Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Value of Journaling in Tracking Training

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently working on tracking journals. For the past year and a half or so, I’ve been involved in a tracking apprenticeship program through Earth Tracks Outdoor School. The year before – having  developed a deep curiosity about plants, especially their edible and medicinal uses – I’d signed up for a wild plants apprenticeship with Earth Tracks. I signed up impulsively, but with an instinct I trusted. I had taken a couple of workshops with Alexis and had a really good feeling about his teaching style. I knew I wanted more grounded knowledge of ecology and nature. After many years of education, I was suddenly stunned by my own ignorance about the natural world. I wanted to zoom in on things, see the details, really know what was around me. I wanted to be outside all day, learning cool stuff.
The monthly commitment felt daring and kind of improbable – my younger child was only three, and we had rarely been apart. But sometimes I set my mind to something, and I can’t turn back.

From the first weekend, the time and space and all-day immersion in nature tapped into to something that I had been longing for. As the eight-month plant apprenticeship wound down, I wanted to continue learning in exactly this way. I found out that Alexis was offering a ten-month tracking program, which would start just a week after the plant course finished. As we drove back and forth together the last months of the course, my new friend Lee and I gradually talked each other into it. It was a leap of faith, because at that time I knew little about tracking, but it also felt right, because I knew how much the weekends had nourished me the previous year. I knew also that in nature nothing is separate. Tracking was connected to a huge web of naturalist learning that I wanted to dig into. And I also felt, in a way, that a wave was carrying me that I couldn’t really stop. And didn’t want to.
Now, I am in the second year of tracking apprenticeship with Earth Tracks. Along with a couple of others, I’m participating in a pilot second year program in a work/trade role. I’ve also practiced tracking in other contexts over the same period, in the midst of homeschooling my kids and other responsibilities: a week-long immersion course in Algonquin Park run by Earth Tracks and White Pine Programs; helping run a monthly drop-in tracking program for the PINE Project; and time on my own when possible. And now, I’m also working my way through lots and lots of tracking journals. The ones we use for the apprenticeship are based on the Shikari template, with two pages of more reflective questions added by Alexis. Each journal is six pages long in total, and completing one involves mapping, sketching, measurement, weather observations, ecological observations, species research, observations on one’s own patterns and gaps, and reflection on the more intuitive and personal aspects of tracking. Another set of journal pages, also part of the homework, are focused on species research and field observation. With these, I was initially a bit fixated on making them “complete” and now I’d like to work on making them shorter and more concise instead.

On top of all that are ecological mapping exercises, seasonal nature observations, and tracking exercises of various kinds. Whew! It’s going to take me a while to get through it all. But as with so many things, I’m finding that as I make a habit of it, I’m drawn further in. I’m learning to love my tracking journals, picking away at the homework bit by bit each day. And doing this kind of recording, questioning and puzzle-solving is reinforcing the experiential naturalist learning I’ve been doing the past couple of years. This is field research, but it’s not detached. It’s detailed, but it’s also personal and reflective and connecting. In the past, most of the academic work I did involved writing and more writing: long essays about patterns and theories. I liked making leaps of intuition; I avoided methodical work. This uses a different part of my brain, one which needs to be present to the details. Slowly I can see that paying close attention and recording observations is training me to see better. The more I learn, the more questions I have. I’ve realized that this kind of learning is a life-long commitment.

Here are some more (non-matching) example of individual journal pages. Some of these are finished, some are not quite. They are teaching me the importance of just showing up and doing the work, of slowly bringing small pieces together into something substantial, of creating methodical habits that over time create big changes of perspective. 


By Malgosia Halliop (2nd year Tracking Apprentice)  

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Day 2 - Pressure Releases - Sunday November 2, 2014

On a bright and crisp morning in Grey County, a group of trackers could be found building a "Tracking Box". To the untrained eye, it may look like a sand box, but it is also a fascinating tool that helped unlock some of the mysteries of the pressure releases as outlined in "The Science and Art of Tracking" by Tom Brown, Jr. 

So first, a little lesson on a Do-It-Yourself Tracking Box. 
The dimensions of the one we built were 4 ft X 8 ft out of 2 in x 10 in lumber (tip - if you get three 8 ft long sections of 2x10 then you just need to make one cut to have all the pieces). A rectangular frame was then placed in a good location on the property, lined with a tarp and filled with sand. The best sand for the job is play sand that can be found at an aggregate supplier. Being on a farm with cats, it is important to think about how to cover the tracking box (in this case with a piece of ply), before it becomes the kittie's domain. . . ! Et voila - get ready to get detailed tracking information!

After we had constructed the tracking box, and warmed ourselves with red clover and hibiscus tea from the expertly built fire, it was time to smooth the sand (anything flat and the right length will work, in this case - a piece of lumber 4 ft wide). With a blank slate in front of us, it was up to Alexis to start the study of the first type of pressure release we would study - Pressure against the walls indicating a change in direction. 

