Tracking programs reveal winter’s wild wanderings in the Bay State
GLOBE CORRESPONDENT FEBRUARY 05, 2016
As a youngster, Alexander Dunn ran wild in a vacant lot behind his home in Cambridge.
“I spent tons of time tracking rabbits and squirrels, raccoons and opossums and occasionally a Red fox,” recalled Dunn, now a Gloucester resident.
Referencing child development expert/author Louise Chawla, Dunn added, “Like so many adult, self-proclaimed environmentalists, I had what (Chawla) highlights as the two most crucial childhood ingredients: a mentor and a semi-wild place to explore at will.
These days, employed by the Trustees of Reservations, Dunn is an engagement site manager in the Charles River Valley, primarily at Chestnut Hill Farm in Southborough and Rocky Woods in Medfield.
“These acres are there for both the enjoyment of the public as well as for the wildlife, and of course the overlap is when tracking comes into play,” he said.
“My job is to connect our visitors to the land through activities and knowledge, and tracking is a perfect example.”
The joy of tracking, he says, is tied to the solitude and quiet of the activity.
“It was not something I often did with friends or school,” said Dunn.
“It was having that moment of quiet awe, all alone, with just my breathe moving through the cold air, knowing that I was bearing witness to some small narrative in this much larger, more complex story.
“Now, as an educator, I try to honor those moments by giving students of any age the tools and space to have similar moments alone in the wild,” he said.
“Of course, by preserving over 113 properties across the state, people are never far from a wild or semi-wild place to explore.”
Dunn thoroughly enjoys the isolation of tracking, but the activity clearly makes for a great group outing.
Organizations like the Trustees of Reservations and Greenbelt (formerly the Essex County Greenbelt Association) offer several tracking-related programs.
Kelsey Cowdell , a Trustees engagement site manager at the Governor Ames Estate (Easton) and Francis William Bird Park (Walpole), leads an “Animal Tracks and Traces” day for kids and adults during the February school vacation.
“I’m most passionate about the chance to use tracking as a way to introduce children and families to nature in a way they may not have considered before,” said Cowdell.
“The mystery of following a trail can be really appealing, and the fun, game-like aspect it can have may attract families when they may not otherwise have chosen to head out.”
Dorothy Antczak , field education programs manager for the Trustees, developed the Crane Outdoor Adventures Program, which offers several tracking options like the “Stop, Look and Listen Tour” at Castle Hill in Ipswich (all cq).
“The art of tracking is really about sharpening your skills of observation, about learning to see ‘clues’ that you can then piece together to create a story – or an educated guess, really – that reveals what’s going on in the world around you,” said Antczak.
Similar to Dunn, Antczak’s interest in tracking began at a young age.
“Oddly, I first discovered tracking by trying not to leave tracks,” said Antczak, who lives in Ipswich. “I was a big fan of the Native American Sacajawea, who gathered the ducks killed by her tribe in the marsh without leaving her footprints in the mud.
“While attempting it, I noticed all of the tracks that had been left in the mud by the edge of the river, an array that included raccoon, deer, coyote and different types of birds,” she said. “My parents were both nature enthusiasts and teachers, and curiosity was rewarded with hikes and camping excursions and trips to the library. We learned about tracking as a family.”
According to Antczak, tracking is another outstanding reason to brave the cold weather.
“Winter tracking is, for me, always a little more exciting than tracking in other seasons. Tracks are easier to see and follow on top of the snow, and the creatures that live under the snow, like mice or voles, often burrow tunnels that leave raised lines that show where they’ve traveled,’ she said.
“Last winter, when the snow drifted to four and five feet high, the deer, desperate for food, were browsing the bark off of trees from the tops of those tall snow banks. When the snow melted, it was curious to see ‘scrape’ marks so high up.”
Cowdell said that from a teaching perspective, “winter tracking is great because you often more clearly see the tracks in the snow, which can be rewarding for beginners,” she said.
“While tracks and other signs are certainly visible in other seasons, the snow can help to leave clearer imprints. This means it is easier to point out the shape of the feet, the pattern of the strides, and follow where they might be headed.
“This is a great jumping off point for kids who have never seen a clear wild animal track before, and can lead to some great discussions.
“The best place to track is wherever you feel comfortable exploring. You can just as easily track a squirrel in your local park as track a more ‘exciting’ animal anywhere else. The main thing to do is get out and try.”