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.
In my last post I eluded to more stories from our trip up North. On our first full day in Algonquin Park Deneen and I went with half the group with Alexis as our instructor and guide for the day. He had seen a moose on his morning scout so we set off to follow its tracks.
Above and below are moose tracks on the side of highway 60 which runs through the park. The track below is about 4 inches long. Not even that big by moose standards.
Moose trail through 3 foot deep snow. The bottom of the tracks is WAY down.
Alexis leading the way into the woods as we follow the trail.
A very snowy forest awaited us. The snow had piled up on everything. Below is one of many stumps that received a mushroom cap of snow. It gave the bush (forest) a surreal and truly Northern feel.
This area transitioned from Spruce and Fir to mixed hardwoods. There where very few if any saplings here above 5 or 6 feet tall, only fairly mature trees or small, battered ones like in the pictures above and below. They where so heavily browsed by the moose that each year the new shoots could only spread out to be eaten again with out ever getting much taller.
Close up of a moose eaten branch held by my mittened hand. Notice the broken off appearance, deer family, including moose, have no upper incisors and therefor what they bite is more broken or torn than cut. Moose, in winter, can eat up to 45 pounds of twigs, buds and bark a day. An adult bull usually weighs about 1100 pounds (numbers from Mammals of Algonquin Provincial Park published by The Friend of Algonquin Park and converted to pounds by me).
Moose have an interesting way of getting at branches that are taller than they can comfortably reach. They just push the tree over, often straddling it. This tree was fractured under the assault. Below is a closeup of some hair left after the operation.
We also passed other sign of the moose as we followed their trail. Fresh moose scat, (its big) we encountered several times.
More moose hair, this one probably from its back.
And beds. Moose and other animals in the deer (cervid) family lay down often as they forage and browse in order to fully digest their food. They eat a lot at once, swallowing into the first chamber of their four chambered stomach, then go lie down to bring some up a little at a time to re-chew and swallow into the next section of their stomach, in this way they can spend more time on the alert for predators.
The ruler is 2 feet across, the bed is something like 5 feet across the long way.
After several hours of quietly moving through the woods trailing the moose we caught up to them. They were very aware of our presence and pretty tolerant of us. Turned out to be three moving together, we knew there were at least two by the tracks. The video below explains more about the many minutes we spent with them.
Deneen and I have just returned from White Pine Program’s Algonquin Park Wildlife Tracking Expedition. It was a trip of a lifetime. We went with the intention to track the wolves of the park who have their own interesting story which I will get to in future posts. This post will be an overview of the trip, what it was like to be there in the deep snow and extreme cold, with really great people, tracking amazing Northwoods animals.
So here goes.
Canadians use Celsius and Kilometers. Compared to miles and Fahrenheit the numbers always seem big. The speed limit was 100 and it was about 20 below when we took this picture. Thats -4 F. Add wind chill and some days were -20 F or colder. The lowest it got at night was something like -30 to -40 F. 40 is where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet, its also where your nose hairs freeze into prison bars.
Alexis Burnett from Earth Tracks in Ontario was one of our instructors. He and Dan Gardoqui from White Pine Programs lead the trip along with Caren Vigneault also from White Pine who kept us wonderfully fed. It takes a lot of good food to keep warm in those temperatures.
We experienced lots of cool tracks and sign of the Algonquin Park wildlife. The above two photos show Black Bear bite marks on a telephone pole, excuse me, hydro pole.
I had never seen as much flying squirrel activity as we did just in the first day. This is an older set of tracks of a flying squirrel landing and hopping away back to the trees. There are two species known in the park Northern Flying Squirrel and Southern Flying Squirrel, both of which remain active all winter long, living in communal dens in hollow trees and eating seeds, nuts and any insects they might find.
Raven track. We saw a few over the week flying about.
More bear sign. This time claw marks on this fir tree. Deneen is demonstrating the technique. She is standing on at least two feet of snow so the bear must have reached much higher than she easily could.
The group as a whole (we often split up for the day) saw tracks of all six of the Park’s mustilids; Fisher (seen above in a walking pattern), River Otter (below coming out from a whole in the ice, rolling around and moving away), Pine Marten, American Mink, Long-tailed Weasel and Short-tailed Weasel (also know as Ermine when wearing their winter white).
I was often surprised by the familiar species we encountered, only a few were really foreign to me. Below is a hole excavated by the very familiar Pileated Woodpecker.
Above Deneen stands next to a moose rub that nearly destroyed this little tree. Again remember that she is standing on two or three feet of snow that was not there when the moose did the job. Deneen didn’t demonstrate this one, maybe next time.
More Raven tracks. They can be distinguished from crow tracks by the thick hallux or back facing toe which is very wide and robust near the center of the foot which also shows clearly. In crows the center shows weakly and the hallux is thin.
This is a good one for bird nerds, Black-backed Woodpecker sign. They pry off bark to get at the insects underneath.
Most days we had a fire for lunch time. This particular day it was more welcomed than usual.
On the second to last full day the tradition on this trip is to snowshoe out to an old ranger cabin near Chit Lake about 4 k from the Research Station where we where staying. The first part of the hike was over a frozen lake. One of the park staff later told us the ice was not very thick this year, only 16 inches compared to the usual up to 3 feet.
Deneen and I at the old rangers cabin. In the early days of the park there was a lot of poaching and the rangers patrolled in teams of two, often with dogsled, from one cabin to another looking for poachers and shooting wolves. More on the Park’s relationship with wolves in a future post, you will see it changed dramatically.
Dan gave us a lesson on small mammal front tracks on the floor of the cabin. V = vole, S = shrew, and M = mouse.
Back on the lake as some snow fell.
There are places in the Park where people have been feeding the birds for a long time. The Chickadees, Red-bellied Nuthatches and Grey Jays will eat out of your hand in these spots. This alone was worth the trip.
Some of the white in my beard is ice (some of it).
Grey Jays, also known as Camp Robbers and Whiskey Jacks (above and below) are studied here, in what might be the longest ongoing wildlife study in the world, by Dan Strickland whom we met briefly. His license plate says “Grey Jay”. Top notch wildlife biology goes on in the Park.
Below are Grey Jay tracks. Somewhat similar to our Blue Jay only quieter with a pretty little song.
The tracks we encountered the most were those of the Pine Marten (aka American Marten). They were all over the bush (a Canadian term for the forest) and around our cabins.
This was our little cabin. As the only couple on the trip we got one all to ourselves. And below are Marten tracks we found on the front porch one morning.
In the evening we all did research, pouring over the books, learning everything we could about they day’s observations. Lots of silliness and laughing, bad jokes guitar and banjo playing and good food may have been involved as well.
The two biggest stories of the week involved these tracks above and below. In following posts I will share these stories, and what I have learned since then about these animals.
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