Friday, January 9, 2015

What the Raven says . . . and other fortuitous tracking moments

Guess What happened to this guy?
On a snowy December day, we were in the Boyne River area heading up a steep, steep deer trail as we began the morning. Following deer tracks on a slope placed perfectly one after the other is a hilarious thing to try and do as a human. The snow was wet and heavy and there was a tiny layer of water/ice that made us slip, slide, and wonder about the amazing ability of deer hooves to grip this wild substrate - no boots necessary for the creatures of the wild. 

Following the rambling deer through the forest, we came to an interesting little intersection. On one side tracks were leading from a bramble covered thicket with willow and dogwood in the background and then headed towards a cedar grove. What was that little miss-step that happened in the middle of the trail? The stride of the deer grew by almost a third, and as we put together pieces, you could almost see the deer emerging from cover, stopping, looking and quickly moving through the clearing to get to the dense cedars on the other side. How often do we do this when crossing the road? Human nature or deer nature?

Later, after identifying the sex of a deer based on back legs and urine location, we crossed back down the hill and over the road. From a distance, this wet bog held the allure of some exciting beaver evidence. Fresh chews and trails perhaps? As we walked closer, there was an even more exciting find - a shed antler?!?? Looking closer, this antler appeared to be attached to a big lump covered in snow. . .a whole deer! We had found a dead buck, completely covered in snow, with hair that detached from the hide easily, dating it a week or more old we thought. With a beautiful big rack and thick, strong, neck, we puzzled about its death whether through harsh conditions? old age? car accident? This mystery held us in its grip for a while before we moved on to the beaver trail and found a spot to lunch in among the cedars at the edge of the wetland. 

As we munched and chatted, we heard a strange squawk from where we had left our friend the deer. Who was that and was he saying? Squawking/gurgling/shrieking - the raven had come down to announce this bounty of the deer carcass for anyone who was within earshot. Listening to ravens can be tricky business, but in this case it seemed clear to all of us that he said "Yes! look what I have found!"

After lunch, we hiked past the edge of the wetland, trailing deer to see who and how many went which way. We past evidence of grouse life, and insects burrowing and engraving the trees, until we came across another mystery - what were those snails doing on the snow?? As we investigated the live snails laying across the top of the snow, we wondered - how did they get here? Why? There was a tiny mammal tunnel that led to where these snails looked like been tossed out the window of this subnivean creature. Alexis thinks he knows what it was - ask him if you get the chance.
Fisher Tracks

But the deer trails pulled us forward, and we ventured up the hill to find fresh deer beds, and some bounding deer going - you guessed it- right up a steep and slippery slope. 

Porcupine Trail
Almost at the top of the ridge, there was an interesting interloper. This trail led west down and towards the road, and had five perfect toes in each track. A fisher! This was the biggest mustelid we had seen evidence of this wild and crazy weasel weekend. We followed it over hill and dale, up and down, noticing where it had dug a snack from below the snow - old deer bits? - and where it finally disappeared into thin air?! Or perhaps that shadow up overhead in the spruces was where the fisher napped?

After looking on the ground for an arboreal predator grew tiresome, we found some tracks that looked like a tiny cross country skier had come by - a wild turkey in the deep snow can really help one appreciate the dexterity of their toes. 
As we came to the edge of a field, we found a wide porcupine trail and a den underneath a rocky cliff clinging cedar. Slip sliding our way down to walk the road back, I thought about the sleeping fisher, the walking turkey, the cold snails, the dead deer and the hungry raven and I was grateful to have met them all. 

Written by Lee Earl - 2nd Year Earth Tracks Tracking Apprentice
Porcupine Trail to den site

