As the rain slowed to a gentle mist and the last bit of daylight faded from the north Alabama sky, a river otter stood next to a small pool of water just off a tributary of Limestone Creek. Confident in its apparent solitude, it dropped into the water and quickly swam to the other side, its powerful tail allowing it to cross in just seconds. Recognizing the easiest path available, it left the water and stepped onto the smooth mud of a beaver slide that was worn between the pool and the nearby creek.
Not quite running, it moved at a quick pace with a sense of self assurance. It slowed and ducked slightly as it passed beneath a low-lying branch, its right front paw crushing a tiny plant into the soft mud as it did so. Having cleared that small obstacle, the otter moved quickly once again up the slight incline of the slide before flowing gracefully into the dark, cool waters of the creek. It disappeared with hardly a ripple as it went on its way, watching for predators as it sought prey of its own.
That’s what the story says, anyway. The story written in the mud of that particular beaver slide.
I was recently able to spend a morning learning basic tracking skills from Nick Sharp, a friend who’s a wildlife biologist with Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. He and I both serve on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s environmental education committee, and we were spending time together preparing for an upcoming children’s workshop. He’s the expert on tracking, and I’ve got a bit of experience translating adult-level material down for an elementary-aged audience.
I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors and know a thing or two about temperate hardwood forests, but this was a new and eye-opening experience for me as I’m now able to see things I couldn’t see before.
We started our morning together with Nick quickly walking me through some printed resources he uses with adult learners. After a short discussion about how they could be used with children, we were off, heading across an open field and into the woods to see what we could see.
Evidence of animals in the wild falls into two broad categories: tracks and signs. Tracks are just that–footprints cast into soft dirt, sand, or snow. Signs, however, can be so much more, and are plentiful in comparison to tracks. As we traversed the countryside, Nick’s words and tutelage helped me read the stories the land had to tell.
When an animal moves through grass and other vegetation, it bends and breaks the plants in the direction of its travel. This is called flagging.
Flagging was easy to see as we started walking across the field we shared with a small herd of cattle. I certainly didn’t have the ability to follow the trail of a single animal from the herd, but the experience was akin to reading from a children’s book and gave me the basics that I’d be able to apply later in the morning. We saw flagging again later, this time apparently caused by deer or armadillos. It wasn’t nearly as easy to see, but there it was once I knew what to look for.
The way this vegetation is shredded lets you know that deer probably browsed here. Deer don’t have teeth in the front of their top jaw. They have a hard palate that they use with the teeth on their lower jaw. This means they can’t bite cleanly when they eat.
It was neat to think and learn about the ways animals find food and eat. Larger squirrels like the grey and fox squirrels will chew the shells of different nuts to pieces. It’s not uncommon to find the shell pieces of harder nuts like black walnuts, while softer nuts like acorns may be shredded. Smaller rodents like flying squirrels, chipmunks, and mice can’t begin to do that kind of damage to a nut, but will chew holes in the sides and eat the nut meat through them. Deer browse, shredding vegetation as they go, but beavers and other, smaller rodents shear vegetation at a near-45 degree angle. Squirrels dig small holes the size of a saucer as they bury and dig up hidden nuts, armadillos disrupt the soil and vegetation of an area the size of a dinner table, and wild hogs basically plow areas the size of the whole dining room–and then some.
What we’re doing is reading the woods…reading the forest.
The story was fascinating as we did just that: read the narrative that was laid out before us. Whether it was dissecting bird droppings or tracing the oft-traveled trail of an armadillo, the tale of the otherwise unseen was there for us to decode. Examining the chewed bark of a squirrel stripe on a tulip poplar and spotting hair plucked from the tail of a passing horse by a protruding branch all helped us piece together the recent past as if we had been there to witness it. Even listening to the warning chirp of a distant chipmunk gave us a sense of the fauna all around us.
If you get the chance, take a walk and open your eyes in a new way. You’ll be glad you did.
Note: The ideas expressed in italics are Nick’s, but the paraphrase is mine. I’m sure the lessons were expressed more clearly when he gave them.