YAKIMA, Wash. — The teacher had spent years tracking wild animals. He had chronicled the lives of wolves with up-close observation and photographs. He had an uncanny ability to interpret the vaguest of signs and weave a narrative about what animal had been there when, why and where it might have been going.
But when David Moskowitz shared his process during last Saturday’s day-long wildlife tracking seminar sponsored by the Yakima Area Arboretum, the most engaged of his students wasn’t the longtime Cascadian hike leader. Nor was it the retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who, having read Moskowitz’s two books, had driven 5 1/2 hours to learn from him.
It was, rather, the third grader at East Valley Elementary School whose grandmother had signed him up for the tracking class as a birthday present.
And every time Moskowitz, 37, who lives west of Winthrop in the North Cascades, challenged his students to determine what critter might have generated a bit of sign and what it might have been doing, 9-year-old Cash Hodge was the first to raise a hand.
“So I’d love to hear a few stories,” Moskowitz said, standing over tracks in the sand near the Yakima River. “Who can tell me the story about the animal that passed through this land?”
“I think it was a muledeer passing through,” said Cash, clutching his copy of “Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest,” Moskowitz’s 2010 tracking guidebook. “I don’t know its activity, if it was hungry, thirsty or wandering ...”
“Do you think it was running?” Moskowitz asked. “Or walking?”
“Which direction do you think it was going?”
“That way? And how long ago do you think it was here? Yesterday? A week ago? Last month? Or just this morning, right before we showed up?”
Cash guessed a week or longer.
Another student, Lisa Herr of Yakima, suggested the track-maker could have been a bobcat. “But not a week ago,” she said. “Maybe a couple of days because we just had rain.”
“And,” Moskowitz said, “were these tracks made before or after the rain?”
The students agreed on after.
“Good. I would agree with that,” Moskowitz said. “So that’s a great piece of information to add to our story.”
At every stop during the seven-hour field trip around the Arboretum and the riparian habitat alongside the nearby Yakima River, Moskowitz challenged the students to consider the different layers of information: an imprint in the dirt, a bit of scat, perhaps a sprig gnawed from a nearby shrub, the wildlife known to inhabit the area, even the time of year.
“Tracking is very much a visual language,” he said, noting that tracks are only part of that language. “There’s so much contextural information around it that’s going to help in your identification.”
At one dry and sandy spot, Moskowitz asked students to assess what critter might have been responsible for removing the bark from several young sprigs.
“You’re looking for a pattern of sign,” he said, before pointing out what constituted some of this particular pattern: Only thin sprigs had been chewed all the way through, leaving skinny stumps; those a half-inch thick or more were missing bark but were all still standing; and all of the bark removal was within a foot of the ground.
That the animal might have been a beaver was discarded because of the distance from the river and the sprig size to which the critter seemed to be limited.
“So,” Moskowitz asked, “what other sorts of animals eat bark?” And so low to the ground?
Cash piped up, “Rabbits and hares.”
Bingo. Cash had also been correct on the muledeer tracks and, later, Moskowitz agreed with Cash that a track beneath an uprooted tree had been made by a mink.
In a sandy clearing, the group collectively decided an oddly contoured set of prints could have been made by a deer that had lain there. Their theory was verified when Moskowitz, down on all fours for a closer inspection, found the first of what proved to be numerous strands of deer hair.
Animal excretions play a big part in the tracking “story,” but Moskowitz stressed the importance of being wary. He said he never touches scat left by carnivores such as coyotes, cougars or raccoons, because they carry a wide variety of diseases, cysts, flukes, tapeworms and bacteria.
That even led to a little awareness of something a bit closer to home — the family dog.
“What do dogs like to roll in? Smelly stuff,” Moskowitz said to a chorus of chuckles and knowing nods. “So you can look at the whole picture: Your dog rolls in something like this (gesturing to some likely coyote scat), you pet your dog, then maybe you have lunch.” He mimed holding a sandwich with those imaginatively soiled hands, and ooh-gross grimaces replaced the knowing nods.
“So I recommend wearing gloves if you’re going to be handling any scat.
“Or petting your dog.”