Tracking Part II: Field trip details

The purpose of this field trip was to give the boys a chance to find signs of animal activity in a variety of habitats. Tracking is not just about finding animal tracks, or footprints, but a variety of evidence in the details.
Oak Hill Academy is hardly a wild place, but along the edges of the property one can find fence rows, an old apple orchard, mown fields, different sequences of successional growth, branches and a pond.

The first activity for the day was to find tracks and cast molds. On the driveway there was a story told, with horseshoe tracks accompanied by a canine. Though the drive was graveled and hard, because of recent rains some tracks were deep enough to make decent molds. None of the boys had ever used plaster of Paris, so in that alone existed a learning curve. Discovered after the casts had dried, was how the plaster attracted small bits of gravel and dirt along with the prints. The fellows seen hanging over the dock were cleaning these casts as best as they could.

We learned quickly that the best medium for tracks is mud. Along some edges of the pond were found many quality deer prints, as well as clear signs of their scat and browsing technique. The freshest green growth was nibbled closely to the ground, while adjacent drier grasses left taller.

Down below the pond and pavilion is an old rock wall, providing hiding places and homes for smaller critters. The boys inspecting the wall discovered one print of a rodent, most likely that of a mouse species.

Many scat samples were found. The first was about two inches long and ¾ inches in diameter. It looked very much like domestic dog scat, except it was full of hair, not typical for a dog. We surmised, after much discussion, that it could have been left by either a coyote or bobcat. Coyotes are known to be in the area, so it was generally agreed that this scat was most likely a coyote’s.
In a short-leaf pine stand, three of the guys found a very fresh scat with seeds evident. One boy, who has grown up hunting, was certain it was that of a raccoon. In the same patch of woods, we had a chance to compare relatively dry and round deer droppings with others that were formed in more of a puddle. Thinking about the trails that all led up to the apple orchard, we wondered if that scat was the result of filling up on the ready fruit.
Horse scat gave the scouts a chance to compare herbivores with carnivores in terms of scat content and form.

Along the many trails we found tufts of hair that were determined to be that of a deer. One scout suggested, given the currency of wind, that both samples were recent. And, in fact, we stirred up a couple of deer that were bedding down in the early afternoon sun.

Near a marshy area below the pond, the scouts discovered mounds of freshly piled sand in a linear grouping of four or five along the edge of the path. One boy said ‘mole’ and we discussed the possible mole options. Though he did not know the name, another scout said that some moles don’t typically dig very deep, and guessed this was that kind of mole. Star-nosed mole was then introduced to the conversation and as it turned out, several of the kids knew this critter. Star-nosed moles depend on wet ground for their excavating techniques, so we generally agreed that this was indeed the culprit.

The Stalking Game: After lunch and some general discussion, Buddy Halsey, parent and scout leader, offered a stalking game, which turned out to be the highlight of the day. The idea here was for Buddy to position himself on top of a hill, in full view, while three groups of scouts attempted to get as close to him as possible before he spotted them. The three groups designed their own strategies and all took different paths. What made this especially challenging was how open most of the area was between Buddy and the scouts’ starting points. All three groups put great effort into this challenge, suffering the barbs of blackberry thickets, barbed wire and other indignities, but the older group won by skirting a wide arc and coming up behind Buddy. They used the more civilized but longer path, including campus buildings for shields.

And lastly, all 11 boys participated in a version of hide and seek known as Snake Pit, where one boy is given a four minute lead, finds a hiding place and stays put. Then, at four-minute intervals, and one at a time, another boy was released to find the hiding place, and if successful, stayed as well…and so on.

Tracking Part I: Boy Scouts and BRDC

-Story and Photographs by Scott Jackson-Ricketts