her boot so she could make a bare foot-print in the snow. She wasn't wearing socks, and her short little toes looked all red.
"Aren't your feet cold?" I asked.
"This one is," she said merrily, dusting the snow off her bare foot.
Here is a rough map of our grid and the tracks we found:
Looks pretty confusing, right? But over lunch, Charlie took all our pictures and our forms and made sense of it, and when we met again in the Rose Room in the Mansion, he told us a story. I don't think he'd had time to eat while doing all that, because he was eating a sandwich while he talked. He had made a PowerPoint presentation of some of our pictures and explained what animals had made the prints and what they were doing and how he could tell. Then he turned on one of those old projectors, the ones where you put a plastic sheet down and draw on it and the drawing is projected on the wall. He had connected the dots, as it were, and drew the paths that different animals had taken through our square. And as he drew he talked, pausing now and then for a bit of his sandwich.
I won't repeat all this stories, but the main one started with a large dog "walking here and there and over here again, because he's a dog, and doesn't have anything else to do." Eventually, the dog spotted a whitetail doe and her two half-grown fawns--the deer had crossed the dog's path earlier and ignored it, but when he actually confronted them they turned and ran and he chased them for a while, then lost interest. Then he wandered around some more, marked a tree (the height of the stain shows that he's male), and came face to face with a skunk (the one I thought was a cat--Joanna was right), who released its scent. The dog ran until he crossed the track of the running deer, which he followed backwards until he came to his own scent from the earlier chase. Then he wandered off, eventually leaving our square, probably headed home to a tomato-juice bath. "Dogs are very intelligent animals," Charlie said. "Never underestimate what a dog can learn--except I've never once met a dog who could learn to leave a skunk or a porcupine alone. I did once hear of a dog who learned to walk to the vet to get de-quilled after he messed with a porcupine. The vet-people knew him and would send his family the bill. But he never learned not to mess with the animal in the first place. True story."
I like this whole--drama--in the snow. I'd always seen tracks as sort-of anonymous marks. Except when I spotted one I happened to know, like a rabbit, I basically ignored it. I knew there were people who knew a lot about tracks, but it sounded like an almost magical ability you had to study years and years to acquire. And Charlie seemed to have that ability--he'd dissected the owl pellet and figured out what type of owl had made it (Barred Owl, in case you're curious), but mostly what he'd done was just to put together some fairly simple pieces. The story with the dog--I already knew the tracks of all the principle players except the skunk. I could have done this myself. I could go out and look for tracks and see these stories, these animals interacting in all these complex ways, days after the fact. I could learn to do this.
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