There are always clues created by wildlife for us to decipher, telling a story of their habits and lives. By learning the language of track and sign we gain insight into Nature’s mysteries. Who left this track? How did this feather get here? Why are the birds all calling from over there?
Beginner students will learn a new way to look at the world and experienced trackers will be challenged toward a greater understanding of Nature.
$50 per participant 10am to 4pm January 23 2021 Litchfield CT
Last minute need to get in the winter mood? This Saturday Jackie Ryan and I are facilitating this short retreat to help you warm up, open up and slow down to the speed of winter. Check out the link and pas the word.
Snow is on the ground here in Connecticut and the animals are leaving their stories plain for us to see if we know how to read the language of tracks. I will be leading this class with Two Coyotes Wilderness School. Come learn to read Nature’s newspaper.
As I write this the ground is covered in heavy snow. The story I am about to share took place a few months ago during a particularly hot and buggy August.
My friend Justin and I went into the woods here in New England to do some primitive camping.
We made the fire by friction and used the landscape to protect us from the worst of the heat and bugs.
Water guard, a bark bucket and twined basket I made and brought along. Justin stuck much closer to the old ways with his food and gear than I was able with buckskin clothing, dried deer meat and a buffalo hide as blanket.
There was a fair amount of plant food in this upland wood to supplement what we had brought along. Here Justin is harvesting wild grapes. They were some of the sweetest I have ever had.
After setting up camp, gathering some food and firewood we spent the night on the ground by the fire. The next morning we went down to the meadow to practice with our bows. Once there we decided some time sitting on the edge of the meadow to watch the squirrels was the thing to do. It was hot and buggy again and a bit challenging to be still. Justin had found a spot somewhere behind me and after a rather short time I heard quiet intermittent movement from his direction. This annoyed me as it would scare away the animals. I heard it again and considered that maybe he had spotted a squirrel or something and was repositioning to get a better vantage point.
After the gentle crackling of sticks a dead leaves persisted beyond tolerating I finally turned to look. It was a huge black bear, 300 plus pounds walking slowly between us. Over the bears shoulder I could see Justin sitting against a tree with wide eyes. It had walked rather slowly through the woods behind him and come up between us about 15 or 20 yards from us both.
I was a little slow to get out the camera so the images are after it had passed between us and had gotten far off. Here it is in video and still photo walking away through the meadow.
What seemed remarkable to me was that it did not once turn to look at either of us. I had turned out into the meadow in easy view and Justin even broke a stick to get its attention and not even a twitching ear as it ambled through the meadow. It even stopped to scratch its ear.
My hypothesis is it knew where we were and chose not to look at us. Maybe this is what bears do to prevent unwanted confrontation as eye contact is menacing in the animal world. I like this idea as it hints at a mutual respect between large predators, the bear respected us by not displaying any challenging behavior and we reciprocated by keeping our distance.
After a time we looked over the big animals tracks. Above is where he (I assume male due to the bears size) passed through some ferns to get back onto a trail near some mushrooms we had harvested. Below are the tracks left in the meadow as we watched him go by. They go from back right to center foreground. On back tracking him a ways we surmised he may have come from the spot we had gathered grapes the day before.
Justin and I had eaten grapes and mushrooms, slept on the ground, felt the heat and insect bites all same as the bear. He felt the master of the forest with his easy power and patience of movement. To be as connected to the land as that big bear would be a great blessing indeed.
Digging through some old photos I came across this story I would like to share with you. In preparation for a staff training I was running for Two Coyote Wilderness School a few years ago, I checked on one of my favorite trees in the forest we where occupying for the class. It is an American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), and this little area has been home to the some of the largest American Chestnuts I know of (a mere 5 or 6 inches in diameter). My grandfather had pointed one out to me 20 years ago and ever since they have grown, gotten sick and died of the chestnut blight in this tiny spot. There are many little saplings in the nearby area, though this little patch seems to contain the most successful.
On this day I discovered I was not the only creature in the neighborhood who was interested in this tree. As can be seen in the photo above something had damaged the tree while it still had leaves (leaves that die early cling to the be branch unlike naturally cast off leaves which, at least for most species, fall off on their own).
There are only three animals I know of that would do this kind of damage to a tree (this assumes it was not weather related which was clearly not the case). One are people and I ruled that out pretty quickly. Another are porcupines who often devastate trees, cutting their branches and eating the bark. The branches were not cut and no bark was nibbled. This left bears.
Here in New England we have only black bears. They are known to climb trees and break limbs to get at whatever food the tree provides, often sitting in the tree for some time.
All this is pretty obvious to a seasoned tracker. What was not so obvious to me is what the bear was actually eating. I have been led to believe that even a fruiting chestnut does not bare viable nuts. I have found the spiky husks many times and sometime unopened ones. Those I have opened contained a withered “nut” that had no real substance to it, certainly nothing to eat worth the trouble. I have never found a healthy looking nut inside the husk.
