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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
The clearest wolf tracks I saw over the week, again on the side of the highway.
We followed this trail in to where it turned around and came right back out.
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.
Distinctly deep and messy wolf trail. Like moose, their long legs allow easier movement in the deep snow.
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 urine along the trail. They of course scent mark inside their territories.
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.
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.
Squirrels often leave confusing tracks in deep snow. Below is an example of a Grey Squirrel’s tracks that don’t match what is typical for their bounding gate pattern, the snow or other factors causing all four feet to leave only the two “holes” in the snow. I have noticed a particular feature that seems to be a consistent clue to help confirm squirrel tracks from other similarly sized animals also capable of leaving this tracks pattern such as weasels and rabbits.
Some foot morphology is in order before I explain my observations. Above are all four feet of a squirrels track. Notice the arrangement of the toes of the hind feet (upper feet). The middle three toes of each foot group together in a line, while the outer toes seem separate. When the toes are splayed, which often happens in deep substrate, this separation becomes even more exaggerated.
Here is a clear example of splayed hind tracks of a squirrel (in this case the lower tracks in the image). This snow was not very deep so the toes are rather clear and identification is not a problem even though it is not the typical squirrel pattern.
The images above and below are trickier. However, take a look a the image above and one can see on the outside of each mark the edges show the effect of the outside toe of each foot splaying. I have attempted to mark this with an arrow in the text below. I very often see this effect of the clawed spayed toe and have come to use it as a quick identifier of otherwise less than obvious squirrel tracks.
This is also evident in the example below, though much harder to see. Its more of a widening of the track in that area. Try comparing the more clear tracks above to these to identify which part of the foot leaves what part of the track.
I am interested in feedback from other trackers. Is this consistent and do other animals tracks ever look similar? Please leave your feedback in the comments.
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.
On a very wet trail heading into one of my workplaces (the woods) I noticed one of these fresh mounds of dirt. On the way out about 7 hours later the other mound was there. Now that I had the time to investigate I did.
I dug into the piles and found this little hole a little less than an inch across. Something had pushed that dirt up from underneath. But who, might you ask?
So I did some digging (sorry for the pun) and found out a few things about moles. We have three species in New England, Star-nosed (Condylura cristata), Hairy-tailed (Parascalops breweri) and Eastern (Scalopus aquaticus).
I wanted to know which of these was more likely the culprit here. The size of the hole did not help me much, no tracks to be seen or scat. Not sure any of that would help either. What I did have to go on was habitat. Each of the three mole species has a favored terrain.
Hairy-tailed prefer drier open areas with loose soil. Eastern moles can handle somewhat denser soil and enjoy meadows, your lawn, open woods and similar places. Star-nosed go for low wet places where they can find crustaceans and even small fish and amphibians as well as the worms and inverts the other moles eat.
The path I found the hills on is continuously wet, one can tell by the look of the soil and the mossy ground. It looks like Star-nosed country to me.