<![CDATA[WILDFound - Tracking]]>Mon, 11 Jan 2016 19:45:54 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Basics of Tracking Part 2: Reading Prints]]>Sun, 25 Jan 2015 04:26:49 GMThttp://wildfound.weebly.com/tracking/basics-of-tracking-part-2-reading-prints

CSI Time

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Often referred to as the "original forensics", tracking is a skill that quickly transforms into a hobby. Scanning the brush in the forest the chaos of piles of leaves and twigs seem meaningless but over time you become more aware of the sign (evidence) left behind by animal movement. The excitement builds as you navigate the forest and piece together what happened as the animal moved through and it's that much more fulfilling when you connect those dots to make the harvest. As you improve your tracking you realize that not only are you looking at one animal, your piecing together the larger story of animal behavior in your hunting zone. 
  • When do they move? 
  • What type of movement? 
  • Was it hurried? 
  • Scared? 
  • Is this the same animal I've seen before?
  • Where's the bedding? Den? 
  • Browsing vegetation? 
  • Are there coyotes? 
  • Is this movement seasonal? 
  • Connected to a stable food source?
  • How big and old is the animal? 
  • Male or female?

Reading Sign: Prints

Sign is any type of evidence of animal locomotion; This includes scat, broken vegetation, trails and runs, etc. Today's installment will cover reading the actual prints. I usually I.D. a few important characteristics as I read the print:
  1. I.D. the specie (I will be adding a track print I.D. field guide to the site soon!)
  2. Size
  3. Gait Pattern (Stride and distortion on tracks)

Track Identification

Obviously it's important to identify which animal left the prints your reading... though it's not always as easy as it sounds. A realistic statistic here would be 98% of the tracks you come across are distorted in some way, very few will be clearly registered, for this reason I suggest "getting your feet wet" while some snow is on the ground. It's very easy to track in the snow and keeps the tracker from losing the trail. The more prints you take in the more accurate and efficient you'll become. When it comes time to follow the trail during the summer and fall you'll be much more experienced at finding sign in "harder" conditions.

Look to identify the print by it's general shape first. Some prints are pretty unique and make identification a breeze, for example everyone knows the deer print. As you begin to identify closely related species, for example: the dog and coyote, you'll need to inspect the track a little closer. Heres a list of some of the common species I track here in Ohio.
The cat family tends to have a round print. This includes the toes as well as the heel pad. The plump round toes and slim heel pad are pretty easy to pick out. Cat's usually don't leave claw marks behind due to them being retracted during most of their travel. One neat thing to notice about the cat print is how it's rear paws register. Nearly all of the time the cat replaces with the rear paw perfectly where the front paw was placed. That's why it often looks as though there are only two legs making the tracks. The rear prints replace the front ones. Stealthy.
Deer are pretty easy to identify due to the hoof markings being so unique. Deer register tracks as shown above with rear hooves trailing front prints slightly. At times prints are registered with a 1-2" gap between front and rear hooves while at others this gap extends. When stride is elongated during fast movement you'll notice the bounding-like pattern in which there will be 2 sets of the prints shown above but 7-10 feet in between these sets; just an indication of speed.

Another beneficial sign is determining the sex of the deer. I have been asked how I know when I'm tracking a buck or doe and I can usually detect this by looking at the straddle of the track set. Doe's have wider hips (like women) which are specialized for birthing the fawn while bucks have slightly wider shoulders (like men). The trick is to find the front and rear prints that aren't distorted too much. Take a look at the diagram to see what I mean. Wider rear prints means your tracking a doe.
                                                                                              *RF=Right Front, RR=Right Rear

One of the tougher calls when small game hunting is deciding if your prints are squirrel or rabbit. I've learned one easy "tell" and to my knowledge it has held true. The front paws register at an angle for rabbits while they register evenly and parallel for the squirrel. When the rabbit is running remember that the front paws are the prints that are actually in the back and back paws are in the front. When moving swiftly the rear prints mock those of squirrels by appearing more like the small round shape above and more elongated when moving slowly. 
Squirrels have a couple distinguishing features. 1, as listed above, the front paw prints (that appear behind) register evenly and directly across from one another. The second feature is the amount of toes on the front and rear paws. Squirrels have 5 in the front and 4 in the back.
The Canines family features the domestic dog, fox and coyote. It's important for hunters to be able to identify a coyote or a fox in there hunting zone. One of the easiest ways to do this is the "X test" if you can make an X in the paw print without having to go through the heel pad to do it then your looking at a coyote or fox print, if you can't make this X then it's a dog print. Another feature is the positioning of the toes. Coyotes have nearly forward facing toes and claws whereas the domesticated dog has a more sprawled register with wider toe markings. I haven't found an exact way to distinguish the fox from the coyote except by general size. The coyote heel pad diameter is 2 inches and above and foxes are much smaller usually no bigger than an inch and a half.
This group includes the weasels, fishers, martens, badgers, wolverines, minks, otters and skunks. Members of this group utilize the bounding gait as shown above; front and rear paws register as is. 5 toes in both the front and back. 

