There are always clues created by wildlife for us to decipher, telling a story of their habits and lives. By learning the language of track and sign we gain insight into Nature’s mysteries. Who left this track? How did this feather get here? Why are the birds all calling from over there?
Beginner students will learn a new way to look at the world and experienced trackers will be challenged toward a greater understanding of Nature.
$50 per participant 10am to 4pm January 23 2021 Litchfield CT
Last minute need to get in the winter mood? This Saturday Jackie Ryan and I are facilitating this short retreat to help you warm up, open up and slow down to the speed of winter. Check out the link and pas the word.
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.
As I write this the ground is covered in heavy snow. The story I am about to share took place a few months ago during a particularly hot and buggy August.
My friend Justin and I went into the woods here in New England to do some primitive camping.
We made the fire by friction and used the landscape to protect us from the worst of the heat and bugs.
Water guard, a bark bucket and twined basket I made and brought along. Justin stuck much closer to the old ways with his food and gear than I was able with buckskin clothing, dried deer meat and a buffalo hide as blanket.
There was a fair amount of plant food in this upland wood to supplement what we had brought along. Here Justin is harvesting wild grapes. They were some of the sweetest I have ever had.
After setting up camp, gathering some food and firewood we spent the night on the ground by the fire. The next morning we went down to the meadow to practice with our bows. Once there we decided some time sitting on the edge of the meadow to watch the squirrels was the thing to do. It was hot and buggy again and a bit challenging to be still. Justin had found a spot somewhere behind me and after a rather short time I heard quiet intermittent movement from his direction. This annoyed me as it would scare away the animals. I heard it again and considered that maybe he had spotted a squirrel or something and was repositioning to get a better vantage point.
After the gentle crackling of sticks a dead leaves persisted beyond tolerating I finally turned to look. It was a huge black bear, 300 plus pounds walking slowly between us. Over the bears shoulder I could see Justin sitting against a tree with wide eyes. It had walked rather slowly through the woods behind him and come up between us about 15 or 20 yards from us both.
I was a little slow to get out the camera so the images are after it had passed between us and had gotten far off. Here it is in video and still photo walking away through the meadow.
What seemed remarkable to me was that it did not once turn to look at either of us. I had turned out into the meadow in easy view and Justin even broke a stick to get its attention and not even a twitching ear as it ambled through the meadow. It even stopped to scratch its ear.
My hypothesis is it knew where we were and chose not to look at us. Maybe this is what bears do to prevent unwanted confrontation as eye contact is menacing in the animal world. I like this idea as it hints at a mutual respect between large predators, the bear respected us by not displaying any challenging behavior and we reciprocated by keeping our distance.
After a time we looked over the big animals tracks. Above is where he (I assume male due to the bears size) passed through some ferns to get back onto a trail near some mushrooms we had harvested. Below are the tracks left in the meadow as we watched him go by. They go from back right to center foreground. On back tracking him a ways we surmised he may have come from the spot we had gathered grapes the day before.
Justin and I had eaten grapes and mushrooms, slept on the ground, felt the heat and insect bites all same as the bear. He felt the master of the forest with his easy power and patience of movement. To be as connected to the land as that big bear would be a great blessing indeed.
June 9th and 10th this year I will be hosting the 3rd annual Cattail Gathering in Litchfield CT. It’s a wonderful gathering of people taking workshops in many different Nature related skills like wildlife tracking, wild edible plants, yoga, basket making and many others. If you are interested in this kind of thing, and if you read my blog you must be, than take a look at the website for more information.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Eventually we found a trail to follow. Below is a track, one of the very few obvious to me.
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.
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.”
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.
As a kid I saw ant hills everywhere, even in cracks in pavement. Since then my understanding of what a little hole in the sand could be made by has broadened tremendously. Here are a few examples of different creatures that make holes in the sand.
Above are tiny pits in a protected spot under a shed roof. Other than demonstrating how long ago the rototiller was used, these little pits can lead us to the amazing creature pictured below.
Antlions dig their pits as a trap for ants. They back down into the earth and flick sand up at any ant that enters the pit, making it impossible for the ant to do anything but fall deeper in. The antlion, waiting at the bottom, then grabs them with those big mandibles and its all over for the ant. Antlions are the larval form of what are known as lacewings, which somewhat resemble a dragonfly.
While antions create an inverted version of an ant hill, these next examples do have somewhat of a mound around them. The biggest difference between this and the ants is a much bigger hole which is not always in the center. Many species of solitary bees and wasps create these holes. I find these in colonies in open sandy ground without any real protection from disturbance.
In the above picture you can see a bee coming out of the hole. The below pictured holes are more indicative of the solitary wasps, with the sand pushed out in one direction.
In this picture a “pathway” was created in front of the hole.
We tested the depth of a few of these holes and found them to be around 2 inches deep. They could of course have changed angle and gone further down.
Below is a closeup of one of the suspected wasp holes.
Many kinds of wolf spiders burrow, some make these turreted holes, using twigs, pebbles and spider silk. The wolf spider pictured below was walking amongst several of these spider holes which circumstantially indicates it may be of the borrowing wolf spiders (Geolycosa). It is carrying its young on its back.
This beauty is a Six Spotted Tiger Beetle. Its larval form digs vertical shafted, very clean holes. The adult form (pictured above) digs this hole below, more of a shallow slot really, as a shelter.
As a kid I was not much interested in insects and spiders until I learned they could build things. Turns out they build all sorts of thing including these burrows and tunnels and its was all right under my feet.
While in Ontario’s Algonquin Park my wife Deneen and I encountered a well known and charming creature of the North, the Grey Jay (Perisoreus canadensis). This corvid is related to the more Southern Blue Jay as well as the rest of the corvid family which includes crows, ravens, and magpies. Like those other corvids they are smart, consummate opportunists, and well known to the people around them.
Grey Jays have other common names that are often used; Camp Robber and Whiskeyjack, a anglicized pronunciation of a Cree name ( likely Wisakedjak).
They have some unique behaviors, one of which is breeding and nesting in the Winter. To be able to do this they hide or “cache” food when it is available. They hide it in many different spots, later finding it, possibly by memory, the way we expect Grey Squirrels to do.
The name Camp Robber comes from their habit of taking food from people, often right from their hands whether offered or not.
The snow is slowly leaving us here in New England. Before it turned to slush and ice I got out to do some tracking in beautiful conditions. In this video I go into detail on how to distinguish Red Fox from other species without using measurements. I also include a good explanation of a few ways to tell canine from feline and, we see a bit of hunting behavior by our friend the fox.
Thanks for watching. Please like and subscribe. If you want to learn more about tracking first hand go to my school’s website www.threeredtrees.com