Nature’s Detective

(This is a feature I wrote for today’s Cape Codder.)


Naturalist Todd Kelley explains the art, and science, of animal tracking at Harwich Conservation Trust workshop in Bell’s Neck Conservation Area. Here, Kelley explains that this scat indicates the presence of a river otter.


Animal tracking workshop reveals an unseen world.

You don’t have to actually see an otter to know that one’s out there. You just have to read its signs.

Reading those signs is Todd Kelley’s specialty. The self-taught animal tracker from Chatham doesn’t do it to hunt animals, rather, to understand them. Tracking is a way of observing nature, nature that is often unseen.

A short distance from the herring run in Bell’s Neck Conservation area in Harwich, he points out a narrow path where vegetation has been trampled down.

“This is an otter run,” Kelley informs the 15 people who turned up on a recent Saturday morning for his tracking workshop organized by the Harwich Conservation Trust, “and that’s an otter’s scat.”

Everyone gathers for a closer look as Kelley picks up the otter waste and pokes it with his finger. The scat contains fish scales, which makes sense, since river otters eat fish.


Kelley looks for signs near a cranberry bog.

As an added bonus, the otter has also left behind some scant, which is an anal gland secretion animals in the weasel family use to mark their scent. It’s a form of communication, an animal’s way of marking its range, or of attracting a mate.

“It’s nature’s bulletin board,” says Kelley.

A graduate of Chatham High School, Kelley started Kelley Trailblazer Interpretive Guide Services after beginning his career as a 16th century Timucuan Indian re-enactor in St. Augustine, Florida.

That led to an interest in tracking, and Kelley now hosts popular nature walks in Chatham, Orleans, Harwich and elsewhere on the Cape where he introduces the art, and the science, of tracking. During the summer he also works as a naturalist educator at Nickerson State Park.

Part naturalist, part semiotician, Kelley see signs others would miss. “There are signs all around us. When you walk out your door in the morning, there are signs. The question is, can you perceive them?”

When you’re interpreting signs, explains Kelley, “you’re a nature detective…. Through [an animal’s] tracks, you’re stepping into its life.”

With a little practice, he adds, it’s amazing how you start to recognize them.

Interpreting signs involves a process of elimination, says Kelley. That tells you what it isn’t. For example, if a footprint has five toes, it’s not canine. But figuring out what it is can be a challenge.

You look for clues. If a print has four toes in front, four in back, it’s a rodent. A twist in the scat indicates the animal is a carnivore. The color and composition tell us when, in the animal’s digestive process, the scat was deposited, and by whom.

It also helps if you know what you should be looking for. Kelley has been to Bell’s Neck many times before, and has collected fresh water mussel shells that have been bitten open by otters. So he knows they live here.

There are also fishers, bobcats, minks, weasels, muscrats, snapping turtles, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and many other animals. Most of them avoid humans during the day, but are active at night. Kelley is particularly interesting in minks, and hopes to spot one.

“You never see animals, but I want to see signs that they’re there,” said Alison Carroll of Orleans, who attended the three-hour walk. “I thought it was fascinating that there are just so many signs. It’s amazing.”


A track in the sand left by a red fox.

Tracking is “really an art, but it’s a science also,” says Kelley. In fact it’s a blend of many sciences: meteorology, ornithology, dendrology, botany, and geology. That’s because it not just about footprints, it’s about using all your senses to see, hear, and smell the signs around you: weather, sounds, smells, marks on trees, birds in the sky.

It can also get very technical, and as Kelley examined a set of tracks left in the dirt, one is reminded of Sherlock Holmes investigating a crime scene.

Trackers consider many three dimensional components of an animal’s track, as well as the composition of the soil. Identifying the gait, which is a pattern of movement that demonstrates the rate of speed, is also important. The gait indicates whether the animal is a bounder, a hopper, a waddler, or a loper, among other things. It may also indicate if the animal is tired, injured, old, hungry or sick.

On the sandy marge of a cranberry bog, Kelley studies a footprint. He points out a subtle raised portion of the print which he says was made by the fur on the bottom of the paw, and a barely discernable chevron pattern on its heel. The only animal around here that has fur like that on the bottom of its paw, and a chevron, is the red fox, he explains.

Kelley is concerned that people are losing that connection to nature, and are out of sync with the seasonal rhythms that traditionally guided activities on Cape Cod.

By reading the signs, we realize how much nature is all around us, and that leads to greater respect for it.

Says Kelley, “when you have a deep reverence for it, you stop being a consumer and actually have a relationship with nature.”

He pauses by West Reservoir toward the end of his tour, and looks down to examine some scat he’s noticed at the water’s edge. Even an expert tracker like Kelley is sometimes challenged.

“I’m starting to think in my mind weasel, I’m hoping for mink.”


If you go…

Kelley Trailblazer or