Estimating Size

It's not hard to imagine that the bigger the print the bigger the animal. This holds true in most cases but as mentioned above gender also plays a role as well as reading the "true print". 
It's important to use the "true track" as a reference to size.
You might get a chuckle out of this one. I use a crude field measuring system for determining size in the field, after all who carries a ruler around with their gear? I call it the knuckle system. I place my hand over the print and using the "true track", measure the widest diameter of the print with my knuckles. It actually works pretty well. Stop laughing.
Another trick for estimating the size of deer is to observe the shape and detail of the hoof print. Older deer tend to have a rounded hoof tip due to wear and tear over time. The young yearlings will have sharper hoof tip. If you've found a buck print with "hock" marks or two little blips just behind the print this gives you an idea of the weight of the animal. The smaller deer don't weigh enough to press down to cause these markings. Well-defined "hock" marks are often left by the trophies. Be sure to take soil consistency into account as well. The looser and softer the soil the deeper the print will register and distort causing estimations to be a little off.

As far as other species goes I haven't patented a knuckle system as of yet, but in general the more prints you see the better able you'll be at determining the size of your game.

Gait Pattern (and clues to behavior)

It's a beautiful thing.
In my opinion this is where the trail gets fun. I love the blend of art and science spritzed with luck and determination; it's a beautiful thing. To this point we've covered identification, understanding how to read the true track, estimating size, now it's time to turn the detective switch on. 
When tracking, the biggest question I want to answer is when. It's valuable to know the type and size of animal but when is HUGE. When tells us when to set-up, when our game is going to show up, when we're ready to make our harvest. But understand that it's not just a time of day. It may be a lunar phase, a time during the season, a time driven by mating, or a time driven by weather, or a time driven by food source. I can't cover all these variables in one article (I probably will later on) but I can get you started.

Get to know the mood of the prints you've found. If they are evenly spaced and register close to straight down your animal is walking or browsing through the area. Animals usually run to catch food and to not be food. Theres just no need to waste precious energy for no reason. If you encounter erratic prints that are spaced far apart you know the animal is running, and for a reason. 

Other Tips

  • Is the animal traveling solo? Groups are more aware and with more eyes and ears keying in on the environment your technique might need to adjust if stalking.
  • Does the track look old or recent? (I'm going to tackle this topic next post)
  • Try to track after known weather events, a big rain or snow after a dry spell gives you a definite timeline for when the animal passed through.
  • If tracking during the summer track in the evening or mornings. The angle of light from the low sun gives excellent shadows and causes track to "pop" out.
  • Use the morning dew to track
  • Look for disturbances in grit or dust if tracking on very dry ground
  • Be sure to look ahead every so often, sometimes the fresh tracks will allow you to literally walk up on your game and if you are too concerned with what's on the ground you'll miss it. Also remember to pause for a minute and remain completely silent from time to time. 
  • Check for vegetative breaks in the brush or look for chewed plants.
  • Be heads up for scat lots of valuable info in it (Yep going to talk about this one too)

Tracking is a great way to enjoy the outdoors as well as learn more about your game. Do yourself a favor and put a little more effort into your tracking skills and reap the benefits of scouting the native american way. Over time you'll be reading the trails like a book.

Subscribe to my newsletter to catch the next installment of my tracking series and all the other adventure tips offered up here on Wildfound. I'll be teaching you how to age tracks to help you determine how old the tracks may be. GoPro time lapse?
<![CDATA[The basics of tracking]]>Sat, 10 Jan 2015 20:24:50 GMThttp://wildfound.weebly.com/tracking/the-basics-of-trackingPictureDeer rub "selfie"
Just like fly tying is just as much of a hobby as fly fishing is, tracking is just as much a hobby as hunting itself. One of the most important choices you make as a hunter is where. Where to set up your stand/blind/traps is perhaps the choice most related to a successful harvest. I love to follow the prints of the deer and small game that flow through the areas I hunt. To see where they go and when they go. It's much the same as a CSI forensic technician that is piecing together evidence at a crime scene. 

Start big

The first step is to look at the land in the most general sense. You need to find the cover, water, and transitional areas of the landscape. Today this step becomes even easier with google maps. Looking at a satellite image gives you a rough estimate of distance between resources, natural funnels, easier paths of travel and other variables that might play a part in your efforts. This is important: Every animal must drink water every day. Deer have a pretty far range so this means that sometime during their waking moments they will travel to drink water. Your job is simple, find the direction they come or leave this body of water. 

