Burrowing owls (Photo by Don Dabbs)

Burrowing owls (Photo by Don Dabbs)

Connecting to nature through wildlife tracking

Sometimes all we see are tracks: fairly fresh Grizzly track in soft mud. The human foot is a size 15 shoe. Not sure what size the bear would be but probably XXXL. (Photo by Peter Shaughnessy)

Sometimes all we see are tracks: fairly fresh Grizzly track in soft mud. The human foot is a size 15 shoe. Not sure what size the bear would be but probably XXXL. (Photo by Peter Shaughnessy)

Alberta’s natural areas are teeming with biodiversity. As temperatures increase, more and more people are getting outside and into nature. One of the draws of the outdoors is the opportunity to experience the vast array of wildlife that Alberta has to offer. Deer, moose, bear, even the elusive cougar and wolverine call our province home. The question is, how do we know they are around?

Armed with binoculars and a good pair of hiking boots, the dedicated explorer can march down a trail, waiting for a lucky sighting. Unfortunately, stumbling upon an animal by chance can be difficult and dangerous, and many outings with little success can be frustrating. Luckily, there is a more proactive way to search for wildlife: looking for tracks.

While wildlife tracking may seem like a skill possessed by only experienced outdoors people and professionals, it is easy for amateurs to get into. All you need is a good set of eyes and the willingness to learn.

All animal species have unique footprints that can be used to identify them. Birds, cervids, canines and cats all have different defining characteristics that an astute tracker can use to categorize the prints they see. The first step, though, is knowing when and where to look.

To find tracks, begin looking either in the morning or late afternoon, as the bright midday sun makes  deciphering tracks difficult. Shadows from late- or early-day sun lend themselves better to spotting imprints on the ground. This also means that going out in cloudy weather makes tracking easier than on brighter days.

Hard-packed earth does not mold well, and deciphering any prints will be difficult. To find tracks, soft, wet soil is your best bet. Begin your search near a creek bed where the surrounding soil is moist. There is also the added benefit that an animal may have stopped to take a drink, creating an excellent starting point. Rain can also become your best friend, as the softened ground after a good rainfall creates ideal conditions for tracking across open ground.

Now that you know when and where to search for tracks, now comes the nitty gritty detail: identification. You found some prints, and now you need to identify what they belong to

Here, a guidebook would prove useful, and there are many informational books and pocket guides available online and in local bookstores. A good way to prepare yourself before you head out tracking is to identify the common wildlife in the area that you are visiting and get a sense of what their tracks look like — perhaps bookmark those pages in your guidebook. This is helpful to narrow down the options of what it could be rather than flipping through a full guidebook of species that may not reside in your location. Even without a guidebook, however, there are a few rules of thumb for new trackers.

Cats and canines both have four toes on each paw. Cats retract their claws when they walk, while canine prints always show claw marks. Bear prints are easily distinguishable by their massive size and their five toes. Beavers also have five toes, but their prints are much smaller that an bear's.

Cervids (deer, moose and elk) can be distinguished by their two toes. Within their class, size is helpful in distinguishing between them. Deer will be the smallest, and moose the largest.

Rabbits, chipmunks, and squirrels have four front toes and five hind toes. Again, size will be a helpful distinguishing factor.

All trackers start as beginners, but as you build experience identifying prints, it is time to take your knowledge to the next level. The Nature Conservancy of Canada is proud to present the free webinar "Become a Wildlife Detective: Summer Tracking for Beginners" on May 31, featuring expert tracker Joseph Litke.

 Joseph is a co-founder of Fiera Biological, where he is a wildlife specialist and senior biologist with over 25 years’ experience working across western Canada and the U.S. He is widely recognized as one of the best wildlife trackers in Alberta, and he is hosting this workshop, which will be suitable for beginners of all ages. Join Joseph as he takes us through the basics of wildlife tracking and helps awaken the inner tracker that lives inside us all.

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