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I ask, “How do you track and what do you track?”

“You track by sign. The easiest sign is a print, whether it’s a bird on the ground or a coyote or bobcat. A lot of track training is spent teaching people how to tell the difference between a house cat and a bobcat or a dog and a coyote track, because they’re similar.”

I’ve got Mike Kelly, 64, on the phone. He’s volunteer coordinator and conservation chair at Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Reserve, located on Black Mountain Road.

“Another way you track is by a ‘browse,’ looking at what’s being eaten along an animal path, see whether a deer or a rabbit chewed it. They eat differently. One chops so you get a clean break in the plant stem, and the other bites and pulls, so you tend to get some shredding.

“You can also tell by scat,” Kelly says. “Quite a bit of attention is paid to scat. Each animal has a different size and shape. You can tell, pretty readily, a coyote from a bobcat from a fox. Sometimes it can be tough to tell a large bobcat from a small mountain lion; they’re similar, but that’s part of the training.”

Kelly has been volunteering at Friends since 1985. The outfit does Peñasquitos Canyon do-good stuff: they lead interpretive walks, replant native plants, provide owl boxes, restore trails, and more. But, what got my attention is tracking. They’ve had a tracking team since 1993. The club offers tracking classes from beginner to intermediate to advanced to “Tracking Intensive.” Free or dirt cheap. I ask if a tracker can tell how many deer range in one area.

“Not by track and sign,” Kelly says. “We just finished helping out a San Diego State study to see how many different deer there were in a particular area and what wildlife corridors they were using. They used DNA analysis of scat. They’ve gotten good enough now that not only can you say it’s a deer versus a mountain goat, but you can say it’s deer #141 versus deer #125.”

Just a little bit creepy. “How would a civilian learn to track?”

Kelly says, “Well, this morning there is a training going on. It’s open to the public. It’s free. People come for five or six hours on a Saturday, get an introduction, some classroom time, some dirt time, and then they pair up with an experienced tracker on a survey. They go into the field using a standardized form and protocols.”

“Okay, I take the class, now I’m on a survey. What can I expect?”

“You would be going to a particular transect [a specific path trackers walk]. It might be a half mile long, it might be a mile. If it’s in Peñasquitos Canyon it could be one of the truck trails. Wildlife, like you and I, often take the easiest trail. We pair an experienced tracker with new people. It’s pretty slow. There are certain protocols. For instance, you don’t record every step the deer takes. You might have to discuss it — whether it’s a coyote versus a dog, for instance. That can take some time to tease out the difference.”

I say, “I’m walking along the trail for a mile. How many deer signs could I expect to find?”

“Each time is different. These roads are also used by people. You have to get there before the early bikers and joggers. You might follow the same deer for a quarter mile, but you record it just once. Or, it might be one deer crossing the trail. Eight feet of trail and it’s off into the bushes and then you go another 100 yards and there’s another trail. You would record that. You don’t know if it’s the same deer or not, but you record it.

“You’re not getting a count; you’re getting the presence or absence of certain species. For instance, we don’t find weasel tracks very much — they’re fairly rare, especially in coastal areas. We may only find one set of tracks in a year. Mountain lions are the same way. They’re so small in number and they have such a big territory — maybe 100 square miles — you may go two or three years without finding tracks or sign of a mountain lion.

“Whereas you’re going to find a lot of deer track, a lot of skunk track, a lot of raccoon track. Possum tracks are very common. Mice and rats, of course. We don’t record all of them. Bobcat, they’re fairly common. Coyote are even more common. Mule deer. Badger. I don’t think anybody has found track or sign of badger for at least ten or twelve years.”

More next week. Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Reserve can be found at penasquitos.org or call Mike Kelly at 858-342-8856.

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