Deneen and I have just returned from White Pine Program’s Algonquin Park Wildlife Tracking Expedition. It was a trip of a lifetime. We went with the intention to track the wolves of the park who have their own interesting story which I will get to in future posts. This post will be an overview of the trip, what it was like to be there in the deep snow and extreme cold, with really great people, tracking amazing Northwoods animals.
So here goes.
Canadians use Celsius and Kilometers. Compared to miles and Fahrenheit the numbers always seem big. The speed limit was 100 and it was about 20 below when we took this picture. Thats -4 F. Add wind chill and some days were -20 F or colder. The lowest it got at night was something like -30 to -40 F. 40 is where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet, its also where your nose hairs freeze into prison bars.
Alexis Burnett from Earth Tracks in Ontario was one of our instructors. He and Dan Gardoqui from White Pine Programs lead the trip along with Caren Vigneault also from White Pine who kept us wonderfully fed. It takes a lot of good food to keep warm in those temperatures.
We experienced lots of cool tracks and sign of the Algonquin Park wildlife. The above two photos show Black Bear bite marks on a telephone pole, excuse me, hydro pole.
I had never seen as much flying squirrel activity as we did just in the first day. This is an older set of tracks of a flying squirrel landing and hopping away back to the trees. There are two species known in the park Northern Flying Squirrel and Southern Flying Squirrel, both of which remain active all winter long, living in communal dens in hollow trees and eating seeds, nuts and any insects they might find.
Raven track. We saw a few over the week flying about.
More bear sign. This time claw marks on this fir tree. Deneen is demonstrating the technique. She is standing on at least two feet of snow so the bear must have reached much higher than she easily could.
The group as a whole (we often split up for the day) saw tracks of all six of the Park’s mustilids; Fisher (seen above in a walking pattern), River Otter (below coming out from a whole in the ice, rolling around and moving away), Pine Marten, American Mink, Long-tailed Weasel and Short-tailed Weasel (also know as Ermine when wearing their winter white).
I was often surprised by the familiar species we encountered, only a few were really foreign to me. Below is a hole excavated by the very familiar Pileated Woodpecker.
Above Deneen stands next to a moose rub that nearly destroyed this little tree. Again remember that she is standing on two or three feet of snow that was not there when the moose did the job. Deneen didn’t demonstrate this one, maybe next time.
More Raven tracks. They can be distinguished from crow tracks by the thick hallux or back facing toe which is very wide and robust near the center of the foot which also shows clearly. In crows the center shows weakly and the hallux is thin.
This is a good one for bird nerds, Black-backed Woodpecker sign. They pry off bark to get at the insects underneath.
Most days we had a fire for lunch time. This particular day it was more welcomed than usual.
On the second to last full day the tradition on this trip is to snowshoe out to an old ranger cabin near Chit Lake about 4 k from the Research Station where we where staying. The first part of the hike was over a frozen lake. One of the park staff later told us the ice was not very thick this year, only 16 inches compared to the usual up to 3 feet.
Deneen and I at the old rangers cabin. In the early days of the park there was a lot of poaching and the rangers patrolled in teams of two, often with dogsled, from one cabin to another looking for poachers and shooting wolves. More on the Park’s relationship with wolves in a future post, you will see it changed dramatically.
Dan gave us a lesson on small mammal front tracks on the floor of the cabin. V = vole, S = shrew, and M = mouse.
Back on the lake as some snow fell.
There are places in the Park where people have been feeding the birds for a long time. The Chickadees, Red-bellied Nuthatches and Grey Jays will eat out of your hand in these spots. This alone was worth the trip.
Some of the white in my beard is ice (some of it).
Grey Jays, also known as Camp Robbers and Whiskey Jacks (above and below) are studied here, in what might be the longest ongoing wildlife study in the world, by Dan Strickland whom we met briefly. His license plate says “Grey Jay”. Top notch wildlife biology goes on in the Park.
Below are Grey Jay tracks. Somewhat similar to our Blue Jay only quieter with a pretty little song.
The tracks we encountered the most were those of the Pine Marten (aka American Marten). They were all over the bush (a Canadian term for the forest) and around our cabins.