Below is a photo of bear scat I found very close to the tree. It seems to contain remains of nut meat. This area has a great deal of chestnut oak (Quercus montana) acorns (so named for the resemblance of the leaves to an actual chestnut tree though it is indeed and oak), which could account for the nutty scat. And yet still what was the bear eating from the tree? Fully matured yet infertile nuts? There were signs of nuts on the branches the bear broke off. Or was it growing buds? The tips of most of the branches where intact.
I resist the urge to make the assumption that it was indeed the nuts being consumed until I have proven to myself that they can have nutritional value. I am sure someone has the answer already and I am all ears.
I love these experiences that let me feel both competent and unsure, never running out of things to learn.
If you haven’t noticed, Winter is here. My friend Justin and I went out on one of the coldest days to look for moose. Instead we found this day old bear trail. Not all bears go dormant in winter (the definition of hibernation keeps changing, hence my use of dormant) if there is enough food available. I was still surprised to find an active bear in single digit temperatures.
Bears are walkers, often “understepping” while traveling (the hind foot falling short of the front foot’s track). This individual almost never understepped, instead it’s hind feet fell directly in it’s front tracks.
Justin found a hair where the bear passed under a low branch. By the track and trail dimensions and the lowness of what it passed under without a change in track pattern we could tell it was not a very big bear.
We followed the trail for a couple miles. Most of the way the animal seemed to be traveling though in one area it shortened its stride, stopped and turned several times, and looped around .
This image, though somewhat unclear, shows scat and urine. The scat is most surely from the bear. I was less sure about the urine as another animal’s trail passed the same spot. It also had snow in it from the previous day’s snowfall and could have been bobcat or grey fox. I did not follow it out as we where to into the bear trail. The urine smelled like wet dog which neither bobcat or grey fox smell like leaving me to feel pretty confident it belonged to the bear.
Above is one of the places the bear turned back on its own trail after pausing, leaving elongated looking tracks.
We did find some moose sign near a small wetland. The moose had been eating the bark of this red maple tree, scraping it with it’s incisors. Only their bottom jaw have incisors causing them to only scrap upward.
After several hours the bear crossed the road we had come in on so we took that as an end to our journey. It was very exciting for both of us and though we had dreams of finding the bear sleeping in a den at the end of the trail we left happy and fulfilled.
A quick disclaimer of sorts. Single digit temperatures in fairly featureless woods with an overcast sky with the plan to “follow a bear” is a potently dangerous situation. I do not it take lightly. We have experience both with wildlife and cold temperatures, had a way to make fire, told someone where we were and when to expect us back and were not alone. That said it is worth it and if one is prepared need not be feared.
I have encountered more active birds nests and seen more eggs and babies this year than in the rest of my life combined. Learning to notice bird language and behavior as a way to go deeper in connecting with the natural world has never been more important to me. It took years to get to the understanding I have now and the time seems to be coming to fruition this spring.
Here is a run down of most of what I observed.
This robin’s nest was in the garage on a shelf as it was the spot we keep them next to the wiper fluid and duct tape. The mother would stay on the nest if we walked through even though we would be about a foot away from her. If I hesitated even a little on my way by she would fly off. We watched the babies grow from one egg to three and then to fledglings. I did not notice them leave the nest, they were just gone one day. There was no sign of predation so I assume they are full grown now, probably still pestering their parents for food.
While on the deck I heard some intense little chipping sounds from the boxwood nearby. Sure enough inside was this tiny nest of chipping sparrows. They nest somewhere in the back yard every year, this was their most well hidden spot I have found so far. If not for the begging of the chicks I never would have discovered it.
Many of the nests I found were in the back yard. Because of this my daughter Gabby was able to check on some of them regularly like this bluebird nest in the bird house we put up a couple years ago. Pictured above is our last sighting, they looked almost ready to hop out for a few days on the ground before being able to fly. Their parents will still feed them for some time after they are full grown.
I also came across some non-bird baby animals too. Above are baby bunnies also in the back yard. Gabby and I were outside picking the wild asters in the lawn when I spotted a cottontail hopping into the un-weeded corner of my fathers garden. My gut told me there might be a bunny nest in there so I approached shortly after. Unfortunately I spooked the rabbit out of the garden. She had been right in the spot I was looking and I did not see her until she moved, her camouflage was so good. She had been feeding her babies in their nest. Cottontails dig a shallow depression for their young. The nest is also covered using fur the mother pulls from her own belly and other material, concealing the babies inside. This was done so well that when I returned the next day to show my father I had trouble finding the nest even though I knew right where it was. In fact my father had seen a red fox walk right by within a foot or two just a few days before with no sign of noticing anything.
The grey fur covering is just visible in the image above. This was after I reveled it slightly for the photo.
The unfortunate little creature above is an example of how tough life can be for young wildlife. This is a very young bat, likely a big brown bat, lying among the guano under a well used roost at White Memorial Conservation Center. It is so young in fact that its umbilical cord can be seen still attached and fresh. Many, in fact most, young wild animals don’t make it past their first year, often succumbing when quite young to disease, starvation and predation. I wonder if the mother of this bat did not come back to the roost, having met her own end, or if something else happened to this little one.
