The landscape of nature is a lot like a good book, just waiting to be read.
There are tracks and trails, roosts and rootings - and of course, animal droppings that betray much about the goings-on in the great outdoors.
Deer pellets, for instance, are an easy read: they look like Raisinettes - or licorice jelly beans if the source is a large, well-fed specimen.
Wild boar droppings, I've always thought, look like compressed tater tots. The owls that roost deep in the swamp leave behind something that resembles Whiteout - and dries just as hard.
Beyond those few creatures, though, animal scats are harder to read. That's why I was delighted, while going through my mail, to find a new book by one of the leading experts on such matters.
Jim Halfpenny, who co-authored Scats and Tracks of the Southeast, is no stranger to tracking. His eyes can take in a landscape, decipher its language and tell you its secrets.
His decades as an outdoor education teacher have taken him across the globe, where he's mingled with everyone from Australia's aborigines to the bushmen of the Kalahari.
Today, he lives in a rustic house in Montana, just a few hundred yards away from Yellowstone National Park, where I caught up with him by telephone last week.
Besides having a Ph.D. and plenty of credentials, Halfpenny has an extensive personal inventory of the things that help make a great tracker.
"I have about 10,000 photographs, probably 1,000 plaster casts (of tracks) - and tons and tons of scat - just in my collection," he said. "I've been doing this for 40 years."
His book focuses on 70 species indigenous to the Southeast, including many carnivorous creatures who, arguably, are among the most challenging to differentiate by droppings.
"Those scat are very hard to do accurately," he said. "Louisiana State University did an interesting study, where they got scat from all the different carnivores, and brought in all the best naturalists. The highest score was only 40 percent."
Deciphering nature through scats and tracks is becoming more mainstream than ever before - and is attracting interest in circles much broader than hunting and fishing.
"I think it appeals to the curious and people who like the outside," Halfpenny said. "Bird watching took off a few decades ago; now people are becoming a lot more curious on mammals."
The illustrated field guide covers the tracks, habitat, signs, strides and ranges of 70 species, including birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and even some invertebrates.
The book, published by Falcon Guides and Globe Pequot Press, has 172 pages and retails for $9.95.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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