Now looking at this image you can get an idea about the level of detail that we were discussing. The principle at play here is the way that sand reacts to shifts in direction or turning. Try it yourself by comparing tracks that were moving forward with a set of tracks where you initiate a sharp turn. With twelve faces close to each grain of sand and the corresponding charts and reference books we happily spent hours discussing slight movements on the each part of the foot. 

The second set of pressure releases we looked at were about what happens when an animal changes or maintains forward motion. A great example of how to understand the principle at play is to find some sand and walk across. Then sprint beside it. A quick comparison of these two sets of tracks will demonstrate the backwards motion of the sand as momentum increases.

The third and last pressure release we looked at in detail was the roll and head position. To feel this in your body, close your eyes and reach to the sky, paying attention to the movement in your feet. Now, touch the ground still feeling your feet. You will hopefully notice the way that your balance point changes depending on the position of your head and upper body. 

All of these pressure releases can help trackers identify the subtle shifts in direction, speed and body position that a given animal made. These subtleties are etched into the earth and can last longer than the fleeting image of a deer in the distance, but it is important to acknowledge the distortions that can come into play based upon things like rocks, sticks, slopes, water, etc. The controlled environment of the tracking box can be our laboratory and then with fresh "search images" in our brains we can go out into the field to read even deeper into the tracks. 

We ended our day by playing a fun game that can work in a tracking box, or a smoothed beach, or untouched snow. One member of the group would walk through the sand, turning, jumping or running as they pleased. Next, the other trackers would come back to the tracking box, having not seen what had taken place, and we would use all the evidence in the tracks we could find to piece together what happened. This way we could test our observations against the direct experience of the track maker. It was amazing to see the way that even within one day, we were able to notice tiny ridges and plates of sand that could then create a whole story. Now to learn the language of pressure releases and the way that they translate into clay mud, snow, pine needle debris and frozen leaves . . .
Written by:  Lee Earl - 2nd Year Earth Tracks Tracking Apprentice

Sunday, November 16, 2014

November Tracking Weekend - Pressure Releases - Day one

The first snow of the season had fallen in the area the day before, and as Lee, Christina and I drove north amidst light flurries we hoped for the snow to linger.   We’re all a little impatient to start tracking on that white winter canvas again. But by the time our whole group had gathered together at Allan Park, the temperature rose, the sun came out, and the snow hastily retreated, not ready to commit.

However, we were all eager to explore and learn in this brand new location on a beautiful November morning. Heading south from the parking lot, we took the main trail towards a large, flat pond, faintly rippled by wind. “Please, no horses in pond,” a sign next to it read, which was surprising but sensible advice, and conjured up amusing images in my head. We swung left to a slope next to the pond and encountered crisscrossed deer tracks. We examined, marked with popsicle sticks, and discussed our observations. The general consensus was that there were two trails, one going down the hill and one going up. The theme of the weekend was pressure releases, so Alexis took the opportunity to tease out some ways in which these particular tracks had moved the earth around them, indicating changes of direction, slight turns, and other specific movements. 

Snowshoe Hare
Leaving the deer tracks and heading along a new trail, we came across a wide sand path, covered with a wealth of tracks. Some prints with five clear claw marks were briefly confusing, until we backtracked slightly and identified the tell-tale J-shaped asymmetry of hare tracks in one of them.  Zooming out, we could see the track pattern of a snowshoe hare moving at high speed: its feet spread wide, back feet well ahead of front, and even the front feet staggered one in front of the other, creating a stretched-out set of tracks for each bound. 

On the same sand path, Alexis took advantage of some human boot prints to delve more deeply into pressure releases.  We had a brief introduction to some of Tom Brown Jr.’s terminology on the subject – expecting more focused study with a tracking box the next day - and some new tools to use in interpreting animal (and human) movement. Approaching each track as a miniature landscape, we heard about ridges, peaks, caves, plates, fissures, and other specific terms used to describe the precise impact increases in movement and speed have on the soil in and around the track. This is the micro perspective: tracks as miniature geological events, each tiny formation giving precise clues as to its big picture meaning.

We shifted our attention, walked uphill. On the way, a predated turtle’s nest, with scattered fragments of rubbery egg-shells, inspired many questions.  After lunch, we found more deer tracks to study and to test what we’d learned about pressure releases.  Here, we found pressure on the left side of the tracks that showed us a turn to the right.

Heading deeper into the woods, a semi-regular line of depressions in the leaf-litter along the trail gave us pause. So regular, and yet… something was off.  The depressions were circular and the leaves looked to have been pushed outwards, almost swirled, instead of showing momentum in any one direction.  Hmm… A good test of our perception.  We clicked in to see that the pattern showed a small animal bounding along the path, stopping to dig in each spot – the fall larder-building of a squirrel.

