Tracking Tales

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Garden wildlife reminds me of teenagers – the critters eat distressingly huge meals then typically leave without communicating about what they have been up to.   Except in wintertime, when they leave a tale of tracks in the snow.

I’m no great tracker, but with the help of my Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks I can at least tell the difference between a fox footprint and that of a dog, trace the travels of the rabbit around my yard, and discover that it is a porcupine that has been nibbling the branch tips off the hemlocks.

It was a string of five-toed footprints, each one not much bigger than a quarter, that told me to keep an eye on the wood pile.  And my vigilance was rewarded one gray morning when I spotted a mink darting in between the logs, then re-emerging with a mouse in his jaws.

It’s a thrill to find evidence of such an uncommon (at least in my garden) species, but tracks of the commonest animals excite me just as much if they have a story to tell.  A red feather and a spot of blood in a small snow crater told me all I had to know about the encounter of a cardinal and a hawk.  And I still remember following the tracks of a Canada goose, its toes dug in and the stride gradually lengthening until, suddenly, the tracks stopped – I felt as if I had taken off, too.

I have to move fast when inspecting tracks.  My Duck-Tolling Retriever, Bridie, is usually hot on the trail, obliterating the evidence as she pokes her nose into each footprint, so if I don’t get there first, all I find is a series of snow smudges.  The visual doesn’t matter to Bridie; she can tell far more from the scent, not only who has been there but when and much more.  Indeed, I suspect she regards my failure to put my nose to the ground as the sure mark of a hopeless amateur.  Which, of course, is what I am, a tracking semi-literate, but I enjoy the stories even so.

toller tracks
Duck-Tolling Retriever Tracks

 

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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 30 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Essential Perennials, a guide to the best contemporary perennial flowers co-authored with Ruth Rogers Clausen and published by Timber Press.  I’m currently working on a book about ecological gardening with Larry Weaner.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.

 

Contact Tom by email

8 COMMENTS

  1. Love this! I’d love to be able to identify tracks, and maybe you’ve inspired me. Last fall I was walking around the lake when I saw a hawk (I believe) swoop down, grab a floating duck, and carry it off. Demonstrating the appropriateness of the term “sitting duck.” Susan

  2. That’s very cool that you saw a mink, where is your garden located in terms of countryside, suburbs, etc.? (I looked on your bio but it didn’t say specifically.) Attracting wildlife is 95% of my motivation for gardening. I do want a nice outdoor area to sit and enjoy, but not if it’s devoid of animal life. Do you make any explicit effort to accommodate or attract local wildlife to your garden? And I wish I had snow to try tracking in!

    • My garden is in the country — but I’ve found lots of great tracks in suburban Connecticut. Even if the actors are no more uncommon than squirrels and crows, it’s fun to read the stories.

  3. We’ve followed otter tracks (with slides,) seen where an owl swooped in to snag some small prey, it is one of the most enjoyable winter “sports”, reading the stories in the snow.

  4. Love your post. I also have been seeing lots of tracks on our 8-acre property since the last big snow, and my German Shepherd, Sasha, does exactly what Bridie does, and obliterates many of them. I’m not very good at identifying the tracks, but seeing them makes one realize all the wildlife activity that’s going on at night! It’s a good thought and somehow another way to help get through the winter. Glad to know I’m not the only one who thinks so.

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