You don’t need a magnifying glass, a deerstalker cap, and a Dr. Watson to track the mammals you suspect to be traversing your favorite pieces of Adirondack real estate. What are required most of all are curiosity and a willingness to invest the considerable time and energy it takes to study footprints, partially eaten food items, and scat. I mean to really scrutinize them, not glance at them in passing. To grow as a tracker, it also helps to find a teacher. Since most of us don’t shell out money to go to tracking schools, our teachers tend to be the authors of field guides.
There are a bewildering array on the market. One of the oldest and finest is Olaus J. Murie’s Field Guide to Animal Tracks, first published as part of the famous Peterson Field Guide series in 1954. Murie writes like a poet but has the eye of a detective. Line drawings, his own, illustrate the book. They’re detailed and spot on.
Other fine introductions to tracking are Paul Rezendes’s Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign (Collins Reference, 1999), Mark Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species (Stackpole Books, 2003), and Louise R. Forrest’s Field Guide to Tracking in Snow (Stackpole Books, 1988). Of these, the Rezendes book is the most engaging, the Elbroch the most comprehensive, and the Forrest especially insightful for Adirondack trackers, who much of the year do their sleuthing in snow.
Given how many tracking guides already exist and how helpful most of them are, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would bother elbowing into the crowded field. Yet I’m pleased that Linda J. Spielman, an Ithaca-based environmental educator and leader of the Ithaca Tracking Club, did. Her newly released A Field Guide to Tracking Mammals in the Northeast makes a welcome and useful addition to the literature.
The Adirondack tracker using this book to identify unfamiliar wild mammal footprints won’t have to wade through pages cluttered with information about muskox, mule deer, collared peccaries, prairie dogs, American pikas, black-footed ferrets, and pronghorn. Yes, if you intend to grab a tracking guide and head for the Rockies or the Sierra, this is not the book for you. But if your study will principally be confined to the Adirondacks and elsewhere in northeastern North America, then Spielman has done you a great service. By winnowing out the geographical chaff, she has greatly increased the odds that you’ll make sense of what you see.
I like the fact that Spielman, like any good teacher, starts with general principles and motivations. She gives you time to gather your wits and inner reservoir of self-discipline before plunging you into minutiae. And make no mistake. To gain any mastery of animal tracks, you have to start paying attention to little things: the length and width of footprints, the gait of the animal at the time the footprints were made, the length of strides, the width of straddle, and the signature shapes of toe pads. And that’s just for starters.
“Tracking,” she writes, “is a skill anyone can learn, and it holds the power to reveal unseen events—which animals come and go, what they pay attention to, and how they interact with each other and with their surroundings.” This is good writing, and it’s a beautiful and succinct summation of what tracking has to offer. I like what Spielman has to say about bear tracks. It’s warmer and more personal than what you’ll find in most other guides. “A bear track,” she writes, “especially a rear, could easily be mistaken for the print of a barefoot human. … But closer examination reveals that things are not quite right. The larger toes are on the outside of the foot and the smallest toe sits farther back on the inside. There may also be a claw mark just ahead of each toe.” The description goes on to include habitat, sign, scat, and modes of locomotion. Read the words and contemplate the accompanying drawings (also the work of the author), and you’ll be on your way to identifying and learning from their tracks and droppings where and when you find black bears.
If there’s one thing I like best about Field Guide to Tracking Mammals in the Northeast, it’s the language. She delivers a warm, inviting approach to tracking. This is significant. Warmth and welcome go a long way in ushering newcomers into dense detail and deep snow. As it happens, what’s best about this book—language—strays at times into its chief shortcoming. There are places where the author’s accessible English fails her. At times, unnecessarily to my way of thinking, she uses cold technical words such as morphology and distal that lie beyond the comfortable vocabulary of most of us. Where it occurs, this may distance the author from her readers and distance readers from material they’d otherwise find enticing.
But this is a quibble. Spielman’s guide is a first-rate job from start to finish. She and her book will make converts to the pleasures of wild mammal tracking for many years to come.