Flying Squirrel Latrine

The clouds shifted. Several sprinklings of light snow and hail let us know the temperature was around freezing. Further through the woods, as we scampered up and down slopes, more finds: small pellets of scat piled up in tree cavities, in a pattern characteristic of a specific small forest animal (any guesses?); bitternut hickory nuts, and the trees themselves with their faintly striped bark; a pile of crow tail and flight feathers, intact at the shaft tips, as if they had been plucked carefully one by one; another pile of beautiful black, blue and white feathers – some with hints of other jewel-like colours – beside a small beak on a mound of earth. What was the story here?  Who was this bird and what had happened to it?  What other animal was involved?

Bitternut Hickory
The sun was moving westward; our afternoon was nearing its end.  But a few more discoveries were ahead of us: a tiny and perfect nest; a tall grass meadow; a fox’s den, in an ideal location to survey and hunt smaller creatures in that same meadow.  And, a little later, as we reconnected with the trail back to the parking lot, two sets of tracks.  The first, a single, clear canine track, walking straight as an arrow across the human path instead of meanderingly parallel to it – so much information to be gleaned from one track in the right location.  Beside it, some other tiny tracks, easy to mistake for chipmunk, but with other clues pointing to the possibility of a short-tailed weasel. 

A great day of shifting weather and shifting perspectives; zooming in and out of details; seeing patterns large and small making their impact on the landscape and on our ways of seeing.

By: Malgosia Halliop - 2nd year tracking student

Thursday, September 4, 2014

August Algonquin Tracking Weekend

This is the post from our second day in Algonquin......Day one post to come soon.....
Heading out for a day of tracking
On our second day in Algonquin, we decided to stay near the research station and explore the area on the far side of Lake Sasajewun. Again, we grabbed our life jackets and paddles and pushed out onto the water, with last night’s moonlit paddle still fresh in our minds. Too bad Alexis got the leaky canoe!

Fortunately, it didn’t take too long to arrive at the northern part of the lake; and in the grassy, boggy shoreline, we found lots and lots of tracks. There were heron, muskrat, raccoon, fox, and moose and wolf – our first of the apprenticeship! For the better part of an hour, we trailed the moose and the wolf, pausing occasionally to ask, “What made the track look this way?” The variation in the substrate – how squishy it was in some places and how firm it was in others – really affected how much of the track we saw, or if we even saw one at all. Several of us stopped to take measurements; this would be a much-journalled set of tracks!

Eastern Wolf Tracks
Both trails led into the trees, and we followed using our eyes and hands, putting our new debris-trailing skills to good use. Now bear tracks were appearing on the same trail; this was a multiple-species highway. And it wasn’t just for the large: Over and over again, we found mustelid scats deposited right in the middle of the trail, a potent reminder that Martens were in the area, too.

But it wasn’t just tracks and scat we were finding. Mark was picking up Blue Jay feathers wherever he went, and on one part of the trail, we found cones from some Red Spruce. Algonquin is on the westernmost edge of the Red Spruce’s range. They are much more common in eastern Canada.

After stopping for lunch on the trail, we doubled back and went uphill into a drier area of the forest. The group was bustling along as only trackers can when Alexis called us to a halt. There was a grouse tail feather on the ground, and nearby, a wing feather! Then another wing feather and some breast feathers! Taking the tail feather, Lee gave a short talk on how to tell if it had come from a male or a female grouse; then she showed us how well the structure of the wing feathers affected airflow. Guest tracker Sue got several feathery souvenirs from that spot!

Even though it wasn’t very late in the day, it was time to start making our way back to the canoes. We cut down across the forest back to the trail we had followed to our lunch spot. It took a little while to recognize it because the sun had changed its angle, and we really were seeing things in a new light. Alexis, Tamara, Ann and Lee found an old wolf scat, and when they dissected it, they pulled out what seemed like a dew claw. When they looked closer, they discovered it was actually the toe of an unborn deer.
Ruffed Grouse Feather Site

It was late afternoon and we had returned to our canoes. We had one last goal before paddling back to the research station: otter scat. Alexis knew from years past that they liked to use the big rocks at the mouth of the narrows as a latrine. He and Christina got out on the rocks to scout, and it proved fruitful. Piles of dried otter scat decorated the rock face, some speckled with reddish-orange crayfish shells. One specimen was placed on a paddle and passed around for the apprentices to examine. What did it smell like? Fishy, of course!

Too soon afterwards, we had put away the canoes and were sitting in the research station. Our gratitudes came quickly: our time in Algonquin, the animals we had seen, the tracks we followed, the moonlight paddle and the moon. Then there was a little packing up, cleaning up, lots of hugs and warm goodbyes. This was a fantastic weekend for us all, and I can’t wait to go back in February!
By:  Christina Yu - 2nd year Tracking Student

Urban Edible and Medicinal Plants Class 2014

We spent the last few days in High Park with the Urban Edibles and Medicinals course.  What a weekend! We started on Friday night with introductions to each other and to some wild plants. First was some plants made into teas, one with Lemon balm and one with Red raspberry.  Then we made some infused oils, breaking up some St. John’s wort that was harvested from a family acreage-great to be used in a healing salve for wounds. The flowers of Common elderberry were put into a tincture with some vodka, in preparation for cold and flu season in the winter. Alexis’ slideshow highlighted some key harvesting tips, especially the golden rule: “make sure you have 100% identification before you harvest something”. We also learned about some of the key medicinal plants in our area, including Burdock, Red clover, Dandelion, Coltsfoot and Milkweed.


