Paying Attention to Animal Signs

As I may have mentioned, we have been taking a year long tracking class from the famous tracker Sue Morse (of Keeping Track in preparation for doing some wildlife monitoring. Monitoring by citizen naturalists helps track wildlife patterns and populations and, in theory, potentially protects the more vital habitats that wildlife are using as corridors (Predators don’t stay in one place but travel to where the food is throughout the year).

So now, whenever we are out hiking around, even for reasons other than tracking, we find ourselves looking for animal sign and noting that we are not alone in the woods. In the winter, with snow on the ground, it is always fun to stop and examine tracks — which are everywhere, note the shape, the pattern and other signs (scats, etc.) and identify the animal. As Sue has pounded into us, all tracks tell a story of daily life. Animals are not out taking in the sights. They are hunting and foraging and will go where the food is.

Last winter, we followed a fisher track pattern for a while to see where it had been. Fishers are a relatively rare and precious predators in these parts and finding a fresh track is exciting. We saw where it had crossed the tracks of a porcupine (another cool find) and stopped to sniff them out.

That same day we came across a recent deer kill and read the sign of where the deer had been traveling and saw where it had bedded down before meeting its cold end. A mass of coyote tracks told the rest of the story and other predators and scavengers had been sustained by that one life — the fisher, a weasel, crows. Nothing is wasted in the forest in winter.

Another day we tracked a porcupine back to its den in a rocky crevasse and then followed it out to the hemlocks on which is had been feeding. We never saw the porcupine that day but reading its tracks that told its story almost as well as watching it go about its prickly business. In that way tracking broadens our understanding of the wilds around us. The woods are alive with animal life. Just because we don’t see them, does not mean they are not there. We see mink tracks everywhere in the snow now that we know their familiar shape and pattern — yet we rarely see one in person. Animal signs are everywhere if you become trained to see them. Suddenly the forest feels alive with possibility.

Translating that skill into summer tracking is a different matter. Snow is a great tracking substrate. Without it, you have to depend on different and more subtle signs; skunks nosing under leaf litter, turkeys scratching for grubs, deer rubbing velvet (and bark) off their antlers, scats, nibbled tree buds, etc. So when I began to notice bear sign on a forest hike I have been doing daily for years, I took notice. How had I not seen it before?


I love beech trees and had been making a point of hiking through this beech forest for years and never once noticed that bears were using the forest to forage for beechnuts until I knew what to look for.  Suddenly the forest took on a much richer, more interesting and  admittedly more intimidating awareness. I was not alone out there among the trees. Not that I expected black bears to suddenly start bounding out from the trees with teeth bared, but I could stumble on one accidentally as I was zoning out looking at lichens. It’s just good to be aware and pay attention.

And when you start to pay attention, you notice a lot of other things too….

Like raccoon tracks on the windshield in summer.

Bunnies blending into the underbrush.

And weasels in the winter garden.

There is something to see year round if you take the time to look for it.

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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.

1 thought on “Paying Attention to Animal Signs

  1. ‘Always good to read your blog! Thanks! Yes, I wish I were in a location able to take advantage of Sue Morse’s class. It all sounds like a lot of fun!

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