The snow is slowly leaving us here in New England. Before it turned to slush and ice I got out to do some tracking in beautiful conditions. In this video I go into detail on how to distinguish Red Fox from other species without using measurements. I also include a good explanation of a few ways to tell canine from feline and, we see a bit of hunting behavior by our friend the fox.
Thanks for watching. Please like and subscribe. If you want to learn more about tracking first hand go to my school’s website www.threeredtrees.com
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
The clearest wolf tracks I saw over the week, again on the side of the highway.
We followed this trail in to where it turned around and came right back out.
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.
Distinctly deep and messy wolf trail. Like moose, their long legs allow easier movement in the deep snow.
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 urine along the trail. They of course scent mark inside their territories.
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.
I came across a fantastic tracking scene while at work mentoring kids in Nature connection last week. I would like to lay this whole thing out for you, really “geek out” on it and share what the kids observed. I was lucky enough to be able to share this mystery with two groups, the one I found it with on Thursday and my advanced teen skills group on Friday. The pictures and more in depth analysis took place Friday morning which is what I will share with you here.
Below is an area we walk through often, an access road on the edge of a small field with Red Cedars and Goldenrod overgrown with Mile a Minute Vine. It’s in Newtown, CT. We walk this every friday on the way to our camp. If you look closely you may be able to see some feathers in the trail. There was nothing the Friday prior.
In the middle of the road we found these flight and body feathers of a Wild Turkey (below). I did not let on what kind of bird it was. Many in the younger Thursday group said the feathers were from a hawk, probably because of their size. Some of the teenagers were very familiar with turkeys and ID’ed them immediately. I challenged the teen-aged group to work together and then tell me individually the answer to the questions “who, what, where, when, why and how”. Some of these kids have been mentored in Nature connection for many years. All of them, including the newer students, are sharp inquisitive people and I knew I was in for a fun time.
I will share our observations and conclusions and add some research I did later. Put you nerd hats on ’cause we are going deep.
In the end we found three distinct scenes of sign, mostly feathers. The first was on the road on the North end of the field, the next about 15 feet to the Southeast into the field and the third, 15 feet or so Northeast from the second, just on the North edge of the road. This first scene included the above grouping of feathers in a radius of about 5 feet or so (being with the kids I was not able to get the best pictures or documentation). This group contained a number of flight feathers (wing) and body feathers (above). I have not yet determined which part of the body the smaller feathers are from. The two pictures below show details of some of the sign. This was obviously the site of predation, especially clear after finding that most of the feathers were “sheared.” Many of the larger ones in two or more pieces. The differing anatomy of predatory species lead to a difference in how they remove feathers to get at the meat.
The second scene (below) still had some snow in it. However the only tracks were melted out deer.
In this grouping where more sheared primaries and secondaries (wing feathers) and some plucked tail feathers (top of above photo). Below you can see some damage from the plucking or an attempt to shear a nearby group of feathers.
Again there were many wing feathers and larger body feathers in this area of about 5 or 6 ft dia. It also included tail feathers which the first scene only had one or two of. Below we found the turkey’s beard. Occasionally females will have a beard, as far as I know adult males always do.
There were no tracks on the snow, there was however this scat about half an inch in diameter full of fur.
The third and final scene seemed to be the dinner table. The remaining wing feathers, just a few body feathers, and the larger bones picked clean.
Above is what is left of the upper leg bones attached to the pelvic girdle. The femurs where both broken in the middle. Other broken bones were scattered nearby.
Little was left of the feet. Above is one of several talons we found at the third scene. (Above)
(Below) Some scaly skin from a “shin” or lower leg. I placed it on the stick for the photo.
The carcass was Wild Turkey. Several of us are very familiar with their feathers and anatomy and I double checked with a feather ID guide. Who was the culprit? We suspect it was a Red Fox. This ID is much more complicated. I will break it down.
Could it have been an arial predator? The sheared feathers indicate a mammalian predator, birds do not have the carnassial teeth required to cut and therefor must pluck. Which mammal? Bobcats have less developed carnassails than canine and would not have left such nicely cut quills. Elbroch reports Red Fox and house cats often both shear and pluck, Red Fox often pluck the tail rather than cut them which is what we observed here.
The scat we found is consistent with Red, Grey Fox and Eastern Coyote. It is close to the small end for Coyote and we do know there is a resident Red Fox. Grey are rare in the area. It is of course possible that the scat was placed later merely to mark the carcass as foxes will do. However it was the only scat in the area besides a green, hairy, mushy one I did not get a picture of, that was even smaller in diameter than the one pictured. If a Coyote had killed and eaten the turkey I would have expected it to poop. After all, everybody poops.
Where did the turkey come from? Where was it when it was attacked? Where was the fox before the attack? Where did the fox go after?
Not being an arial predator that attacked, the turkey could not have been flying at the time. Could it have been in a tree roosting? Some of the younger kids thought a bobcat could have climbed a tree to get it. The older kids and I felt any turkey smart enough to make it to adulthood would wake up and fly off if something climbed up a tree it was in. So the turkey must have been on the ground. The fox may have been hidden nearby, possibly lying in wait as Wild Turkeys are notoriously hard to sneak up close to.
We found no tracks so could not determine much of the before and after.
When did the attack occur? I asked the kids when turkeys and fox are active. Turkey roost at night, fox tend to lay low during the day. They had noticed that there were no tracks in the snow yet the animal must have stepped there to leave the scat. The snow had been soft enough for a portion of each day over the last week to allow for footprints. So we postulate that the attack took place early in the day when the snow was still hard, less likely later when the snow might be softer from the day’s sun. It couldn’t have been at night ’cause the bird would have been in a tree.
When did the scat arrive? At some point a fox poops at the second scene. It felt to me this would have happened after the food was gone. Red Fox often leave a message to themselves not to bother with an empty food source. Why no scat on the bones at the third scene?
Why was the turkey killed? Easy, someone was hungry. Why this turkey? It was a male and may have been alone making an easier target. A male is more likely to be alone and it would be extremely difficult for a ground predator to get the jump on a flock (or rafter as it turns out a group of turkeys is called). Maybe the fox knew the routine or where it had roosted the night before and was waiting. There was nothing indicating that the turkey was compromised by injury or disease though there was little left to examine. If it was sick or injured, it would have been an easier target.
What and How?
We had many hypotheses. One way we think it could have gone down is like this: The fox gets lucky and jumps the turkey at scene one. Fox pins turkey and starts chomping feathers. Some pressure forces fox to move East to second scene and again to the third. Either the turkey is not dead and runs or an outside disturbance is involved. The fox eats the turkey down to the bones at the third scene leaving not a scrap.
What outside force? We surmised that possibly the fox’s mate showed up. This time of year fox are paired up either mating or preparing for kits to be born. This may have caused the original fox to move around while dealing with the feathers, not wanting to share in its kill right away. Also, it seems like a lot of meat to be consumed on the spot (it must have been since the bones were left at the third scene), which would also indicate the possible presence of a second animal because foxes will cache what they cannot eat and would have moved any leftovers to a more hidden location. If it were a mated pair, they may have eventually shared in the feast.
Way too much fun! Theories, guesses, conjecture, critical questioning. One of the students found the second group of feathers and said “wait, why are there more over here?” He was incredulous. Good for him. It was good for all of us.
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.
I found a scent post on this tree with my nose while doing chores outside. I put the game camera on it and a few days later got these cool pictures of this Red Fox.
It has snowed since then and tracks of the fox went to and from the tree with a cluster of tracks suggesting another spritzing but the camera is acting up and did not capture it. I wonder how often it visits there? It is within easy sight of my house.