Monday, January 5, 2015

Weasel 'Madness' and other Tracking Adventures

Mother Nature had gifted us with more than foot of snow, and the Year 2 apprentices were excited to see what animals had left tracks for us this weekend in Mono Cliffs. Our theme was trailing, and we were curious to see how our animal friends had reacted to so much snow on the ground.
After a quick opening circle to set our intentions, we struck out east across the top edge of the old farmer’s field. Diamond strands of silk encased in ice dazzled us; deer tracks in the trees challenged us. How different those tracks looked in snow! How many deer were there? Which way were they going? When were the tracks made? We decided to follow them for a while to see where they were going.
Their gait changed suddenly from a walk to a gallop — or was it a bound? The tracks led to the southern edge of the field, where we were distracted by the discovery of a new trail. Alexis stopped us and used this as a warm-up question for the Track and Sign Evaluation some of us would be taking in January. He circled one section and asked, who made these tracks? Which direction was it travelling in? What gait? Our energy surged as we stooped to examine tracks inside and outside the circle. Was it a canine? Yes. Was it going west? Yes. Was it walking or trotting? Not sure. After a few minutes, Alexis asked us what we thought. Tamara said she thought the coyote was walking. She had gone a little farther ahead in the trail and seen where it had emerged into a more open area; subsequently, the stride had lengthened and narrowed. It made sense: The section that had been circled was winding through stalks of grasses and under a tree. It would have been hard to navigate at speed.
Did we want to keep following the deer or switch to the coyote? It was unanimous: Coyote. The group continued walking west. Along the way we saw tiny mouse tracks circling the tree trunks. At the southern tree line, we found more of the same, mixed in with skunk and Short-Tailed Weasel. Excited, we followed the skunk and the weasel for some time before settling down to have lunch.
Tamara and Alex wanted to see where the skunk went, so we split up: They followed the skunk while we followed the weasel — which was easier said than done! I couldn’t help but think of the movie Flubber. The weasel seemed to be bouncing everywhere, above and below the snow. The mouse trail seemed much more straightforward in comparison!
Short TailWeasel
At the southwest corner of the field, Alexis and Lee found a mysterious hunk of flesh hanging from the branch of a tiny shrub. Thinking something so red could only be berries, Lee even picked it up with her bare hand! A quick sniff proved it was something entirely different, and after holding it, she knew it hadn’t been left there long.
Small Rodent Remains
Alex and Tamara joined us shortly. They had also had some success: The trail had led to a burrow! They too examined the fleshy weasel offering, then we returned to the coyote trail and continued on. We saw bird tracks and vole scats — and a vole trail? A peculiarly-spaced set of tiny tracks led us away from the coyote to the road. They were the same width as a vole’s, and seemed the right size for a vole, but why was it in a 2-by-2 lope?
Short Tail and Least Weasel trails
“I think this is a Least Weasel,” Alexis said finally. Our first one! Rulers materialized almost as quickly as questions. How could he tell? Were they really that small? Why wasn’t it a vole? We opened up our guides and did some quick field research. Typically, the trail had gone from a walk to a lope, then back again. Voles like to trot, and generally don’t stay above the snowpack for very long distances.
It was fascinating to see so many small mammal tracks in such a short space of time. In one area, we saw mouse, Short-Tailed Weasel and Least Weasel trails running side by side and over one another, an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast their tracks, their gaits and their strides.
Vole Feeding Sign
The road marked the edge of crown land, so we turned around and went back into the trees. Soon we found ourselves hiking uphill, passing the work of a hungry vole who had completely devoured the seeds of a milkweed pod. Then we came across another small mammal trail: a cinereus shrew, whose tracks were the tiniest of all!
Eventually, we made our way into the valley next to Mono Cliffs. The group stopped to examine three fresh deer beds; we had likely pushed the deer out of them as we made our way down. Lots of scat and urine to look at here. Alexis pointed to one patch of urine in the snow. Was this left by a male or a female? How could you tell?
Least Weasel and Vole Trails
At the top of the cliffs, the six of us had circled up when the sky suddenly darkened, as though a veil had been pulled over the sun. It was time to head out. We went back to the coyote trail once again, and it led us up to the southern edge of the field, right to the skunk burrow Tamara and Alex had found at lunch. We took the most direct route and hiked across the field to our cars. Several Short-Tailed Weasel trails raced among the grasses around us. We even found a burrow and some scat!
Porcupine Trail
As we ended the day with our closing circle, our thanksgivings came quickly and sounded much the same: gratitude for the snow to track in, gratitude for the tiny tracks we came across, gratitude for new knowledge of our animal friends, who are always there, but whose tracks we don’t often get to see. Last, but not least, Alexis announced that Christina, one of his first-year apprentices, had handed in her completed homework. With smiles and applause, he presented her with the first Earth Tracks Advanced Level Tracking Certificate.

Hopefully, we’ll have some more graduations to report in the months to come! But for now, that’s the news from Day 1.

This Post was written by Christina Yu - 2nd Year Earth Tracks Tracking Apprentice