Posted by: James Wapotich | April 18, 2014

Trail Quest: Tracking with Michael Kresky

One of the exciting things about being out in nature is the chance to see wildlife. And while one doesn’t always get to see animals out on the trails, one can almost always find animal tracks if they know where to look. Getting to know wildlife through its tracks can provide a rich sense of connection to the animals around us. And with enough skill, we can even start to hear what the tracks have to tell us.

Recently on a hike along the lower section of Mono Creek, local naturalist and tracker Michael Kresky was busy pointing out the different tracks along the creek that were now easy to spot in the freshly deposited silt.

Along one section of the creek, receding waters had exposed a mud flat next to a quiet pool. Here, Mr. Kresky excitedly pointed out what he described as the tracks of a mother grey fox, teaching her two young cubs how to pull a small turtle out of the water.

Continuing a little further upstream, Mr. Kresky spotted another track, which he identified as being from a young male mountain lion. He followed the track for roughly a quarter mile noting how the animal’s gait shifted depending on the terrain and what may have caught the animal’s interest.

Kresky tracking Mono Creek Santa Barbara hiking trail Los Padres National Forest tracks

Mike Kresky checks out the tracks along Mono Creek, after a recent rain

Mono Creek, like a number of backcountry streams, is surprisingly rich with wildlife and can include tracks from mountain lions, bobcat, fox, coyote, deer and bear, as well as a variety of smaller creatures. Even a short hike, looking at tracks, can sometimes reveal an amazing amount of unseen activity.

Mr. Kresky’s first introduction to the outdoors came as a child growing up in northern Virginia and playing in woods near his home. That connection with nature stayed with him when he moved to Santa Barbara in 1984 and started backpacking.

“For me, tracking started just wandering the trails of the Santa Barbara backcountry, and looking down and seeing bear tracks that just walk along with you on the trails.” Mr. Kresky told the News-Press. “I would just walk with them for hours, even days.” Bears often follow established trails, and under the right conditions their tracks can literally continue for miles.

While backpacking, Mr. Kresky became interested in learning how to rely on his own skills to acquire food and how to create a deeper relationship with the land. That interest eventually led him to a wilderness survival class that was offered in Santa Cruz. The class was led by Tom Brown, Jr., who had been mentored in his youth by an Apache elder in the traditional ways of living with the land. A well-known tracker, Mr. Brown runs a tracking school in his home state of New Jersey.

In was through that first class in 1998, that Mr. Kresky was introduced to a larger community of trackers and naturalists, which in turn led him to the Kamana Naturalist Training Program. A program Mr. Kresky describes as a college-thesis level course for naturalists. One of the key elements of the Kamana program is getting to know your local area by regularly visiting the same place and experiencing it on as many levels as possible.

“I developed a spot in the forest that I went to for five years almost everyday.” Mr. Kresky recalled. “I mapped it, and made a master list of every species that would occur within the area, essentially creating my own field guides.”

While visiting his spot he would practice moving into the area with as little disturbance of the animals around him as possible and blending into the environment. During one series of exercises he mimicked the movements and sounds of different animals to better experience the forest from a variety of perspectives. The program, with all of its different exercises and emphasis on getting to intimately know a particular area, creates a powerful foundation for learning about nature.

During this same time, at the prompting of one his mentors from the program, Mr. Kresky began keeping a nature and tracking journal. Mr. Kresky had already been keeping a written journal since 10th grade. A natural artist, the suggestion of keeping a naturalist journal, complete with illustrations and drawings of animal tracks, provided a rich outlet for his experiences in nature.

tracking mike kresky santa barbara naturalist bobcat los padres national forest

Bobcat track seen along Mono Creek

And it was that passion for journaling that led Mr. Kresky to create a field guide for animal tracks of California. In 2002, he met Mark Elbroch through the tracking community. An established author and wildlife biologist, Mr. Elbroch encouraged Mr. Kresky to take the wealth of information from his journals and publish them; and so together with Jonah Evans, a research biologist, the three of them co-authored Field Guide to Animal Tracks and Scat of California. The book was completed in 2012 and published by University of California Press. The book is available locally at Chaucer’s Bookstore.

It was also through Mr. Elbroch that Mr. Kresky’s interest in tracking shifted to include trailing animals. A practice that draws on all of his skills, including moving stealthily through the environment, blending in, and being able to quickly identify and follow tracks.

Inspired by a group of visiting African trackers, who embodied for him tracking and trailing as a practical skill, Mr. Kresky now hones his naturalist and tracking abilities near Cuyama Valley, where the substrate is more conducive to seeing tracks over a long distance and being able to trail animals.

Some great places for getting started as a beginner with tracking is anywhere there is good substrate to hold the tracks. Many of our local beaches, particularly the more remote ones with less people and dogs, can reveal a wealth of easy to read tracks. Forest Service access roads and Edison catways with their light vehicle traffic and exposed soils can often hold tracks. Rain events can also create fresh opportunities for tracking along creeks and dirt roads, and snow, when it happens here, can also make for a good medium for seeing and identifying tracks.

Mike Kresky tracking santa barbara los padres national forest

Tracker Michael Kresky points out the route of a bobcat

Another fun exercise is to make a sand tray, that is make a flat wooden box and fill it with soft sand that will hold tracks. And then, depending where you live, place it in your backyard and watch what happens, occasionally smoothing it out to create a fresh surface.

One of Mr. Kresky’s favorite places to find tracks in town is under bridges. Bridges can create mini-wildlife corridors that concentrate animal activity. And because the area underneath bridges is often shady, silted and free of plants, they provide good substrate for seeing tracks.

On a recent hike along Atascadero Creek near Goleta Slough, Mr. Kresky pointed out where raccoons had been digging in the mud for things to eat. In fact, with the slough currently open at Goleta Beach, the mud flats along Atascadero Creek are an easy place to spot raccoon tracks.

The real jackpot, however was found nearby where Ward Memorial Boulevard crosses San Jose Creek. Here, crawling on hands and knees under the bridge, Mr. Kresky pointed out the comings and goings of five different species of mammals, raccoon, possum, skunk, ground squirrel and non-native black rat, all traversing the same small area.

One of the things that tracking teaches is a greater appreciation for the diversity of wildlife in our area. “I think if we learn to extend our empathy to the creatures around us a little bit more, get to know them, and treat them as our neighbors, our lives would become just a little bit richer.” Mr. Kresky reflected.

Mr. Kresky has taught a number of tracking classes and programs in the past, and is planning on offering more workshops in the future. For more information about tracking or if you have questions about tracks you’ve seen, contact Mr. Kresky at

This article originally appeared in section A of the April 18th, 2014 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

grey fox tracks Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara hiking trail

Grey fox tracks in drying silt along Angostura Pass Road


  1. Nice blog on Mike Kresky! Heard him present on Friday & was pleased to hear him and get to go out in the field briefly!

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