Wildlife Detectives: Tracking in New England Forests



Flipping pancakes with my 11-year old daughter Tasha on a cold December morning recently, we saw a group of wild turkeys outside pecking at the bittersweet berries along our stone wall. I grabbed my cup of coffee after breakfast and we headed out to watch them. We quickly found their three-toed tracks in the driveway, and we began following them through the snow. We traced their path backwards to figure out where the turkeys had come from.

We followed the tracks into the field beyond our driveway where we saw drag marks in the loose snow, left by their feathers. We crunched along through the soft snow, sun glinting off the crystalline surface. Across the field we went, following their looping path to the edge of the woods. We trudged into the trees where the tracks soon ended beneath a cluster of birch and pine. I asked Tasha where she thought the tracks went from here. She looked around for a nest or shelter on the ground. Then, finally, she tilted her head back.

"Up in the trees!" she called. They had spent the night safely roosted high above the ground, then, upon daybreak, had dropped down and started scavenging through the field until they found their favorite dining spot—the bittersweet near our house. Mystery solved.

Tracking with kids in the winter can be incredibly fun—not only learning about wildlife and their habits but actually solving mysteries—such as where the turkeys came from. Tracking is not just the identification of footprints. It is the art of reading all of the clues left behind by animals, to figure out what they were doing, where they had been, and where they were going. It is a mystery to be solved.

Tim Smith is a professional tracker who runs the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in Maine. A modern-day mountain man and survival expert, he says that tracking is a game of finding clues to rule out certain species, narrowing down what it could be. "You're not always able to figure out what the animal you are tracking is, but you can usually figure out what it isn't," he says.

Smith recommends looking for the following types of clues:
Some fun tracking activities to try with the kids:

LEARN MORE

AMC offers several guided animal tracking programs for adults and families. Visit activites.outdoors.org and enter the keyword "Tracking." 

Additional Reading: 
Stories in the Snow: A pro offers tips on reading winter tracks
Tracking for Kids
12 Great Outdoor Winter Activities for Kids

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Ethan Hipple.

Photo by Jerry & Marcy Monkman.

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