Monday, December 7, 2015

The Twelve Gifts of Tracking

Porcupine Mandibles
 The rolling hills and drumlins of the Bruce Trail inspired this seasonal story of the day:

On the 6th Day of December, my tracking friends shared with me…
Twelve apples cached by squirrels (munched on by rodents, rabbit, deer and grouse)
Eleven animal trails (some serious) made by deer, rabbit, porcupine and raccoons.
Ten deer beds, scrapes and antler rubs.
Nine piles of deer, coyote, raccoon, porcupine and squirrel scat.
Red Squirrel Cache
Eight animal homes lived in by fox, groundhog, red squirrel, porcupine and sparrows.
Seven raven calls above a coyote’s resting place by the creek.
Six pine grosbeaks.
Five mandibles (from porcupine, coyote and meadow vole)
Four gulleys (landforms* and one named Sue)
Three rodent-chewed deer bones
Two grouse exploding into flight (and two ginger chocolate squares)
…and a porcupine in a hemlock tree.

*a water-worn ravine

By Tamara Anderson - 2nd year Tracking Apprentice

How Do You Like Them Apples?

 Approaching our meeting location for the day, the veil of fog I had been driving in for an hour seemed to be lifting with the rising sun that had began peaking through the clouds, just up over the treeline in the horizon. I was taken by the beauty of the first rays of light hitting the frosty landscape of rolling hills and tree lines. The fine layer of ice that had developed overnight, covering the autumn vegetation, was reflecting the rays of the rising sun in a way that makes you really feel grateful to be alive. Everything on the landscape was glistening sunlight.
Deer Track in debris

We met up on the side of the dirt road and promptly decided we should tuck into the other side of the Cedars to escape the chill of the wind. This brought a first lesson in starting to think more like an animal, seeking natural forms of cover to conserve energy and help provide cover. The winds were strong and blowing from the North-West so we made a plan to head over to the eastern edge of the cliffs and along southward so our scent would be blowing away from our target destination as we approached.

We were focusing on trailing today so we needed to be especially quiet. We agreed to travel in scout formation, travelling as quietly as possible and communicating with hand signals.
As we began, the morning frost was just starting to thaw, making the deer trails stand out with an amazing clarity. The leaf litter was moist, helping to soften the sound of our footsteps, and the winds blowing the melting ice of the trees provided gusts of dripping sounds that help muffle our noise. Alexis got us started on the first trail, pointing out various tracks, lays, scrapings, browse and fresh scat. We switched leads, and I began following whatever trails seemed to stand out most to me. I felt in a different mode following a trail silently and focused. At some point I heard the snap of a branch to the East of me, and I remembered that I was in a group. Two small deer scampered out in front of me and took off ahead as Tamara, the eastern wing, emerged from the ridge just behind them.

We circled up to share and make a plan of action. We continued to follow the trails southward to the edge of the habitat and we began feeling like the deer were Eastward. We switched leads again and headed East and within minutes, I knew something was up as the lead froze and slowly lowered. Miriam had spotted a group of 5-6 deer heading South-East. We waited before following the trails along silently for some time, until we came to a sunny spot just along the ridge that a few deer trails passed near and we thought, “this would be a sweet spot to bed down and soak up the warmth of the sun, if we were deer.” Naturally, we decided to break there.

Porcupine Den Site
After sitting in the sun for a while, I realized the leaves were no longer damp, the frost had melted and the sun had begun to dry out the leaf litter of the forest floor. It would be a lot harder to travel as quietly now. Alexis reminded us to try to think like a deer. How we walk is important. When deer break a branch as they are walking, they freeze and check their surroundings before they take another step. Although we couldn't be completely silent, we could change the rhythm of our footsteps to be more like the deer, careful, with intermittent pauses.
Porcupine scat and quill

Following the trails, we found an old porcupine den, piles of fresh raccoon scat, signs from various woodpeckers, flying squirrel scat, and half-eaten apples stashed up in tree limbs. As we worked our way to the apple trees, we saw various animals had been feeding on the huge abundance of fruit. We compared measurements of the incisor marks on some apples, discussed what was possibly eating them and debated what was likely the creature(s) that had left the marks on the specimens in our hands.

