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.
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.
If you like my stories please reblog, share or invite me to guest blog on your site.
An instructional video on wildlife tracking where I spend some time considering a trail in the snow, asking questions and gathering an impressions on the makers species, activities and mood. I point out where to find the clearest tracks, what to look for in unclear tracks and more.
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.
Deneen found this in the wood pile. A mouse, or possible vole’s nest made almost entirely of snake skins. I have never seen this before. Certain birds will use a snake skin or two in their nests and I would not have been surprised to see a few snake skins in a mouse nest, this many is something else. The wood piles here do tend to be full of snake sheds in the summer so even though the wood pile was surrounded by a field full of other materials, these must have been the most convenient.
Please let me know if you have ever seen this before. Pictures are welcome.
Coyote tracks are very common where I live. So are dog tracks, red and grey fox, bobcat and others that could be confused with coyote. Learning the difference between them is an important basic distinction of wildlife tracking.
Above are both the front and hind track of a coyote in soft mud. The depth and softness of the substrate will demand close scrutiny. Here are some things to look for.
Four toes– Raccoons and fisher have 5. Look hard because one of them is smaller and sometimes does not show clearly in the fisher. All canines and felines have 4. Some domestic animals may have extras which usually look weird and stand out.
Symmetry– Obvious symmetry in both front and hind tracks. Felines have asymmetrical feet, most evident in the fronts. Domestic dogs breeding has led to crooked toes and claws in most individuals.
Negative space– I went to art school and was trained to view negative space as just as important as the “subject”. If the subject is the pads, pay equal attention to the space in between them. In canines, coyotes in particular, one can draw an X with its center in the middle of the track and it will not encounter any pads. The asymmetry of feline tracks means this is not possible. This phenomenon will also sometimes create a pyramid of material in the center of the track. That is present here in these pictures.
Claws– on any but the thinnest substrate the coyote’s claws will leave marks. They are small, narrow, strait, pointed and face strait ahead. The claws of the outer toes often are so close to the inner toes they are barely visible and the inner toes claws are close together and parallel. In these images the depth of the mud caused them to look larger and stick out more than usual especially on the front foot. This can be tricky and takes looking at many tracks to be comfortable with.
“Heel Pad”– It isn’t actually the heel, its the metacarpal pad on the front and metatarsal pad on the hind but, who’s counting. On coyotes the front heel pad is a wedge shaped trapezoid narrower to the front. The hind feet often show just a round dimple in the earth. Again in this example the depth of mud distorts some portions and shows more detail in others. The outer 2 toes of the front foot for example have pinched the mud up around the front edge of the heel pad.
Clarity– Red fox have very furry feet, the inside edges of the toe and heel pad are often indistinct. Coyote, bobcat and grey fox have very distinct pads so if the substrate is capable of capturing distinct edges and they are not visible consider red fox.
Size– Coyotes front feet are always larger than their hinds. Domestic dogs are not always so, they may be the same or the rears could be larger. There are parameters for coyote track size, several good books list these things. I find measuring to be misleading because of the considerable overlap with other animals and the effect of mud and snow on the size of the track. If one looks hard and often, the need for a ruler should disappear. I did use one here to give you some idea of scale and so I can try to keep track of individual animals in my area. Sharing photos does create a need for a scale such as a ruler.
Below are close ups of the individual tracks.
There are still more details to identifying coyote tracks which I will omit here for the sake of sanity. Looking at tracks, drawing them, looking at animal’s feet, learning their habits and way of life are what it takes to go deeper into wildlife tracking. The animal who made these tracks is my neighbor, I have known its family for generations, seen its parents in the woods, my family has listened to its family howl at night. Getting to know the wildlife around you is another way to go deeper.