In Field Instruction students practiced the art of tracking Northwoods wildlife using the animal prints, movement patterns, and the poop piles (also known as scat) that animals leave behind. Students learned that with careful observation the clues that animals leave behind can tell a story about what animal has passed by, what it was doing, and sometimes even what it ate. The class began with a quick lesson in making careful observations as Field Instructor Eve showed the students a sign which read “leaves in the the fall”. With only a quick glance at the sign, our eyes tend to see what we think we should see. We fail to observe that there is an extra “the” present. This can easily occur when tracking. If we don’t look closely we might miss an important clue.
Students learned how useful it can be to observe details such as the number of claws, front toes, and back toes on animal prints. Each of these three things can help to narrow down what type of animal left the print. They discovered that animals leave different patterns of prints due to differences in how they move. You have your walkers like the deer, canines, and felines. You have the hoppers like rabbits and rodents whose back feet usually land in front of their front feet. You have your bounders like the weasels whose back feet register in the same place as the front feet. And finally you have your waddlers (or pacers if you prefer) that move their front and back feet on the same side of their bodies at the same time. One of the most memorable lessons came when field instructor Pete showed the students how to tell the difference between herbivore, carnivore, and omnivore scat. The students even had the opportunity to taste some scat! Well sort of. What they actually ate were no-bake cookies that resembled omnivore scat.
After training their eyes to look for the important details in prints, patterns, and poop piles the students donned snowshoes and wadded into the fluffy snow to see if they could find some clues left by animals. Even though freshly fallen snow obscured many of the tracks, the students were still able to find several interesting things to look at. The students will also be able to use their newfound tracking skills to observe animals that may pass through the sites that they have chosen around campus for phenology observations in science class.
~ Graduate Fellow Heather