Saturday started with a field guides primer, including how to use using Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and what books were great to get started with. We set to the trail with our field guides and hadn’t even gone very far when we saw a broad-winged hawk just ahead of us on the trail.  As a jogger scared the bird from it’s spot, instead of flying away, the hawk perched right above us and ate it’s meal, likely a small songbird.  We continued along the trail and found some False Solomon’s seal, Wild sarsparilla, and Mayapple, as well as some other common deciduous forest plants. After lunch we considered why it is that invasive plants species like Garlic mustard have come to our areas and talked about making pesto with the stems. The day culminated with a Sit Spot and Fox Walk in a quiet forested area where we each spent a little time with one plant.  We walked out to our spot slowly, took our time coming back in and had a nice moment of contemplation before we shared some stories and ended with some gratitude.


Sunday was Harvesting Day! The morning started off with an excursion to harvest plants to take home with us. We made some teas from Red raspberry, White pine, Wood sorrel and Bee balm.  They were put on top of Alexis’ pick-up truck where lots of passers by were curious of the colourful glass jars as they steeped in the sun. A Sassafras tree was spotted as we started an afternoon walk with some tree ID, including some deciduous, opposite-branching trees like Maple, Ash, Dogwood and Horsechestnut. We looked at several pines trees and headed into a Black Oak Savannah, a unique ecosystem in these parts and a highlight of High Park.  Certain species grow here that are rare in Canada including the Cup or Compass Plant and Butterfly weed.  We did an awareness activity where we were challenged to find a plant that we had been introduced to while blindfolded –opening up our senses beyond simply using sight to get to know a plant.  Returning to the sun teas we’d made in the morning, we tasted them all, including some teas left out overnight-to see the difference in steeping methods.  There was a toss up for favourite tea between Red raspberry and the moon steeped White pine “Moon Pine”. We shared a round of gratitude before our circle broke for the day and we headed home, hopefully to dreams of Stinging nettle and Yarrow to keep ourselves motivated to keep working with the plants. 

Post by Alex Thomson - Earth Tracks Intern 2014

Monday, July 28, 2014

July 2014 day 2

Sunday morning dawned with the sound of rain drumming on our tents.  After a soggy packing-up and an equally wet breakfast, the rain eased as we headed out for the day. Those of us who had camped drove to join two more members of our group at the Kimberley General Store (where I, for one, picked up a pie to take home to my family!). We drove a few minutes down the road and entered a trail into the woods.  The sky was clearing now and the temperature rising, but a fresh breeze and some cloud cover kept us comfortable. Rain jackets were stuffed into backpacks, just in case. 
The first stretch of the trail was bordered by farmland. Tall grass on either side of the main trail revealed smaller animal trails. We investigated one, noticing how the soil was compressed when we pushed aside the grass. This small trail led straight to and through a tall horizontally-slatted fence, which gave us some estimates as to the animal’s size. As with the debris tracking of the day before, using our fingers to gently examine the indentations gave us much more information than using our eyes alone. We could see a track pattern that, along with the size information, suggested a raccoon. Looking closely under the grass, we saw that heel pads and toes had made an impression on the soil.

Off ahead, someone spotted a rabbit.  In such a quick flash of movement it was hard to tell the species. We pressed on along the trail and to a wooden bridge over a rushing creek. Scratch marks in the wet wood mystified us. On the other side of the creek, we found a large quantity of deer hair in several places, and a lone deer scapula (shoulder blade). We crossed the bridge and continued to follow the trail upwards, spotting deer, coyote and raccoon tracks on the way.

The trail upward was surrounded by cedars. Looking around, some of us were struck by the high browse line on the cedars.  We were reminded of how deep the snow had been last winter. Alexis pointed out that this area is a highly used “deer yard” in the winter, a place where deer congregate over the cold months to take shelter in the conifers, browse the available vegetation, and make snow travel easier by maintaining well-used trails. The deer had eaten everything they could reach.  And even with that, we learned, many deer in the area had died of starvation and illness this long, cold winter.

Our trail rose past the cedars and into a hardwood forest.  We cut off the trail diagonally to the left, first climbing gradually, then increasingly scrambling with effort. I had cleverly – I thought! – found myself a walking stick, but it proved to be more hindrance than help as the trail got steeper, so I finally tossed it aside and threw my whole body into the climb. Feet sliding in the rain-soaked earth, testing a foothold on stones that occasionally slipped away beneath me; hands grasping for stones, trees, and sometimes a rotten branch. For a while the group’s attention was focused on the ascent. Occasionally, one or another of us stopped for breath, to check that everyone was accounted for, and to look around us: birch, beech, elm, maple, poplars, aspens. A brief break for lunch on a flatter section of stone, and then upwards once more.

