Monday, February 23, 2015

Reading the Stories in the Snow: Tracking Evaluation in Algonquin Park

I spent this past weekend at the Wildlife Research Station in Algonquin Park, standing around in below -20C temperatures, poring over indentations in the snow, snowed-in trails of all sizes, mysterious scrapes and holes in trees, pungent urine marks, and other clues of animal presence. I do this kind of thing for fun as often as I can, but this time I was participating in a Track and Sign Evaluation to test my skills. I've been working on tracking skills in a focused way for about two years now, perhaps peripherally for a year or two before that. I've written previously about what drew me to this learning, and why I find it so compelling and beautiful and important, both on this blog and at Sense of Story. And so you might know that for the past two years I've been involved in an apprenticeship program with Earth Tracks, spending many inspiring weekends hiking around forests, swamps, cliffs and fields in every possible kind of weather, learning about the ecology of this land that I live in and about the creatures who inhabit it with me. I've learned to measure, sketch tracks, journal, draw maps, do species research, observe weather patterns, and tease out the stories left behind on the land.
When the evaluation was first scheduled, I hesitated to sign up. I had some nerves and doubt and plenty of ego to untangle when I considered being put on the spot for my skills in this way, skills that seemed so emergent and fragile to me. I didn't know what it would look like and how it would feel to be required to move from wonder and speculation to firmly committing to an answer, my own answer, to each puzzle pointed out to me. What did I actually know? But specific goals are motivating, and risk is a powerful teacher.
Our humble but cozy accommodations.
So I found myself on a late January Friday bunking with three other women, fortunately all of them friends, in a tiny cabin in the woods of Algonquin Park. In between sleeping and evaluation time out in the field, our group of ten or so participants gathered together in the Director’s Cabin at the Wildlife Research Centre to warm up, cook our meals, and socialize.
One of my bunkmates, Tamara, had made up study notes for herself, and we lay in our beds on Friday evening as she read tidbits out loud by headlamp, all of us easing our nerves with raucous laughter.
The next morning, with feet already freezing from the cold cabin floors (note to self: bring slippers next time!), we gathered with snowshoes and notebooks to start the evaluation. George, the evaluator – who had come up from the U. S. – had scouted out some tracks and sign the day before. But nature is always in motion, and recently fallen snow and new tracks meant that many of the questions he ultimately gave us were spontaneously found or had already changed slightly by the time our group reached them. With each new track, trail or sign we might be asked: “Who made this?” “What gait is this?” “Which foot is this?” or the all encompassing “What happened here?” Ecology, habitat, behaviour, as well as our knowledge of track and trail patterns and typical animal sign all informed our answers. We moved from one set of tracks to another, each person taking as long as they needed to decide on an answer, although the bitter cold certainly encouraged closure. Our answers we gave one by one to George or to Alexis – who was assisting – either whispered or written in a notebook (my preference). The evaluator’s job was to hear our answer with a neutral face and record it.
Who made these tracks?
After each group of five or so questions, George took up the answers. Obviously, the evaluator’s tracking skills are put on the spot as well, and there is room for debate and the occasional question thrown out if there is too much disagreement (it is amazing, for example, how much snowed-over moose tracks and human tracks can look alike). After the first group of questions, I knew I would be fine, and I threw myself into the exuberant fun and adrenaline high of it all.
George and Alexis, practicing the poker face. George has an excellent frost beard.
Who made this Trail? 
As I knew, my weak point was bird, insect and mammal sign on trees. On the other hand, I had some strokes of luck, pulling an answer out of nowhere – certainly not from conscious memory – a few times and then discovering it was right. I was struck by how often a seemingly random guess can have a solid deductive process going on behind it. I loved what I learned about my instincts and my reasoning process, how good it felt to follow my intuitions on each question, and how often my mistakes came out of not doing so. I also loved dispensing with the need for measurement – measuring tools weren't allowed – and tuning into my love of patterns and context to summon my answers. I checked off correct and incorrect answers in my notebook, and although the answers are weighted for difficulty, making it difficult to calculate a score ahead of time, I could see as the weekend went on that I was mostly on a roll. I had told myself that what I wanted from the evaluation was a really great workshop – which it was – but I could see quickly that my competitive drive was kicking in.
Among what we saw in the snow were tracks and trails of pine marten, fisher, mink, river otter, short-tailed weasel, shrew, deer mouse or white-footed mouse, grouse, moose, white-tailed deer, red squirrel, red fox, and eastern wolf. On a range of trees, hydro poles and on one plywood shed were marks from black bear, porcupine, pileated woodpecker, and many other smaller creatures.
What happened here?
Our most intense moment was being led to a fresh moose carcass at the bottom of a slope on the side of the highway. The next few questions set the scene: Whose tracks were leading up to it? What did we see at the top of the hill? Was this all related? If so, how? It was potent and moving to visualize the scene of the hunt, what might have happened here and how. To place it within the statistics on wolf on moose predation in the park; to feel the agony of the moose’s death alongside gratitude for the role the wolves play in the health of their ecosystem. In the woods with senses wide open, you can’t avoid the cycle of life and death, its solid and fleshy reality, and the bigger knowledge that every living being, every possible nutrient, is eventually recycled and reabsorbed into others and into the Earth.
A beautiful otter trail.
I was grateful to have been part of this experience and process. Putting myself into a situation where I needed to decipher the clues on my own, to commit to answers and really trust my gut, and the excellent outcome that came out of this for me (Level III Track and Sign) gave me a huge boost of confidence in the skills I've built up over the past few years. The testing situation put a higher stake on using the knowledge I had in contrast to the more relaxed energy of tracking as naturalist learning. It connected me in a deeper way to the instincts my ancestors would have used, that I could still use, in a situation where tracking had a stake in survival. Reflecting on the experience in the week afterwards, I thought a lot about how to apply that intuition, that trust in myself, to other situations in my life. Like any experience where head, heart and body are engaged, it gifted me more than the sum of its parts.
Pine marten at the back window of the Wildlife Research Station. Photo by Lianna Vargas.
A week later, I’m driving up to Algonquin Park again, this time with the apprenticeship program, for a weekend of a different pace, which will be both more relaxed and more physically demanding. We’ll get onto some moose or wolf trails, read the patterns, immerse ourselves in the exhilaration of movement, observation and connection with the more-than-human world. I’m glad not to be tested this time, but I know I’ll bring the energy of last weekend forward into this one. And I suspect that when the evaluation comes around again next year, I will be keen to do it again.
Me, with my usual tracking grin.
Written By: Malgosia Halliop - 2nd Year Tracking Apprentice

