Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Tracker's Library

More than one person has asked me for book recommendations on the subject of animal tracking. So, I thought I'd take a moment to share some of the books in my arsenal, and give you my opinion of each, for what it's worth.

These are two of my favorite books, both by Mark Elbroch. These are heavy books, for they are printed on good-quality paper and full of color photographs. The mammal book covers not only tracks, but also scats, dens, and feeding signs. If you find a clump of feathers, signs of a bird kill, this book can help you determine if it was a bobcat or a coyote that plucked the bird. Lots and lots of good information. The bird book is likewise filled with good info, but I have found that for me, at least at this point in my tracking skills, bird track ID is difficult. Sure, crow tracks are easy to ID, and turkey and grouse, but to tell a chickadee from a goldfinch, that is much more challenging. But, if you want to become expert at this, then this is the book for you.

Tucked into the pages of my copy of Mammal Tracks and Signs is a yellow ruler. This is a hinged ruler, that opens up into two rulers, one for vertical and one for horizontal measurements. This ruler is ideal for anyone who is recording tracks photographically, for it measures length and width simultaneously, and if you are making a record of tracks, a ruler is much better for measuring than your foot, your thumb, your lens cap, or a quarter. I got this ruler from Keeping Track (see below), but a carpenter's ruler (the ones that fold up) will work just as well.

The first real tracking course I took was with Jim Bruchac (he runs the Ndakina Education Center in Greenfield Center, NY; see his website here). Jim, who is part Abenaki, used to do Native American storytelling as part of an overnight school program we have here, so I was familiar with his interests and his teaching style. A few years ago I signed up for his weekend-long tracking class and learned an awful lot. Much of his training was with James Halfpenny, who is a tracking instructor out west.

One of the difficulties with learning tracking is that just about every book out there teaches it differently. While teaching techniques are not in question, terminology is. For example, one instructor may define "stride" as the distance from one foot print to the next (left or right, front or hind - it doesn't make any difference), while another will measure it from where, say, the left hind foot lands to where it lands the next time, and a third instructor measures "stride" as this funky diagonal length. One of Halfpenny's goals it to get everyone on the same page, so that when someone refers to the "stride length" as, say, 17 inches, everyone knows exactly what this measurement is. His is a rather scientific approach to tracking.

In his video training set (seen above), you learn exactly how the animals move, and thus how each track pattern is made. This becomes immensely important in learning how to read tracks. Halfpenny and Bruchac teamed up to write a series of pocket guides for animal tracking, each booklet specific to a specific region of the States (e.g. Tracks and Scats of the Northeast). There were some errors in the first editions, but hopefully they've been corrected in subsequent ones.

Paul Rezendes' Tracking and the Art of Seeing is one of the classics in tracking literature. Every tracker should have this book, for it has lots of photos and lots of background information. It covers behavior as well as movement. And, one of the best bits, it also covers scats - very important to trackers. The downside (in my humble opinion) is the confusing way he measures tracks - see my notes above regarding James Halfpenny. The Field Guide to Tracking Animals in the Snow is a book that resides in our library here at work. I don't know if I've ever read it or not. But, looking through it now I see that it has some good info in it, much of which coincides with Halfpenny's teachings (gaits and movements). Just flipping through it I think I would recommend this book, too (I will now be adding it to my reading list this winter).

Olaus Murie's book is part of the Peterson Field Guide series. Murie was quite famous for his natural history studies. The book gives some good basic information for ID, but as far as a teaching tool goes, I'd recommend something else first. The Stokes Nature Guides are always chocked full of interesting information. The number of animals covered may be limited, but they give you lots of good background and natural history. This is one I would recommend for filling in the gaps.

