GROTON — On a mild winter day, 45 people gathered at the Nashua River Watershed Association headquarters in Groton to learn techniques for tracking wild animals. Many of the attendees were school-aged children eager to find out more about local wildlife.
The class began indoors at the NRWA’s River Resource Center, which features displays of animals, including pictures, skins, and taxidermy mounts. The class was led by Stacey Sealcoat, NRWA River Classroom Director, with assistance from NRWA volunteers George Moore and Suzanna Black.
Sealcoat discussed how animal tracking allows conservationists to establish animal patterns and migration routes. It also helps people identify what types of animals may be visiting their backyards unseen but who still leave behind telltale signs of their presence.
People don’t often see much of the wildlife that abounds in the area because of the contrast between human and animal behavior. Sealcoat explained how humans “create a large circle of disturbance with little awareness of the surrounding environment” while animals make only a small circle of disturbance while acutely aware of their environment. In other words, an animal is far more likely to perceive a human’s obtrusive presence before the human notices the animal.
Sealcoat described the different types of track patterns. Some animals are walkers, like dogs or coyotes, while others are bounders such as squirrels and rabbits. Tracking animals entails more that looking for footprints. Other considerations are food sources in the area, the season, animal habits, and favorite habitats. Animals are selective about where they roam based on the food and shelter available to them, and gravitate toward areas with optimal conditions. Beavers obviously prefer wetlands while bobcats look for rocky ledges. Deer love acorns and often cluster around oak trees. Porcupines enjoy nibbling on pine branches.
There are various clues to find. For instance, otters typically leave their scat (the naturalist’s word for excrement) in one place they use as a latrine. Coyotes prefer to walk in a straight line down the middle of a trail. Muskrats strip off bark from twigs and branches, often leaving bits of their fur in the brush. Foxes have furry paws so their tracks feature some feathering around the edges whereas coyotes do not. Looking for signs like these helps to determine the types of species in the area.
Classroom participants were given a printed guide to animal tracks. In addition, Sealcoat showed clay models of animal scat and an “owl pellet.” She explained how owls swallow their prey whole, then regurgitate the waste as a pellet. Sharp-eyed trackers look for these pellets at the bases of trees.
After learning what to look for, it was time for the real fun to begin outdoors.
“Even though there is not much snow,” said Sealcoat, “you’ll see that there are still great opportunities for tracking out there today.”
Before exiting the classroom, Sealcoat made an announcement about a special unexpected sight to see that day. First, she cautioned those who might be squeamish about dead animals, then directed attendees to join George Moore at his truck in the parking lot.
The NRWA is certified to collect road kill, and just that morning, Moore got a call to collect a carcass. Participants crowded around the back of Moore’s truck to get an up-close view of a sleek recently deceased fisher. Moore warned against anyone touching it as he held up the animal for viewing.
“I’ll be washing my hands very carefully when I get home,” he noted.
From the parking lot, the group proceeded to Willams Barn conservation area. There Sealcoat organized the crowd into three separate groups for forays into the forest led by Sealcoat, Moore and Black. Before embarking, Sealcoat mentioned that the worst predators in the area are actually domestic cats and dogs.
“Cats are responsible for the diminishing numbers of songbirds,” said Sealcoal. “And, dogs who can run on top of snow, often chase and injure deer,” she explained.
Along the trail, Moore pointed out distinct wildlife signs. He pointed to some branches and explained how deer don’t have top teeth but a hard ridge instead that they use to tear off branches, leaving a raggedy edge behind. Beneath a pine tree, he picked up “nip twigs” left behind by porcupines who climb up high into the treetops and nibble on branches, often dropping chewed-off twigs to the ground.
“Considering our group’s circle of disturbance, it’s not likely we’ll see any animals today,” commented Moore, “unless they’re deaf.”
The walk wound around a pond with a large beaver den at the far end. The lumberjack handiwork of the beavers was evident everywhere. Other animal signs included fisher tracks and woodpecker holes.
When the group re-convened in the parking lot after an hour of woodland tracking, participants shared what they found and learned. One eagle-eyed hiker in Black’s group spotted an owl pellet, which Black carefully collected and brought back. Everyone gathered to examine the gray fuzzy object about the size of a small egg. The youngsters were especially taken aback by the tiny bones sticking out of the pellet.
It was an afternoon well-spent as are all the events sponsored by the NRWA. A non-profit organization founded in 1969, the NRWA has a mission to work for a healthy ecosystem with clean water and open spaces for human and wildlife communities. The Association provides environmental education, monitors water quality, and leads land stewardship initiatives.
NRWA upcoming events include a “Science of Winter” program for 6-to 8-year-olds Feb. 20 and 21, and a “Winter Survival” program for 9- to 12-year-olds Feb. 23 and 24. The association is also holding its annual silent auction and dinner party on Saturday, March 31, at the Sheraton Four Points in Leominster.