Tracking animals, a skill usually practiced by hunters, takes on a whole new meaning at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary. Here, naturalists track animals as a way to learn what they need to survive, and they teach visitors how to do it as a way of increasing awareness.
“If we start learning more about these local animals, we appreciate them more and help them out instead of always trying to chase them out of town,” said Bob Metcalfe, a naturalist who directs New England Discovery in Newburyport. “What I’d like people to know is there’s really fascinating creatures outside your back door.”
Metcalfe will lead a session on “Tracking Predators on Averill’s Island” from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Ipswich sanctuary.
His program, which is limited to 15, will be preceded by a talk from wolf and coyote expert Christine Schadler, who will discuss one predator in particular: the Eastern coyote.
Metcalfe, who is also a licensed Maine guide, first saw animal tracks printed in a Boy Scout guide but taught himself most of what he knows about tracking.
“I went out with some hunters when I was young, but it didn’t take me long to realize I was on the animals’ side,” he said.
Loss of habitat is the biggest threat to most animals’ survival, said Metcalfe, who grew up in Haverhill.
“My grandmother had a farm on the line with North Andover,” he said. “A lot of woods I used to spend my time in is all condos now.”
To track animals, you need to understand how they behave, which is usually motivated by the need to find food.
“We’re going to focus on predators. I expect we would find fox and coyote, fisher, mink and river otter,” he said. “Mink eat crayfish and frozen frogs. Fox are going after mice and voles under the snow — they pounce on them under the snow.
“Coyote, the same things, but as the snow gets deeper, they start taking white-tail deer. They need deep snow that inhibits deer movement.”
Trackers can’t always rely on pristine conditions, such as new-fallen snow, to help them recognize an animal, so they must learn to read a variety of signs.
“The pattern of the trail is important, the way feet are placed in the trail,” Metcalfe said. “Different patterns indicate not only what animal it is, but what speed they are moving at, loping or galloping. There’s a lot of information just in holes in the snow.”
Metcalfe often picks up animal tracks where they cross a hiking trail, and he has followed them through the woods for miles.
“It’s a combination of that magic from when I was a kid and saw a trail wind through the pine trees, and I had to know what it is,” Metcalfe said. “But the other things is learning so many things about the animals.”
For those who may not want to follow predators through the woods tomorrow, but would still like to learn about predators, the presentation on coyotes will be held in the morning.
An Eastern coyote was first tracked in New Hampshire in 1944, Schadler said, and by the 1960s, people started to hear them in the woods of northern New England.
“We never had coyotes here before,” said Schadler, who is a New England representative for Project Coyote, a national organization that promotes peaceful coexistence with coyotes. “It wasn’t until the wolf was exterminated in the East and West, which was about 1900, that the Western coyote began to be able to move.”
Coyotes moved in all directions, but as they moved east, she said, a new kind of animal developed.
“They migrated into southern Canada and bred with a red wolf type, and then came down through northern New England, Connecticut and so on,” said Schadler, who has taught conservation and wolf ecology at the University of New Hampshire. “There’s a good dose of wolf DNA in Eastern coyotes.”
The New England woods are different now than in our grandparents’ time, she said, when there were neither coyotes nor wolves to worry about.
“For an entire generation people grazed sheep and hunted without any worry about that kind of predator,” she said. “Those days are gone.”
Schadler, who has raised sheep in New Hampshire for decades without losing any to predators, said one key to living with coyotes is understanding their reproductive cycles.
“The harder they are hunted, the faster and younger they will reproduce,” she said. “We can live with these predators because people always have, but we need to be vigilant to protect what cannot protect itself against these predators. Our dogs and cats must be protected, our livestock must be protected.”
Managing habitats — rather than killing coyotes — is the way to do that, she said. Deer populations can be protected, for example, by “ensuring good habitat, having good browse,” she said.
In areas where coyotes are not heavily hunted, their populations stabilize and they don’t pose a significant threat to deer populations, she said.
“Deer continue to be a small part of coyotes’ diets,” she said. “Where they prey on livestock, if you analyze their scat, it still shows most of what they’re eating is natural prey — and their natural prey are small mammals and rodents.”
If you go
What: “The Eastern Coyote in New England”
When: Tomorrow, 10 to 11 a.m.
Cost: $10 ($8 members), advance registration required
What: “Tracking Predators on Averill’s Island”
When: Tomorrow, 12:30 to 4:30 p.m.
Cost: $39 ($33 members), advance registration required; limited to 15
More information: Both programs take place at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, 87 Perkins Row, Topsfield. To register, call 978-887-9264 or visit www.massaudubon.org/ipswichriver