In his SAS Guide to Tracking, Bob Carss discusses media for tracking, that is the different materials that you may find a track in- topsoil, sand, grass, and snow for example. He recommends those new to tracking start with easier media such as sand and snow. For my son and I snow is the simplest of media to practice tracking, and even a light snow of an inch or less allows us to walk out our back gate and track fox, cats and dogs around our neighborhood. Our last snowfall is a perfect example. The following is from our notes from an early April morning.
Interpreting Sign and Making Assumptions
At about 0900 in the morning we drove a couple of miles from our house and walked off into an open field in a slowly developing industrial park, scanning for track as we walked. We knew that coyote passed this way often on his morning and evening foraging trips. After just a few minutes we found the track of a coyote. We judged that it had been laid sometime within about two or three hours, our time bracket, an assumption based on a few observations. The simplest observation was that the snow had stopped falling a few hours prior to our arrival, at about 0600. The tracks were fresh in the snow and no new snow had fallen on top of them. Coyote had made his way away from the road where we parked, trotting at times, perhaps frightened by passing cars, then slowed to a walk when he was a comfortable distance from the road.
Thinking Like the Quarry
As we walked along beside the track I reminded Nicolai that we needed to start thinking and acting like the coyote, getting into his skin as some say, to fully understand his actions and anticipate his moves. We immediately came to a slight rise in the terrain that the coyote had skirted just below the crest. Dropping down to the level of the coyote it was easy to see that he had stood far enough back from the crest, down the slope, so that he could not be seen but could lift his head and peek over the crest. We decided that he did this a couple of hours prior, peering over the crest at a car whose driver made his way to work in the building a few hundred meters away. The tracks then veered back down the slope to a point where the coyote was again off the side-slope of the small rise and walking on flat ground. This confirmed our assumption of the time bracket and possibly narrowed it down- assuming that people arrived at work at a reasonable hour, say 0730, coyote had walked through less than two hours ago.
Along the track we found many locations where the coyote stopped and turned to one side or the other, some of these locations having visible steps to the left or right, what could be called indicator paces if the coyote continued in that direction. All but a couple of these found the coyote returning immediately to his original direction of travel. The interpretation of these stops was again for observation. One or two of these stops might have seen the coyote peering left or right, watching traffic move into the parking lots further off. Many of them were listening halts where the coyote may have heard or seen the movement of a mouse or vole which he hoped to catch for a morning snack.
Further along the track we confirmed his intentions of eating breakfast when we found a point where he had stopped, stepped to the left, and then leaped into the air. He landed about four feet away where there was a visible scuffle in the snow with the grass and soil below disturbed. He then turned back towards his original direction, walked a few steps, and crunched the little mouse in his mouth, swallowing it in a gulp. Here we found a few drops of bloody saliva, bright red in the fresh snow.
Shortly we came to another point where he had tried the same move, apparently unsuccessful this time. Although we could see his stopping point, and where he veered off to the left again and scuffed around in the grass and soil, there was no sign of a leap nor blood in the snow.
At one point coyote had walked right up to the back of a building; perhaps he had found food left on their picnic tables in the past. He cautiously skirted along the back of the building, walking behind the trees along the lot, but veering back towards the building after emerging from behind each tree.
Transfer of Sign
Next coyote came to a road he had to cross. It appeared that he casually walked straight across without much thought. The gait of his track on both sides of the road was unchanged. Once across, he changed his direction, heading towards another road crossing and ultimately off into farm land. Before making it to the final road crossing coyote walked through a muddy flat. When he made it to the final road crossing his feet were covered in mud. We followed the transfer sign- the mud tracked onto the road- across the road, and along it for a while, before coyote stepped off the road and trotted off into the grass towards his home in the wash a mile away.
In all we followed the coyote for about 1/2 mile, over the course of about an hour. The snow and mud, the terrain and the conditions made for a perfect morning of tracking. It told us more about the habits of the local coyote population, specifically that they are less and less fearful of man and that they are more comfortable foraging in his midst. This is undoubtedly due to the development of so much of the coyote's natural habitat here, and across the country. We left hoping that the small piece of farm land where coyote and so many other animals make their homes will remain so that we can continue to observe and learn from them.
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