Here is a great little video by one of my favorite youtubers:
A track is a readable mark left by a movement, action, or process. Tracking is the observation of these marks and the attempt to imagine the movements, actions, or processes that created the marks.
Right about now you might be saying, “yeah, yeah. I already know what tracking is; looking at animal footprints. Here goes Marley stating the obvious again.” Well, you might be right. I’m restating the obvious, in the most general and all-inclusive way possible, before making a leap of faith to include plants in our conception of trackable beings. Why not?
Most plants move slower than most animals and their lifeways are considerably different but they still follow patterned growth cycles, respond to stimuli, move towards some things and away from others, they reproduce, and they die. And most importantly for this discussion, they leave behind marks and signs of their actions.
There are several reasons why including plants as trackable subjects is helpful. First of all, it will help us learn more about this foundational kingdom of living beings from a unique perspective. Second, it will help us with our holistic understanding of the ecology and natural history of the area in which we track. Plants are, after all, one of the most important biotic players in the drama of life. Seeing them as engaged actors instead of as immobile, passive furniture can help us better understand what is happening around us. Third, by becoming better plant trackers we will be more able to identify or tune out the “noise” of plant tracks and sign mixed in with animals tracks and sign when we are focused on tracking animals.
In the above photo we can see a plant doing two distinctly trackable things that are important to be aware of. On the left side of the photo we can see actual tracks left by the movement of the plant in the sand. This is a common phenomenon and important to recognize and filter as noise when tracking animals. It can also be an important clue in determining wind patterns, directions, and intensity. In the bottom right of the photo we can see the plant performing what I call “sorting.” The plant is creating an uneven distribution of rabbit scat by it’s physical presence; creating a sort of dam that traps the pellets and accumulates them. This type of sorting pattern is important to understand so that we do not jump to incorrect conclusion about why there is so much scat right next to this plant.
Plants are also very useful substrates for recording information, containing animal sign, or for calculating age of animal sign. The bruising, oxidation, wilting, and callusing of plant tissue can be very useful in estimating age but these processes are also dependent on weather.
Whether you are a wildlife tracker, an avid hunter, or a curious gardener you should learn how to track plants.
Some photos showing trackable phenomena in plants:
In the month of May the North Coast Nature Journal Club will be going to one of my favorite locations, Bodega Dunes! This is another great spot to learn the usefulness of a tracking perspective and how reading tracks can accelerate your learning as a naturalist and nature journaler. We will also get a chance to explore the edges of seasonal ponds, coastal wildflowers, the digs of coyotes and badgers, and perhaps osprey and other raptor activity. Last time I was there I found huge owl pellets filled with vole bones, watched osprey fly by with fish, and saw hundreds of sandpipers on the beach.
This is a coastal location so the weather is variable and often windy. Sometimes it is foggy and drippy. Wear layers and sun protection, sun hat. The hiking will be mild and we will mostly avoid walking on the difficult loose sand dunes. Our potluck will be around 12:30 on the trail so bring a packable potluck item to share. Binoculars and light folding stools could be useful.
We will park and meet at 10am along the cypress trees at the entrance. Parking in this area is free.
Be prepared to recognize patterns, draw birds, and add story-telling elements to your journal practice. Students from my Santa Rosa Junior College class might join us on this day!
$20 suggested donation
Tracking and nature journaling; a match made in heaven!
Come explore coastal lagoons, meadows, and dunes for an awesome day of tracking and journaling in a great location. We will approach tracking in a holistic sense and learn to integrate it into our quiver of naturalist skills.
Abbot’s Lagoon in Point Reyes National Seashore is a world class location for tracking and bird watching where we are sure to find many goodies to fill our journals. Badgers, otters, bobcat, owls, ravens, falcons, and foxes are a few of the denizens whose tracks and sign we might see.
Meet at the parking lot at the trailhead on Pierce Point Rd, approximately 15 minutes from Point Reyes Station. Wear lots of layers and be prepared for variable weather, sun, and wind. Also be prepared to walk in sand dunes.
Sunday February 28th from 10-4pm
Meet at Abbot’s Lagoon Trailhead on Pierce Point Rd in Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, CA.
On a warm summer afternoon you walk down the rocky trail at your favorite regional park. Despite the beautiful surroundings, your head is full of thoughts about work, family obligations, and financial concerns. Coming to a steep part in the trail, you are about to grab a rock for support when your hand jerks back with a mind of its own.
Your distracted consciousness snaps back to the here and now. And then you see it. Coiled menacingly on the rock, inches from where you were about to put your hand, is a rattlesnake. Looking at it now with all of your attention you realize how camouflaged it is yet how striking the overall pattern is. There is something archetypal about the diamond shape of its pit viper head, the bulge of its jaw and the ridge over its gleaming eye.