We were on a stretch of the Niagara Escarpment crossed by the Bruce Trail, and heading up to the highest vantage point overlooking the Beaver Valley, a spot known as Old Baldy. The last stretch of our climb was more gradual and on a well-used trail. As the group scrambled out to the rocky pinnacle, Jeff and I briefly stood back, our attention drawn by a bird neither of us had seen before perched high up on a branch and singing.  Jeff did a bit of quick research on the spot and identified it as a black-throated green warbler; from a distance its colour looked yellow against the sky. 

I joined the group at the outlook point, a tall column of stone joined to the main cliff by a narrow bridge of rock. There, in the soil, were more deer tracks.  Even at that highest, most treacherous, spot the agile and sure-footed deer had preceded us. The view over the Beaver Valley was stunning. I wondered what the deer had made of it – did they share any of my exhilaration at looking over this vista? What a change in perspective to watch hawks and turkey vultures flying below us. And feeling that momentary imagining of what it would be like to fly out there with them.

We stepped back from the lookout, looped sideways and upwards just a bit more, around some even taller cliffs. Some animal sign showed us that other non-human creatures had preceded us. A group of four clear slashes on a rock made us puzzle over their story, picturing a four-toed creature slipping backwards as it scrambled over the rock. A fox? It was reassuring to see that, like us, other creatures sometimes take a wrong step. Beside us was porcupine scat in the rock crevices; and a large nest, likely vulture, right above us. We climbed around large moss-covered boulders, trying not to grasp the prickly gooseberry and currant shrubs growing in between.

Finally we began to scramble downward, sometimes squatting or sitting to reach the next stable place to stand. Our destination now was the source of the creek we had seen below, a fresh spring gushing from the rock, which had once been a main source of water for the valley. With some coaching from Alexis, we found the right handholds and footholds to climb safely down to the creek and into the small grotto from which the water emerged. We took turns filling our water bottles, drinking the pure clean water, sitting on the rock ledges, resting our bodies, and breathing it all in.   

We left the spring refreshed, with water bottles full. Our route back took us through hardwood forest, into a meadow and again into the coolness of the cedars where we had started our climb.  To the side of our trail, one of the group spotted something white – a second deer scapula. A little further, deer leg bones. Now some of us were scouring the area, sure that more of the deer would be nearby. Mark walked ahead across a small clearing, feeling the pull of a trail through the grass, and on the other side was the rest of the deer skeleton. The skull, lower mandible, spine, leg bones, all scattered close together. We examined the anatomy of the deer, had a close look at its teeth – which were all intact – and realized that there were parts of more than one deer in the mix.  Alexis showed us how to open up a bone to look at the marrow, the best way of assessing the health of a deer prior to its death. The bone marrow of a healthy deer is creamy, and this one was pink, a sign that the animal’s body was using the last of its fat deposits before starvation. There was no sign of struggle in the area, and all evidence pointed to an animal who had died of illness or malnutrition, and whose body had been scavenged by other hungry animals. 

As we walked back to the road, we were again struck by how little accessible vegetation was left on the cedars. What will the deer eat next winter? How does hard weather impact their population? The day left us with new understanding but also some big new questions about the life of the deer and their ecological relationships.

By Malgosia Halliop - 2nd year Tracking Student

Our Third Tracking Weekend - July 2014

On our third weekend together, we explored the Kinghurst Forest Nature Reserve, a huge property that was donated to the Ontario Field Naturalists by the Krug Brothers in 1998. It is 281 hectares, and includes several different habitats: wetlands, evergreen forest, hardwood forest and field. Once we arrived, we had a quick opening circle to set our intentions for the day – Bobcat! – then ducked into the cedar forest and began looking for tracks and sign.
As a group, we mostly followed the edge of the marsh. In one spot we found the patterned feeding sign of a Yellowbellied Sapsucker, and right underneath, a raccoon latrine. Beaver chews showed on several tree trunks. We wondered why beavers would debark a patch of bark on some trees, and on others they would cut them do
wn. Following on the same topic, was a woody scat nearby from a beaver or from a deer? Or could it be grouse or porcupine?