Red Squirrel incisor marks
As the day came to an end, we headed back North, slowly, along the Western edge of the field as the sun was beginning to make it's was to the other horizon. Once again, I am filled with gratitude and appreciation for the natural world, and the abundance of gifts, lessons and experiences Nature has to offer.

Always asking questions
Written By:  Lianna Vargas - 2nd Year Wildlife Tracking Apprentice

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The winds of fall, the silence of the forest, and getting to the root of things

The first weekend in October we met near Orangeville to focus our learning on roots. The nights had grown longer and the temperature had dropped considerably since our still summery meeting in early September. With these seasonal changes, we knew that the energy of the plants was moving downwards, under the soil.  As we gathered Saturday morning, we were jolted by strong winds that battered around us and blew through the many layers we each wore.  Since we were on a private property, a home and horse farmed owned by good friends of Alexis, we ducked into the barn to circle together and start our day.

Back out in the fields, the wind was fierce.  We dug up plantain roots along our way, then found a sheltered hollow in tall grass which shielded us from the wind.  From this we made forays out to dig and gather plants such as nettle and catnip, and pulled out some field guides to help us answer pressing questions.  We moved through the property, finding plants along the way, but the winds pushed us on.  Eventually we decided to cross the road and tuck ourselves into a forested area off the Boyne Valley.  We were grateful for the shelter and ate some lunch to refuel.  After lunch we took advantage of the relative warmth to each sit with a plant and learn something from it. 

I found myself sitting under a maple focusing on a tiny Herb Robert plant, feeling questions and anxieties of the previous week slipping away from me in the space and silence of the forest, admiring both the delicacy and the resilience of the intricately-leafed plant. As we came back together, we shared stories of what we had learned sitting with the plants, what spaces the forest had opened up in us. We spent some more time focusing on digging: milkweed, burdock, dandelion, and – very conscientiously – a couple of blue cohosh plants. We marveled at how different each of the roots was, wondered what that told us about each plant, and speculated about how fascinating it would be to try to identify the different plants by only looking at their roots.

We finished our day back in the barn, washing the earthy roots in basins of warm and cold water, warming ourselves up, and tincturing the roots of our choice to take home.  We were grateful for shelter and the promise of our warm homes that night!

The second day of our roots weekend was spent in a forest in Dufferin County, an area we had not previously explored.  Much of the morning we spent very close to where our cars were parked, exploring and digging in the richness of the forest soil.  We carved some digging sticks out of a small maple sapling to help us in our efforts. We traced the long rhizomes of sarsaparilla, which link whole colonies of plants together; examined the segmented appearance of the roots of false Solomon’s seal; and admired the incredible tenacity of the deep taproots of burdock, which tested the limits of our own perseverance and digging tools.

Seeds of Wild Leeks
Lunch was spent around a fire, resting and sharing songs together; our afternoon was spent exploring, wandering and digging more roots.  A strange and unexpected moment was finding an ancient Volkswagen rusting and decomposing in the middle of the woods – this find inspired much speculation and many stories!  We also spent time digging up spruce roots, useful for basket making and other traditional crafts, with Judy pulling out an impressively long rope of root; and took some time to rest and talk about our plant-related projects and research.

Spruce Roots
It was great to be out exploring the woods again, feeling joy in the new challenges of the elements as the season changed, and digging under the surface of the earth to deepen further our relationship with the plants.

Written by: Malgosia Halliop - 2nd year Plants A


Jedi Tracker Training and Luke Sandwalker

Sunday November 1st, 2015

As the tracking apprentices learned about pressure releases this past weekend, we could almost hear the wise words of Yoda saying, “Patience you must have my young padawans”.  After constructing a 10 foot long by 5 foot wide tracking box on Saturday, we were ready to embark on using the giant sandbox to look at tracks.  Alexis shared his passion and knowledge of pressure releases eloquently and enthusiastically.  We also had “The Science and Art of Tracking” by Tom Brown Jr. in hand.  We learned how turns, changes in direction and sudden stops cause pressure against the wall of a track.  The pressure is released as cliffs, ridges, peaks, caves, plates, fissures and explosions in the substrate.  The second pressure release study looked at what happens to the substrate as a result of a change in forward motion.  The apprentices walked, ran, and jigged across the tracking box to get a better understanding of how speed influences the appearance of a track.  We created waves, disks, dishes and explode-offs in the sand.  We were helped out by both a cat and a dog, who were somewhat obliging in letting us analyze their tracks in the tracking box.  Alexis shared a quote by Stalking Wolf on page 34 of The Science and Art of Tracking, “We first must learn the simple language of the tracks, which teaches us to hear the voice of the animal, and soon, through the voice of the animal, we begin to hear the voice of the Earth.” The day also included a little sand castle construction and much merriment.

