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Learning and Wildlife Tracking

Big Bend National Park, Texas

What does it look like to learn? What does it look like to teach, instruct, guide and mentor? What does it feel like, sound like and what would you see if you were there to see it in action? What does your heart and gut feel like when you have discovered something new that blows your mind because of a self discovery or realization about yourself? When was the last time this happened to you? I would posit that if you cannot remember, or if it has been too long, that is a problem, which could be and most likely is at the bedrock of our current society.

One of the foundations of learning is to recognize that "you do not know," in fact, you may need some help, and others around may have useful tools. It is vital that you are humble enough to listen. Another foundation is to recognize there are many ways to solve a problem and that encompasses multiple perspectives. These can even be coalesced into a single solution, which involves communication, collaboration, discourse, organization and listening. All of these skills are higher order thinking, they are rigorous thinking and they are all objective when done with learning in mind.

Front Right Wolf Track, Yellowstone National Park, WY

One of the things I enjoy to do is tracking, which is different from trailing. Trailing is when you find an animal trail and use those clues to eventually find the animal. Tracking, is simply identifying who placed a single or many tracks in an area. It is surprisingly quite telling what an animal was doing, how it was behaving, where it came from, what it was going to do next, and even how fast it was moving. You can decipher their anatomy, life style, and behavior through just their tracks from their feet and/or hands. Most people do not believe this at first. However, I can observe that the animal loves water and swims when I see webbing. I can observe that fox is light and quick because he is always on his toes. I can observe that a group of coyotes are stealthy because one trail can split into three and back into one. I can observe a bobcat who trots into an area from an open field to slow down to a walk because the faster an animal moves the further apart their tracks will be.

Coyote Sitting Down, Monahan's State Park, TX

It also brings to the surface your own neurosis, blind spots and cognitive mishaps. It is so easy to look at a track, such as a bobcat, and be utterly convinced that it is a coyote. Perhaps, at first glance you think, "oh, a coyote," now every clue that is observed will be twisted in your mind to prove to yourself that this indeed a coyote. Usually, it is churned to be "a weird coyote," or "he must have stepped funny," which surprisingly almost never happens. An amazing elaborate story can be constructed in 45 seconds of why this is a coyote who trotted in and headed off that way. Right up to the moment you tell your fanciful story for the expert to say, "well, actually, this is a bobcat who was walking that way and here is why." That is when the scales come off the eyes and you realize how clear it was the whole time, that is, if you want to learn, that you make mistakes, and it is easy to dupe yourself.

An actual Frog Track, Bastrop, TX

I once came across a track that had me stupefied. After a few minutes I was convinced it was a frog track. They are awesome tracks to find because you can see the bulbous toes, the length of the hind feet and how they will crisscross their front feet. I created a beautiful story of how he jumped over a little stream of water, landed here a little sideways and then did a miraculous jump at 45 degrees to the right. I had the toes identified and everything. It turned out to be a opossum track, which will typically only register the large pads in hard substrate. Once I saw the pattern, I saw it everywhere and my mind was blown, but I had to go through the humiliation of telling my story and observing how wrong I was. However, I learned more on that day about tracking and about myself than any other day tracking.

Black Bear, Big Bend, TX Striped Skunk, Big Bend, TX Badger, Monahan's, TX


Eventually, as you practice more and more, strong observational skills are developed. When you find a track, the instinct of instant identification needs to be thwarted, because it is so easy to be duped, to get stuck on what you think it is, what you want it to be and need it to be because you are right, right? It is easy to convince yourself that you are always right on first glance, until you are actually assessed and realize you were wrong 50% of the time. Instead, observe that it is just a track that an animal has left for us to observe and begin to ask questions.

What is the shape of the track?

Is it symmetrical?

What is the size of the track?

How many toes are there?

It is a process of gathering clues, evidence and information before deciding prematurely what it is or getting too attached emotionally to a particular story or animal. This is hugely important when it is a rare animal that you are looking for, such as an Ocelot in South Texas, which looks similar to a bobcat. It is amazing how quickly every bobcat track will become an ocelot track, because the emotional stake is so high. When emotions run high, observational skills deteriorate, and every clue becomes confirmation bias.

Plaster Casts of Tracks, Bastrop, TX

It can not be overstated how much observing nature will show you yourself. It will also teach you the patience and humility that is needed to see what is happening right under your nose and above your head, as with bird language. It also paves the way for individuals to discover, inquire and to be individuals with their own thoughts and ideas that need to be encouraged and explored and not downgraded because they are not the same as mine. I want to learn your process for observing tracks, the story that you can tell, the creative ways to tackle that problem, and how you would write it out and explain it. I try to use these observational skills in daily life, but mostly inward, usually in the form of questions.

What caused that comment make me feel that way or react that way? (What is the shape of my emotion? Is my response proportional?)

What is this situation teaching me or telling me? (Am I giving this adequate attention?)

What do I need to be mindful about right now or is there something that I am not seeing?

What can I learn right now?

Where do we actually agree? Am I truly listening to learn? Is this actually helping myself and others?

Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky
“When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You are too this, or I’m too this.’ That judgment mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.” ~ Ram Dass

"When we can truly be ourselves, it is quite relaxing!"

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