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Cracking the Egg

This is an blog entry from a new guest writer, Richard Vacha, head of Marin County Tracking Club.  I am happy to have Richard as an occasional contributor.

To the early Apaches, Tracking and Awareness were the same word. This has taken me quite a while to really understand. Though certainly there are times in the life of a hunter-gather when tracks will be followed, the term “tracking” is also about noticing the details around us and putting the pieces together in an ongoing, dynamic realization. This is where modern nature appreciation meets up with ancient survival hunting, where immersion begins.

We have called this kind of tracking various things, from “holistic awareness” to “bringing the world back to life” or, simply, Awareness Tracking. It is a way of walking through the world, seeing the earth coming to life as we go forth, the whole panoply falling into patterns that make sense and reveal their interconnectedness.

Awareness tracking is concerned with weather history, seasonal cycles, landscape and topography, plant and insect communities, feeding sign, bird movements, and more. With a working knowledge of local animal populations, very small details quickly yield broad insights. A tracker develops a living sense of how animals are shifting in response to the progression of the seasons, where individuals live, what their territories are, and when they are active. When we approach nature this way, it is like cracking open a magical egg and watching an endless parade of surprises issue forth.

The smallest observations begin the process. On a walk near Limantour, I find a feather on the ground. A closer look reveals a cluster of feathers under a lupine bush: a bird kill. The pattern of the cluster and the location are not typical of a raptor, so I suspect that the predator was a mammal.  With a basic knowledge of feathers, I can see that this bird was a quail, and with that in mind, I begin to notice quail tracks covering the dusty gopher mounds surrounding this spot. Hmm. Lots of active gophers here implies both a healthy and growing grass base and the probability of other small mammals, such as voles and brush rabbits—and sure enough, the half-tunnel vole runs threading the grasses look recently used. Now that I’m looking, I notice little 4” circular holes in the grasses around the bases of the shrubs, like little doorways, with cleanly mown front porches, the way the cottontails love to keep house.

Rabbit tracks

In fact, I’m beginning to realize that this particular area is much richer and greener than much of the surrounding countryside. With its southern aspect and its slope and shape, the plant community has not gone into such a deep winter pause. It is actually a warm wrinkle. Insects are more active in the air, and so are the birds.

White-crowned Sparrows are busy in the surrounding brush and I realize that the scattered pattern on the ground, overlaid by the quail tracks, is the result of their foraging here earlier than the quail, and imply that a lot of seed has dropped to the ground to mix with the newly sprouted grasses after recent rains.

Now, looking carefully at the wing remains of the bird carcass, I can see that the primary feathers have been chewed off rather roughly, not as cleanly as a coyote would. A wider search soon turns up a moderately fresh bobcat scat, surface sheen beginning to dull, full of brown feather content…things are adding up. The scat also contains brown-tipped gopher fur, and, sure enough, jawbone fragments confirm this. This is clearly a productive hunting area right now.

Bobcat scat with feather content

As I scan the rough ground, my eyes see with this new intelligence and pick up otherwise nearly invisible details. One shaded edge of a Lupine is damp and Bingo!, there is a track, a couple of small circular impressions that prove to be the toes and part of the heel pad of a bobcat. It has weathered slightly, puffed up a little, and there are a few loose soil grains in the floor giving it a time scale, but given the still, cool days and nights lately, it would have aged slowly, so the track is probably a day or two old, which matches with the apparent age of the quail wing-recent but not from today. The placement of the bobcat scat, near a hiking trail, shows that this cat uses the trail and turns in here, hinting at its hunting routines. The cat is probably working a larger territory and only comes through here every few nights.

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that the Sparrows have gone silent and I turn to see a “Marsh Hawk” cruising close to the ground in more open habitat nearby, with that wonderful tilting, slow speed flight style, giving me another indication of the fecundity of this particular hunting area. An inspection at the base of an old coyote bush snag, with signs that it is regularly used as a perch, reveals raptor cough pellets full of little caches of tiny bones and teeth in their fur-cushioned casings, the tooth patterns characteristic of the vole.

All of this has taken but a few minutes. The egg is cracking. The further I go, the richer the story gets and the more deeply enmeshed in this land I become, familiar, like walking with an old friend.

Richard Vacha leads the Marin County Tracking Club .  His Point Reyes Tracking School (PRTS) offers courses in Tracking; Professional wildlife surveys; and a variety of seminars, tracking walks and workshops.  His collected works of Tracking Notes is available through his website.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you for taking us along on your journey — time stopped for me as I read your account and I became more aware myself. Beauty.

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  2. As someone who spends hundreds of hours each year tracking animals (I am a hunter) and has done so for 50 years, I praise you for being on the right path. If you’re serious about pursuing this path, you might want to hunt down 2 foundational works:
    (1) that old chestnut, THE TRACKER by Tom Brown; and
    (2) an anthropological study of tracking and mysticism, PEYOTE HUNT by Meyerhoff.
    There are also some very good studies of the Ju/’hoansi (“!Kung San”)–probably the very best tracking culture known in historical times (they’ve largely lost their way now thanks colonialism/postcolonialism…). Stay on the trail.

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