Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Sign Tracking and an Intro to Wildlife Tracking

Written by Tamara Anderson
Sunday, May 24, 2015
Lockyer Pits, Orangeville

It was sunny and 26°C at the Lockyer Pits in Orangeville.  We began the day by tracking the weather. Wispy cirrus clouds moved across the sky.  Alexis shared his knowledge that cirrus clouds forecast a change in the weather within about 24 hours.  The first set of tracks that we found belonged to a raccoon.  We noted the placement of the front foot beside the rear foot as the procyon lotor ambled south towards the nearby subdivision.  We discussed the various forms of locomotion used by terrestrial mammals; Plantigrade (walking with toes flat on the ground like humans and raccoons), Digitigrade(walking on the toes or digits like dogs and cats), Unguligrade (walking on the nails of the toes (or hoof) like deer).
Next, we observed crow tracks.  We discussed bird foot morphology and how the most common arrangement for birds is anisodactyl, with three toes pointed forward and one backward. The toe that points back is called the hallux.  Ornithologists number the toes of each foot from 1 to 4. Toe 1 is the hallux and the other toes are numbered in sequence, beginning with the inside of the foot and circling out.*  Alexis shared a cool tracking tip for corvids (Crows, Ravens, Jays etc.). In Corvids, toe 2 and 3 are close together. In comparison, toe 3 and 4 are close together for members of the Blackbird family (Cowbirds, Grackles, Blackbirds etc.).
After observing some mystery scat which we later decided was most likely fox, Sue was curious about how to identify different fur-bearing rodents from scat contents.  Do rodents come in different colours? Are certain rodents more delicious than others?  Alexis suggested looking up shrews and voles in Peterson’s Guide to Mammals.  Much of the morning was spent measuring tracks and stride lengths for wild turkey, white-tailed deer, coyote, and skunk.  Aster, Sue and Alexis practiced diagonal walking and moving like the animals that we were tracking.  Aster and Sue were interested in the differences between domestic dog and coyote tracks.  Alexis shared that dog tracks are more splayed than coyote tracks due to a difference in physical fitness.  Dog tracks tend to wander whereas coyote tracks tend to have a straighter trail.  Dogs have kibble waiting for them at the end of the day.  Coyotes do not. 
The sandy, sun-baked, four-runner trails began to feel like a desert.  We ventured down towards the river and found reprieve and lunch in the shade of a cedar forest.  En route, we noticed an ant attempting to carry away a butterfly that was not quite dead yet.  Can ants use their formic acid to predate other insects? 
The afternoon was spent exploring sand pits, locating tracks and comparing the characteristics of coyote and fox tracks.  The question of which would be more valuable, gold or water in a desert came to mind as the contents of my water bottle dwindled in the hot sun.  We began to wonder if Alexis might soon demonstrate one of his revered survival skills and magically find us some water.  Alternatively, I pondered whether I might be able to devine where water was by picking up two sticks in front of me. Aster wondered if there might be water beneath the sandy ground where we could see dogwood growing.  Is dogwood an indicator species for water?  Solitary bees flew into sand tunnels all around us. One 6 mm tunnel had plant debris glued together in a silky turret at the entrance.  I later learned that this tunnel was likely made by a burrowing wolf spider.
One solitary bee made a burrow in a deer track.  What are the bees doing in the burrows?  Are they laying eggs?

Tamara kept a bird list for the day: Red-Eyed Vireo, Savannah Sparrow, Meadowlark, Great Crested Flycatcher, Chickadee, Grasshopper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Northern Flicker, Northern Cardinal, Red-Winged Blackbirds, American Crows, Red-Tailed Hawk, Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, Blue Jay, Tree Swallow, Cliff Swallow.
It was great to be out tracking in the sandy trails of Lockyer Pits.  Next time, I will remember to bring more waterJ

Written by: Tamara Anderson - 2nd year Tracking Apprentice

*Elbroch, M. & Marks, E. 2001, Bird Tracks and Sign, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.

Spring Time Tracking at Mono Cliffs

Saturday, May 23, 2015 - Day 1

Mono Cliffs Provincial Park

Our group gathered into a circle under the shade of an old Sugar Maple at the edge of an open sunny field. We shared our goals, intentions and gratitude as we watched the wind blowing through the landscape, passing over the tall grasses and through the aspen/poplar leaves in a playful fashion. We watched a couple of Northern Harriers fly over the field, triggering a discussion on sexual dimorphism and hawk ID features, followed later by a Wild Turkey hen cautiously wandering out from her nest to feed.

After our sharing, we got up to prepare to head out into the field for our first day of tracking but right beside where we had been sitting, we noticed some really neat tent caterpillar webs on some young cherry trees! What type of cherry where they; black, choke or pin? We spoke a bit on how to tell cherry species from the shape, size and spacing of their flower clusters.

As we headed into the field, we looked back to our shady spot and saw just how much our own impressions on the land (where we had sat) resembled deer beds.
We didn't get more than 15 or 20 meters into the field before we stopped to look at some of our first animal sign. Alexis crouched down and pushed some grass aside, revealing a tiny trail carved into the ground underneath the tall grasses. He showed us a tiny piece of grass stalk cut on a 45 degree angle, indicating vole feeding sign. We spent the next while unveiling the intricate network of vole trails through the field. We wondered how large the territory range was for these tiny creatures, which according to Mark Elbroch, is 1/10 to 1 acre!
We saw plenty of large holes scattered over the field around some of the vole holes going down into the ground. Had someone like a fox or coyote been digging here to feed on the voles?

We stopped around a rock cropping looking for signs of weasel activity and talked about defining features of various local members of the weasel family.

Then we pushed towards the edge of the field along the tree line where we found some huge scars on the younger aspens from past deer antler rubbing. We stepped into the wooded area and began to travel along a deer trail that ran South, just a few feet into the forest. We took a look at some of the claw and teeth marks on various trees. Showing signs of porcupine and raccoons who had climbed these trees in the past.

We soon came to a spot where we noticed someone had been eating the trout lily greens. Who was the culprit, turkey, deer, rabbit? We took note that the greens were cut flat and sometimes slightly frayed. Then we found another clue, a hair that kinks when it is bent, indicating the eater's hair had a hollow core. A clear track then confirmed our suspicions.  White-Tail Deer.

We found some holes carved out of dead wood, triggering a lesson on how to differentiate between local woodpecker species from the signs. We were really able to bring home this lesson as theory was confirmed as we found examples in the field of signs from nearly each type of woodpecker throughout the course of the day!
In the afternoon, we made our way along some beautiful cliff ridges carved out around 11 000 years ago by some great glacier melts, providing breathtaking views of the valley below. We sat watching and listening to the birds together,  sighting some rose-breasted grosbeaks, red-eyed vireos, chickadees, turkey vultures, ravens and a few different warblers. We split up for some grounding sit-spot time long the cliffs before embarking on the descent back down towards our meeting point.

Throughout the remainder of the day, we wandered through the woods, talking about trees and plant ID, deer rutting behaviour, predators of ant hills, grouse vs wild turkey dust baths, what the deer have been eating and how to assess the age of forests based on the plants and trees growing there. It was truly a day full of many lessons, tying academic information in beautifully with experiential learning in the field.

Written by:  Lianna Vargas - 2nd year Tracking Apprentice