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.
I’ll start with the more obvious stories. In several spots we saw Ruffed Grouse tracks,
big Eastern Coyote tracks,
and a lot of otter tracks and sign (tracks above, slide below with their proud discoverer). More on the otters later.
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.
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.
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.
The image above shows a nice example of the roundness of the toe pads.
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.
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.
Above and below are both sides of same object.
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.
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.
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.