tracks & scat

In/visible Animals

Prefer to listen to the story? Click the image above to hear the audio version of this blog entry.

“Did you see anything cool?”, asked usually moments after the front door closes, if we hear someone is back home again, after a walk in the woods.

What we’re usually hoping is that the other person caught a glimpse of a wild thing. A critter — fur, feathers, skin or scales — usually being top of the wishlist.

Of course seeing a wild thing is wildly exciting. Seeing a deer or an owl or a porcupine or a fox. We hope for it of course. We like when our stories overlap theirs. When they join us on our walk.

If something four-legged or flighted or slithery crossed our paths, the answer is an enthusiastic and quick “yes!” But the answer is almost never “no”.

The list of what is “cool” one might see in the woods is expansive…. perhaps endless? Fungi and saplings, flowers and insects. Buds and bark. Animate, if possible, not-currently-animate understandable.

Our eyes are still learning how to see here. When we arrived, we could barely tell an oak from an ash. But over the past days and weeks and months and years, we have been studying. We have been learning. Our vision is getting better.

Perhaps what has most changed the character of our walks is our study of signs. Most critters, quite rightly, prefer to give us humans a wide berth. More than once I have only spotted a wild animal because I turn around periodically to “check my six”. On one walk, as I was headed south, I turned around to look behind me, and crossing the woods perpendicular to my path was a coyote, trying to sneak away without my glimpsing. But whether we see them “in person” or not, critters’ comings and goings are recorded in the woods. Sometimes the signs are bold and loud, and sometimes they are barely whispers. They are quiet. Be slow. Look.

I walked the woods today. I saw nothing and everything. On the path up the hill, a bit of white on the ground caught my eye. Looking closer, I saw it was the fur of a dead mouse. And now that I was looking, I saw that what appeared to be a pile of muddy leaves, was in fact two more dead mice.

There are three mice in this photo.

Curious. Nearby, I found this. Mustelid scat.

Weasel poop

Perhaps the mice were from a disturbed mustelid cache? Weasels will kill more than they can eat at once, and store the rest for later. There were some dug up areas nearby. Could it be the mice were either being put in to or taken out of a cache? Or perhaps it was coincidence, and the mice met their end for reasons other than death-by-weasel. Someone intent on reading this particular story could examine the mice to try and determine cause of death — weasels tend to kill by biting the back of the head — but I wasn’t in the mood for necropsy today, so I walked on, content to let it lie at theory.

Baby oak

Sometimes the landscape is added to, sometimes things go missing. Bark nibbled off a branch, berries secreted away. On this particular day, all along the walking path were these little pock marks of popped out acorns. Freed in the sudden thaw, they have been excavated by our local rodent work crew. A squirrel perhaps, or one of the approximately eleventy billion chipmunks here who have awoken from their winter slumbers and are making up for lost time and calories. Scurrying sciuridae.

I’d hoped the soft muddy ground would also yield a print or two. And the woods obliged with one. This little deer hoof, trod mostly on a leaf, but just enough denting the soft ground to be unmistakable. “I was here.”

Though we can learn to see shades of mud, and parse the brown, our other senses come out to play on a walk as well. I walked through two columns of air thick with fox smell. Someone orange and furry had been by, not so long ago… And higher up in the canopy, the bashing sound of woodpeckers, harvesting the spring bugs from the trees.

Canid scat. Likely fox.

And elsewhere, the promise of fungi to come. This bird’s nest fungus, currently “empty nesting”, the spores long ago released, but a tiny reminder that the days of bright luscious fungi are getting ever closer.

So what did I see, on my walk of the woods? Mice, mustelid, sciuridae, fox, and deer… The same place, just not the same time.

“Did you see anything cool?”