This story appeared in the January 6, 2018 edition of the Cortland Standard. To become a subscriber, email us, or call us at (607) 756-5665. Back issues available by request.
Linda Spielman likes to ask people what they think when they’re looking at a little footprint in the snow.
“What I say is, ‘Is it a track? Is it an animal track? And is it a wild animal track?’”
The Dryden woman, 71, is the author of “Field Guild to Mammals in the Northeast,” which she says will be her first and last book.
Published by Countryman Press, the book focuses on the tracks and characteristics of 40 animals, 38 of which live in the Central New York area. It features black bear, squirrels, beavers, voles, rabbits, Norway rats and more.
Spielman, an animal tracker for close to 30 years, enjoys being outside, skiing and seeing the beauty of trees.
But then she noticed animal tracks and wanted to know more. She wanted to find out how nature works.
“It could tell you something if you just knew what it was,” she said.
Spielman attended tracking courses around the Northeast. Then she ventured into nature to observe: “Strugging, making mistakes, learning from them. Tracking is not easy,” she said.
When she tells a person in her workshop they are looking at a rabbit track, they say, “It doesn’t like the rabbit track in the book.” But so many things can happen to an animal’s track, she said.
Tracking books tend to show the complete track. No distortions, no missing parts, unchanged by the weather. “They show the ideal track.”
Spielman’s guide shows the variations. One page had several rabbit tracks on it. All were compressed little prints, each different.
Then she showed another page that showed rabbit tracks on the fly, as they are hopping.
“I love weasels and mink … Mustelas, members of the mink family,” she said.
A choice track is that of a flying squirrel, that’s a rare find.
“They chew on hickory nuts and acorns differently than gray squirrels,” she said.
Tracking is important for many reasons, Spielman said.
“We need to be outside. The natural environment is under threat. It needs us and we need it. You are happier, healthier and more productive if you get outside,” she said.
Tracking can be done year round, but in the winter is when people really notice animal tracks, she said.
Fox tracks in the snow on Wednesday at Lime Hollow Nature Center.
Animal tracks can be found in the summer, next to dirt roads in the country, where rabbits and birds do a dust bath — believed to control parasites. Fox tracks are seen next to a stream in the fall, in a muddy surface, where the animal goes for a drink.
Linda Riggins of McLean, a volunteer at Lime Hollow, has tracked with Spielman. “From her, I learned to slow down and be observant while hiking. Especially in winter, there are so many tracking stories to read in the snow. For example, one showed a fox sitting swishing its tail while waiting for prey!”
“I have been around a lot of trackers over the last 20-odd years,” said Peter Harrity, senior naturalist at Lime Hollow Nature Center. “I think Linda overall is one of the best ones to go out and learn from… I think Linda is a superb teacher and educator.”
Spielman has been photographing tracks for a long time. Then she learned to draw tracks.
“Drawing teaches you to observe,” she said. She found she was able to condense a lot of information in drawings.
“There are these apps for tracking that have hundreds of photos … but you can’t go out in the field and look for 25 photos for one animal.”
Her manual shows drawn illustrations, measurements for tracks and gaits and notes on scat and other signs. It shows an array of possibilities, she said.
“Getting my thoughts into a book took me a number of years,” she said. “I was working on drawings for five years. It wasn’t focused at first.”
“I would never have made it without Jill Swenson,” she said.
The woman, now in Wisconsin, is a book developer. “She knows how to get from concept to book, book to publisher.”
Spielman, now retired, used to be a research associate at Cornell University, worked at Cayuga Nature Center for a number of years and also at a physical therapy office.
She said the Central New York area is both a blessing and a curse.
It’s not huge economically, but environmentally, its landscape and vistas have healthier habitats now then back in 1900, she said.
The Cayuga Nature Center has maps that showed the deforestation over decades. Back then, much of the land, except for steeper, more remote places, was clear cut for agricultural fields.
There were no bobcats, no bear, no deer. They dwelt in the Adironacks, the Catskills, in New England, she said.
But those animals are back.
Over time, farms went fallow and nature regenerated, particularly in the 1930s, she said. And state laws put limits on hunting, which helped the deer population, she said.
Ravens are back, which prey on large carcasses, she said. Another good sign.
But global warming, with its longer warm seasons and shorter winters, is putting pressure on the animals.
As their habitats change, they need to find climates they can live in.
“We know it’s tough for birds,” she said. “Birds are coming north and what they need is already passed that stage and they can’t use it.”