Alexis led us to an open area on higher ground. One of our themes on Saturday was finding tracks in forest debris and following them as far as we could. Tracking through leaf litter can be tricky; moisture from dew or rain can affect whether something simply bends and bounces back, or snaps. Alexis showed the group how to measure the distance between two “known” tracks using a tracking stick, then how to use that distance to determine where the next track might be. Led by Matt and Mark, we practised following the deer through the cedars, finding signs from beaver, shrew, vireo, and a coyote and mink scat as we went.
On the way back down to the edge of the wetland, we found an enormous scat pile left by our friend the porcupine. This one had decided to make a hollow tree its home. It slept “upstairs” in the upper part of the tree and used the “basement” for its bathroom! Then at the water’s edge, we found a yellow pond lily root. It had a fascinating diamond pattern that reminded several of us of pineapples.
After lunch, we began heading to our next destination: the hardwood forest. This was uphill, away from the wetlands. The cedars gave way to beech, cherry, ironwood and sugar maple and green plants rose from the orangey-brown debris. On top of a small rise, if we looked carefully, we could see the junctions of several deer trails. Alexis asked us to pair off and use our own tracking sticks to follow a trail for as long as we could. This was going to be a focussed time of patterning our brains on what deer tracks looked and felt like.
For the better part of an hour, we were absorbed in what was essentially a tracker treasure hunt – except “X” didn’t mark the spot so much as an upside-down “V”! As luck would have it, Jeff and Alex each found some other neat tracking mysteries to show us at the end of our exercise. Alex found a possible marten scat with interesting fishy contents, and Jeff found the feathers of a Northern Yellow-Shafted Flicker.
After a quick bit of orienteering, we were on the move again. In a short time we began to see a series of scrapes in the soil, some deep, most quite shallow. Alexis pointed out that some of the Jack-in-the-pulpit stems had been nipped, and who likes to eat those? Wild Turkey. Almost as soon as he said it, Malgosia found a beautiful turkey feather on the ground. We found more feathers and some turkey droppings just past the edge of the trees, as we emerged into an open field. The turkeys probably roosted in the branches above. We were picking apart the droppings to examine its contents when Jeff called us over to see a bird’s nest he had found – with the baby bird still inside! In the fork of a Y-shaped branch hung a small nest woven out of strips of bark, just low enough that we could reach it with our arms. A quiet and likely very nervous nestling looked out at us as we gently pulled the branch down so that we could look at it. Afterwards, Tamara determined the nest likely belonged to a Red-Eyed Vireo.

The last part of our hike took us a across field, then parallel to the forest, and we were curious to see patches and patches of yellow flowers at their feet. When we looked closer we realized it was St. John’s Wort – lots and lots and lots of it! We had never seen so much in one place. As if that weren’t special enough, at the end of the trail we found an as-yet-unencountered scat: 7” long, with blunt ends and many segments that stunk to high heaven – BOBCAT. Our wishes had been granted! What a great way to end our day!

By: Christina Yu - 2nd year Tracking Student

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Wildlife Tracking Weekend - Day 2 June 2014

Sauble Beach, June 15 - Day 2

On the second morning we packed up camp and headed back to the Sauble Beach area.  The morning was sunny and already much warmer than the day before. We started our day on a couple of sand trails bisecting a secondary highway, quickly spotting a canine track coming out of the trees by our parked cars. The tight toes, good musculature and direct trail made for a likely coyote. We followed the tracks across the road and discovered a change of gait. Heading through a more open area of sand, the animal switched to a side trot, characteristic of coyotes and foxes moving through an area without cover. 

Beside the coyote tracks we spotted some fresh-looking snowshoe hare tracks heading in the opposite direction, with the characteristic J-shape in the back track.  More hare tracks showed a sudden change of direction, with shifted sand creating a “plate” behind the track.  We again discussed pressure releases and how to read direction of travel and speed of movement through the shifts in substrate around a set of tracks. In the same area we found clear turkey tracks, chipmunk tracks, and a five-toed animal, smaller than a raccoon, travelling in a lope.  Alexis pointed out some details of the tracks that established them as classic skunk tracks:  slightly circular front tracks, boxy back tracks and a slight break in the back heel pad. 

The area on either side of our trail was covered in poison ivy in all directions, effectively keeping us on the trail, and giving us a chance to examine the hazardous plant and get a good visual grasp of what distinguished it from the more benign plants which it occasionally seemed to mimic (Manitoba maple or sarsaparilla, for example). We headed back across the road, briefly took a break out of the blazing sun, ate a quick lunch by our cars, pulled on bug jackets, and plunged onto the sand trail behind us.

Not far into the woods, an exciting discovery: clear bear tracks directly on the trail, a rear registering on top of a front. The sand tail was again bordered on either side by poison ivy, as well as maples, ferns, wild grape, and other plants.  Further along the trail, the bear seemed to have crossed again, with a couple more tracks registering.  Off to the right of the trail, we spotted a beautiful painted turtle, which we briefly examined.  Was it a female on her way to lay eggs?

We made our way into a more open area, and some of our group explored further while others dropped down onto some shaded grass to rest and rehydrate. Sitting by the field we noticed more plants to add to our list and watched and listened to eastern towhees and other birds around us. The exploring group came back with a couple of mystery clumps of fur. The first: found near a coyote scat with pieces of the same fur in the scat; smooth, shiny and dark brown with soft underfur and long, smooth guard hairs. Beaver!  The second: short, alternating black and brown in very short sections.  Hmm.  Some of us guessed raccoon, but no: snowshoe hair.

