Forever Learning… a Lesson in Trailing and Tracks

A few days ago I got to go out tracking with some friends.  We came across some great stuff I’d like to share with you including ritual bear trails and moose sign.

Pine Tube Moth Larva's Shelter.
Pine Tube Moth Larva’s Shelter.

One of the first things we came across were little tubes made of pine needles like the ones above. They hold a moth larva that overwinters inside.  I had never noticed them before.

Ritual Bear Trail
Ritual Bear Trail

Kersey had been here before and brought us to this ritual Black Bear trail.  The bears walk in the footsteps of past bears, grinding their feet into the ground, leaving sometimes obvious and long lasting impressions.  It is hard to see in the photo though they were quite clear in person.

This sign is usually associated with marking trees though we didn’t find any.  We were more focused on something else.

Lee with a possibly bear damaged tree on ritual trail
Lee with a possibly bear damaged tree on ritual trail

Lee is from South Africa where he runs Nature Guide Training which teaches guides and other students about African wildlife.  He was intensely curious about everything.

Kersey and Mike exploring bear sign
Kersey and Mike exploring bear sign

Kersey runs Original Wisdom which also trains people in wildlife tracking and other Naturalists studies.  She is generously mentoring Deneen and I in trailing wildlife (the act of following tracks to the animal who made them).  More on that later.

Mike is a tracker and forager who is on his way to great renown in the world of survival skills.  He was also known on this day as Samwise sans frying pan.

One of two large Red Squirrel Middens we came across
One of two large Red Squirrel Middens we came across

We also found some of the largest Red Squirrel middens I have ever seen.  Red Squirrels store food in large amounts, usually underground, in what are called larders.  They eat this food while perched in a favorite spot leaving a big pile of scraps, in this case pine cone parts.

Red Squirrel sign on white pine cone
Red Squirrel sign on white pine cone
The other large midden
The other large midden
many ages of Red Squirrel eaten pine cones
Many ages of Red Squirrel eaten pine cones
Black Bear sign on a rotten log
Black Bear sign on a rotten log

In another area of the woods where more bear sign in the form of torn apart rotten logs.  Bears dig through them looking for grubs to eat.  I especially like the one below as the bears hind feet pushed down the ferns below the logs giving a better impression of it movements.  The destruction seems intense however I bet it is quite a deliberate act on the part of the bear, possibly even slow and methodical.

More Bear sign on logs.
More Bear sign on logs.
Bear claw marks on sugar maple
Bear claw marks on sugar maple

A bear had been up this big old maple tree leaving some claw marks.  They may eat the maple seeds up there though that is just my guess.

Unknown species of "Foxfire Fungus"
Unknown species of “Foxfire Fungus”

Another cool find was the fruiting body of a type of foxfire fungus.  There are several types of fungus that are referred to as foxfire because they are phosphorescent (glow in the dark). I have yet to determine the species here.  It is the one responsible for the greenish blue rotten wood one often sees in New England.

The main purpose of this trip was to practice trailing.  Deneen was not able to be with us this day so it was me and Mike under the tutelage of the experts.  We had found some old moose sign early in our time.

Moose stripping of tree bark for food
Moose stripping of tree bark for food

Eventually we found a trail to follow. Below is a track, one of the very few obvious to me.

Another moose track, one of the few obvious
Another moose track, one of the few obvious
Kersey helps me find the moose trail
Kersey helps me find the moose trail (photo by Lee Gutteridge)

The tracks were very difficult for me to find.  Some were clear, two or three or four in a row, then nothing.  The terrain was not what would be called easy.

Andy on a moose trail in what is locally refereed to as "shit-tangle" habitat
Andy on a moose trail in what is locally referred to as “shit-tangle” habitat (photo by Lee Gutteridge)

After loosing the trail and finding it again (usually it was re-found by one of the others) we would come across something really obvious.  When Lee called us over to this moose scat he said, in that dry humor of experienced outdoors people, “I think it may have been here.”

Relatively fresh Moose scat of one of the animals we were trailing
Relatively fresh Moose scat of one of the animals we were trailing
Moose track in the forest floor
Moose track in the forest floor

I wasn’t going to find a moose that day, the trail was a little old and really difficult to follow.  That was fine with me because I was following a trail further than ever before.  Sure in snow I have followed trails for miles, even catching up to the animal.  That’s easy.  This was challenging. I searched for occasional clear sign like the image above of crushed logs and sticks, loosing the trail again and doubling back to the certain print to start over.

I had one really good sequence that I had found by myself and followed a few dozen yards with confidence.  In that moment it was pretty clear that I was made for this stuff.

It was also quite humbling as I stumbled around, to be with two people who routinely track lions in Africa this way.

Imagine that… lions.

(photo by Lee Gutteridge)
(photo by Lee Gutteridge)

Wolves of Algonquin Park

As I child I connected deeply with my dog, and the neighbors dogs, and my uncles dogs and my grandfathers and on and on… I also connected with the romance of a wild life.  My play and drawings were often of Native Americans, mountain men, horses and wolves. Especially wolves. In 5 grade, at the book fair, while I image other kids bought books on skateboarding or ponies, I borrowed the final 10 cents from one of the teachers to get Jack London’s White Fang and Call of the Wild. In highschool I made a life size paper mache wolf for an art class project.

