Wildlife Tracking Workshop

Snow is on the ground here in Connecticut and the animals are leaving their stories plain for us to see if we know how to read the language of tracks. I will be leading this class with Two Coyotes Wilderness School. Come learn to read Nature’s newspaper.

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Bow Drill Basics Video

Fire by friction is a defining skill of wilderness survival and primitive living.  Here is the first in a series of videos to help people  learning the bow drill method.  Future videos and articles will cover the construction, from scratch, of a friction fire set and the ultimate skill of harvesting all materials from the landscape using stone tools also gathered on the spot.  Thanks for watching.

 

Turkey Tale

I came across a fantastic tracking scene while at work mentoring kids in Nature connection last week.  I would like to lay this whole thing out for you, really “geek out” on it and share what the kids observed.  I was lucky enough to be able to share this mystery with two groups, the one I found it with on Thursday and my advanced teen skills group on Friday.  The pictures and more in depth analysis took place Friday morning which is what I will share with you here.

Below is an area we walk through often, an access road on the edge of a small field with Red Cedars and Goldenrod overgrown with Mile a Minute Vine.  It’s in Newtown, CT.  We walk this every friday on the way to our camp.   If you look closely you may be able to see some feathers in the trail.  There was nothing the Friday prior.

 

Kill sight area.  Access road between cedar meadow and wooded hillside.
Kill sight area. Access road between cedar meadow and wooded hillside.

In the middle of the road we found these flight and body feathers of a Wild Turkey (below).  I did not let on what kind of bird it was.  Many in the younger Thursday group said the feathers were from a hawk, probably because of their size.  Some of the teenagers were very familiar with turkeys and ID’ed them immediately.  I challenged the teen-aged group to work together and then tell me individually the answer to the questions “who, what, where, when, why and how”.  Some of these kids have been mentored in Nature connection for many years.  All of them, including the newer students,  are sharp inquisitive people and I knew I was in for a fun time.

I will share our observations and conclusions and add some research I did later.  Put you nerd hats on ’cause we are going deep.

First scene of kill site, primary flight feathers and body feathers of Wild Turkey.
First scene of kill site, primary flight feathers and body feathers of Wild Turkey.

In the end we found three distinct scenes of sign, mostly feathers.   The first was on the road on the North end of the field, the next about 15 feet to the Southeast into the field and the third, 15 feet or so Northeast from the second, just on the North edge of the road.  This first scene included the above grouping of feathers in a radius of about 5 feet or so (being with the kids I was not able to get the best pictures or documentation).  This group contained a number of flight feathers (wing) and body feathers (above).  I have not yet determined which part of the body the smaller feathers are from.  The two pictures below show details of some of the sign.  This was obviously the site of predation, especially clear after finding that most of the feathers were “sheared.”  Many of the larger ones in two or more pieces.  The differing anatomy of predatory species lead to a difference in how they remove feathers to get at the meat.

Shorn primaries from first scene.  Note they are clipped in two places.
Shorn primaries from first scene. Note they are clipped in two places.
Body feather from first scene.
Body feather from first scene.

The second scene (below) still had some snow in it.  However the only tracks were melted out deer.

Second scene.
Second scene.
Secondary flights shorn and tail feathers plucked from second scene.
Secondary flights shorn and tail feathers plucked from second scene.

In this grouping where more sheared primaries and secondaries (wing feathers) and some plucked tail feathers (top of above photo).  Below you can see some damage from the plucking or an attempt to shear a nearby group of feathers.

Evidence of teeth being used to pluck this tail feather.
Evidence of teeth being used to pluck this tail feather.
Flight feathers shorn and plucked from second scene.
Flight feathers and one tail feather shorn and plucked from second scene.

Again there were many wing feathers and larger body feathers in this area of about 5 or 6 ft dia.  It also included tail feathers which the first scene only had one or two of.  Below we found the turkey’s beard. Occasionally females will have a beard, as far as I know adult males always do.

Turkey's beard at second scene.
Turkey’s beard at second scene.
Scat found in center of second scene.
Scat found in center of second scene.

There were no tracks on the snow, there was however this scat about half an inch in diameter full of fur.

Third scene.  Students observing feathers and bones from Wild Turkey likely killed and eaten by a Red Fox.
Third scene. Students observing feathers and bones from Wild Turkey.

