“All things are engaged in writing their history….Not a foot steps into the snow, or along the ground, but prints in characters more or less lasting, a map of its march.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Andy Dobos had been tracking animals, tracing the maps of their marches, for a while before he had his epiphany.
About 15 years ago, he found a coyote track — single track, front paws bigger than hind paws — that made him pause. The rear tracks were swinging out of line.
“I thought of how a dog runs out to greet you, with her tail wagging and her rear end swinging out behind her,” Dobos said, speaking at a meeting of the Litchfield Hill Audubon Society earlier this month.
So he kept following the track and eventually found the reason for the coyote joie de vivre. It had met up with its pack. The single track led to a spaghetti swirl of coyote footprints, of greetings and reunions.
“That coyote was happy to see the rest of the family,” Dobos said.
Which taught him that not only do animal tracks tell you about who made them, but why they made them the way they did.
“I could really understand what they were doing, even what they were feeling by the marks on the ground,” he said.
Dobos, who lives in Litchfield, is an outdoor educator and artist. He has taught courses at the White Memorial Foundation in Litchfield and at the non-profit Two Coyotes Wilderness School in Newtown. His website is www.theforestwolf.com
He’s spent time honing his tracking skills both here and in Canada, joining in a research project tracking moose and wolves in the 2,955-square-mile Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada.
What he stressed at his talk was the need to look both deeper and wider when learning about the animals moving around us. It is tracks. But it is also how a deer browses on a bush, about fur and scat, and the bones in that scat.
For example, Dobos said, bobcat and coyote will sometimes deliberately poop atop a stump or a stone wall to mark their territory.
“If you want to let others know you’re there, you leave a sign,” he said.
These lessons are there for the learning, even in a somewhat snowless winter like this year’s.
“We’re seeing raccoon and deer tracks,” said Diane Swanson, executive director of the Pratt Nature Center in New Milford. “We haven’t seen a bobcat. But we’ve seen bobcat tracks.”
And one thing leads to another. There’s a story here.
“If the tracks lead down to Baldwin Brook, we ask our kids why,” Swanson said.
Ann Taylor, executive director of New Pond Farm Education Center in West Redding, said she’s seen the neat single tracks red fox leave in the snow, as well as the heavy tread of black bear.
“We’ve seen skunk tracks,” she said. “I haven’t smelled one yet.”
And, she said, there’s sounds — coyotes yelping and howling, great horned owls hooting to announce mating season has begun.
There’s the life-and-death drama playing out daily.
Dobos said he once saw a Cooper’s hawk pause — almost pose — on a branch with a chipmunk it its talons. When the hawk flew away, Dobos said, he found a spot of blood on the ground, and chipmunk tracks leading into its den under a rock. But none leading out.
“The hawk must have been watching,” he said.
There’s also the trick of sorting out the different canids – coyotes versus family dogs.
One way to tell, is that coyote prints are pretty much the same size.
“Dogs can be all shapes and sizes,” Dobos said. “Some can be small enough to look like a cat.”
Amanda Branson, executive director of the Naromi Land Trust in Sherman, said coyotes trot in a determined line. They’re headed in a direction for a reason.
“Dogs tend to run back and forth,” she said.
And there’s also the delicate cross-hatching a flock of juncos leave in the snow.
“You can see them hopping on two feet,” Branson said.
There’s human tracks, Branson said. Humans, alas, leave litter in their wake.
But there was also the time Dobos was out tracking an animal. When he checked his own tracks later, he found that a bobcat had used his footsteps as a path, rather than expend extra energy plowing through the snow on its own.
“I felt I was really part of things,” he said.