With the spring thaw comes mud. And where there’s mud, there are bound to be animal tracks! Although many animals are shy and elusive, they do leave behind many traces of their presence. You just have to know what to look for. Tracks made in soft ground are easy to find. You can even make permanent plaster of Paris casts for them.
When you find tracks, you’ll want to first identify them, and then see if you can piece together something about the animal’s activities. By measuring the distance between tracks, and noting what part of the feet made the impressions in the mud, you can tell if an animal was walking or running. Follow continuous tracks, and you might come upon an animal’s home. Do you see big and little tracks? Do you think these might be the tracks of an adult and its young? Look at the tracks you have made. What can you read into them?
A good way to record any tracks you find in mud is to make plaster casts. Look for well-formed impressions that are clean and not full of water. You’ll need plaster of Paris, a half-gallon milk carton (cut in half, with the top half cut into 1″ rings), a stick and some newspaper. You’ll also need water, brought from home if you don’t think you’ll find any on the site. A trowel also comes in handy for digging up the casts.
Place the milk carton rings around the tracks you wish to cast. In the bottom half of the carton, mix some plaster with enough water to make it the consistency of molasses and pour it gently into the rings. Let the plaster harden for 15 minutes before carefully digging up the casts and wrapping them in newspaper for the trip home.
When the plaster is completely hard (wait a few hours), remove the rings and clean the casts with water. Use an old toothbrush to get out all the dirt. What you’ve made are raised prints of the tracks. Press these into clay or play dough to make impressions like those you found. Or use the casts as molds from which to make new casts (again like the tracks you found in the mud).
[Image: Courtesy of Flickr user SkilletCreek]