Jon Young is the founder of the Wilderness Awareness School out in Washington State. I've taken two of their courses: Kamana I and Kamana II. These are their naturalist-training classes (it goes up to level four). For the average person who has little or no knowledge about the natural world, these courses are likely to be highly worthwhile. For me, I found most of it to be old hat - I wasn't learning much. I signed up for the programs to hopefully learn more about tracking, but I don't think they really get into serious tracking info until the third and fourth levels, and financially, those are a bit beyond me at this point. That said, Animal Tracking Basics is just what it says: a basic book for learning tracking. It has a lot of good information, although I did find a couple errors. One of the best things about Jon Young's publications is his knowledge of using bird behaviors to enhance one's tracking skills. They are covered in this book, but he also has an audio series for learning bird language (not bird songs, per se, but reading bird behavior). You can find these books and CDs here.

Keeping Track is a non-profit tracking organization in Vermont, established by Susan Morris, who is quite well-known for her tracking prowess. I've taken a couple courses with Susan and she does indeed know her stuff (bobcats are one of her specialties). One of the goals of Keeping Track is to teach people how to monitor local wildlife populations in order to make better planning decisions for their communities. This book gives the reader tips on how to photograph tracks. It has some good info in it, but most people could probably live without it. You can learn more about Keeping Track here.

The SAS Guide to Tracking is great if you become a hard-core tracker. This is for people who want to learn how to age tracks, and how to read all the minute nuances that tracks can tell. If you want to track something across a dry creek bed, this is the book for you. For most of us, this book is over the top, but for those few who become totally obsessed with tracking, it's a good one to have. Along with this I would add John Brown's tracking books - he, too, gets into the wee little details that most of us will never be able to see.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do is take a class with a good tracker. Any class that is less than half a day long is not likely to be worthwhile... not if you really want to get to know how to track things. The best classes (for those who are serious about learning tracking) are multiple day courses, and ones that actually get you outside following tracks.

Here at the Newcomb VIC, I offer tracking classes throughout the winter, mostly for school groups, but also for the public. Because most people are not as obsessed with tracking as I am, my classes usually run about two hours - more than that and people get bored. I spend about an hour or so inside review tracks and gaits, and then we go outside looking for tracks to ID and to see if we can learn what stories they have to tell.

A really close second to signing up for a good course is to just get out there and do it yourself! At first you may find all you can do is simply identify footprints, but, as with all things, practice makes perfect. In order to make the most of this, you also need to learn a) what animals are in your area, and b) what their behaviors are. For example, if you live in Tennessee, you probably won't be tracking martens, no matter what the tracks look like. And if you are following a track that goes from tree to tree, odds are it's not a deer (they don't climb trees).

For me, the best bit about tracking are the stories. When you get good at reading tracks, you can pretty much tell what the animal was doing. Was it simply going from point A to point B, or was it stalking something? Is it a female in heat? Did the animal hear something and change its gait to take advantage of this (to find food or avoid being eaten)? When did the coyote first see the hare and begin chasing it? Did the owl catch the mouse?

I hope this bibliographic review has been helpful. I'd suggest looking at more than one book - what works for me, may not work for you. Talk to other trackers and see what they recommend. Then get out there and observe - there's no substitute for it.

If you live in the Saratoga region, you might want to keep your eyes open for tracking classes with Vince Walsh, founder of Kawing Crow Awareness Center. I took a class with him last winter at the Paul Smiths VIC and will be going to another one in a couple weeks (9 Jan) at the Wilton Preserve. Vince is an enthusiastic tracker and a good teacher - I recommend his programs. He will be at the Paul Smiths VIC 6 March (9:30 - 2:30); pre-registration required.


  1. Ellen, thank you ever so much. You answered my question and more. I can tell you really enjoy tracking and I have been inspried by your blog to pay attention to tracks and signs. Your blog is a good reminder that there is more to mammals than just an occasional sighting or a pbs special. I'm sure I will be returning again and again to this blog. Thanks

  2. Wow! That's quite a collection! Thanks for the recommendations. I'm really looking forward to Vince's tracking class, especially since you'll be in it too. See you soon.

  3. Thanks so much for all the wonderful info; I too, will be taking the tracking class this weekend and I can't wait. Looking forward to meeting you!