Categories
fauna tracks & scat

Deer little things

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

There is no stop on the tour when you are out for a walk alone in the unmediated woods. No guide raises a colourful umbrella to get your attention. There’s no floating arrow directed at points of interest. No plaques. Just your own eyes and whatever you pay attention to.

When you walk with a companion, you can see with their eyes as well. When Neil and I walk together, there is usually a fair amount of quiet pointing while we chat about other things. An interesting tree, a patch of new blooms, fruits emerging on the mayapples (oh the mayapples…). But no one stops you from walking right past something marvelous. It is up to you to notice. And there’s an awful lot that hides in plain sight. And not all of it is small.

A couple of days ago I was walking the woods alone. I had gone up to the woods to try for a gentle run, and did a walking lap of the woods first. I often end up walking a full lap before running it. It just gets my feet used to where I am. Besides, my head was many places other than where I was. And that is usually a good recipe for a turned ankle. So I did a walking lap to let my thoughts ramble and untangle. But as I neared a large mayapple patch, I doubled back. Had I seen tiny tracks in the dirt? I retraced my steps, crouched down to the ground, and decided… yes! I had. Tiny hoofprints leading into the mayapple patch. Deer. But so small. Was this the right time to be seeing fawn tracks? I wasn’t sure. Would they be big enough to be walking around? I walked on, thinking to myself about how much I love learning to see animals even when they’re not there in front of me. Oh how right and wrong I was…

I finished my first lap of the woods, and began again. As I passed the mayapple patch for a second time, I thought about the unseen deer. And a few metres further on, I *gasp* SAW. Not a hoofprint, not a flash of white tail bouncing away. A little tiny wee baby deer, curled up and resting in the grass right beside me. And I do mean, right beside me. Three feet away, if that. I had gone right past it on my first lap, moments after spotting those prints. Right past it, and it was right here.

Though I had never encountered a baby deer like this before, I knew well enough to leave well enough alone. I took this fast photo with my phone and then I was the one who hightailed it out of there. The best thing I could do for this baby deer was am-scray. Though my best day is one when I see a baby deer, a baby deer’s best day is when it sees no one.

Baby deer (yes I know they’re called fawns but baby deer) can stand and walk shortly after they are born. But they’re not fast enough to keep up with mom, and they also don’t carry the scent that mom has, and which predators might use to find them. So, for the first few weeks of their lives, mom keeps them safe by keeping them away from her. She leaves her babies secreted and alone in various spots during the day, coming back only to nurse them, once every four hours or longer. In this way, baby deer are very similar to baby bunnies, whose moms also protect them by staying away. (Deer and rabbits are also similar in that our handling the babies and leaving our scent on them may cause the mother to reject it. Excellent reason to keep our paws off the wildlife. This is not, by the way, true of baby birds, an idea that is widespread but unfounded.)

At this age, being perfectly still — and wow was that baby ever still — and being perfectly tiny is a fawn’s best defense. A healthy baby deer lying quietly and still and alone is doing exactly what a baby deer is meant to do. Like so many other times, with so many other critters, the best thing I can do to show it I love it… is to walk away. Just because something is still does not mean it is not frightened. Its mom keeps it safe and alive by leaving it alone, and I should do the same.

Is that easy? NOPE. This is your brain, this is your brain on baby deer. Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhh! As I walked quickly away I literally had to hold my hands over my heart to keep it from bursting out of my chest. A baby deer! Heaven! We have spooked fawns in the woods before, been right on top of them with no idea until they suddenly flush from under our feet. But never this. A baby deer at rest. So perfect and perfectly still.

I thought I would finish my walk in a daze, processing what I had seen. In the moment, I had trouble connecting my eyes to my brain. It was a baby deer! It was right there! I was right beside a baby deer! Etc! Seeing them in the wild… it’s difficult to process. A fawn staying perfectly still looks like every photograph or illustration of a deer you’ve ever seen. I ran it over and over in my mind as I walked. Curled up, russet-coloured, big ears, white spots, right there. And oh, no, wait…no…nope.. no way… what is that over there??

I was clear on the other side of the woods when something caught my eye. Much farther away from the trail, but a shape I had just seen, and which I guess my eyes will now always search for — it was another baby deer! You can see it in the photo above. That reddish patch in the centre of this zoom. Thaaaat’s a baby deer. A second baby deer spotted on one walk. If you need me, I’ll be over here holding my exploded heart.

In the first few weeks mother deer “store” sibling fawns separately from each other, so this spotting of a second baby was another good sign that all was well and normal. If there were signs things were not well and normal, well, that is a discussion for another day. My decisions around hard questions are not drawn with hard lines. But in general, if it has a human cause, I will intervene. If not, I will let nature run its own course. I have intervened before, on smaller scales, and cost another critter its dinner. I tread more carefully now around my “help”.

