On the right track.

The class braved single-digit temperatures and ice storms in their quest to learn how to find stories in the snow.

By Keely Savoie

When Noah Charney first spied a flurry of animal tracks across a frozen beaver pond, he knew that he and his Mount Holyoke students were in for an ecological treat. The class had been following a coyote track across the campus of Amherst College.

“We immediately headed over to investigate,” said Charney, a naturalist and author who cotaught the Ecology Through Animal Tracking class offered by Mount Holyoke College’s Professional and Graduate Education (PaGE) Program along with visiting professor Charles Eiseman.

It was clear that the tracks belonged to bobcats—the class had encountered a number of them before—and the shape of the toes indicated that there were a male and a female. But something was different.

“The tracks were not in typical moving pattern,” said Charney. “They were going this way and that, and there were slide marks and patterns you would never see in a typical gait pattern. There was no blood, no kill site, so we quickly realized that all of those things added up to a mating site.”

The finding was the highlight of the course for Charney, and for many of the students in the two-week intensive course, which introduced students to the basics of animal tracking and provided them with a firm footing in natural history. During the first two weeks of January, the class braved single-digit temperatures and ice storms in their quest to learn how to find stories in the snow. They saw evidence of meandering moose, porcupine dens, coyotes, foxes—and, of course, bobcats—all given away by their telltale tracks.

“It was amazing,” said Katie Gill, a senior from Kittery, Maine, who was thrilled not only by the dozens of animal tracks the class found but also by the skills the students honed by learning how to follow them. “I had always dismissed natural history as not having a strong place in the academic world, but we used the very same observational, cognitive, and analytical skills as you use in a science classroom,” she said.

Each morning, the class met for discussions and a review of different tracks. Then they’d head out into the field for as long as six hours. During lunch, they would delve further into discussions of the area’s natural history.

“We’d stop in a sunny spot and talk about ecological stories and tracking mysteries,” said Charney, who believes that understanding the natural world has far-reaching implications for people in their daily lives. “If you think about it, so much of what we do has to be informed by natural history, not just projects that directly involve sustainability and conservation, but also things such as architecture, city planning, and more. But we do things that don’t work in the real world because we have such a limited understanding of natural history,” he said.

Sophie Rabinow, a first-year student from France who is contemplating a major in astronomy and architecture, took the class because she wanted to experience learning beyond the boundaries of a classroom. She discovered that nature’s classroom offered outdoor delights alongside the rigor of more traditional learning environments.

“It confirmed my idea that natural history plays an essential part in the world,” Rabinow said. “I never really noticed footprints and signs before. Now I constantly see signs and am able to reconstruct the animals’ paths and behaviors. I will certainly carry this knowledge forward with me.”

Get on your track. Apply to PaGE now.