Wolves of Algonquin Park

As I child I connected deeply with my dog, and the neighbors dogs, and my uncles dogs and my grandfathers and on and on… I also connected with the romance of a wild life.  My play and drawings were often of Native Americans, mountain men, horses and wolves. Especially wolves. In 5 grade, at the book fair, while I image other kids bought books on skateboarding or ponies, I borrowed the final 10 cents from one of the teachers to get Jack London’s White Fang and Call of the Wild. In highschool I made a life size paper mache wolf for an art class project.

Obsession is a word one could use. I think it was part of a desire to connect with the wild and a recognition of how much people and wolves have in common, I am certainly not the only one to think so.

In college I befriended a young man named Z. No I did not make that up. We had some nerdy common interests and hit it off. Turned out he had wolves living in his back yard.  His folks ran Wolf Hollow in Ipswich Mass an educational facility to raise awareness of what wolves are really all about. I spent a lot of time there, was around for the raising of some of the puppies, witnessing the death of the alpha male, even living in the house for a few months. Hanging out with the wolves was a dream come true and I learned a great deal.

Me and one of the half grown pups.
Me and one of the half grown pups.

As amazing and wild as they were, these animals, for all the love of the people around them, lived withing artificial confines.  So did I.

Now about 15 years later I am much less confined, much more connected to the wild. So time to experience freely living wild wolves in their own place.

I went out with Alexis to scout for tracks along highway 60 on the morning of our second full day. I found out tracking at 50 mph is a good way to train your mind . We saw so many fox and moose trails I quickly learned how to recognize them from a distance at a glimpse. The wolf trails looked quite distinct from the other two as you might imagine.

Canis lycaon

Above and below are the first wolf tracks I have ever seen in real life. For anyone familiar with tracking or wolf feet they might seem quite small. The wolves of Algonquin Park are not the same as the big Grey Wolf Canis lupus. It was known for many years the wolves of the park and surrounding areas of Ontario, Quebec and parts of the nearby States were smaller than their big Northern brethren, and too big to be Coyotes, one of North Americas other three wolf species.  Genetic studies in the 90s by Brad White and Paul Wilson of Algonquin Park showed that these local animals were distinct from the big Grey Wolves (Canis lupus) and little Coyotes ( Canis latrans). Turns out they were very much like the Red Wolf (Canis rufus) of the US Southeast, the same species. White and Wilson called it the Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon even though it is the same species as Canis rufus).

Wolf tracks in a trot pattern

It gets even more confusing as sometimes Lycaon and Latrans breed and sometimes Lupus and Lycaon breed.  In the park they sometimes have really big wolves and sometimes really small ones. The biologists and naturalists of the area don’t think there are Grey Wolves or Coyotes are currently present in the park (Mammals of Algonquin Park, Strickland and Rutter revised 2002) though they reside in other parts of Ontario. This past and possibly current mixture is referred to as Canis soup.

Wolf and fox trail on side of highway

Back to my story. We discovered through the course of the day following each of the 3 or 4 trails along the road, that most likely a single wolf traveled many kilometers on the highway the night before, leaving it for occasional short forays into the woods and back out again. The other half of the group followed one trail to a bed and we followed these trails off and back onto the road. The image above includes a Red Fox trail which appears narrower and neater, moving in a half loop to the right.

Wolf front and rear track

The clearest wolf tracks I saw over the week, again on the side of the highway.

Eastern wolf tracks on side of road

Our group on the trail of wolves

We followed this trail in to where it turned around and came right back out.

Red Fox track

Above is a fox track for comparison. The local Red Fox left the biggest tracks of its kind I have ever seen. The morphology, or shape, is the give away, indistinct in the center because of the very furry nature of Red Fox feet, and a bar shaped metacarpal pad which can be seen on the left side of this photo.

Wolf trail in deep snow

Distinctly deep and messy wolf trail. Like moose, their long legs allow easier movement in the deep snow.

Older wolf trail in woods

The next days early morning scout reveled no wolf movement along the highway. We found wolf tracks anyway on the way to the Chit Lake rangers cabin. These were older snowed in tracks as seen above with Deneen celebrating their discovery.

Wolf scent mark

Wolf urine along the trail. They of course scent mark inside their territories.

