REGION — A group gathered around a circle drawn in the dirt. Using charts, measuring tools and field experience, they determined the four-toed track was from a toad.
Senior tracker William Sulzbach pushed the group to come up with more information. Which were the front and hind tracks? What direction was the animal headed?
After analyzing their find further the group moved on, stopped and circled another set of tracks, this time a mule deer.
The group gathered at Los Peñasquitos Ranch House on July 12 was taking an introductory tracking class.
Tracks, scat and tufts of fur were all clues to wildlife in the area.
Denise Harter has been a volunteer tracker with the San Diego Tracking Team for five years. She said her appreciation of nature has grown because of tracking.
“The landscape opens up to you,” Harter, said. “You’re aware of the birds and how they stop singing when you’re there, and how they start singing again if you stand still awhile.”
Dick Chadwick, of La Mesa, said he is considering taking formal training to become an official volunteer tracker.
“I do a lot of hiking,” Chadwick said. “It’s something I’ve always been interested in.”
Formal training teaches volunteers the protocol of collecting data.
“Once you’ve gone through the full class series you really learn what you’re doing,” Phoenix Von Hendy, San Diego Tracking Team vice president, said.
Volunteer trackers go out quarterly in two-hour sessions to collect data in Los Peñasquitos Canyon, Mount Woodson, Calavera, Rose Canyon and Mission Trails.
Tracking is usually done in the early morning when the lighting is the best. Volunteers stick to trails to minimize their impact on the environment.
“Transect surveys are nondestructive, they’re on existing dirt roads,” Von Hendy said.
Data is hand-recorded in the field, and then transferred into a computer database where it is used by county and state parks, land management agencies and conservation groups.
Trackers observe patterns over time, and see firsthand the impacts of new roadways and wildfires on nature.
Von Hendy recalls tracking a familiar transect following the 2003 Cedar fire.
“The coyote population crashed,” Von Hendy said.
There was also a corresponding increase in bobcats and gray foxes.
It took more than 10 years for a healthy balance between coyotes, bobcats and foxes to return.
The San Diego Tracking Team has been recording habitat data since 1993.
Countywide tracking began when Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve and San Diego Biodiversity Project joined efforts to create the first maps of San Diego County wildlife corridors in the 1980s. Conservation biologists and wildlife habitat experts helped the groups finalize wildlife corridor maps.
The mapping project brought attention to the natural need for wildlife corridors, which were soon after included in city and county urban planning.
The San Diego Tracking Team 501(c) 3 was formed in 1999 when the Mt. Woodson Wildlife Trackers and Los Peñasquitos Tracking Team merged to form an umbrella organization to educate the public and train tracking volunteers.
For more information, go to sdtt.org.