It was mid-afternoon and we decided on a final quick drive to the area by the lake that we had explored the previous day. Checking on the tracks from the previous day gave us an opportunity to talk about aging. We then headed out in a different direction from the day before, walking across a stream and into a grove of trees.  The group drifted apart to explore the area, until sudden harsh bird calls drew our attention:  a large bird of prey, with short head and impressive wingspan, being mobbed by smaller black birds, all heading away from us across a field into another grove of trees.  Was it a barred owl? A great horned owl?  Mobbed by grackles?  Across the field, the owl tried to take shelter.  We heard crows joining in with the smaller birds, the owl gradually being pushed further and further away from us, the cacophony of crows remaining constant for a long time.  We tried to follow, a couple of us even taking off our shoes to attempt to cross the water that was in our way, but the jagged stone bottom, along with the late hour, made us turn back. 

We called a closing circle for a last chance to reflect on the weekend’s adventures, and gave some final words of gratitude to the animals, plants and people, to the beautiful land and to the majestic lake, before heading back to our cars to find our roads back home.

Written by Malgosia Halliop

Wildlife Tracking Weekend - June 2014

Wildlife Tracking Weekend - Sauble Beach, June 14 2014

Our second tracking weekend took us to the Sauble Beach area, overlooking Lake Huron. We met at Alexis’ place and drove further north to the spot where we’d spend most of the weekend. It was late morning when we reached our destination and came together as a group. We circled up then entered a sandy trail in a hidden spot by the Sauble River.  Immediately ahead of us were sand and mud, green fields dotted with flowers, flat stretches of rock, clusters of trees, and the lake reaching all the way to the horizon.  

We began by studying deer tracks in the sand. The tracks were small, likely from a yearling, and fairly fresh. Alexis pointed out some details in the gait that could be used to determine the sex of a deer. We looked also at the pressure releases on the tracks, telltale ways in which the sand clumped and shifted around the track under the pressure of movement, speed and direction of travel. From these we could begin to form a story of how the deer had moved, when it had changed direction, and sometimes even where it had hesitated or turned its head.  In the mud close by, we found an interested puzzle: bird tracks with several squiggly rows of dots to one side. Some examination of the tracks and our field guides suggested a likely killdeer, gleaning flies and ground beetles with its beak.  A few details distinguished the tracks from the similar tracks of sandpipers, but we also had extra evidence in the form of killdeer flying and on the ground close by. 

Nearby, on a muddy path among the tracks of ducks, geese, and songbirds, we came across tracks of an animal in an uncharacteristic gait: raccoon in a gallop with very pronounced claw marks registering.  Among some confusing details, the long hind tracks and kidney-shaped front heel pads gave away the species.

As we walked on, we were struck by the wealth of plant diversity around us.  As Alexis focused on animal track and sign, Dan, the botanist in our group, shared his knowledge of the plant species around us, some of which he pointed out were provincially rare. Among them were round-leafed sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), Indian paintbrush (Castilleja spp.), shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa), Ohio goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum), common juniper (Juniperus communis), grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca), fringed bluet (Hustonia canadensis), silverweed (Argentina anserina), bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), starry Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum), ninebark (Physocarpus spp.), balsam ragwort (Senecio pauperculus), mossy stonecrop (Sedum acre), northeastern sedge (Carex cryptolepis), field sagewort (Artemesia Campestris,), hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) and three species of St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.).

The day had started cool and cloudy, but by early afternoon the sun shone bright and clear.  We made our way towards the lake, meeting a garter snake and finding a beautiful soft feather – could it be a breast feather from an owl?  Lunch was eaten on flat rocks overlooking the water, the sun warming us up against the cool temperature and breeze from the lake. 
After lunch, the discovery of bird bones led us into a grove of trees. A skull with hooked beak nearby was judged likely to be a cormorant. This led to some questions about cormorants – how does the hooked beak help them in their hunting strategy?  What IS their hunting strategy?  Heading in and out of the trees someone spotted a song sparrow launching away from the ground in alarm. Right at the spot, we found a tiny nest, encircled and almost covered by tall grass, and containing four tiny marbled eggs.  We stood off to the side and at a distance, hoping for the sparrow to return to its nest, watching and listening to song sparrows and redstarts around us.  Suddenly, someone with sharp eyes made out a well-camouflaged smooth green snake in the grass. We picked up the snake and clustered around in excitement, marveling at its smoothness and vibrant colour.  We thanked the snake and let it go.
We were drawn under the umbrella of a large elm surrounded by cedars. There we found a possible pellet containing feathers, scaly bits of footpads and a claw. A very furry scat lay nearby. Heading out of the trees again, another nest, this time in a tree, with only one egg.  Some discussion and a lingering question – could this be a redstart nest? As we came out of the trees: a snakeskin lodged between stones, grey and translucent with holes where the snake’s eyes would have been. We crossed another field and headed again into trees. This time, we followed a sand trail, a great surface to notice tracks of snakes and caterpillars. We tested some scattered small indentations in the sand with a string, triggering attack by an ambush insect.  Along the trail lay a ropey coyote scat. 