Our human ancestors needed to recognize patterns in order to survive. This ability allowed them to discern dangers and take advantage of opportunities. As our proficiency for patterns grew it allowed our species to learn faster, adapt to new conditions, and eventually spread across the face of the planet. While there are fewer hidden predators and poisonous snakes for us to contend with, the modern, more urbanized human still depends greatly on the ability to recognize patterns. And for those of us who are interested in reconnecting with nature, tracking, or hunting, a fluency in the language of patterns is essential.
So what is a pattern? Two definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary stand out:
1. An arrangement or relationship of elements, especially one which indicates or implies an underlying causative process other than chance.
2. A regular and intelligible form or sequence discernible in certain actions or situations; especially one on which the prediction of successive or future events may be based.
The first definition points to the fact that a pattern is not a superficial event and is not random, it is based on an underlying process. This is crucial when filtering information through awareness and focusing learning. Paying attention to patterns will lead to an understanding of underlying causes while paying attention to noise or superficial elements will not provide the same advantage.
The second definition points to the crux of the matter, namely the ability to predict. Patterns repeat themselves in a meaningful and intelligible way. Understanding the pattern allows the brain to make accurate predictions about future events. The ability to remember previously encountered patterns and make accurate predictions is the basis of intelligence. See my review of Jeff Hawkin’s book “On Intelligence” for more on the brain science behind prediction “On Intelligence“.
In the rattlesnake example above, the brain recognized the pattern in a “bottom up” process, where the more primitive parts made the call while the conscious neocortex was thinking about family problems and finances. Have you ever jumped back from what looked like a snake or a spider before you even realized what you were doing? Have you ever known what someone was going to do before they even did it?
These are a common occurrence that many people refer to as gut reactions or intuition. Much of our interpersonal relationships are actually based on the lower parts of our brain reading minute patterns in other people’s body language, tone of voice, and even smell. These intuitive, sometimes almost magical, predictions are also a central part of sports mythology and any field that requires high performance. Being open to these responses and training our brains through repeat exposure to these patterns we can react more quickly and more accurately whether in sports, business, relationships, or in the wilderness.
It is important to be aware of our bottom up pattern recognition but we can also bring our conscious awareness to the task and achieve great benefits. Paying special attention to patterns when learning new things will make it easier and faster to develop a holistic understanding of the subject matter. For example, When learning a new language, you can get a huge head start if you look for words that share a common ancestry with words from your native tongue. As this understanding of etymological patterns grows, your ability to learn languages and predict the meanings of foreign words will improve. If you start from scratch, with rote memorization of long vocabulary lists you will take much longer.
Some patterns repeat so often in nature that they demand special attention. The branching pattern of a river into smaller and smaller tributaries and streams can tell us much about the basic functioning of our universe. This pattern can be seen in plants, in our veins, in minerals, and even in our families.
By intentionally thinking in terms of patterns we can accelerate our learning, deepen our understanding, and make more accurate predictions in our field.
Whether predicting the presence of a poisonous snake, learning a new language, or tracking a trophy elk the ability to recognize patterns can save your life, and make it much more magical.
Sometimes it is difficult for tracking geeks to understand why everyone else is not into tracking. When you realize the holistic breadth of tracking, the powers of perception it gives you, and the joy you find in the practice it can indeed be hard to believe that more people aren’t tracking.
I believe there are several factors and misconceptions that keep people away from tracking. In this essay I will attack one common misconception.
“I can’t track in the city!”
In the last decade we have gone from a planet where most people lived in rural areas to a planet where most people live in cities. This is one of the most powerful demographic trends on the planet and appears to be steady. In most of the “West” we are saddled with an intellectual heritage that falsely imposes a Nature vs Man dichotomy on the landscape. We see places as either Wild or Not Wild. This bias runs SO deep that many people don’t even see nature at all when they are in urban areas.
Modern studies of the brain have shown what sages have long known: You don’t see what you are not looking for. Your perception of reality is not unbiased or complete. Instead, your perception is shaped and filtered by your belief and experiences. If you “know” that tracking is something done in the “wild” places then you will not see the tracking opportunities all around you in the cities and suburbs.
Most would-be trackers and many experienced trackers falsely assume that there is no tracking to be done outside of the Regional Park trails or National Seashore dunes. They feel like they have to travel in a car to a designated “wild place” to do any legitimate tracking. If you believe this and shut off your tracking when in urban areas you are missing out on the tracking opportunities that are most relevant to your daily life! You are missing out on tracking 90% of your daily life!
Does it matter if you can distinguish the tracks of three different species of endangered sand crabs but you can’t recognize the alarm calls of the urban squirrels in your backyard? Can you recognize the gait change of a short-tailed weasel in the Sierra but you don’t know how the neighborhood raccoons squeeze through your cat door and eat your Pop-Tarts?