Written by Tamara Anderson - 2nd Year Earth Tracks Tracking Apprentice

A Boyne River Valley Scat Rap

Sunday September 13, 2015
Written by Tamara Anderson
(With help from the Scat Rap, by A. Bennett, M. Keebler, R. Pemble, D. Elliott, and B. Jonas)
It starts with an “s” and it ends with a “t”. It comes out of you and it comes out of me. I know what you’re thinking, don’t call it that. Let’s be scientific and call it scat.
The tracking group met at an old dam and Grist Mill known as Ponton Mills in the Boyne river valley. We set a course northward to a big hill where a fisher’s tracks had been found the previous winter.  Ten degree weather and a forecast of rain added a chill to the morning.  Autumn had arrived in south-western Ontario.

Pausing to observe cedar roots wrapped around limestone, and crayfish under rocks, we clambered along the shore of the Boyne River.  The fragrant smell of mint filled our nostrils and we brushed by groves of horsetails. Old beaver chews and deer trails caught our attention. 

Left by the dozen in piles on the ground; Lots of little pellets are what you’ve found. They look like little chocolates so it is clear. This is the scat of a white tailed deer.

A deer popped up from her day bed while we admired fawn pellets.  She bounded across the river to our East.  We continued up the hill, discovering deer bones and following the course of a spring to its source.  Refreshing, cold water flowed out from the hillside. 

Animal-made switchback trails helped us climb up the steep valley slope.  At the top, there was a scat underneath a Black Cherry tree.    

Up on the hill, under a Black Cherry; Scat full of apple and purple berries. Late last night he was out with the moon; foraging in the forest, it was Mr. Raccoon.

The spruce plantation at the top of the hill revealed porcupine chews and more deer bones.  A logging trail led us to a rolling topography of maple trees.  A wood thrush sat on the forest floor watching us.  Alexis found an interesting limestone rock that had been hollowed out.  Had it been hollowed out by water or maybe by a human?
Tracks showed where a raccoon and a coyote had explored a muddy flat near the edge of the forest.  The forest opened into a clearing.  Deer beds were scattered around the open field.  Lianna found deer hair in one of the beds.  We hiked up to a lookout.  Northern Flickers had probed for ants on the steep hill.  We found an opened apple covered in ants in the middle of the trail.  Iwonder if the flicker placed the apple to attract a buffet of ants?

The hilltop overlooked the Boyne Valley.  Sharp-shinned hawks, Turkey Vultures, a Swan, Blue Jays and Northern Flickers performed aerial feats as we discussed the landscape, noting colourful pockets of different tree species.  On the way back to the car, we encountered a muskrat making trails in the marsh and dinner out of cattails.  

In closing,
Down the trail something’s lying on the ground; Nature’s Tootsie Roll all long and brown. Don’t wrinkle your nose, don’t lose your lunch. Break it apart, you might learn a bunch

Written by Tamara Anderson - 2nd Year Earth Tracks Tracking Apprentice

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Tracking in Algonquin - Part 2

First thing in the morning, we recapped on the harvest of yesterday's exploration, reviewing on a map where we had come across some of our favourite discoveries.

We headed out for the day and stopped at a bent and broken chokecherry tree that Alexis pointed out, asking us what we noticed about this tree. We saw all the cherries had been picked off the tree and following some looking around, we noticed bear claw marks on the trunk of the tree, and how the branches had been broken. We had suspected the pits in the bear scat from yesterday, had possibly been cherries, but now we had proof!

The remains of a calf moose
We then headed down to the water and canoed out to a point of interest where half of the group had come across the remains of a moose calf the following evening on our return back to camp. We checked out the site, finding many chewed up bones scattered around the area. The area was filled with tons of wolf activity, mossy ground and the trail of a mourning mother moose. We scouted around and spent most of the day following bear trails, looking, feeling and measuring the tracks we were following.
Wolf Chew
Later we cracked open a bone to investigate what had been going on with the moose calf through assessing it's bone marrow– had it starved to death? had it died of disease? It was a little too late to tell, but the inside of the bone did have a surprise for us!