As we heading back towards our starting point, frogs became a brief theme.  Tamara pointed out the differences between green frogs and bullfrogs and how to tell male and female frogs apart. A couple of leopard frogs were briefly caught and released, with an unsuccessful attempt to release one onto mud to create a frog trail.  Alas, the mud was too firm and we also discovered that frogs won’t hop in a straight line on cue!

We closed our field time for the day and headed back to Alexis’s place, but not before spotting a beautiful European Hare browsing by the side of a small side road on our way back to the highway. Then a drive back and time to set up camp, share a potluck dinner, do some field guide research, discuss some lingering mysteries, and have a good night’s sleep!

written by Malgosia Halliop

Day 2 Story of the day to be continued......

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Edible and Medicinal Plant Foraging Workshop

Edible and Medicinal Plant Foraging Workshop
Sunday May 25, 2014

Our day began in the sunny morning along a trail deep in the Hockley Valley. As our small group arrived we began to introduce ourselves. It seemed everyone came together to share the sunny day, and to learn. New faces began to connect in nature, and everyone was eager to begin the hike into the valley. As we ventured forth, Alexis outlined a very important topic – ethical stewardship and sustainable harvesting techniques. Not only was it important to correctly harvest the plant, but also to offer the land something in return.
We observed our first plant – the American Basswood. The tender early spring leaves are edible only for a short time. We ventured forward, discussing edibles even within a few feet of the trail entrance. We didn’t need to walk far – there are so many edibles all around us! Garlic mustard was first, a highly invasive species but a delicacy as a pesto. My personal favourite of the day – the Spruce tree – appeared next along the trail. The young new growth is chock full of vitamin C and a flavourful punch followed every nibble.
The plants we began to encounter are considered superfoods due to the high content of rich vitamins and minerals and trace elements. The flavours of these plants hit interesting parts of the tongue. We discussed incorporating bitter and sour flavours into our typically salty and sweet diets. The richness of flavours is one to be explored.  It is important to remember to eat a small amount of the foraged edibles before over-consuming. Our bodies are not quite used to the intensity and we may not be aware of possible reactions.

Our next venture took us into a clearing of a nettle patch mixed with wild raspberry. The common nettle and wood nettle were exciting to find, and we were careful to avoid the stinging hairs. We followed the stream off the path and made our way through meadow following a deer trail. We stopped at the foot of a deer bed to examine our first mystery of the day – identifying a poisonous Cypress Spurge plant. Our next edible that we came across was horse tail. The group became more aware of how to utilize weeds as edibles and how the value of plants can change depending on the value we put into it.

The group stopped for lunch under the lovely cedars beside the stream embankment. With the gentle rush of flowing water we were able to rest. It was on to the next flower, the Viola family – the namesake of Alexis’ new baby girl. Our adventure began to pick up pace – we encountered a second Earth Tracks mystery through identifying the Bloodroot plant. The small side trail began to grow tighter and the group found an interesting hoard of walnuts at the base of a cedar. What mystery was this now? We determined that a chipmunk had nibbled through each nut through the side, rather than the top and bottom. This is a sharp tracking skill to determine the animal’s specific behaviour.

A short while after, we came upon the source of the stream (a lovely spring fed pool to dip our feet into). We foraged for wild mint and took a cool-down break in the sandy water. The group splashed about as nearby ravens cawed out protests to lure us away from their nesting site. A warbler sang in the distance as we moved on to our next edible, Wild Leek. Perhaps the most popular of the trip, the Wild Leek forage was a very important plant to sustainably harvest, and transplant to encourage spreading. We spread out one bunch of leeks before and one after harvesting from the centre of a patch.

At a small cedar clearing, we stopped for break. Lucky for us, we were sitting in a patch of our next snack. The Trout Lily was all around us, just on the tail end of its season. The spotted leaves fade away in late spring, early summer but still makes for a tasty treat similar to lettuce greens. As we made our way back to the trail entrance, we collected delicious wild ginger which we had found earlier, but avoided harvesting in a sensitive area. Our last collaboration of the day involved a meditation, or “sit spot” time. Each participant was able to really take in the day, reflect, and rest with purpose. After some final discussion on drying and processing techniques for our bounty, the last stragglers on the trail were able to lure in an Indigo Bunting with a call thus ending our lovely sunny day with some spectacular bird-watching.

Jill Byers Earth Tracks Intern 2014

May 25th Orangeville course

Garlic mustard
Wood nettle
Goldenrod (sp?)
Viola spp. “violets”
Wild ginger
Wild leeks
Blue cohosh
Trout lily

White pine
Red pine
Walnut (sp?)
Eastern hemlock
Trembling aspen

Currant (sp?)


Cypress spurge
Poison ivy
Jack in the pulpit
Squirrel corn

Balsam fir
White elm
Wild marjoram or basil
Oak (Acorns)


List Compiled by Alex Thomson - Earth Tracks Intern 2014