Wolf tracks through moose bed

Where we had to leave the trail I went ahead a little and found a spot where a wolf walked right through a moose bed. In this area I got a little confused because the wolf tracks were mixed in with big moose tracks. I did not have time to follow it out and confirm a suspicion that there may have been more than one wolf, they will often follow each other stepping in the front wolf’s tracks the way we were breaking trail for one another (Mostly Dan and Alexis bless them). When I got back to Dan I told him my suspicion and he agreed. We dug in the snow to feel the bottom of the tracks which were quite deep with hard packed bottoms suggestive of more than one animal stepping in the same spot. That coupled with the scent marks points at least a little bit toward multiple animals.

How lucky am I to have the experiences I have had. Tracking wolves in the Canadian wilderness, living with wolves outside the window when I was a young man, feeling a little bit of wildness anytime I want just by walking out the door. It doesn’t always take wolves to feel that way, a chickadee in a hemlock will do it. Though it doesn’t hurt.

 

Wildlife Tracking Video: Eastern Coyote

An instructional video on wildlife tracking where I spend some time considering a trail in the snow, asking questions and gathering an impressions on the makers species, activities and mood.  I point out where to find the clearest tracks, what to look for in unclear tracks and more.

Tracks and Scat. Up to my elbows in it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Quabin Reservoir

A few friends, Deneen and I had a great day out in the woods and by the water recently.  It was cold, clear and the snow was pretty good for tracking, revealing some obvious stories and some quite challenging mysteries to us.

Grouse tracks in snow

I’ll start with the more obvious stories.  In several spots we saw Ruffed Grouse tracks,

Black-cappedChickadee Tracks

Black-capped Chickadee,

Coyote Tracks

big Eastern Coyote tracks,

Otter Tracks

and a lot of otter tracks and sign (tracks above, slide below with their proud discoverer).  More on the otters later.

Otter slide

Indian pipe skeletons

These Indian Pipe Skeletons (Monotropa uniflora or similar) when shook, dropped this very fine material (magnified below).  We never did figure out if the longer fibers are the seed or the larger black object is.  Only a few of those fell out and many of the fibers creating a fine dust in the hand.

Indian pipe seed

Ice on the water, hoarfrost

By the water we admired the ice and open water on the northern edge, warmed by the southern sun.  Sitting in the sun ourselves we snacked on the wild cranberries freed from the snow by this amazing micro-climate.  They had a very very strong flavor that puckered my mouth. Great thing to find in a frozen place.

Wild cranberry

Otter haul out and scatt

Back to the otters sign.  It was in abundance, tracks and scat in many places, particularly where there was open water, even just a little along the edge like the photo above.

Otter Tracks

The image above shows a nice example of the roundness of the toe pads.

Otter scat

The most intriguing mystery came in the contents of the otter scats.  One of which, pictured above contained these globs pictured magnified below (sorry no scale).  They were frozen so we could not determine their consistency.  Otter do secrete a yellowish white mucus-like substance for scent marking which could be what this is.  I have seen that before and it was not so chunky as this.

Otter scat contents

Otter scat

 

Crayfish scat contents

Even weirder, though with some help we were able to determine what the are, were these hard, somewhat hemispherical objects found in a different Otter scat.  There were several of them, some different sizes and we spent quite a while trying to figure it out, trading hypotheses from fish eyes, to a strangely adapted fish scale or seed shell and many other ideas.  It was fun and challenging and one of my favorite aspects of tracking.

Crayfish Gastrolith

Above and below are both sides of same object.

Crayfish Gastrolith

Turns out they are gastroliths, a deposit of calcium carbonate in crayfish that they build up in order to get a jump on growing a new exoskeleton once they molt.  Another tracker Connor O’Malley let us in on this secret.  Apparently they are common in Otter scat though I had not noticed them before.

Grey Fox Tracks

And a final tracking blessing, Grey Fox tracks; a rare treat.  Some of the group had never seen Grey Fox tracks before.  They only showed up in one spot where the snow was just right.  Round, symmetrical, small metatarsal and metacarpal pads (heel) and no nails showing, it ghosted in and out like they so often do.  I have had the great honor of spending a little time with a juvenile and it was friendly and gentle, always moving, darting about curiously.

