The Cattail Gathering

June 9th and 10th this year I will be hosting the 3rd annual Cattail Gathering in Litchfield CT.  It’s a wonderful gathering of people taking workshops in many different Nature related skills like wildlife tracking, wild edible plants, yoga, basket making and many others.  If you are interested in this kind of thing, and if you read my blog you must be, than take a look at the website for more information.

The Cattail Gathering

Wildlife Tracking Video; River Otter

River Otter are a cool animals. Following their trails always leads to adventure and insight into otters adventurous nature.

In this video I follow an otter trail on the Bantam River in Litchfield CT as it slides its way along the ice to a snow buried beaver lodge. Hope you enjoy it.


Making Birch Tar

grey birch tree

The bark of Grey, Paper and to some extent yellow birch are well known for their flamibility and rot resistance.  These birches have a high amount of oil in their bark that we can use the same way the birch tree does.

In researching this I found that betulin, the substance often distilled from birches for medicinal uses, which is the wintergreen compound also found in the plant known by that name, may not be the same thing as birch tar.   They are, though, both known as birch oil.  The more rot resistant birches that we will be using here are know for having a lack of this wintergreen oil in their bark, which is readily detected by smell.  Wikipedia tells me  birch tar, “… is compounded of phenols such as guaiacol, cresol, xylenol and creosol.”  My friend and colleague Jamie from White Memorial Conservation Center and I set out to make the latter, birch tar.

Birch tar has many uses.  It was once used in Russia to treat leather, making it water resistant and rot resistant, it can be used similarly to finish wood.  Neanderthals and early humans used it as glue for projectiles (when the oil is reduced further it becomes a thermo-plastic, epoxy like substance).

dead grey birch tree

To distill tar from the bark the bark must be heated without it burning, allowing the liquid oil to seperate from the solids in the bark.  The oil, which changes viscosity with heat, runs out.

Here’s how we did it;

I collected birch bark from dead grey birch trees, I have an abundance of them in my neighborhood.

birch oil, russian oil

I filled this tin Deneen got from goodwill with the bark.  There is a multitool on the edge for scale.  I had previously poked a hole in the center of the bottom of the tin to allow the tar to run out.  It also has a tight fitting lid to keep oxygen out so the bark doesn’t just burn.  Buried in the fire pit is another tin can to catch the oil as it drips out.

lighting the fire for birch tar distilation

After placing the tin full of bark directly over the can, we surrounded the container with firewood and lit it.  I didn’t get a picture of the fire as it burned which would have been cool.

cooling off

After about 2 hours we removed the remaining firewood and put out the fire.   I enjoyed the anticipation of what we might find.

birch oil, birch tar,

After carefully removing all components we found a significant amount of oil in the can!  Well over a cup.  It was similar in consistency and color to motor oil, had a strong, unique smell and felt tacky.

distilled birch oil

The bark was reduced to this almost glass like material that reminded me of “scale” found on steel after heating.  It would not burn.  When crushed it was brittle and easily reduced to powder.

waste produced from birch oil making

birch oil

We later put the oil in a jar.  It continued to thicken as it cooled.  I tried it on wood and some leather, it remained somewhat tacky even after some time, darkening the material significantly and adding its characteristic odor.  In the future I will reduce it further to make glue for hafting stone points.

It is very cool stuff, and not difficult to make.  I have spoken to another colleague who experimented with producing birch tar with only the materials available to neanderthals and early man.  I intend to try this myself.

birch oil final product

Painted Turtles Laying Eggs

Painted Turtle in a sand trap

Durring WMCC’s BioBlitz Deneen and I were focused on mammals though not so focused that we didn’t stop to notice all the turtle tracks, sign and living turtles that seemed to be everywhere we went.  Especially on the golf course whose property is part of the White Memorial Foundation.  Above and below is a painted turtle covering up the eggs she just laid.

Painted Turtle laying eggs

Turtle Tracks

Turtle tracks were in many of the muddy and sandy places we checked.  The image above shows just the claw marks.  The claws of the front foot leaves an angled crecent of holes on the left side of each group while the hind foot leaves a row of holes perpendicular to the trail.  

turtle tracks on golf course

Turtle trails in golf course sand pits.  