Another resource to note when landscaping is food. Where is your game's food source? If you looking for deer then you need to be sure your identifying food sources active at the time you are going to set up your hunt. In the early parts of the year corn is a major staple, along with all sorts of berries and nuts. Later in the year the bean and beet fields provide secondary food, still after that remains sapling buds in the thick of winter. These variables will play a large role in where to begin your tracking. With cover and food now identified you know two points on a map. These two points provide you with critical information. Point A and point B, you now need to look for an area of travel between these points where room for travel is squeezed into a small space. That is the place where you should position yourself, we call it a funnel.

What's in a good funnel?

Well hopefully, your target game animal. The funnel is a strategic point in which the population that uses the space you've found is condensed into an area where they almost have to pass by or through your hunting zone. But what does the funnel look like? Don't think that it must start out wide and condense down into a small area between rock faces, you'll drive yourself nuts looking for the perfect funnel. The funnel still works far from perfection. When searching for your funnel you should be looking for these things:
  • Between necessary resources (cover, water, food)
  • Transitional areas where one habitat meets another (field to mature forest etc.)
  • At least one un-navigatable side (river, cliff, noisy road, dense thicket, even just a steep hill, ponds, marshes, etc.)
  • One or two major trails with lots of activity
  • Cover available for you
Anywhere between the blue lines is what I would consider as a funnel. Notice you could apply the same concept directly across the field.

Transitional Areas

Transitional areas are great places to hunt in that the biodiversity increases in these specific areas. If your after smaller game species like rabbit, using the traditional areas are key. Look for areas where one habitat meets or overlaps another. These areas are important because producer level herbs and smaller herbivores are provided with dense cover and quick access to their food resource. Often times rabbits like smaller softer herbs found on the fringe between fields and the mature forest. This is also an area where sunlight is plentiful enough to allow for growth of shrubs and thorn bushes. In these areas the brush piles build alongside food sources to provide a natural hotspot for busting bunnies. 

Finding the trail

Once you locate the trails within your funnel it's time to look for a few different indicators. 
  • What animals are passing through?
Look at all the separate tracks you can find in the funnel. You should be noting which animal's are passing through. Does your deer trail also carry a lot of coyote prints? Something to think about.
  • What is the frequency of usage?
There is really no other way to grasp this concept other than experience. Practice, get out even in the offseason and start to get a feel for track aging in different environments and weather types. 
  • How recent is the acidity you find?
A trail can be lit up for a month but when you set-up you see absolutely no action. There are variety of things that can spook your game or cause the most used trail to vary. Keep a watch on the trail and get to know the local hotspots through each part of the year. Resources and predators can sway the numbers in a relatively short time. 
It's a skill to know what "normal" looks like in the forest; and also noticing when something isn't.

The fine details

The practice of tracking is as much art as it is a science. It's a skill to know what "normal" looks like in the forest; and also noticing when something isn't. 
There is a lot to look for, scat, claw markings, bones, feathers, prints, broken twigs, browsed upon saplings, scents, etc. Getting to know and discovering the smaller details is as much an art as it is a science. It takes intentional practice and habit. In fact you need to make this a habit. When covering your area, move slower. Take it all in. Train yourself to cover all the sign you may be overlooking. After time you will start to notice the smaller signs that many would simply walk by. I was never able to spot sitting rabbits when hunting. I simply had to wait for them to break cover before snap shooting. Slowing down increased my focus and was able to guide my eyes to a smaller search area. I finally was able to spot sitting bunnies. It seems like common knowledge but keep yourself focused, make a habit of it. 
Tracking seems to be an area overlooked by many. This skill quickly turns into a hobby and even better: it's free. You can improve your hunting harvest, spend time outdoors, and view the animals you've come to love and respect. If you have't put your tracing skills to the test, it's time to find out what your made of.

More to come soon! 

Tracking And Reading Sing
Tracking And Reading Sing

Tracking And Reading Sing

Whether you are tracking a white-tailed deer or pondering what four-legged creature visited your backyard during the night, Tracking and Reading Sign is a colorful, practical tool that makes experiencing nature entertaing and fun. Outdoorsman Len McDougall offers and introduction to the principles of tracking and reading sign that will help you spot and analyze tracks, prints, gaits, scats, scents and animal behavior. With full color photographs illustrating every important nuance, McDougall makes this important outdoor skill as easy as possible and profiles more than twenty different essential animals, listing basic characteristics, tracks habitat, diet, behaviors, and common relatives. Covers The Following Species: White-tailed deer American elk Raccoon Eastern Cottontail Rabbit Porcupine Brown bear Mountain lion Gray fox And many more Soft cover Full color photos 183pgs Written by Len McDougall