Thursday, February 5, 2015

"Here kitty, kitty . . . . Wait - What's that Flesh?"

A study of animal Gaits
Story of the Day for Jan 18

On a snowy Sunday morning, after many icy kilometres, our little tracking crew found itself on the edge of the Kreug Forest. A great piece of land preserved through the years by the Kreug family and then donated as a preserve, some of us reminisced about beautiful native plants we had seen here in other seasons. But top of everyone's mind was the potential for bobcat! Twice over the past year there had been potential bobcat scat spotted on the scrubby edge of the wetland. Now, with snow all around, we were excited to see if we could find evidence of those beautiful tracks!

Snowshoeing through the cedars on the edge of a pond, there was lots of evidence of deer walking, feeding and sleeping. An old cedar stump held the claw marks of a squirrel and maybe a raccoon. Claw marks reminiscent of tiny hieroglyphics in an obscure forest language - hard to say how long they have stood there.

As we head out carefully across the ice (a foot went through on more than occasion that day:) ), we find an aged trail of what looks like a starfish? With splayed toes at all angles, and a regular rhythm, this animal had crossed the pond to the shore. Although difficult to see individual toes, the wild shape of these tracks could only be attributed to Ontario's only marsupial - Virginia Opossum!

What track pattern do you see here?
Sticking to brushy, covered edges of the wetland, we came to a crossing where multiple deer had gone from forest to forest, changing gaits in rapid succession as they crossed the open ice. The thin layer of slush on under the snow, provided great contrast for this in-depth analysis of cervid movement. After Saturday nights in-depth whiteboard studying, we were able to pick out an individual deer as it moved from a transverse gallop to a bound to a rotary gallop (the fastest gait I know of). Using the tracking text from Elbroch, we drew out fronts and hinds, and compared the lightning bolt shape of a transverse placement of feet to a rotary placement which is more C - shaped.

Picking up the pace to get out of our heads, we came across a tiny least weasel trail over the ice, so snowed in we couldn't count toes, but saw the characteristic 3x4 lope that this family loves. On land, a tiny ironwood sapling showed signs of fresh browse. On a little island in the snow, someone found what looked like a rib bone.

Porcupine Den Site
After lunch and snow fight with a conifer (wherein said tree suddenly dumped snow all over unsuspecting snacking adults), we headed towards some fresh porcupine chews. We found a little "snow plow" trail of the porcupine leading into an active den at the base of a beautiful old sugar maple.

What is that up there?
Our group dispersed a little amongst the open hardwoods and saw little shrew and potential short-tailed weasel trails. Wait - what is that? A little 2x2 loping trail with a tiny piece of scat? Ropy scat and little further down a piece of flesh? As we trailed this tiny predator, we found another and then another scrap of flesh. Under a log, over the snow, across the hill until it seemingly disappeared. The worn trail told of us the tiny weasel hunter who must patrol this patch of forest. Although he (presuming from track size) was not the cute and fluffy cat we had hoped for, we were all left with the wonder of this carnivorous creature . .

