There's much to be learned about wildlife by reading animal tracks in the snowy Northwest woods.
Until he discovered the perfect imprint of a mouse — legs and tail splayed out cartoonlike in the snow — expert tracker David Moskowitz could only guess at why pine martens liked to climb trees.
He’d frequently follow the tracks of these high-elevation weasel relatives to where they disappeared at the base of a tree trunk. Nearby he would inevitably find the full body imprint of a marten. “What are they doing up in the tree?” was a nagging question until the day he found the telltale “mouse print.” Small rodents rank high on a marten’s menu.
“The snow creates a blank slate and these animals come and write their stories onto it,” said Moskowitz, author of the recently published tracking field guide, “Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest” (Timber Press). “Snow provides a very simple substrate where you can detect tracks, and so it’s a great doorway for novices. And because often you get long strings of tracks in the snow, you can literally follow an animal for hours.”
Learning about the tracks you are likely to see on mountain excursions adds a new dimension to sports such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, notes Moskowitz. “You get a fresh powder day and find tracks in the snow, and have a natural curiosity about what made them,” he said. “It’s easier than any other time of year to get excited about and learn about wildlife tracking in the Northwest.”
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Moskowitz, who teaches tracking through the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall (www.wildernessawareness.org), says students are amazed by the amount of animal activity going on while we slumber.
“It’s like the Discovery Channel going on all around us all the time,” he said. “We almost never get to see it, but the tracks tell the stories of what happened the night before and you can go out and put it all together.”
In teaching how to interpret clues in the snowy landscape, Moskowitz re-creates chase scenes, life-and-death interactions and great escapes by reading the tracks animals leave during their nightly forays. For example, coyote tracks with a certain spacing and depth indicate an animal moving at a slow pace through the forest. The quality of the tracks changes abruptly when the coyote bounds off in pursuit of a snowshoe hare — the prey animal’s tracks practically shout, “Running for my life!” The trail may end at the scene of a kill, or the predator tracks may essentially say, “I give,” and head off in a new direction.
“You might as well be watching lions hunt gazelles on the Serengeti; it’s the same stories,” Moskowitz said. “These chases happen every night, multiple times a night in the mountains around here.”
Moskowitz says many people mistakenly consider the ability to read the snowscape in this way as a near magical gift relegated to the most weatherworn mountain folk.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “It requires careful observation, deductive reasoning and problem-solving skills. Picking up the basics is fairly simple; it just requires a lot of persistence.”
The first thing you try to answer about a track or trail is what type of animal made it, says Moskowitz. After that, there are many things a trail can tell you: how many animals were there; when they were there; if they were browsing, what they were eating; and if they were hunting — what and how.
To get started, Moskowitz suggests using a field guide to acquaint yourself with the tracks of animals known to frequent the area you’re visiting. A good training ground is the Pacific Crest Trail at Snoqualmie Pass, where you can find everything from Douglas squirrel and bobcat tracks to snowshoe hare and coyote prints.
“I’m committed to increasing people’s naturalist knowledge, but also converting that into practical conservation of wild lands and wildlife,” he said.
One way people can get involved is through the Cascades Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project, a program sponsored by Wilderness Awareness School and Conservation Northwest. For the past five years, volunteers have been trained to monitor and record the presence of 18 species, including cougar, elk and beaver, along the Interstate 90 corridor. The data is being used by state agencies to help plan future wildlife crossings (an animal underpass is currently under construction at Gold Creek) and to help prevent development of wild lands.
“People get a lot out of it because it’s a way to enjoy the outdoors, learn a new skill and do something meaningful for the environment all in one effort,” said Jen Watkins, conservation associate at Conservation Northwest.
In a related project, earlier this month Conservation Northwest launched the I-90 Wildlife Watch website (www.i90wildlifewatch.org), where drivers can report wildlife sightings along the highway.
“Tracking is accessible to the masses,” said Moskowitz. “It’s a simple way for people to inform themselves about what’s going on in a place they care about, and may encourage them to take an active role in helping make sure these places are around for generations to come.”
Kathryn True is a Vashon Island-based freelance writer.