Obsession is a word one could use. I think it was part of a desire to connect with the wild and a recognition of how much people and wolves have in common, I am certainly not the only one to think so.

In college I befriended a young man named Z. No I did not make that up. We had some nerdy common interests and hit it off. Turned out he had wolves living in his back yard.  His folks ran Wolf Hollow in Ipswich Mass an educational facility to raise awareness of what wolves are really all about. I spent a lot of time there, was around for the raising of some of the puppies, witnessing the death of the alpha male, even living in the house for a few months. Hanging out with the wolves was a dream come true and I learned a great deal.

Me and one of the half grown pups.
Me and one of the half grown pups.

As amazing and wild as they were, these animals, for all the love of the people around them, lived withing artificial confines.  So did I.

Now about 15 years later I am much less confined, much more connected to the wild. So time to experience freely living wild wolves in their own place.

I went out with Alexis to scout for tracks along highway 60 on the morning of our second full day. I found out tracking at 50 mph is a good way to train your mind . We saw so many fox and moose trails I quickly learned how to recognize them from a distance at a glimpse. The wolf trails looked quite distinct from the other two as you might imagine.

Canis lycaon

Above and below are the first wolf tracks I have ever seen in real life. For anyone familiar with tracking or wolf feet they might seem quite small. The wolves of Algonquin Park are not the same as the big Grey Wolf Canis lupus. It was known for many years the wolves of the park and surrounding areas of Ontario, Quebec and parts of the nearby States were smaller than their big Northern brethren, and too big to be Coyotes, one of North Americas other three wolf species.  Genetic studies in the 90s by Brad White and Paul Wilson of Algonquin Park showed that these local animals were distinct from the big Grey Wolves (Canis lupus) and little Coyotes ( Canis latrans). Turns out they were very much like the Red Wolf (Canis rufus) of the US Southeast, the same species. White and Wilson called it the Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon even though it is the same species as Canis rufus).

Wolf tracks in a trot pattern

It gets even more confusing as sometimes Lycaon and Latrans breed and sometimes Lupus and Lycaon breed.  In the park they sometimes have really big wolves and sometimes really small ones. The biologists and naturalists of the area don’t think there are Grey Wolves or Coyotes are currently present in the park (Mammals of Algonquin Park, Strickland and Rutter revised 2002) though they reside in other parts of Ontario. This past and possibly current mixture is referred to as Canis soup.

Wolf and fox trail on side of highway

Back to my story. We discovered through the course of the day following each of the 3 or 4 trails along the road, that most likely a single wolf traveled many kilometers on the highway the night before, leaving it for occasional short forays into the woods and back out again. The other half of the group followed one trail to a bed and we followed these trails off and back onto the road. The image above includes a Red Fox trail which appears narrower and neater, moving in a half loop to the right.

Wolf front and rear track

The clearest wolf tracks I saw over the week, again on the side of the highway.

Eastern wolf tracks on side of road

Our group on the trail of wolves

We followed this trail in to where it turned around and came right back out.

Red Fox track

Above is a fox track for comparison. The local Red Fox left the biggest tracks of its kind I have ever seen. The morphology, or shape, is the give away, indistinct in the center because of the very furry nature of Red Fox feet, and a bar shaped metacarpal pad which can be seen on the left side of this photo.

Wolf trail in deep snow

Distinctly deep and messy wolf trail. Like moose, their long legs allow easier movement in the deep snow.

Older wolf trail in woods

The next days early morning scout reveled no wolf movement along the highway. We found wolf tracks anyway on the way to the Chit Lake rangers cabin. These were older snowed in tracks as seen above with Deneen celebrating their discovery.

Wolf scent mark

Wolf urine along the trail. They of course scent mark inside their territories.

Wolf tracks through moose bed

Where we had to leave the trail I went ahead a little and found a spot where a wolf walked right through a moose bed. In this area I got a little confused because the wolf tracks were mixed in with big moose tracks. I did not have time to follow it out and confirm a suspicion that there may have been more than one wolf, they will often follow each other stepping in the front wolf’s tracks the way we were breaking trail for one another (Mostly Dan and Alexis bless them). When I got back to Dan I told him my suspicion and he agreed. We dug in the snow to feel the bottom of the tracks which were quite deep with hard packed bottoms suggestive of more than one animal stepping in the same spot. That coupled with the scent marks points at least a little bit toward multiple animals.

How lucky am I to have the experiences I have had. Tracking wolves in the Canadian wilderness, living with wolves outside the window when I was a young man, feeling a little bit of wildness anytime I want just by walking out the door. It doesn’t always take wolves to feel that way, a chickadee in a hemlock will do it. Though it doesn’t hurt.

 

Moose at Algonquin Provincial Park

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.  Moose track next to a boot print

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 track with scale

Moose trail

Moose trail through 3 foot deep snow. The bottom of the tracks is WAY down.

Alexis on the trail

Alexis leading the way into the woods as we follow the trail.

Moose trail

Snowy Woods

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.

snow stump

Moose browse

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.    Moose browse

Moose browse

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 push over.

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.

Moose hair on push over

moose scat

We also passed other sign of the moose as we followed their trail.  Fresh moose scat, (its big) we encountered several times.

Moose poop

Moose hair

More moose hair, this one probably from its back.

Deneen next to moose bed

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.

Moose bed in snow

The ruler is 2 feet across, the bed is something like 5 feet across the long way.

Moose spotted throught the trees

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.