Turtle Tracks in sand trap


Painted Turtle

A Painted Turtle hiding from us.  

At the end of the day we returned to the turtles nest.  I had seen snapping turtle eggs several times before but never these elongated painted turtle eggs.  They where buried quite deeper than we had expected and were large compared to the little turtle that laid them.  They must have taken up a lot of room in that shell.  

Painted Turtle Eggs

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.

Being Wrong, Skunk Tracks

Skunk tracks wmcc


Three Red Trees lead a tracking walk at White Memorial Conservation Center a few days ago.  I had gone ahead to scout and found these tracks pictured here.  They were quite small and covered some distance in the open.  They were beautiful and I was excited. I thought they were Longtailed Weasel and told the group so when they came later.  I even convinced Deneen.  We both thought on first seeing them that they were skunk but they were so small, much smaller looking that all the other skunk tracks we had been seeing recently that I called it wrong.  It was not until I got home and looked at these pictures without the pressure of an audience, that I saw that the foot morphology was all wrong for weasel and all right for skunk.


In my defense the first bit of track I came across was this confusing section below that I mistook for some sort of 3 by 4 bound.  I still don’t know what was going on there.


Skunk unknown gait, pattern Skunk tracks lope


Skunk tracks

Daylight Owl

Great Horned Owl

Some days ago while looking at the tracks that made it into some of my previous posts, my wife Deneen and I flushed this Great Horned Owl out of a tree above us.  As if flew to its new perch pictured here, the startled chickadees alarmed with their “chick o dee dee dee” call.  The alarm raised was only brief.  Deneen and I were hoping to see the big bird get mobbed by the little guys but it didn’t happen.  At the bird language class we took at White Pine Programs we had learned that the littler raptors are more likely to get a mobbing response as they are the ones that routinely eat little birds.


Yesterday I did see a little bird predator in the shape of a Coopers hawk.  It was perched in a tree that was a favorite roost for a flock of starlings.  The starlings came by to occupy the tree but made a swift change in direction.  My friend said it looked like people crossing to the other side of the street when an unsavory character appears in front of you.


Bobcat Scent Marking Behavior

Bobcat Track in Snow

In an area known as Catlin Woods in White Memorial we came across this Bobcat trail.  Scent mark

Upon following it we found many scent markings.  It seemed to go from one to another, not more than a couple dozen yards apart.  I never think to measure or count these things but there were at least 7 or 8 within 75 yards or so.

Below is a nice section of a walking pattern.  Bobcats will often use an overstep walk as well as this direct registering walking pattern.  You can really see the wideness of the trail here, indicating the wide body of the animal.  A fox walking leaves a much narrower trail in proportion to its tracks and stride (length between each step).

Bobcat walk tracks

Bobcat Scent Marking

As evidenced by these tracks the animal would aim its back end at a stump or log and spray it with scent.  When we put our noses to it there was a definite catty musk.

Bobcat Scent Post

Even though the spray seems to have come out the back side it is my understanding that does not contraindicate a male.  The size of the tracks and frequency of marking lead me to believe is was indeed a male, though I cannot be certain.

Bobcat Marking Territory

Some Big Trees

Deneen and Big Oak Tree

Deneen and I share a great love of trees.  This Oak tree (above and below), is at White Memorial Conservation Center on one of the more popular trails.  I did not go the extra mile to determine the exact species but probably a White Oak.  WMCC property is full of big beautiful trees.

Deneen and Big Oak Tree Big Tree Chewed by Beavers

Above is another big oak that some beavers did some work on in the past.  Enough of the cambium stayed intact that it was able to live.

Willow Tree in the Swamp

This willow is not the largest on the property, those along the board walk are much bigger.  The draw for this one was finding it out in the swamp far from the regularly used trails.

Deneen in the Tree Big Black Cherry

Above and below a Black Cherry, with the largest trunk I have seen yet.

Big Black Cherry

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