Grey Fox Tracks

Our day was filled with other experiences too.  We listened to our echos on the lake, slid on the ice, rested in the sun, watched birds and talked to ravens.  On the way home we stopped to eat in the city, had to walk through a mall.  It was intense, nothing subtle, no delicate mystery, just bustle and noise.  At the restaurant the food was great the the company better.

Still, the best part of the day was standing huddled over a pile of shit wondering what was inside.

 

A Deep Look at Coyote Tracks

Coyote Tracks in mud

Coyote tracks are very common where I live.  So are dog tracks, red and grey fox, bobcat and others that could be confused with coyote.  Learning the difference between them is an important basic distinction of wildlife tracking.

Above are both the front and hind track of a coyote in soft mud.  The depth and softness of the substrate will demand close scrutiny.  Here are some things to look for.

Four toes– Raccoons and fisher have 5.  Look hard because one of them is smaller and sometimes does not show clearly in the fisher.  All canines and felines have 4.  Some domestic animals may have extras which usually look weird and stand out.

Symmetry– Obvious symmetry in both front and hind tracks.  Felines have asymmetrical feet, most evident in the fronts. Domestic dogs breeding has led to crooked toes and claws in most individuals.

Negative space– I went to art school and was trained to view negative space as just as important as the “subject”.  If the subject is the pads, pay equal attention to the space in between them.  In canines, coyotes in particular, one can draw an X with its center in the middle of the track and it will not encounter any pads.  The asymmetry of feline tracks means this is not possible.  This phenomenon will also sometimes create a pyramid of material in the center of the track.  That is present here in these pictures.

Claws– on any but the thinnest substrate the coyote’s claws will leave marks.  They are small, narrow, strait, pointed and face strait ahead.  The claws of the outer toes often are so close to the inner toes they are barely visible and the inner toes claws are close together and parallel.  In these images the depth of the mud caused them to look larger and stick out more than usual especially on the front foot.  This can be tricky and takes looking at many tracks to be comfortable with.

“Heel Pad”–  It isn’t actually the heel, its the metacarpal pad on the front and metatarsal pad on the hind but, who’s counting. On coyotes the front heel pad is a wedge shaped trapezoid narrower to the front.  The hind feet often show just a round dimple in the earth.  Again in this example the depth of mud distorts some portions and shows more detail in others.  The outer 2 toes of the front foot for example have pinched the mud up around the front edge of the heel pad.

Clarity– Red fox have very furry feet, the inside edges of the toe and heel pad are often indistinct.  Coyote, bobcat and grey fox have very distinct pads so if the substrate is capable of capturing distinct edges and they are not visible consider red fox.

Size– Coyotes front feet are always larger than their hinds.  Domestic dogs are not always so, they may be the same or the rears could be larger.  There are parameters for coyote track size, several good books list these things.  I find measuring to be misleading because of the considerable overlap with other animals and the effect of mud and snow on the size of the track.  If one looks hard and often, the need for a ruler should disappear.  I did use one here to give you some idea of scale and so I can try to keep track of individual animals in my area.  Sharing photos does create a need for a scale such as a ruler.

Below are close ups of the individual tracks.

There are still more details to identifying coyote tracks which I will omit here for the sake of sanity.  Looking at tracks, drawing them, looking at animal’s feet, learning their habits and way of life are what it takes to go deeper into wildlife tracking.  The animal who made these tracks is my neighbor, I have known its family for generations, seen its parents in the woods, my family has listened to its family howl at night.  Getting to know the wildlife around you is another way to go deeper.

Coyote Front track

Coyote Hind track

Coyote Foot Study

Coyote female front foot

This poor animal was hit and killed by a car.  Tragic and unnecessary though this death was (there are plenty of ways for a young animal to die with out us adding speeding vehicle to the list) a Naturalist lets no opportunity for learning go by.  Studying the feet of animals take us a long way in the journey of tracking.  Drawing the structure and textures, where fur is present, the overall shape of a foot all are important.

Above is the front foot of a female Eastern Coyote, below the hind foot.  I did not have the opportunity to measure this animal but she was not large.  The feet are so symmetrical that I have lost track of whether they are right or left.  Being early in the winter there is a lot more fur between the toes than there might be the rest of the year, but nothing like a Red Fox has.

