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Winter wildlife tracking programs inspire amateur naturalists

Whose tracks are these? How do wild animals survive the winter? Nature enthusiasts of all ages will discover the answers to these questions as they learn to spot and study signs of winter wildlife as part of two separate outdoor animal tracking workshops next weekend.

The Winter Wildlife Detectives program at the Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. on Feb. 8. On the same day, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust will hold its winter wildlife tracking program from 9 a.m. to noon at its headquarters, 1461 Old Keene Road in Athol.

The Mount Grace event will be led by veteran tracker and naturalist Paul Wanta, a former teacher and naturalist at the Farm School in Athol who has been a tracker for 35 years. Those who attend will learn to spot and interpret wildlife signs as they walk through the trails and woods around Skyfields.

The workshop is open to trackers of all ages and levels of skill. Wanta said he began working with children as a way to garner their interest in the wilderness.

“It was a way to connect them to the wild parts of the world and hope they would fall in love with it,” he said.

While he enjoys teaching children, he said they usually need to keep moving while taking a tracking walk. With adult members, Wanta said he can spend more time talking in detail about tracking methods.

Wanta said he learned about tracking after attending a conference in New York and meeting someone, now a friend, who had just returned from a trip to Australia. While away, this friend learned about wilderness survival and animal tracking from the aborigines. Wanta was drawn to the idea of improving his own understanding of local wildlife.

Now, Wanta has taught countless classes of his own, many of which have been conducted with local land trusts.

“We’ll go look for tracks and sign, which is markings other than tracks, such as feathers and fur caught on branches or animal droppings,” Wanta said. “The idea is to get them out and learn about what’s running around in their woods. Hopefully they will be interested in spending more time out in the woods.”

Though it’s easy to spot animal tracks in the winter because of the snow, when going out during the rest of the year, trackers must rely more on following sign. Plus, Wanta said, there’s the added perk of there being no mosquitoes.

The Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust borders other town conservation land, and Wanta said a number of animals travel through the area. In the past, the tracking groups have seen otters, mink, beavers, deer, bobcats, coyotes and porcupines.

The winter wildlife tracking event is free to Mount Grace members, and $10 for the general public, who can pay online or at the event. Space is limited to 25 participants, so registration is required. Sign up at mountgrace.org/skyfields-tracking-workshop-28.

Northfield Mountain’s tracking program

In Northfield, educator Kathy Richards will lead the free family program, teaching families what animals are active in the neighboring fields and forests. The program is designed for children 6 years old and older, accompanied by an adult. Registration is required by calling 800-859-2960.

“It’s a great outdoor family experience that encourages them to get out, explore and have fun,” said Kim Noyes, education coordinator at Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center.

The day will feature games, scavengers hunts and an animal tracking discussion let by Richards. Using newfound detective skills taught in the program, attendees will learn how to read the stories of winter wildlife written upon the forest floor.

The Winter Wildlife Detective program, among other events at Northfield Mountain, helps to foster children’s excitement for learning. Noyes said it encourages children to connect with and learn more about the natural world.

“We usually offer one or more programs in the winter that encourage families to get outside and explore,” she said.

According to Noyes, Richards has been teaching environmental education for more than 20 years between the Massachusetts Audubon Society, Northfield Mountain and other organizations.

While the Winter Wildlife Detective program is free, the weather may requires attendees to rent snowshoes for $10. For families of three or more, there will be a maximum charge of $30 per family, Noyes said.

Later that same day, Feb. 8, the center will hold its full moon program for adults and children 12 and older. The event sees naturalists come together to watch the sunset and the moonrise. Snowshoes or shoe micro-spikes may be required, weather depending.

“It’s wonderful to be out in the full moon while it’s reflecting off the snow,” Noyes said.

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