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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
After about 2 hours we removed the remaining firewood and put out the fire. I enjoyed the anticipation of what we might find.
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.
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.
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.
Painted Turtles Laying Eggs
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.
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 trails in golf course sand pits.
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.
White Memorial Conservation Centers 2013 BioBlitz
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.
Being Wrong, Skunk Tracks
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.
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
In an area known as Catlin Woods in White Memorial we came across this Bobcat trail.
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).
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.
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.
Some Big Trees
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.
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.
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.
Above and below a Black Cherry, with the largest trunk I have seen yet.
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.
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.