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.

 

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.