Maggot feeding on Marrow!
Bear Bite marks
Alexis then had us try an awareness exercise – envisioning the animals through sensory touch of the tracks, which proved a potent experience to many in the group. We shared our experience as we canoed back. Once back at the rendezvous site, we checked out some moose bones the park researchers had gathered, a good opportunity for comparing them with the ones of the calf we had seen earlier. After checking out some signs of porcupines eating plywood and taking a look at some fresh territorial bear markings on a hydro pole, we finished the day with a quiet sit spot out on the land.

Feeling the Tracks

Getting down on a bear trail!

 At the end of the weekend, I was filled with a whole new pile of information to let sink in and a deep sense of amazement and gratitude for the depth and experience of life.

Sunday, August 30, 2015 - Written by:  Lianna Vargas - 2nd year Tracking Apprentice

Tracking Algonquin Wildlife

Saturday, August 29, 2015
Written by Tamara Anderson - 2nd Year Tracking Apprentice

 There are forty seven species of mammals that call Algonquin Park “home”.  The world-renowned park includes 7,725 square km of mixed coniferous and deciduous forest.  On our latest tracking weekend, we observed the tracks and sign of Algonquin wildlife living along the shores of Lake Sasejewun near the Wildlife Research Centre.

Saturday morning was overcast as we made our way to the canoe launch.  A stop near the dam revealed Northern Flicker tracks in pursuit of ants along the dusty road.  A pile of black bear scat presented our first mystery.  There were large seeds in the bear scat.  What was the bear eating?  The answer would reveal itself (with Alexis’ help) the next day. 

We followed the bear’s trail to the edge of the lake and noted that the bear had grazed on sedges along the course of his/her travels.  Being the Park’s largest mammal, male black bears generally weigh between 70 and 150kg and females weigh between 45 and 70kg.
Bear feeding on sedges

We boarded the canoes and headed west across the lake.  The group paused along the opposite shore as Tamara and Rhonda made a quick dash across the lake to return a leaky vessel.  These sink-chronistic circumstances proved serendipitous as the shoreline revealed a formidable bear bite on a pine tree, a bear trail through soft moss, grouse scat (fibrous and cecal), snowshoe hare sign and a myriad of moose and white-tailed deer trails. 

After lunch in the boats, we journeyed to the Northwest corner of the lake where Luke and Sue had seen a moose named “Misty” the night before.  Along this shoreline, we discovered wolf tracks and a beaver lodge that had been marked with skunky urine by a fox.  Nearby, Lianna and Tamara noticed that a red squirrel had cached piles of balsam fir cones beside purple mushrooms.  Prepare yourself for a challenging tongue twister; Did the squirrel purposefully place the purple-coloured cones beside the purple mushroom?  Did she intend to camouflage the cones or perhaps organize a “balanced mushroom and cone on the cob” meal for another day?

Bear Cub Track
Other highlights of the afternoon included seeing a bear cub track beside a beaver-chewed birch tree.  A mama bear track was nearby. Everyone had a chance to jump on a fresh bear or moose trail or take time for a sit spot.  Alexis pointed out Rattlesnake plantain, one of Ontario’s orchids.  Rhonda found the bottom of a beaver skull.  A mystery brown snake appeared and went down a hole.  What are the ID characteristics of a red-bellied snake versus a brown snake without seeing the belly?  Or could it be a young Garter Snake?
On the paddle back to the station, we found the bones of a moose calf on the shore and signs of wolf feeding and rolling.  We learned that the wolves took five days to find the dead moose calf and two days to eat it.  This led to questions about how many wolves are in the park and where is the nearest rendezvous site?

Rattlesnake Plantain
The next day, Alexis showed us a chokecherry tree near the bear scat that had been pulled down.  Bear claw marks were evident on the bark.  Most of the chokecherries had been eaten, except for a few left on the branches.  We opened one up and found the matching mystery seed that had been in the bear scat.  It was a berry good find.  Bear with me as I close this story of the day with one more pun; I hope that you found this write-up amoosingJ