Algonquin Provincial Park Tracking Trip

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.

Deneen and Andy in our cold weather attire

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 with bear sign

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.

bear bite marks

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

Raven track.  We saw a few over the week flying about.

Bear scratching on tree

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.

Fisher tracks

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).

otter tracks and sign

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.

Pileated Woodpecker sign

Moose rub

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.

Raven tracks

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.

Black-backed Woodpecker sign, bark sloughing

This is a good one for bird nerds, Black-backed Woodpecker sign.  They pry off bark to get at the insects underneath.

Lunck time campfire

Most days we had a fire for lunch time.  This particular day it was more welcomed than usual.

Out on the lake

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 Chit lake rangers cabin

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.

Some clear track lessons from Dan

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 ice on Sasajewan Lake

Back on the lake as some snow fell.

Chickadee eating from our hands

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.

Chickadee on my head

Some of the white in my beard is ice (some of it).

Chickadees on Deneen's head


Whiskey Jake

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.

Grey Jay in my hand

Below are Grey Jay tracks. Somewhat similar to our Blue Jay only quieter with a pretty little song.

Grey Jay tracks

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.

Our cabin in Algonquin Park

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.

Marten tracks on our porch

evening activities

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.

Moose track

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.

Wolf tracks!

If you like my stories please reblog, share or invite me to guest blog on your site.

Snake Sheds Turned into Mouse’s House


mouse nest materials

Deneen found this in the wood pile.  A mouse, or possible vole’s nest made almost entirely of snake skins.  I have never seen this before.  Certain birds will use a snake skin or two in their nests and I would not have been surprised to see a few snake skins in a mouse nest, this many is something else.  The wood piles here do tend to be full of snake sheds in the summer so even though the wood pile was surrounded by a field full of other materials, these must have been the most convenient.

Please let me know if you have ever seen this before.  Pictures are welcome.




A Mountain Out of a Molehill

Mole Hill

On a very wet trail heading into one of my workplaces (the woods) I noticed one of these fresh mounds of dirt. On the way out about 7 hours later the other mound was there. Now that I had the time to investigate I did.

Mole hill uncovered, Star-nosed mole

I dug into the piles and found this little hole a little less than an inch across. Something had pushed that dirt up from underneath. But who, might you ask?

Star-nosed mole hole

So I did some digging (sorry for the pun) and found out a few things about moles. We have three species in New England, Star-nosed (Condylura cristata), Hairy-tailed (Parascalops breweri) and Eastern (Scalopus aquaticus).

I wanted to know which of these was more likely the culprit here. The size of the hole did not help me much, no tracks to be seen or scat.  Not sure any of that would help either. What I did have to go on was habitat. Each of the three mole species has a favored terrain.

Hairy-tailed prefer drier open areas with loose soil. Eastern moles can handle somewhat denser soil and enjoy meadows, your lawn, open woods and similar places. Star-nosed go for low wet places where they can find crustaceans and even small fish and amphibians as well as the worms and inverts the other moles eat.

The path I found the hills on is continuously wet, one can tell by the look of the soil and the mossy ground. It looks like Star-nosed country to me.

White Memorial Conservation Centers 2013 BioBlitz

Red Fox Tracks

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

Coyote   scat

Domestic Horse  scat, tracks, direct observation

Domestic Cow   direct observation

Red Fox   tracks

Raccoon   tracks, scat

Opossum   tracks

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

Bobcat   tracks

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.

Long Tailed Weasel Tracks

Above Long-tailed Weasel tracks, below a painted turtle laying here eggs.

Painted Turtle laying eggs

Sunrise Litchfield Country Club

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)

Spider Web

Turtle Tracks

Above turtle tracks, below a beaver trail.

Beaver tracks

Raccoon Tracks

Above Raccoon tracks along with bird tracks (possibly Killdeer or similar).

Below Muskrat tracks.

Muskrat Tracks

Osprey mobbed by Red-winged Black Bird

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).

Northern Water Thrush eggs and nest

Jumping Mouse Tracks

Above Jumping Mouse sp tracks, below old Porcupine feeding sign (missing patches of bark)

Porcupine Feeding Sign

Otter Scat

Otter scat.

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.

First Day of Spring, Fresh Snow and a Coopers Hawk

Hunting Hawk

The first day of spring brought me great tracking snow.  I have been out often over the last few days and have a back log of great tracking to share with you.  For now I will share something that happened to me today.

As I was walking up an old road in the woods I startled this Coopers Hawk out of the bush along the road and onto this tree branch.  It had in its talons a chipmunk.

Right on the side of the road, just feet from me where the tracks of the capture.  If you look carefully you can see Chippy’s tracks going from the middle left toward the rock on upper right as well as the wing and tail impressions of the hawk and some very fresh blood.

Coopers Hawk kill site

Chipmunk Fur


Above is some plucked fur on the snow and below the perch that I drove the hawk from as it fed.  There is fur and some meat present.


Tracking Hawks

I identified it as a Coopers by the size (too big to be a Sharpy), the slate grey color and rusty banded breast, rounded tail tip and darker cap that can be seen in the picture below.

Every time a go out with no agenda other than curiosity I am rewarded with something amazing.  It wasn’t always like that and what I find is not always so dramatic as a hawk with its prey.  The time I have spent looking seems to have broadened my idea of what is amazing and taught me where to look.  In this case I was in the right place at the right time.  Most days, anywhere but the couch turns out to be the right place at the right time.

Coopers Hawk with Chipmunk

Mouse or Vole?

small mammal tracks

I struggle with differentiating mouse from vole tracks when behavioral clues are not obvious.  Voles, at least the commonest of souther New England, baseline movement (sometime known as harmonic gate) is a trot while mice move in a bound most of the time.  Of course they are each capable of both gates as well as others.  There are distinctions in the foot morphology but I have not looked at enough clear tracks of these species to reliably see these differences with confidence.

mouse tracks

The creature in these pictures moved in a protected area close to cover most likely exploring the cracks and holes in the frozen sand at the bottom of a big eroded drainage.  All kinds of things blow in there from the sand barren-like wild blueberry fields above.

Mouse or vole tracks in sand

The measurements I took fit into several mouse and vole species.  Some of the morphology is apparent but not consistent.  In some sets the right foot looks different than the left.

small rodent tracks walking Mouse or vole tracks bounding

If I have it right the toes of voles show more connection to the pads giving them a finger like appearance.  I don’t really see that in these tracks.  These do however walk a great deal like a vole is more likely to do.

There were a few bounds mixed in as well.

small mammal tracks bounding


Every time I think I got this tracking thing licked I find something else to learn.

Hunting Crow

Vole Trail in Snow

I did not think of Crows as hunters until I did some research after finding these tracks.  Apparently Crows are known to hunt.  These pictures show the trail of what is probably a Meadow Vole but could be a mouse, disappear into the talons of an American Crow.  Look closely at the bottom of the frame in the picture below.

Crow Kill Site in Snow

We could tell it was a crow by the, size, robustness and arrangement of toes.  The two inside upper toes are closer together than the outer.

Crow Tracks in Snow