Back to birds. Killdeer belong to a longlegged group of birds called plovers. Most plovers are shorebirds and killdeer are often found at the shore and in wetlands though they nest in open country like fields and large gardens. This one was in a rarely used little beach adjacent to a small pond dozens of miles from the ocean. I only knew to look for it because of the behavior of the mother caused by my presence.
When killdeer and other birds (I have witnessed a similar behavior with a chipping sparrow in person) feel their nest is threatened they will act “injured” and lead the predator away from the nest. The killdeer might be the best known for this since their nests are on the ground and their display is rather dramatic (the chipping sparrow I saw did a less elaborate version). Hopping about while dragging a wing or both and flaring its tail, this killdeer appeared to be an injured and easy meal for a passing predator. I did follow her to get some images and once far enough away she returned to her normal fast run and left me behind. Here is some video of this encounter.
My favorite find of the summer, a chickadee nest in a rotten log. Chickadees are cavity nesters who, not possessing a woodpecker’s strong beak still excavate their own cavities. They find decaying wood and dig out a space for themselves. In this case in an old stump. Another chickadee nest I once spotted was high in a dead birch branch. This time I was able to get right up close and even see the mother sitting on her eggs. As you can see the bottom was well lined with soft fibers for the eggs. Not all cavity nesters make such a plush lining for their babies.
Spots on eggs are created as the egg is laid by glands in the mother’s birth canal. Most bird species that keep their eggs well hidden in a cavity or nest box have plain looking eggs, not needing camouflage. You can see the very effective camouflage on the Killdeers eggs in their ground nest above. The chickadee eggs though are spotted despite being in a hole in a log. I do not know what is going on here, I only found the nest because I witnessed the parent birds going in and out of the cavity and once I looked inside the spotting was not nearly enough to fool me or any egg robber worth the label. Maybe there is a yet to be understood benefit from such markings. They are rather beautiful and that alone feels beneficial to me.
A few days ago I got to go out tracking with some friends. We came across some great stuff I’d like to share with you including ritual bear trails and moose sign.
One of the first things we came across were little tubes made of pine needles like the ones above. They hold a moth larva that overwinters inside. I had never noticed them before.
Kersey had been here before and brought us to this ritual Black Bear trail. The bears walk in the footsteps of past bears, grinding their feet into the ground, leaving sometimes obvious and long lasting impressions. It is hard to see in the photo though they were quite clear in person.
This sign is usually associated with marking trees though we didn’t find any. We were more focused on something else.
Lee is from South Africa where he runs Nature Guide Training which teaches guides and other students about African wildlife. He was intensely curious about everything.
Kersey runs Original Wisdom which also trains people in wildlife tracking and other Naturalists studies. She is generously mentoring Deneen and I in trailing wildlife (the act of following tracks to the animal who made them). More on that later.
Mike is a tracker and forager who is on his way to great renown in the world of survival skills. He was also known on this day as Samwise sans frying pan.
We also found some of the largest Red Squirrel middens I have ever seen. Red Squirrels store food in large amounts, usually underground, in what are called larders. They eat this food while perched in a favorite spot leaving a big pile of scraps, in this case pine cone parts.
In another area of the woods where more bear sign in the form of torn apart rotten logs. Bears dig through them looking for grubs to eat. I especially like the one below as the bears hind feet pushed down the ferns below the logs giving a better impression of it movements. The destruction seems intense however I bet it is quite a deliberate act on the part of the bear, possibly even slow and methodical.
A bear had been up this big old maple tree leaving some claw marks. They may eat the maple seeds up there though that is just my guess.
Another cool find was the fruiting body of a type of foxfire fungus. There are several types of fungus that are referred to as foxfire because they are phosphorescent (glow in the dark). I have yet to determine the species here. It is the one responsible for the greenish blue rotten wood one often sees in New England.
The main purpose of this trip was to practice trailing. Deneen was not able to be with us this day so it was me and Mike under the tutelage of the experts. We had found some old moose sign early in our time.
Eventually we found a trail to follow. Below is a track, one of the very few obvious to me.
The tracks were very difficult for me to find. Some were clear, two or three or four in a row, then nothing. The terrain was not what would be called easy.
After loosing the trail and finding it again (usually it was re-found by one of the others) we would come across something really obvious. When Lee called us over to this moose scat he said, in that dry humor of experienced outdoors people, “I think it may have been here.”
I wasn’t going to find a moose that day, the trail was a little old and really difficult to follow. That was fine with me because I was following a trail further than ever before. Sure in snow I have followed trails for miles, even catching up to the animal. That’s easy. This was challenging. I searched for occasional clear sign like the image above of crushed logs and sticks, loosing the trail again and doubling back to the certain print to start over.
I had one really good sequence that I had found by myself and followed a few dozen yards with confidence. In that moment it was pretty clear that I was made for this stuff.
It was also quite humbling as I stumbled around, to be with two people who routinely track lions in Africa this way.