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Sunday, April 22 News

Trail mix: Kids, adults learn how to track wildlife at Audubon

On the trail of winter fun, youth and adults alike headed to the Connecticut Audubon Center at Fairfield on Saturday as bright sun, mild temperatures and a blanket of snow provided the perfect setting for an animal tracking program.

Led by Cat Holmberg, who has a B.S. in wildlife ecology from the University of Maine, the winter education class showed participants how to identify those prints left behind in the snow cover by all kinds of creatures.

Billy Sequeira, 11, of Fairfield, whose father, Richard, brought him and sister, Charlotte, to the Audubon preserve, said, "I love animals, and I always wonder about animal tracks I see in the backyard. This will help me learn what they are, and it's a nice day to hike.

Lauren Silverstein, 16, of Westport, who joined the group at the last minute after making sure the weather was going to cooperate, said, "I love animals in general and their behavior and physiology. If I can learn more about them, that's a good thing."

Holmberg said her the minimal goal for the tracking class would be to identify the difference between the tracks of a deer versus a squirrel track, and suggested that most people have more knowledge about wildlife than they think.

"Tracking is the art of finding, deciphering, following and interpreting tracks and signs -- not only tracks, but rub marks on trees, gnawed-on twigs and scat, or poop," said Holberg. "Tracking also tells you about an environment -- if there's water nearby or food sources, and the health of an area."

The group began the session in the Audubon Center's library, as Holmberg shared charts of various animal prints that are common to the area: gray squirrels, white-tailed deer, red foxes, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, muskrats and other mammals.

She showed the class how to tell the difference between similar tracks made by different animals, based on particular footprint details and width of tracks. She also explained how animals can be divided into four categories based on their locomotion: walkers/trotters, waddlers, hoppers and bounders.

To help underscore tracking techniques, Holmberg had each member of the group make their own tracks by stepping in a shallow container of water and walking the length of a roll of paper. She also divided the group into two teams to compete in identifying tracks based on diagrams.

With the basics under their belts, participants headed out into the Larsen Sanctuary, Audubon's nature preserve that is home to a network of trails and animal habitats. There, the class spotted tracks and other tell-tale signs of wildlife, and tried their best to determine the animals that had made them.