Tom Riggs knelt in the snow to eyeball the fish scales and tiny remnants of crustaceans. The scat provided additional evidence of the frisky presence of the North American river otter.
Later, Edward Monnig lined his palm with a piece of paper before happily displaying for the group a scat likely deposited by a coyote.
Riggs and Monnig demonstrated Saturday the sort of curiosity dear to the hearts of outdoors educators like Brian Baxter. The 13 other participants in his class seemed similarly inclined, mixing a thirst for learning with an otter’s bent for playfulness.
Saturday’s Baxter-led Animal Tracking Field Day meandered for about four hours through the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area near the confluence of the Flathead and Stillwater rivers east of Kalispell.
Conditions for tracking weren’t terrible on a gray and icy morning when many class members wore cleats on their boots. But the thin, crusty snow wasn’t ideal, either.
Even so, animal tracks, scat, clumps of feathers and sometimes subtle clues left wildlife signatures along the class’ bushwhack route.
Baxter’s teaching along the way leaned a little on the Socratic method. He asked questions. He encouraged critical thinking as a way to eliminate some possibilities and embrace others.
Identifying tracks can be challenging at times, he said, even for experts.
Baxter encouraged participants to be quiet, to walk slowly, to stay alert, to scan the ground but also the trees and skies and everything in between.
“We’re a research team here,” he told the group. “So, the more eyes, the more ears and senses the better. We want to start thinking like hunters.”
At one point, class member Dean Chapman, a resident of Plummer, Idaho, spotted the remains of a Bohemian waxwing — a few feathers, a few bones — directly beneath a tree where the bird’s predator likely perched to dine.
“Good eyes,” Baxter said to Chapman.
Moments before, Stephen Harris, who lives near Elmo and is an avid birder, had identified a kestrel in flight.
Baxter, 65, lives in Libby and offers outdoors education programs through his Silver Cloud Associates. He grew up in Pearl River, New York, and came west in 1977 after earning degrees in fish and wildlife management and forestry management. He has conducted wildlife research for numerous agencies.
Baxter said his interests in tracking “spiked after working on multiple-species, rare carnivore studies, with soft capture and radio collaring of lynx, wolverine, fisher and pine marten.”
None of these elusive animals, or their sign, made an appearance Saturday across a site not too far removed from urban Kalispell.
But other critters were more cooperative and left evidence of their passing: raccoons, otters, white-tailed deer (young and old, male and female), coyote, pine squirrel, kestrel, Belted kingfishers, great blue heron, muskrat, American dipper, Mallard ducks, snowshoe hare, red-shafted flickers and more.
Streambanks along this protected stretch of braided rivers yielded abundant confirmation that otters had lived and preyed and played in the vicinity. There were burrows and slides, tracks and scat.
Montana Audubon holds the license for the 442-acre Owen Sowerwine Natural Area from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to manage the land cooperatively with Flathead Audubon.
According to state law, the area was set aside “to preserve its natural ecosystem integrity in perpetuity.”
The late Owen Sowerwine has been described as an energetic proponent for protecting this braided confluence of the two rivers and important associated riparian habitat as chairman of the Flathead County Park Board.
Judging by numerous boot tracks and the paw prints left by domesticated dogs, the natural area is regularly haunted by people, too.
Flathead Audubon, Montana Audubon and Silver Cloud Associates sponsored the tracking class.
Baxter spent a portion of the morning emphasizing and re-emphasizing that the best approach to tracking involved silent and alert walking. About an hour into the day, he turned around and observed the group moving as instructed.
He said later that this was a highlight for him.
“It made me feel good, that under challenging tracking conditions, and with a large group of predominantly novice trackers, we managed to keep the group organized in a wildlife research field-study mode,” Baxter said.
“This tuning in and walking softly, while paying attention to picking up the sights and sounds of wildlife, paid off for us,” he said.
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.