This was our little cabin. As the only couple on the trip we got one all to ourselves. And below are Marten tracks we found on the front porch one morning.
In the evening we all did research, pouring over the books, learning everything we could about they day’s observations. Lots of silliness and laughing, bad jokes guitar and banjo playing and good food may have been involved as well.
The two biggest stories of the week involved these tracks above and below. In following posts I will share these stories, and what I have learned since then about these animals.
If you like my stories please reblog, share or invite me to guest blog on your site.
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.
I’ll start with the more obvious stories. In several spots we saw Ruffed Grouse tracks,
big Eastern Coyote tracks,
and a lot of otter tracks and sign (tracks above, slide below with their proud discoverer). More on the otters later.
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.
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.
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.
The image above shows a nice example of the roundness of the toe pads.
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.
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.
Above and below are both sides of same object.
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.
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.
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.
When I was a kid I had a hard time and learned not to expect much from life. When I was 16 my friend Rob, who was not shy and anxious as I was, took me with him to a wilderness survival class in Massachusetts. We were both into this kind of thing, building forts in the woods, using axes and camping out. Going to this class was a big deal and not something I ever thought could happen. At the class a man stopped in who knew the instructors. He was a wildlife tracking instructor who lead many workshops in the area. Rob, always willing to talk to anyone, told the man our life story, how we were interested in the outdoors and how I had all the good books. The man said he had a book coming out soon and hoped I would buy it. He also gave us a flyer for a upcoming tracking workshop and told us we should come. I wanted to so much. I didn’t even mention it to my parents, believing so strongly that I would never get something I wanted so badly.
A few years later I did get this mans book. It is called “Tracking and the Art of Seeing” by Paul Rezendes. In wildlife tracking circles this book and his programs are much renown.
Now the story proper.
A few days ago my wife Deneen, some friends including Justin P and I were tracking at the Quabbin Reservoir. We found Mink tracks along a little bit of swamp. There were squirrels and voles. A grouse left its tracks across the wood road, and someone had left bird seed in several places. We watched Chickadees and a Red Breasted Nuthatch. There were a few other people that had been out before us. Looked as if they were also looking at the tracks.
We left the main wood road for a little spot of upland White Pine and Hemlock. We found some tracks there. We spent some time discussing them, they were exciting. Looked like Fisher or Otter. There was blood in the trail, but not from the feet we theorized. We following the tracks back to where they came from in order to discover what the blood was from. It came off in frozen droplets, not melting into the snow, sometimes landing many inches from the tracks. Together we created and changed ideas as we found more information. Was the blood from prey it was carrying? Was the Fisher/Otter injured. Was it coming from high on the animal explaining why it was found so far from the tracks. Was it Fisher or Otter. I looked at the toes and talked myself into thinking it was a Fisher even though it slide several times, something Otters are known for and Fisher are not.
After a time we came to the top of a hill looking down into more woods below us. Just then we heard a howl, quite wolflike, and close. We were still for one moment. I felt briefly as if it were an animal then realized it was a person. One of our group had returned to the car early so we thought it was him and called back to the person. It was not our friend but two older men. One of them with a beard asked us if we were trailing the Otter. I replied I had thought it was a Fisher. I knew who the man was, who else would I meet out here on the trail of an Otter. After some conversation he reveled himself as Paul Rezendes.
For years I had told the story of meeting Paul the first time as a missed opportunity and great regret. I hadn’t the guts or belief in myself to take his class. Other people my age had become his apprentices and wrote books or started schools in Nature connection. I went to college for something I was not in love with. I had wasted years not tracking, not doing what I was meant to do. Meeting the man who wrote the book on tracking was a story of grief.
Now I met him again, my mentor from afar, on the other end of a wild animals trail, in the woods, doing what we both love. I am a good tracker. I have taken an apprentice program from one of Paul’s old apprentices. Maybe I will write a book. My story is changed. Grief and regret no more. Accomplishment and connection now. Whatever made me think that I did not deserve to have what I wanted or was doomed in some way was just a story. Paul told us on the trail that the mind creates stories. “Sometimes they are even true,” he said as if the right or wrong of it was not that important. Getting too attached is dangerous, the facts can change, the eyes can be fooled.
