Tracks and Scat. Up to my elbows in it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Quabin Reservoir

A few friends, Deneen and I had a great day out in the woods and by the water recently.  It was cold, clear and the snow was pretty good for tracking, revealing some obvious stories and some quite challenging mysteries to us.

Grouse tracks in snow

I’ll start with the more obvious stories.  In several spots we saw Ruffed Grouse tracks,

Black-cappedChickadee Tracks

Black-capped Chickadee,

Coyote Tracks

big Eastern Coyote tracks,

Otter Tracks

and a lot of otter tracks and sign (tracks above, slide below with their proud discoverer).  More on the otters later.

Otter slide

Indian pipe skeletons

These Indian Pipe Skeletons (Monotropa uniflora or similar) when shook, dropped this very fine material (magnified below).  We never did figure out if the longer fibers are the seed or the larger black object is.  Only a few of those fell out and many of the fibers creating a fine dust in the hand.

Indian pipe seed

Ice on the water, hoarfrost

By the water we admired the ice and open water on the northern edge, warmed by the southern sun.  Sitting in the sun ourselves we snacked on the wild cranberries freed from the snow by this amazing micro-climate.  They had a very very strong flavor that puckered my mouth. Great thing to find in a frozen place.

Wild cranberry

Otter haul out and scatt

Back to the otters sign.  It was in abundance, tracks and scat in many places, particularly where there was open water, even just a little along the edge like the photo above.

Otter Tracks

The image above shows a nice example of the roundness of the toe pads.

Otter scat

The most intriguing mystery came in the contents of the otter scats.  One of which, pictured above contained these globs pictured magnified below (sorry no scale).  They were frozen so we could not determine their consistency.  Otter do secrete a yellowish white mucus-like substance for scent marking which could be what this is.  I have seen that before and it was not so chunky as this.

Otter scat contents

Otter scat


Crayfish scat contents

Even weirder, though with some help we were able to determine what the are, were these hard, somewhat hemispherical objects found in a different Otter scat.  There were several of them, some different sizes and we spent quite a while trying to figure it out, trading hypotheses from fish eyes, to a strangely adapted fish scale or seed shell and many other ideas.  It was fun and challenging and one of my favorite aspects of tracking.

Crayfish Gastrolith

Above and below are both sides of same object.

Crayfish Gastrolith

Turns out they are gastroliths, a deposit of calcium carbonate in crayfish that they build up in order to get a jump on growing a new exoskeleton once they molt.  Another tracker Connor O’Malley let us in on this secret.  Apparently they are common in Otter scat though I had not noticed them before.

Grey Fox Tracks

And a final tracking blessing, Grey Fox tracks; a rare treat.  Some of the group had never seen Grey Fox tracks before.  They only showed up in one spot where the snow was just right.  Round, symmetrical, small metatarsal and metacarpal pads (heel) and no nails showing, it ghosted in and out like they so often do.  I have had the great honor of spending a little time with a juvenile and it was friendly and gentle, always moving, darting about curiously.

Grey Fox Tracks

Our day was filled with other experiences too.  We listened to our echos on the lake, slid on the ice, rested in the sun, watched birds and talked to ravens.  On the way home we stopped to eat in the city, had to walk through a mall.  It was intense, nothing subtle, no delicate mystery, just bustle and noise.  At the restaurant the food was great the the company better.

Still, the best part of the day was standing huddled over a pile of shit wondering what was inside.


Tufted Titmouse Treasure

Mantis Egg Case

Deneen and I were out on a snowshoe in the amazing deep snow we have here in southern New England and came upon this little titmouse in a blueberry bush. Titmice usually are shy around us.  This one, on contrast, stayed put even though we were pretty close when we noticed it.  The titmouse was intent on getting into an enlarged part of the stem of a blueberry plant.  It went at the spot with a great physicality bordering on violence, not something I think of when I see a titmouse. We watched it for more than ten minutes, my shutter clicking away (that usually scares off animals when that close).  It finally dropped to the ground after tearing apart whatever was attached to the stem, and pecked at something we could not see in the snow, then flew off.

Foamy insect egg case

After it left we took a look at what it was so determined to get into.  Below you can see the hole it made.  We had to look it up in Eiseman and Charney’s Tracks and Sign of Insects.  According to them this is the egg casing (called a ootheca) of a Chinese Mantis.  We have a few different kinds of mantis in the eastern US.  Each has a ootheca different enough to tell the species apart.  Mantis eggs overwinter in the ootheca, their parents having died when the weather gets cold.  They will emerge and instantly look for food in the spring.

The little bird got a good meal out of the hundreds of mantis eggs inside.  It was a hungry creature, calories are hard to come by this time of year and it takes a lot of them to get an animal weighing less than an ounce through a 2 degree night.

frothy insect sign

Often having a camera with me can disconnect me with the natural world a little.  And sometime, like this time, as I took pictures of the bird it slowed me down long enough to become determined to stay and see what the titmouse was doing and why.  Doing so gave us a cool mystery to solve when we got home.  Thanks Tufted Titmouse.