Animals and plants are unburdened by the Nature vs Man dichotomy that plagues our worldview. Dandelions, deer, finches, and bears don’t know that there is no nature to be found in the urban areas. They don’t know that they are supposed to stay in the “Wild Places.” They don’t wait until they are in a regional park to leave an interesting trail or drop a steaming scat. We need to follow their example (not necessarily pooping on the sidewalk). We need to question the Nature vs Man dichotomy and recognize that nature is everywhere. Tracking opportunities are everywhere. Some of the best bird language opportunities and wildlife tracking lessons can be found in suburbs and urban parks. Think outside the box! Keep your tracking mindset turned on! Jim Sullivan, a holistic tracker in California calls this “24/7 Tracking.” Not only will 24/7 tracking improve your skills faster it will also provide you with insight into your native environment (the majority of us live in urban areas not Regional Parks).
Urban wildlife is not the only thing to be tracked in cities and suburbs. Try broadening your perspective and noticing tracks from humans and other domestic animals. Why are so many avid trackers so uninterested in domestic animals (humans included)?! Is it because they are so familiar that we know everything about them? Or is it because they fall on the wrong side of the entirely arbitrary Nature vs Man dichotomy? Obviously, the latter is true. I challenge anyone who thinks that domestic animals are so familiar and boring because they know everything about them. How many times have you watched the gait of a five year old child in mud puddles? How many times have you examined the hole dug by a pet pit-bull and wondered about the biomechanics of dogs digging?
Animals are not the only things that can be tracked in urban areas. Plants, vehicles, and weather also leave their characteristic marks. Which curbs near your house are covered with skid marks from cars cutting the corner? Can you visualize the trajectory of the cars? Why is the street designed that way? Where can you see the gouges in the asphalt that indicate where cars bottom out? Can you see the tracks of snow, ice, wind, or sun in the urban landscape? How have weeds invaded vacant lots? Are the weeds clustered around edges of buildings or evenly distributed? Have some trees influenced the infrastructure? Can you see plants growing on buildings?
If you have not tried tracking because you think you need access to “Wild Places” then rejoice, for the best tracking is outside your doorstep!
If you are an experienced tracker but tend to overlook urban tracking, then reconsider the Nature vs Man dichotomy and turn on your 24/7 tracking. This perspective shift will super charge your learning process and provide you with relevant information about your native environment.
Thanks to Jim Sullivan for the term “24/7 Tracking”. See his website for more information and for a schedule of talks and classes in California. http://www.animaltrackingandbirdlanguage.com/
Many animals do not leave tracks in easy to read substrates such as sand and mud. Some animals climb trees, swim under water, or fly in the air. Other animals burrow under the ground or slide across it on a mucous-lubricated peristaltic stomach-foot (snails and slugs).
Are these animals impossible to track?
I take a holistic approach to tracking and would argue that everything leaves tracks including fish in water, birds in the air, and slippery slugs. It is often necessary to change your perspective or think outside the box to see or infer these “tracks.”
I recently wanted to see the tracks of a bird that I have never seen walking on the ground. It is a common bird that prefers to perch on branches or fences, flying out to catch insects on the wing. There were a couple popular perch spots near my house and I decided to create “tracking traps” on these spots. I simply sprinkled some fine dust on the flat surfaces (cheap white flour works well (unless the animals are gluten-intolerant)).
Luckily one of the perches was on the edge of a wine barrel so there was plenty of flat space to put the dust. I knew the bird perched on the very rim of the barrel. I tried to get dust on the rim but I also hoped that the bird might venture a footstep or two onto the flat area.
Immediately, the dust began recording interesting information. A variety of marks were being made in the dust, some clearer than others. One added benefit was I could tell which scats were new because they were on top of the dust.
While I have yet to get the footprints that I hoped for I did get some perhaps more interesting and important tracks. Tracks are not only made by feet and in this case the tracks appear to be made by the other set of appendages that birds have, the ones they fly with. Look closely at the photo to see the marks left by an extended wing. You can even see the individual ridges on the feathers if you look closely.
This experience has several embedded lessons:
First, all animals leave tracks. They might be vortices of air or thermal disturbances that we usually can not see. Or they might not be what we think of as tracks and we might not know how to interpret the pattern.
Second, you can manipulate the environment to accelerate your learning. You don’t have to travel 50 miles to sand dunes or riparian areas that have the best substrates for tracking. You can sprinkle flour or rake out a good spot of dirt in your yard.
Third, be prepared to notice and learn what you weren’t expecting. Even though I was hoping to get footprint tracks I got something else. If I had been so fixed on seeing footprints I might have missed the subtle tracks left by the bird’s wing. Often times this unexpected lesson is the thing you really need to learn about more than the thing you were looking for.
Guessing Game: If you think you know your bird scat and habits try to guess what species this is. I will reveal the answer in a future post 🙂