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......