The third and final scene seemed to be the dinner table.  The remaining wing feathers, just a few body feathers, and the larger bones picked clean.

Feathers and bones.
Feathers and bones.
Leg bones and pelvis cleaned of meat.
Leg bones and pelvis cleaned of meat.

Above is what is left of the upper leg bones attached to the pelvic girdle.  The femurs where both broken in the middle.   Other broken bones were scattered nearby.

Whats left of a talon.
Whats left of a talon.

Little was left of the feet.  Above is one of several talons we found at the third scene.  (Above)

(Below) Some scaly skin from a “shin” or lower leg.  I placed it on the stick for the photo.

Scales from foot of turkey. I put it on the stick to take the photo
Scales from foot of turkey. I put it on the stick to take the photo.

Interpretation:

Who?

The carcass was Wild Turkey.  Several of us are very familiar with their feathers and anatomy and I double checked with a feather ID guide.  Who was the culprit?  We suspect it was a Red Fox.  This ID is much more complicated.  I will break it down.

Could it have been an arial predator?  The sheared feathers indicate a mammalian predator, birds do not have the carnassial teeth required to cut and therefor must pluck.   Which mammal?  Bobcats have less developed carnassails than canine and would not have left such nicely cut quills.  Elbroch reports Red Fox and house cats often both shear and pluck, Red Fox often pluck the tail rather than cut them which is what we observed here.

The scat we found is consistent with Red, Grey Fox and Eastern Coyote.  It is close to the small end for Coyote and we do know there is a resident Red Fox.  Grey are rare in the area.  It is of course possible that the scat was placed later merely to mark the carcass as foxes will do.  However  it was the only scat in the area besides a green, hairy, mushy one I did not get a picture of, that was even smaller in diameter than the one pictured.  If a Coyote had killed and eaten the turkey I would have expected it to poop.  After all, everybody poops.

Where?

Where did the turkey come from? Where was it when it was attacked?  Where was the fox before the attack?  Where did the fox go after?

Not being an arial predator that attacked, the turkey could not have been flying at the time.  Could it have been in a tree roosting?  Some of the younger kids thought a bobcat could have climbed a tree to get it.  The older kids and I felt any turkey smart enough to make it to adulthood would wake up and fly off if something climbed up a tree it was in.  So the turkey must have been on the ground.   The fox may have been hidden nearby, possibly lying in wait as Wild Turkeys are notoriously hard to sneak up close to.

We found no tracks so could not determine much of the before and after.

When?

When did the attack occur?  I asked the kids when turkeys and fox are active.  Turkey roost at night, fox tend to lay low during the day.  They had noticed that there were no tracks in the snow yet the animal must have stepped there to leave the scat.   The snow had been soft enough for a portion of each day over the last week to allow for footprints.  So we postulate that the attack took place early in the day when the snow was still hard, less likely later when the snow might be softer from the day’s sun.   It couldn’t have been at night ’cause the bird would have been in a tree.

When did the scat arrive?  At some point a fox poops at the second scene.  It felt to me this would have happened after the food was gone.  Red Fox often leave a message to themselves not to bother with an empty food source.  Why no scat on the bones at the third scene?

Why?

Why was the turkey killed?  Easy, someone was hungry.  Why this turkey?  It was a male and may have been alone making an easier target.  A male is more likely to be alone and it would be extremely difficult for a ground predator to get the jump on a flock (or rafter as it turns out a group of turkeys is called).  Maybe the fox knew the routine or where it had roosted the night before and was waiting.  There was nothing indicating that the turkey was compromised by injury or disease though there was little left to examine.  If it was sick or injured, it would have been an easier target.

What and How?

We had many hypotheses.  One way we think it could have gone down is like this:  The fox gets lucky and jumps the turkey at scene one.  Fox pins turkey and starts chomping feathers.  Some pressure forces fox to move East to second scene and again to the third.  Either the turkey is not dead and runs or an outside disturbance is involved.  The fox eats the turkey down to the bones at the third scene leaving not a scrap.

