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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tracking Nature in Winter

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Pippin Ross follows wildlife tracker Paul Rezendes and his students through the winter woods of Massachusetts. Winter tracking gives Rezendes information about the creatures and their habitat — and insight into how human beings fit in.


NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood.

As winter settles in over most of the US, life in the woods and the mountains is slowing down. But there's still a complex interplay of life in the wild areas. Reporter Pippin Ross recently spent a day in the New England woods with a man who teaches animal tracking. His students learn about the animals they're following, and about themselves.

(sound of people talking)

VOICE: When I think of a raccoon, I always think of hands. So I was looking for tracks that had a hand-like quality.

ROSS: Paul Resendez and five other people are sitting on the living room floor of his small house in central Massachusetts. They're studying a ceramic tile covered with the tracks of all sorts of animals. These people - school teachers, a 14-year old boy and his father, and a wildlife painter - have come from as far away as Canada to spend their Sunday in one of Resendez's advanced animal tracking classes. To Resendez's surprise, these weekend workshops for both beginner and advanced animal trackers are booked right through the winter.

RESENDEZ: They're naturalists, they're birdwatchers, they're people from like - they might belong to Audubon Society, or they might be skiers who just got sick of not being able to identify the tracks. So there's a really awful lot of people out there who are interested in these hunting skills but yet are not interested in hunting the animals down.

(sound of footsteps)

ROSS: It's been raining hard for about 24 hours. As the group moves outdoors, Resendez tells them he doesn't expect to find many tracks. Animals tend to hole up in the rain and most tracks have probably been washed away. Perfect conditions, he says, for an advanced group of trackers.

RESENDEZ: For instance, today we're looking at tracks in sand, and I just wanted to bring these people to some sand. But again, we don't even need these tracks. Like when we go in the forest - our New England forest, for example, has nothing but pine needles and leaves and it's very hard to find tracks. You don't need one single track to know what's going on.

ROSS: Despite the rain, there are tracks, but they're vague and the group can't depend on their knowledge of what animals' paw pads look like, where their claws hit, and the distinct patterns left by front and hind feet. Determined to mount the challenge, the trackers begin measuring the distance between prints. So specific is each animal's track pattern, knowing the length of their gait reveals the species.

VOICE: To me it looks like red fox, but I'm not sure we've got all the tracks here. Just on the basis of those, it looks like a rotary loping pattern...

ROSS: A coveted treasure of the animal tracker is feces - what trackers call "scat." A highlight of the day is a small pile of coyote scat.

RESENDEZ: That looks like porcupine quills...

VOICE: Or feathers, feathers...

VOICE: Been eatin' some grouse?

RESENDEZ: Should look at the garbage this animal's been eatin'...

VOICE: Tin foil!

ROSS: In the company of people who walk slowly and look everywhere, the woods become a series of surprises that tell the story of nature's order. Here, a collection of tracks and broken eggshells reveal a raccoon's plunder of a stash of buried turtle eggs. The trackers are amazed the raccoon has left behind two intact but lifeless victims.

VOICE: Look at that.

VOICE: Awww, baby turtles...

VOICE: A little turtle. That's amazing.

VOICE: I would think that was a snapper...

ROSS: For these trackers, following an animal seems to be much more compelling than actually finding one. Resendez says that's because the process of the hunt tunes people's senses in ways we seldom use them these days. In the process of paying attention to every detail, Resendez says we become more like an animal.

RESENDEZ: I'm talking about the quality of attention that we bring to our lives, maybe similar to that of a wild animal in the forest that is incredibly present. But I think what's happened to human beings is we've kind of migrated and moved out of our senses and up into our intellects.

ROSS: Resendez says the woods are rife with signs of animals that were one nearly extinct here. Populations are growing, thanks in part to people's efforts to return species that were driven away by the clearing of New England's forests for farmland. But, Resendez says, the future of many species is uncertain.

RESENDEZ: Beavers were gone from New England. Otters were basically gone. Fishers were gone. They're all back now, and some of them in abundance. It wouldn't be hard to turn that around again. I mean, this time we're not making fields out of our forests. We're making malls. That doesn't grow back up. I mean, it's one thing to tell a person, "hey, you're that environment out there. What's happening to that environment's happening to you." It's another thing to be on your hands and knees here, learning that intimately.

ROSS: For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross in the woods of central Massachusetts.

RESENDEZ: What we're looking at, I'm sure everybody's figured out, is wild turkey tracks. But what are they, male or female?... (fade out)


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