Here’s where the big cat sat for a few minutes watching; how small a sign for so large an animal. See these digs on the edge of the road? This is where that cat bounded down, rear feet sliding down the mounded dirt, digging divots in the soft substrate, front feet barely landing before the cat was across the road. Look around. There are cat tracks in the duff between the “sit” and the bound. There are other cats’ tracks on the other side of the road and trailing into the bush. Make up our own stories about what these animals were doing together: play? Mating dances?
Who’s hair is this, left in piles along the edge of another little road? And what to make of that black, odd-shaped pile of something? A javalina met its end here and was gutted out. The questions are: how and by what? and where is the rest of the critter? Follow the disturbed leaves and soil up and across the road, under the bush, across the stream bed and over under that oak. Not hard to see – if you know what to look for. And the question remains: what killed this animal? If a mt lion had made this kill, it would have look like this: [scatter/scrabble/draganddisappear]. If coyotes had killed the javalina, this is how things would look: [dragdrag/gnaw/scatter]. That’s not what happened here. This javalina was killed by a hunter over there, gutted, skinned and probably stripped of best parts of meat. Here are the tell-tale signs: knife marks. Coyotes probably dragged what was left here and chewed on the rib ends.
There were many more opportunities during the weekend to sus out tracks, to tangle with strides and pace, to dance left or right foot and front or back, to read that the rabbit leaped away or where the deer rested in the sand. Gopher mounds versus javalina rootings. A branch chewed off by small teeth and scrapes on branches by young antlers.
Stories upon stories told by tracks and scats and sign. Learn to read the sign to read the stories. Look around. Expand my view. Go from ground level, nose a few inches above the soil, to circling the sign, to searching the surrounding landscape to get the bigger picture.
This is what I learned in an advanced tracking workshop. I thought I knew a little bit about tracking – emphasis on “a little bit.” I spent a weekend getting tested and evaluated. Whether I passed or not wasn’t my concern (I did), and how I would manage without my tracking book (that was the hardest constraint to master). What I learned was, first: what I don’t know. Then to listen, watch, absorb, sort and remember.