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Tracking urban wildlife in the mud and snow

Published on February 06, 2013

Squirrel tracks in the snow. Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons.Squirrel tracks in the snow (Photo: From Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

By Lee Earl, Outdoor Educator

Walking to work recently, I startled a grey squirrel away from the birdseed it had been investigating. As it bounded off ahead of me, I was amazed to see how quickly it was out of sight almost without a trace—except of course for the paw prints left behind. As I walked up to check out the tiny tracks, with spaces of up to a metre in between, I was doubly amazed to see the perfect claws and long fingers that were detailed in the soft snow.

That was the fifth mammal I had tracked on my walk through the ravine, including humans (with a wide variety of boot sizes and tread marks), dogs (with their four wide-splayed toes and meandering pace), rabbits (hopping along with tracks similar to my squirrel, but larger) and a raccoon (with its long human-like hands, each foot making its own distinct mark).

Raccoon tracks. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsRaccoon tracks (Photo: From Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

These snowy, slushy days are some of the best in the year to find out about the creatures living around us. Even the nocturnal foxes and sneaky feral cats leave behind their stories written on the ground.

Anyone can begin tracking animals with a bit of curiosity and a few tools: a pocket field guide, a tape measure (I prefer to use one from my sewing kit because of its small and flexible nature) and casting materials for saving a special find. I tried many experiments before settling on a yogurt container, which I fill halfway with dry plaster. When I’ve found a nice deep print, I mix the plaster with water from the creek until the plaster is just dissolved and gently pour it in the track.

Deer track. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.A nice deep deer track, perfect for making a cast (Photo: From Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

When I’m out tracking with school, nature nut and camp groups, I bring a laminated card of tracks with me, water and mud resistant, with big beautiful graphics to inspire the kids’ imaginations. We also imitate the walks of different creatures, like the bounding rabbits and ambling raccoons, to help us predict where the next track will be found. Even the plants and trees can leave clues, showing where they’ve been nibbled or torn, or lived in or under.

When the snow begins to melt, I will need to scour muddy puddles and sandy paths for my next animal encounter. Whether I find another squirrel leap before it heads to the treetops or a deer hoof on its way to drink from our local creek, I will be out and about looking for the secret stories written on the earth.