 

Some people may say good riddance to the coyote but I find their presence here rewarding.  They live as families just like us.

Coyote female hind foot

 

 

New Spot for the Camera Trap

Eastern Coyote in camera trap

We finally set up the camera trap here in Northfield.  Deneen and I put it out near one of her sit spots.  It is pointed at a well used trail but I poo pooed the spot because the trigger is slow and animals (and people) moving down a trail often do not get captured in the image.  Well as you can see I was wrong.  Great shots of a coyote, deer and in the last picture, the tail end of a bobcat.

Good to get reacquainted with the neighbors.

eastern coyote in game camera coyote in camera trap deer on game camera Bobcat on camera trap

Bobcat and Coyote Tracks

Coyote Urine

The sun a snow were great again yesterday.  I saw many tracks of coyote and bobcat as well as mice and squirrels.  Most were older.  Above and below is a coyote’s scent mark on a raised area of snow.

Coyote Urine

Below a bobcat trail moving from above.  The animal moved from boulder to boulder exploring under and around them.  I have seen bobcat sign here many times, once a spot where the animal laid up among the boulders of this ridge.

Bobcat Hunting

More Camera Trap Pictures From the Deer Carcass

Game Camera

More pictures from the game camera.  This Eastern Coyote came.  Seems to be a different individual than the other coyote in previous photos.  Neither coyote fed.

It started to snow around 5 am while the Coyote was there.  Then this Bobcat (which I later determined to be a male, both bigger and lighter colored than the other Bobcat) came to the carcass.  It immediately covered the carcass with leaves and eventually fed from it.

We had removed the hide in order to take some meat for ourselves and then placed the rest of it here with the hide back on.  Our manipulation of the hide may have effected the way the animals feed from the carcass.  The Bobcat started here at the shoulder then moved to the rear end.

He looked over his shoulder many times toward the field.

Early that night and again the next morning the first Coyote came back.  I have the pictures in opposite order here because it’s a pain to change it.

On the thirteenth both male and female Bobcats are on the carcass when one of the Coyotes come in.  I wonder why it waited until now to eat from the carcass?  There were plenty of opportunities when no one else was around.

The female was much less comfortable with the Coyote and was never in the picture when the Coyote was close.  The male however would not leave the carcass.  I have many more pictures of the Coyote and male Bobcat together like this.

Here are the two Bobcats eating peacefully together.

More to come.

Deer carcass visitors on camera

I placed a smallish road killed deer in front of our game camera in a high wildlife traffic area. In this and posts to come I will document what animals came to investigate and feed off of the carcass. As you will see by looking at the dates and times on the bottom of the pictures it was there for a while before anything but birds actually ate from it. The coyote seemed particularly shy, maybe do the the flash of the camera. Evidently they all got used to it after a while.

Placing deer carcass

Thats us carrying it out in front of cameras former position.  It will be moved 20 yards or so into the woods from this position.

Crows

No disturbance the first night.  Crows come the next day, eventually many of them every day.

Vulture
First vulture

Vultures come on day 2 and are present until 11 am.  Nothing has visited on night 2.

Vultures arrive
Raccoon visits carcass

The first night time visitor is on night 3 when a Raccoon shows up but does not feed from carcass.  Some crows come around the following day, day 3.

Shy Coyote

On night 4 a shy Eastern Coyote comes by and from 11:06 to 11:10 moves in and out but does not feed from the carcass.  We found this strange.  I have read that coyotes become suspicious of bait placed by humans if they have experienced trapping but have know reason to believe there has ever been trapping in the area.  The coyotes here, probably this very one, has eaten the suit I have put out in the past using my bare hands and must be familiar with my scent and humans in general.  All this is taking place in a patchy rural and suburban landscape.

Coyote
Red Tailed Hawk scavenges

Day 4 a Red Tailed Hawk comes on the scene.  I did not know them for scavengers but it comes at least twice on this day feeding.

Red Tailed Hawk
White Tailed Deer investigates carcass of another Deer

Night 4, 2 Deer come.  This made me feel bad.

Female Bobcat shows up at Deer carcass

Now things start getting interesting.  Closer to dawn on night 4 our resident female Bobcat gives it a sniff but does not feed yet.  In the next post you will see more of this animal and other large predators get down to business.