By Pete Zimowsky, McClatchy Newspapers
Tracking wildlife is a lot of fun, but bringing home the tracks is even more fun.
Casting critter tracks is simple, and collecting as many different tracks as possible can become a lifelong pursuit.
“Kids love this,” said Sara Focht, a wildlife educator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at the MK Nature Center in Boise. “It’s very easy and pretty fool-proof.” All you need to carry on a hike or camping trip is a small bag of plaster of Paris, a small container for mixing and a strip of cardboard to make a mold. You can use water from your water bottle or from a creek. Just use a stick for mixing.
You can get plaster of Paris from a hardware store.
Where to go
If you need some help getting started, search for a nature center, wildlife center, Fish and Game headquarters or a visitor’s center at nearby state or national park. The staff at these facilities will be glad to give you tips and might even offer kid-friendly hikes that you can take with the whole family this spring.
Track hunting can be done with any animal, and you can do it during any trip to the wild areas outside of heavily populated communities.
Types of animals
Larger mammal tracks are the easiest to cast. Bird tracks can be difficult because they are thin and delicate.
Find a good track to make a cast. Soft mud or sand is a good spot. (Sand can stick to the plaster, but you can wash it off later.) Carefully clear out any debris, like twigs, in the track before making the cast.
Get everything ready. Use a strip of light cardboard to put a frame around the track. Do this before you mix the plaster.
Add one part water to two parts plaster of Paris and mix in a small container. Mix to the consistency of pancake batter. Stir out all the lumps. Tap the container to get the bubbles out. Work fast because the plaster will start to set.
Pour the plaster on the outside of the track and let it run into the track so the track is not damaged. The plaster takes about 30 minutes to set. Have a snack or lunch.
After the plaster is set, gently lift it out of the track. The result will be a “negative” of your track. If it was in sand, you might have sand on the plaster. Let it dry for a few days before cleaning it. Rinse off the loose sand with water. Don’t submerge it in water because it will dissolve.
You can make a “positive” of your track by mixing up another batch of plaster and using the “negative” to make a track. You can also use the negative for making tracks in the dirt to give lessons on track identification.