January 26, 2011

He will follow them: Wildlife tracking a practical hobby for UW librarian

Joseph Kiegel and fellow Cascade Tracking Team member Mallory Clarke look for animal tracks on a sandbar on the Skykomish River. | Photo by David Moskowitz

Joseph Kiegel and fellow Cascade Tracking Team member Mallory Clarke look for animal tracks on a sandbar on the Skykomish River. | Photo by David Moskowitz

For Joseph Kiegel, it all began in 1997, when a friend suggested he attend a series of lectures on nature awareness. Kiegel spends his days indoors as head of UW Libraries Monographic Services Division, but he has long been a walker and hiker in his free time, so he went to the lectures.

The speaker was Jon Young, who then headed the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall. Kiegel found him so inspirational that he looked into what the school had to offer. Soon he was signing up for a Saturday morning activity called Tracking Club.

“They took us out on a sandbar on the Skykomish River and they showed us wildlife tracks,” Kiegel recalled. “And thats how I started learning tracking.”

Hes been developing that skill ever since, going out many weekends to discover which animals live in particular areas.

Joseph Kiegel finds raccoon tracks in the Arboretum. | Photo by Mary Levin

Joseph Kiegel finds raccoon tracks in the Arboretum. | Photo by Mary Levin

“Its different from being a birder,” Kiegel said. “They go out and they see birds and hear birds. But birds are out during the day so theyre easy to see and easy to hear. Mammals are pretty secretive. You can go out and see deer occasionally, but by and large, to know whats going on with the mammals, you have to find the tracks or sign they leave behind. Youll find out a lot more about them from the track and sign than from actual observation.”

By tracks, of course, he means footprints left in mud or sand. And as for sign, bears leave their mark on trees with their powerful claws, and you can sometimes see outlines in the grass where animals have bedded down.

Kiegel said tracking was hard to learn at first, but over time hes come to be able to distinguish different animals. “There are a lot of clues — size, shape, the number of toes and whether they have claws or not; the pads on the heel will be different for different animals. Gait patterns are another big clue, so a rabbit that is bounding along has a much different pattern than a bobcat thats walking along or a coyote thats trotting.”

In 2004 the Wilderness Awareness School began a program called the Tracking Intensive, which involves going out one weekend a month for 10 months to learn and practice tracking. Kiegel not only took the course, he took it four times. Now he is a member of a group called the Cascade Tracking Team, which is made up of eight members. The team does mammal surveys on a volunteer basis for nonprofits.

Claw marks on a tree are a sign that a bear has been there. | Photo by Joseph Kiegel

Claw marks on a tree are a sign that a bear has been there. | Photo by Joseph Kiegel

“Weve been working with the Cascade Land Conservancy — this is our third year now,” Kiegel said. So they assign us a property — some parcel of land theyve purchased — and we spend a year going out there at least once every season and tracking on that land to make a profile of the animals that live there. Then we provide them with a report.”

Investigating a piece of land is largely a matter of understanding the landscape and the habitat and making predictions about where the animals would live, Kiegel said. Animals naturally concentrate in areas that provide them with the particular kind of food and shelter they need, along with water. Right now, his team is working on a piece of land that is a square mile and very steep. They cant possibly cover it all, he said, so theyll be doing the most thorough search in the most likely areas.

“Of course were looking for rare species,” Kiegel said. “Everyone would be completely excited if we found evidence of wolverines or lynx or fishers or wolves. We havent, but we report on the more common species we find there. Coyotes are very common, bobcats, elk and deer, cougars, bears. If theres water around, there will likely be raccoons, and sometimes beavers and muskrats. Then there are the small animals. Theres a ton of rodents. We dont attempt to tell the various species of voles and shrews apart, but we note that there are voles present, or shrews. So we do it all. We do a little bird tracking too.”

Lately, the tracking team has been paying particular attention to one bird — the owl. Kiegel said theyve been wondering if it would be possible to identify the species of rodents by looking at owl pellets. Owls eat rodents and regurgitate the skeletons, he explained, and the thought was it might be possible to identify species by these skeletons. The group made use of the Burke Museums collection of skeletons as a reference point, but so far, he said, the bones havent proved to be the means for a definitive identification.

Rats, like the one who made these tracks, are among the many rodents found in the forest. | Photo by Joseph Kiegel

Rats, like the one who made these tracks, are among the many rodents found in the forest. | Photo by Joseph Kiegel

Kiegel is also doing some volunteer work as part of the Cascade Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project. That involves winter snow tracking in specific areas along I-90 between Snoqualmie Pass and Easton. An expansion of the highway is planned, and people are concerned about what it will do to the wildlife in the area. Will the highway divide their territories? The tracking teams are recording the animals they find evidence of, and the Departments of Transportation and Fish & Wildlife will use that information to build overpasses and underpasses for the animals.

Add to this helping with the Wilderness Awareness Schools Tracking Club, not to mention going out tracking on his own sometimes, and you realize Kiegel is spending a good portion of his free time on this one activity. “I dont count the hours, but it adds up,” he admitted.

Tracking is, he said, the perfect foil for the bookish side of his personality that led him to become a librarian. “I like to be outdoors,” he said. “Tracking is great exercise and a lot of fun. I find it relaxing and refreshing.”