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Simple Tracking Tools to See More Wildlife

Bob Metcalfe shares tips for the beginning tracker on ways to feel more connected with wildlife and the natural world in this interview with Nick Shrewsbury of ifarm in Boxford, Massachusetts >

"I learn something new every time I go out. If not, it is because I’m not paying attention."
- Bob Metcalfe

Naturalist and Licensed Guide

Deer in Woods
Three Tips for the Beginning Tracker

Idea 1: The “magic” of tracking is anticipating where animals will be. This is simple knowledge that anyone can learn. If you can understand an animal’s lunch, you can make good guesses about where they will be. Black bears look for raspberries and cherries when they are in season. Fishers hunt squirrels, which tend to live near oak trees and their acorn crops. Blue herons like to fish in shallow ponds. Go to the food source and you will *probably* find the animal.


Idea 2: Go to a particular natural place (even just a few acres of woods) and get to know it well. That means passing through at different times of day and different seasons. Dawn and dusk are two times when many animals are especially active. You will see entirely different worlds unfold in your sanctuary as the seasons change, especially when you are open to curiosity. You don’t need to stop exploring new places, but enjoy the process of getting to know one area well. It will give you a baseline to understand the animals that pass through.


Idea 3: Move slowly at times. Movement (especially loud movement) sends ripples through the forest. If you give the forest time to settle around you, for the ripples of your movement to fade, you may be surprised by what you will see. Take ten minutes of sitting still and see what you discover.

Tree Eaten by Beaver
Beavers leave very conspicuous signs!
What is the most common mistake beginning trackers make?

Most beginning trackers think they have to know the answers to their questions, or that they should be able to find answers immediately. They lose the sense of fun and adventure by trying to analyze and understand everything immediately. They will spend half an hour (or more!) trying to figure out one single track, when they could just follow the tracks over the hill, have a great time, and determine the animal by what it has been browsing on.

Tracking isn’t just being able to look at a single track and identify an animal. The wonder of tracking is experiencing an animal’s world – getting to know how they move through the forest, the places they spend time in (or avoid), and anticipating their movements. Enjoy the experience and build on what you can easily learn, rather than trying to build your picture of an animal from one track when you are just starting out.

What is the key to tracking?

A key to tracking is remembering the reason you are interested in it. For many people, the inspiration is to connect with wildlife, but they get bogged down in learning the minutia. Beginning trackers quickly realize that the natural world is amazingly complex. You can spend your whole life and only begin to understand the different connections between plants, mushrooms, animals, birds, and fish (not to mention bacteria in the soil!) If your only motivation is to find answers, you will quickly become overwhelmed! Measurement and analysis have their place, but wonder and appreciation are the best tools for a beginning tracker. Measure your success by the satisfaction you find in your explorations.

What is one thing anyone can do to develop a relationship with the natural world?


We do not have to go far to observe wildlife. The most valuable (and sustainable) step we can take is to develop an appreciation of the world around us, whether a red cardinal in the snow or a squirrel burying acorns for the winter. Each animal has a world that we can come to know and appreciate. One value of this practice is that it takes us out of the stress of our modern culture.


There you have it, folks. The big message Bob will share at ifarm is that wilderness is not a secret world, but it is a complex one with amazing things to learn. One of those things is that we humans are not separate from the natural systems all around us… and it can be immensely satisfying to remember that! – Nick Shrewsbury, ifarm

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