Deer? Coyote? Field mouse? Learn how to read the story told by footprints in the snow.
The low sun shot crystals through the snowy morning but had not yet perceptibly warmed the air, so my lungs both hurt and felt cleansed with each freezing breath. My cross-country skis swished encouragingly as I headed north from my sister’s Methow Valley house through a cut in the fence and into a big field. This hay pasture where we watched farmers sweat in the warmer months became a wide-open skier’s canvas come winter. I liked to try to decipher deer trails etched across the white expanse, along with coyote tracks and the minute dance steps of field mice — patterns left as they bravely popped to the surface.
I headed past an enormous Ponderosa pine, its puzzle-piece bark glowing fire-orange, out into the open where an unusual pattern caught my eye. I stopped beside what looked to be a feathered snow angel. In the center of a perfectly preserved imprint of outstretched wings was a hole marked by a spot of blood. The scene had every implication of an owl scooping up a midnight snack — some unfortunate mouse or vole.
My mental envisioning of this rodent’s demise is a central tenet of wildlife tracking, according to David Moskowitz, author of the tracking guide, “Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest: Tracking and Identifying Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates” (Timber Press, 2010). Since humans have been tracking animals for millennia, Moskowitz says, we already possess the tools we need to do it successfully — and even more important than a ruler or field guide, the most essential of these is a good imagination.
Skilled naturalists teach animal track and sign identification at the Duvall-based Wilderness Awareness School’s monthly Tracking Club. Upcoming dates: Nov. 12, Dec. 10, Jan. 14 and Feb. 11. Meet at Duvall Park & Ride at 8:45 a.m., carpool leaves at 9 a.m., session ends at noon. Free; no registration required. WAS also offers an intensive program in tracking each fall. Info: wildernessawareness.org/adult-programs/tracking-club
Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project
Volunteer with Conservation Northwest to monitor and document wildlife using remote cameras and winter snow-tracking skills. Info: conservationnw.org.
Methow Conservancy winter tracking classes
Explore the Methow Valley’s winter landscape with tracking expert David Moskowitz. Jan. 7 or Feb. 4, 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; $45 per person; maximum 12 people for each class. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 509-996-2870.
More Moskowitz classes
Learn about more classes and workshops led by David Moskowitz at davidmoskowitz.net
Facebook help group
For help with track identification, join the Facebook group, Animals Don’t Cover Their Tracks: Animal Track Identification Help Group.
“In my tracking certification courses, the students don’t use field guides and tape measures, and 99.9 percent of the tracking I do in the field is just me looking at and interpreting track and sign, not measuring anything, just taking in the things I’m seeing and interpreting them,” Moskowitz says. “When tracking, you have an unfiltered relationship between you and the natural world.”
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This relationship has led Moskowitz to some noteworthy discoveries, including, in 2015, a new wolf pack in the Cascades, the Loup Loup Pack. After seeing wolf tracks and sign that spring, he set up wildlife cameras to back up his findings with photo evidence.
Though he uses tracking regularly in his work as a biologist, photographer and outdoor educator, Moskowitz never tires of the less tangible benefits of the practice. Early last winter, on a blue-sky, powder day, Moskowitz and friends set out on skis up toward Cutthroat Lake, off Highway 20, when they caught the trail of a wolverine — an elusive creature he’s never seen in the wild. Coyote-sized animals, wolverines have relatively large feet and a loping gait that creates a distinctive pattern as they run through the mountains.
“There are maybe 25 left in the North Cascades — maybe fewer, these are very rare animals. We followed the tracks up through the forest and it was a thrill to know that they are still there sharing the mountains with us,” he says. “This kind of experience enriches my appreciation of the beauty and amazing things the mountains have to offer us. It’s an awesome feeling, like two worlds connecting — we came from the valley and our houses and warmth, and had this moment of crossing paths with a creature that spends all winter long in one of the most rugged, cold places in the region.”
The perfect medium
Even if you don’t venture out into the backcountry, snow provides a perfect medium for many practice prints. For the best tracks, Moskowitz recommends waiting 24 to 48 hours after a new snowfall before setting out to explore on skis or snowshoes.
“You’ll have the tracks of shrews and mice running across the snow,” he says. “You’ll be surprised by how many small critters have been scurrying about, their trails often short as they quickly cross the snow and then disappear — a lot of their lives are lived under the snow. Weasels make these cool bounding patterns. They are very frenetic and full of energy, and disappear down a tree well and then pop up 20 meters away. I always wonder, what do they do under there?”
Moskowitz suggests a few good places to try tracking: Loup Loup Pass and Yellowjacket Sno-Park, around the Methow Valley; Commonwealth Basin, at Snoqualmie Pass; Paradise, on Mount Rainier; and Hurricane Ridge, in the Olympics.
“The nicest part about wildlife tracking is that it’s an activity as old as humans are as a species, so you don’t need anything except your own two eyes, inductive and deductive reasoning skills, and imagination, to start to put together these stories,” he says. “You don’t need any special tools, and there is a growing community of folks who pursue wildlife tracking.”