Friday, April 10, 2015

Landscape Tracking - Learning from the Land

This weekend’s theme was landscape tracking! We met at the Hockley Valley Nature Reserve near Orangeville. Few of us had been to the area, so we were keen to go exploring.
After a quick gratitude circle, we followed the trail west for a few minutes, then out into a grassy lowland next to a treed slope. All the grass had been pushed down and there were trails cutting through. Was it the work of deer? Was it people? Or had someone’s enthusiastic dog rolled all over? Jeff noted that the goldenrod was still standing. Could that be a clue about the perpetrator? We bent down and looked at the green carpet more carefully. It was green on top, but brown underneath. This grass had been pushed down for quite a while.
Alexis decided that we should follow the deer trail up the slope and into the trees just to see where it would take us. By observing the trail, we could see how they shaped the landscape. The deer had worn a rut into the earth, and when we stepped off-trail, we sank into the soft pine needle carpet. Punky logs in the path of the deer had been pulverized by their hooves.
Were the deer going uphill or downhill? Was the trail only used to go one way or both? We tried to imagine when the deer would go down to water or up to higher ground and what would influence them to go in either direction. For example, hot air rises during the day and sinks at night. Where would they go to be able to smell a predator? Where would they go to stay cool?
The group spent some time walking in silence. Such a heavily used trail could yield a wild animal sighting if we were careful. Soon, our main trail branched off left, then right, then uphill and downhill. Before long, three separate groups were stalking along deer trails, trying to spot the animals that had made them.
The slope and the top of the ridge were full of red pines. Those had thinned out, their place taken by beeches, ironwoods, oaks, maples, aspens and birch. The understorey had changed, too. We were seeing leatherwood and forest goldenrod. What would attract the deer to this area? Most likely the acorns and beech nuts, especially in fall and winter.
Alexis called us over to investigate a depression in the hillside and asked, what happened here? There were several such depressions, usually close to trees. Some of us thought they were caused by erosion. Others thought they were burrows. But Victor guessed that they were created when a tree had fallen over long ago, its roots pulling up all the surrounding dirt. It had happened so long ago that the trunk had disintegrated. He had guessed right, and we were shown where the signs of what happened could be found: the canopy. Surrounding the hummock were fast-growing aspens and birch, pioneer species that had grown up to take advantage of the sunlight that had been blocked by the big tree’s leaves before it had come down. If we could age those aspens, we might get an idea of when the tree fell – though a good guess would be 1954, the year of Hurricane Hazel.
Back to the deer trails: The main trail led out into another grassy field, so out we went to see where the deer had gone. The field was full of goldenrod, yarrow and asters, typical late summer forbs, and trails criss-crossed through the grass. Each of us tried to follow one, but it wasn’t clear where they were going or even if we were following deer anymore. We remembered an earlier lesson about what trails made by animals low to the ground look like when compared to trails made by animals with long legs. Maybe there were rabbits or raccoons in the area?
A few anthills dotted the field and before long, we were standing around one that had attracted Alexis’ attention. At over a foot wide and about 10” tall, it wasn’t the biggest one we had seen, but it wasn’t the size that warranted investigation; it was the accumulation of tiny, tubular scats on top. We were looking at a vole latrine. Why did the vole latrine here? Wouldn’t the ants bite the vole? Do voles eat ants, or are they strict vegetarians? We had lots of questions, and a flash of insight into small-scale landscape tracking.
Once we reached the other side of the field, we entered a lowland area of cedars bisected by a tributary. As we sat and had lunch, we discussed how deforestation in the upland areas had led to erosion, which meant silt running into the river. A siltier, shallower river in turn led to increased flooding and fewer salmon spawning, and that may have impacted an important food source for mammals in the area -- and a potential source of nitrogen for the plants and trees. They say our forestry practices have changed a great deal over the last decades. I wonder how.
Now that we were in the mindset of cause-and-effect, we were asked to go quietly out around the area and sit and observe. “What happened here?” was the question we were to ask ourselves over and over again as we looked at the landscape, the flora and the fauna. At the end of our exercise, we came together again and shared some of our key observations. Steve, a second-year tracking apprentice, said that he was looking at the water and thinking about how fallen trees might have changed the river’s path. Did some of the little islands have tree trunk foundations?

It was time to get moving. We climbed up gradually then climbed down very quickly into a valley carved by a creek long, long ago. As we climbed back up the other side, we stopped to marvel at a beautiful, fiery-orange salamander. Not long afterwards, we found another vireo’s nest at almost the same height we had found the first one in July. Alexis said he liked seeing so much bloodroot in one place. You don’t often see so much at one time.
In no time, it seemed we had returned to a well-worn deer trail like the one we had found at the beginning of our day. We walked in a line all the way back to the trail head. Mark said he could tell we were close to the meadow where we began because he could hear the crickets chirping. After another quick closing circle, we were done for the day.
What eye-opening lessons! Who knew that the anthill to the vole is as important as the ridge is to the deer? If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few books you might be interested in:
Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels

The Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Forests, by John C. Kricher

Written By: Christina Yu - 2nd Year Tracking Apprentice