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Tracking Opens Window On World Of Animals

If you’re really tired of snow by now, you might want to consider a walk in the woods. With a little bit of knowledge and a lot of attention, the snow-covered forest can open a window into the lives of wild animals that are all around us, but seldom seen.

Lynn Levine is a forester from Dummerston and the author of Animal Tracks and Scat, a hands-on tracking book. She often leads tracking workshops for schools, nature centers and other groups.

VPR’s Susan Keese tagged along on one such outing recently.

The snow is icy and thin after a series of thaws and freezes, so we leave our snowshoes behind.  

We’re barely off the access road when Levine crouches over two tiny dotted lines running parallel over the snow and observes, “I love these tracks! What do you see when you look at them?”

A woman in the group makes a little hopping sound.

Levine responds, “Okay, great. What happens to the track?”

Someone answers that the tracks end suddenly, just short of a fallen tree.  Levine says that’s a sign that the animal lives underground. “So this is the shrew, which is the smallest mammal. It’s so tiny. This is all melted. So anything that we’re looking at looks much bigger than it really is.”

Even when the footprints themselves aren’t clear, Levine says, there’s often other evidence that shows how the animal moved and behaved.

Farther into the woods we see a path that’s worn almost smooth from repeated use. We follow it for a while until we find a few distinct hoof prints.

“Looks like a deer,” says Levine. “Exactly!”

A pile of pellet-shaped deer scat nearby provides further evidence. Levine points out some oak saplings with ragged, chewed off tops -- the work of browsing deer she says.

A little farther on we see another heavily-used trail. The tracks within it are the about the size of a deer’s. But this animal has toes. And the edges of the path are wavy. Levine says that’s a clue that the animal moved from side to side when it walked.

“It’s waddling,” she notes. “I want to follow this track a little bit.”

The trail leads down a steep decline and up again to an opening in some rocks, where the tracks disappear.

“Okay, here’s the clue. What do you think the chances are that the deer went underneath there?” Levine asks the group. “So this is a porcupine trail.”

Someone notices broken hemlock branches strewn around on the snow. Levine says porcupines eat the hemlock tips and throw the rest away.

“Porcupines live in the trees. They eat the tips of the branches. They go from tree to tree. And they go to caves, and they leave lots of scat there.”

Levine has never seen a porcupine in a tree.

She says she rarely sees the animals that are here, even though her work as a forester takes her into the woods almost every day.

“I make too much noise. I might see deer, but I don’t see bobcat and I don’t see fisher and I don’t see fox, but I follow their tracks and I know they’re there.”

Later, we find a good-sized pile of droppings. Levine pokes at it with a stick and finds hair inside -- the sign of a meat eater. Levine says the scat’s size and shape suggests a coyote.

Looking around, she spies some faint, fairly old coyote tracks. She points out the characteristic X or cross mark in each footprint. “That tells me that it’s probably in the coyote-fox family.”

Later we see a similar X in a smaller set of footprints on a log. “So we have a fox.”

Levine can’t find enough clues to say for sure whether it was a gray fox or a red fox. But she says uncertainty is part of tracking too.

“I don’t want to just figure out what animal it is, that’s just one question. It’s what the animal did, what’s the story?”

That, she says, is what’s really interesting.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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