What outside force?  We surmised that possibly the fox’s mate showed up.  This time of year fox are paired up either mating or preparing for kits to be born.  This may have caused the original fox to move around while dealing with the feathers, not wanting to share in its kill right away.    Also, it seems like a lot of meat to be consumed on the spot (it must have been since the bones were left at the third scene), which would also indicate the possible presence of a second animal because foxes will cache what they cannot eat and would have moved any leftovers to a more hidden location. If it were a mated pair, they may have eventually shared in the feast.

Conclusion.

Way too much fun!  Theories, guesses, conjecture, critical questioning.  One of the students found the second group of feathers and said “wait, why are there more over here?”  He was incredulous.  Good for him.  It was good for all of us.

Tracking the Past

Some background before I tell the story.

When I was a kid I had a hard time and learned not to expect much from life.  When I was 16 my friend Rob, who was not shy and anxious as I was, took me with him to a wilderness survival class in Massachusetts.  We were both into this kind of thing, building forts in the woods, using axes and camping out.  Going to this class was a big deal and not something I ever thought could happen.  At the class a man stopped in who knew the instructors.  He was a wildlife tracking instructor who lead many workshops in the area.  Rob, always willing to talk to anyone, told the man our life story, how we were interested in the outdoors and how I had all the good books.  The man said he had a book coming out soon and hoped I would buy it.  He also gave us a flyer for a upcoming tracking workshop and told us we should come.  I wanted to so much.  I didn’t even mention it to my parents, believing so strongly that I would never get something I wanted so badly.

A few years later I did get this mans book.  It is called “Tracking and the Art of Seeing” by Paul Rezendes.  In wildlife tracking circles this book and his programs are much renown.

Now the story proper.

A few days ago my wife Deneen, some friends including Justin P and I were tracking at the Quabbin Reservoir.  We found Mink tracks along a little bit of swamp.  There were squirrels and voles.  A grouse left its tracks across the wood road, and someone had left bird seed in several places.  We watched Chickadees and a Red Breasted Nuthatch.  There were a few other people that had been out before us.  Looked as if they were also looking at the tracks.

Chickadee and Red Breasted Nuthatch

We left the main wood road for a little spot of upland White Pine and Hemlock.  We found some tracks there.  We spent some time discussing them, they were exciting. Looked like Fisher or Otter.  There was blood in the trail, but not from the feet we theorized.  We following the tracks back to where they came from in order to discover what the blood was from.  It came off in frozen droplets, not melting into the snow, sometimes landing many inches from the tracks.  Together we created and changed ideas as we found more information.  Was the blood from prey it was carrying?  Was the Fisher/Otter injured.  Was it coming from high on the animal explaining why it was found so far from the tracks.  Was it Fisher or Otter.  I looked at the toes and talked myself into thinking it was a Fisher even though it slide several times, something Otters are known for and Fisher are not.

fisher tracks

Otter Tracks

After a time we came to the top of a hill looking down into more woods below us.  Just then we heard a howl, quite wolflike, and close.  We were still for one moment.  I felt briefly as if it were an animal then realized it was a person.  One of our group had returned to the car early so we thought it was him and called back to the person.   It was not our friend but two older men.  One of them with a beard asked us if we were trailing the Otter.  I replied I had thought it was a Fisher.  I knew who the man was, who else would I meet out here on the trail of an Otter.  After some conversation he reveled himself as Paul Rezendes.

For years I had told the story of meeting Paul the first time as a missed opportunity and great regret.  I hadn’t the guts or belief in myself to take his class.  Other people my age had become his apprentices and wrote books or started schools in Nature connection.  I went to college for something I was not in love with.  I had wasted years not tracking, not doing what I was meant to do. Meeting the man who wrote the book on tracking was a story of grief.

Now I met him again, my mentor from afar, on the other end of a wild animals trail, in the woods, doing what we both love.  I am a good tracker.  I have taken an apprentice program from one of Paul’s old apprentices.  Maybe I will write a book.  My story is changed.  Grief and regret no more.  Accomplishment and connection now.  Whatever made me think that I did not deserve to have what I wanted or was doomed in some way was just a story.  Paul told us on the trail that the mind creates stories.  “Sometimes they are even true,” he said as if the right or wrong of it was not that important.  Getting too attached is dangerous, the facts can change, the eyes can be fooled.

A Fisher’s trail could turn out to obviously be an Otter and one may never know unless one allows for growth.