A Fisher’s trail could turn out to obviously be an Otter and one may never know unless one allows for growth.
Deneen and I had the opportunity to put our tracking to good use for the Mammal Team at White Memorials BioBlitz over the weekend. For 24 hours a large team of scientists, experts and volunteers counted every living species on White Memorials 4000+ acres of very diverse habitat. The final count was 931 species. The Mammal Team counted 31 species, many of which were identified by tracks or sign. There were also direct observations, live traps, and audio monitoring for bats.
Here was the Mammal team’s list and how they were identified.
Human direct observation
Domestic Dog tracks and direct observation
Domestic Cat tracks and direct observation
Domestic Horse scat, tracks, direct observation
Domestic Cow direct observation
Red Fox tracks
Raccoon tracks, scat
River Otter scat
Long-tailed Weasel tracks
Striped Skunk scent
Woodchuck direct observation
Porcupine feeding sign on trees
Muskrat scat, tracks, direct observation
Beaver tracks, feeding sign, dam and lodges, direct observation
Jumping Mouse spp tracks
Grey Squirrel tracks, direct observation
Red Squirrel track
Chipmunk tracks, direct observation
White-footed Mouse (the Mammal Team leader found evidence, I forgot to ask him what kind)
Meadow Vole caught in live trap
Mole spp tunnels
Little Brown Bat audio monitoring
Big Brown Bat direct observation, audio monitoring
Silver Haired Bat audio monitoring
Red Bat audio monitoring
Hoary Bat audio monitoring
Eastern Cottontail direct observation ( I could not completely rule out New England Cottontail which are know to be on the property in a different location)
White-tailed Deer tracks, scat, direct observation
I also share some images from our time on the land. At the top of the page are Red Fox tracks.
Above Long-tailed Weasel tracks, below a painted turtle laying here eggs.
Above the Litchfield Country Club Golf Course at dawn (the clubs land is part of the White Memorial Foundation).
Below a spider in its web (sp unknown)
Above turtle tracks, below a beaver trail.
Above Raccoon tracks along with bird tracks (possibly Killdeer or similar).
Below Muskrat tracks.
Above Osprey pestered by a Red-winged Black Bird, Below nest and eggs of a Northern Water Thrush located under bank of a small stream (one of the Bird Team identified it for us).
Above Jumping Mouse sp tracks, below old Porcupine feeding sign (missing patches of bark)
We spent all of the second half of the 24 hours searching for just a few more species, we already counted all but 2 or 3 of the final number by early morning (the time went from 3:13p on Friday till 3:13 p on Saturday). Several species we knew were there eluding us including Mink, Fisher, Bear, Shrews, more mice and voles.
Went out tracking today. The snow was good, a layer of powder several inches deep on a layer of crust, then more loose snow. Forgot my snowshoes so it was a bit of work to get around. In the end I walked several miles. Here’s what I saw.
Trailed this deer and the others with it. Not far from the road where I picked up the trail I found them but not before they found me.
I spooked them out of there day beds and watched the last one leave. It moved away slowly, stopping and looking back before bounding away. I did not have the camera out so no picture. It wouldnt have looked like much anyway. The deer were bedded in the laurel on a flat bit of ground on a hillside. As I approached I knew it could be a bedding area and even thought to crawl but felt that if I crawled over every rise I would never see anything. Hard to be patient.
Beaver Brook Pond, sunny and beautiful.
Little mammal tracks. Some others showed a fairly short tail. They are small enough to consider shrew or the smallest mice. They were on the swamp ice. I went through several times and retreated.
Upstream on Beaver Brook a Mink slide. It was the only sign of Mink all day.
On the way out found these older Otter slides. They went on for a couple hundred yards.
Above is where they eventually went into Beaver Brook. Below is as far as I went in the other direction, about 200 yards. I ran out of steam and headed home. The next body of water in that direction is the Farmington River more than half a mile away.