Written by Lee Earl - 2nd year Tracking Apprentice - (also certified  Level III Track and Sign!  Whoo-hoooo!)

Down in the Valley: A focus on snow trailing and animal gaits

 On a cold and windy January Saturday we met in the Beaver Valley to start our weekend of tracking and trailing.  Most of us were on snowshoes, skimming across the layers of snow and able to keep a good pace over the drifts.  First off, we slipped off the road down into a cedar swamp, where we were sheltered from the brisk wind.  The animals might have had the same idea. We immediately encountered deer and coyote trails, occasionally hard to distinguish from each other in the deep snow, and so we spent some time figuring out the features that would help us tell them apart, as well as talking about how each animal was moving through the snow (its gait).  Talking about the weather patterns of the past week helped us with aging the tracks. 

Deer beds were tucked in among the cedars, and fairly fresh coyote tracks across them gave us a glimpse of the ongoing dance across the landscape of predator and prey.  Two patches of urine again spoke to this relationship, the coyote leaving its strongly smelling urine directly over the deer’s milder-scented mark. And now the “it” of the coyote was transformed into a “she”: a patch of blood in the urine told us that the coyote we were following was mostly likely a pre-estrous female, almost ready for the breeding period.  

We were struck, as we have been at other times, with the very high browse line on all the cedars. These were hungry deer, perhaps already running low on resources.  A high browse line on the black spruce nearby was even more surprising.  Spruce is a food of last resort for deer, and we wondered about the population density of deer in this area and their pressure on the forest.

Porcupine Browse Sign
A little past the deer and coyote urine, we found another mark, florescent green and piney in scent, surrounded by clipped branches of spruce that had been dropped to the ground – tell-tale sign of porcupine! Our next clue, a typically trough-like and stained porcupine trail in the snow, led us to more urine and a large pile of scat.  And looking up, in a large cedar, there was the culprit, high up on the trunk.  Not more than fifty feet away, we spotted another of the species in a second cedar.  This tree sported a fresh-looking pileated woodpecker hole. As we looked around at other such holes in surrounding trees, Matt spotted something peculiar above us: a couple of dozen quills sticking upwards from a branch that was broken at the end.  What a strange sight!  What happened here?  Was it a porcupine falling off a higher branch breaking its fall and losing quills?  We found no sign of a body at the base of the tree, even after digging down in the snow. How long had these quills been here?  What happened to their owner?

Did this Porcupine fall from the Tree?
Leaving the porcupine mystery for future wanderers to stumble upon, we headed up to the bridge over the Beaver River. Our next mystery was a clump of black fur, with a bone in the centre of it, half buried in the snow under a large cedar.  Our best guess, most of us agreed, was the tail of an Eastern Grey Squirrel (in its black, or melanistic, colour phase).  What happened here?  Where was the rest of the squirrel?  Why had we found it outside its usual deciduous forest habitat?

We set out to the north over a large snow-covered plain, following the northward course of the river’s current (surprising for those of us used to the ubiquitously south-flowing rivers further south).  A wasp’s nest low to the ground in a small shrub pulled Christina off the trail – what a strange location for it! Who made this nest?  We were pretty sure we knew – do you? Our main clue: the “paper” was plainly lined, unlike other more ornately scalloped nests we had seen of a different species.  Hmmm… 

Checking out Porcupine Tree Trails
Through the open field and back into a cozy grove of cedars on the river’s west bank - with a few of us taking a detour to inspect a sugar maple almost fully stripped of bark by porcupines - we stopped for lunch.  After some rest and refueling, and drying of socks and gloves, we were ready for some trailing practice. Breaking into two smaller groups, we were challenged to find a good trail and follow it for a couple of hours, meeting back at the bridge over the Beaver River in the late afternoon.
In the evening, after a shared dinner, we all sat down as a group to review mammal gaits and track patterns, and to map out our day’s adventures. After recording the details of our morning together, we listened to each other’s afternoon trailing stories. Both groups, in the midst of all the visual “noise” of deer trails in the forest had hit upon a coyote trail to follow. We shared the track patterns we had seen, the stops and starts, the steep climb uphill to the west of the valley.

Grey Squirrel Tail 
One group had followed their particular trail a little further than the other, and found it led to a coyote bedding area high up the west slope, with seven coyote beds, many trails leading in and out, and several scats in the beds – showing the animals had recently eaten.  At various points in the day, we had wondered why we were seeing so many walking coyote trails (trotting is their baseline gait when exploring and looking for food).  Had the coyotes been travelling on full stomachs all this time, with no urgency to look for food?  Our learning about the coyote’s gait and its potential connections to the animal’s physical state brought our weekend’s theme into practical focus.
  Written by: Malgosia Halliop - 2nd year Tracking and Apprentice (and Level III Track and Sign - Congratulations Malgosia!)

Nighttime Study Time