A tall, thin Minneapolis man is lying belly down on the earth. Oaks and maples rise regally around him. He could be prostrating himself before a Druidic god in an ancient grove. His gaze is fixed, eyes sparkling, and smile wide. He has just discovered the tracks of a white-footed mouse—and he looks as happy as if he'd found a pot of gold.
On this sunny late-spring morning, this man and nine other members of the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project are surveying part of Fort Snelling State Park for traces of animal activity. They scour the landscape for minute signs of rabbit, fox, coyote, turtle, and other creatures that might have recently passed this way. For them, small details—say, a broken twig under a crisp leaf, or a gob of juicy scat—are hieroglyphics, messages revealing mysteries of a wild, parallel world.
The ancient art and science of tracking is an exhilarating mixture of research, creativity, and fun. The Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project, a club founded in 2013, holds regular gatherings to help participants learn to track wildlife, understand bird language, and discover nature in their neighborhoods. The project, open to all ages, is also developing a statewide network of trained volunteers to track wildlife on both public and private lands.
"Our group certainly makes use of scientific methods," project co-founder Marty Miller explains. "We use inductive and deductive logic in determining likely candidates in our track identification. We count toes and measure heel pads. We make hypotheses and gather evidence to support or challenge them. But tracking is not simply an exercise for the rational mind—it is an embodied and sensual experience. When you have your knees planted firmly in the mud and your nose 6 inches away from a line of canid tracks, you cannot help but feel the quick, staccato drumbeat of the red fox's paws moving quickly across the meadow in the chill morning."
One Sunday each month, these trackers gather at wooden tables outside the state park visitor center to prepare for their mission. The theme of today's session is "Hiding in Plain Sight." Miller opens the meeting with words from celebrated American nature poet Mary Oliver: "Attention without feeling … is only a report."
The circle divides into two groups and formulates the day's plan. Each group will trek to a different section of the park to search for tracks and other animal sign such as feathers, scat, and evidence of feeding. They will mark each finding with a red flag. After the first hour, the groups will reconvene at a prearranged rendezvous point, then seek out the red flags and suss out which animals left the sign and interpret how these animals interacted with their environment.
The trackers often head toward mud, sand, or snow, because it's much easier to find tracks in soft, pliable substrate than in grass, leaf litter, or any hard-packed surface. Today one group hikes a trail toward the Minnesota River. Brian Clough, a forest ecologist with the University of Minnesota, stops at the edge of a pond and points to a mound of pale, excavated soil that resembles a miniature smokestack. "Crayfish chimney," he says. "They make these to stay cool."
A few feet away, Clough peers down to inspect several converging lines etched onto the ground. "Couple different sizes of duck tracks here," he says. "Maybe a wood duck?"
Clough tracked wildlife on his own for years before moving to Minnesota, but says he's made "10 years of progress in just two years tracking with this group."
Jonathan Poppele, a naturalist who helps lead the project, comes upon a large puddle. "Dinosaur track," he quips with a grin. Carla Hill, a newcomer, kneels on the muddy riverbank. She spends the next 30 minutes scrutinizing the 2-inch-long tracks. She suspects they might be those of a muskrat.
"What has you thinking it's a muskrat?" Poppele asks. Hill notes the marks of long, slender toes and speculates that an aquatic mammal smaller than an otter made them. She looks back and forth between the tracks and her field guide to track and sign.
Poppele suggests that she look for nearby muskrat lodges made of reeds and grasses. He invites her to enter "the mind of a muskrat" and consider how she would move and feel were she in its place. He recommends that she observe "how much of the toe registers," because the bristly hair on a muskrat's toes often imprints on the substrate.
Trackers pay particular attention to toe attributes: their number, alignment, length, spread, thickness, and the presence or absence of claw marks. Toes, along with the shape of the palm pad, can help identify an animal and reveal much about how it was moving.
Later in the morning, the two groups come back together in a meadow beneath the arched, white undergirding of the Mendota Bridge. A pileated woodpecker pecks insistently overhead, while an airplane roars on its ascent. Crouching down to the eye level of a short-legged animal, the trackers spend the next hour inching across a 200-square-foot area.
"People get down on the ground because that's where the answers are," Poppele says.
No one rushes. Patience is essential in learning the language of the land. What appears at first glance to be a barren field populated by a few scattered grasses, plants, and cigarette butts is revealed to be a highly trammeled corridor teeming with wildlife. The trackers identify signs of pigeon, fox, deer, raccoon, sparrow, squirrel, vole, and toad. They discover countless wild stories animating this patch of meadow.
The communal aspect of tracking accelerates learning, as multiple perspectives lead to Socratic questioning and a fuller, more accurate picture of what occurred. For 15 minutes the trackers ponder a pattern of claw marks in the soil. Miller calls attention to the close proximity of the bird's inner toes. A young woman notes the short distance between hops. These observations lead quickly to a viable hypothesis: A crow stopped by here.
As if retelling play-by-play highlights from a football game, the trackers use clues from the tracks to visualize the crow's landing, hops, and exit. They know exactly where the bird took flight, pushing its claws deeper into the earth.
Poppele points out strong evidence that wild turkeys enjoyed frenetic dust baths nearby. Giveaway details include grand swirls outlined on the bare ground, burdock leaves slathered in dust, and curly scat, replete with undigested plant material.
As the trackers amble toward a backwater channel near Picnic Island, two women talk excitedly about the turtle trails they spotted earlier this morning. Meanwhile, a man bends down to pick up a brown, kernel-sized hackberry seed. "Looks nibbled by a mouse," he says. He also retrieves a crushed aluminum can and a lost work glove beside the trail and deposits them in a bag he carries for this purpose. "One of my other activities," he says with a smile.
The tracking project performs citizen science that supports the work of professional land managers and researchers. Members conduct surveys at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, operated by the University of Minnesota at the northern edge of the Twin Cities metro area. Project leaders teach volunteers to track and then index mammal diversity in an online database. Walking the sandy roads of the reserve, the trackers have documented the presence of 15 mammal species, including bear, fisher, badger, and gray wolf.
According to the reserve's newsletter, the volunteer trackers have "reconstructed some fascinating stories about animal movement, decision-making, and behavior." For example, the trackers observed a lack of coyote sign where they'd most expected to find it, further indicating the presence of a wolf pack in the area.
The project has formed partnerships with Fort Snelling State Park and Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge to host their gatherings and offer programming. It is working with the National Park Service to help survey river otter populations around the metro area. Trackers record sightings from their diverse projects using iNaturalist, an online database of plant and animal species observed worldwide.
Poppele suggests that trackers "try to do what the animal was doing as it made the track." Last winter, near the footbridge to Pike Island in Fort Snelling State Park, he studied the tracks of an otter. He deduced that the otter had shifted its weight, stopped and looked up the slope, loped uphill, and finally "dug its back feet in the snow before launching into a full body slide down an ice sheet." With delight, Poppele simulated the otter's movements: "When you start using your body to do the motions the animal was doing, you feel vitality and vibrancy in your body."
Biologist E.O. Wilson famously said that humans instinctually love nature and natural systems. But, Poppele points out, realizing these hard-wired potentials requires cultivation and practice.
Reawakening this age-old way of knowing yields tremendous rewards, he says. As a result of his dedicated tracking with the project, Poppele "feels more at home, like I'm part of what's going on." For him and other trackers, home includes the natural communities of wildlife, plants, soil, water, and people, all somehow intertwined and all somehow extraordinary.