Now did I worry about the baby deer? Yuuup. Of course I did slash do. I know what else is in the woods, why it is so important to be still and quiet and scentless. And, for human concerns, people drive too fast on the roads near here, hunt both in and out of season, and it was not out of the question that mom was not coming back.

I will pause here to say that I do eat meat, including deer, and that I am not opposed to hunting, in principle. Though not hunting done ignorantly, or wastefully. A lot of hunting seems to just be a socially-acceptable reason for men to go sit alone in the woods. Which is just… sad. You shouldn’t feel you need to justify a long walk in the woods with a death. It makes a real mess of things. That said, one bad day in an otherwise wild life is incomparably better than the “lives” of almost all the meat we eat.

I decided to keep an eye on things as lightly and from as far away as possible. I thought about leaving a trail camera, but ours flashes red when it takes a photo and I had seen evidence of it spooking deer before. I certainly didn’t want to be the human cause keeping mom away. So I went up the next day to check as discretely as I could. Baby one, by the trail, had not been moved, but baby two was gone. Which I decided was a half-good sign. Some guides will tell you to be concerned and perhaps intervene if the baby hasn’t been moved in 24 hours. So what about baby one, by the trail? But I asked some wise animal-knowledgeable friends of mine who suggested that it was just as likely that mama deer had simply decided it was a good spot. So I waited another day, and checked again. Sure enough, baby one was gone. No signs of anything gone awry. Just a tiny deer bed, the sign of it already being covered over by the growing woods.

I am so glad to have seen these beautiful babies, and even more glad they have safely moved on. I hope to see one again sometime, though perhaps at a greater distance. Where I could enjoy getting a glimpse of it, and it could enjoy that the human was not quite so close to where it rests until mom returns.

It was good to meet you wee ones. Have a good life, you dear little things.

Categories
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?”

Always.

~Kate

Categories
fauna tracks & scat

VIDEO: Tracking Weasels in the Woods

My lovely friends Sevaan and Tess, who do not know each other, periodically give me the ol’ “you should vlog!” Is it so I won’t send them 8 texts in a row about fisher footprints? Who’s to say!

While I’m always happy to yammer on and share my excitement about nature, and in theory I like editing videos, in practice my glitchy ancient copy of iMovie makes editing an exercise in gaaaaaaaaah.

But! Sometimes you just find some tracks in the woods and by gum, you wanna share it! So when I went to the woods a few weeks ago I flipped my phone around and shared some of my ramblies about weaselies. Ironically an unscripted vlog needs more editing, but hey, that is just how fun tracking is! It must be shared!

Have fun out there, you critter-loving woods walkers!

~Kate

(Hi Piper! Hi Lucy! Have fun exploring tracks with your supercool mom and dad!)

Categories
fauna tracks & scat

Snow Stories: Opossum, my possum

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

I was in the kitchen making dinner a few weeks ago when I heard the front door open and close, as Neil came back inside, having just completed his evening “chicken check”. “There are new tracks out by the raised beds”, he called up the stairs.

Some people enjoy sonnets, some sparkly jewels, but Neil knows the way to my heart is to tell me he has found tracks for me to explore.

Dinner will keep. Final “chicken check” happens right around dusk, and I’ve learnt it’s best to check tracks as soon as possible. Strong winds, a light snowfall, a warm morning… tracks are transient. Best when fresh. And I still had at least a half hour of twilight to use for exploring.

Arriving in the yard, I was delighted to see this serpentine figure tracing a path through the snow. As I’ve already given away in the title, these are opossum tracks and I am very fond of opossums. (Spoiler: I am very fond of nearly every animal.)

Though opossums are increasingly common in southern Ontario, they are not well-suited to our Canadian winters. The exposed skin on their tails, ears, and feet is very susceptible to frostbite. It’s a common reason for opossums to be admitted to Ontario’s wildlife centres over winter. In fact frostbite is so common for opossums in the winter months that it is mentioned as part of their tracks in one of my books, Field Guide to Tracking Animals in Snow: “…the tail drag may sometimes include blood stains–evidence of a ragged and frostbitten tail.”

The distinct five-toed track is the front right foot. The blob just behind it is the back right foot.

During the warmer months, opossums sure pull their weight with another more problematic critter that increasingly shows up in this area: ticks. Opossums both move through areas inhabited by ticks, picking up tonnes of them on their fur, and they fastidiously clean themselves. As part of their grooming, opossums swallow a very high percentage of the ticks that end up on their body. So we’re always very happy to learn these little Lyme-disease roombas are out there hoovering ticks off our property.

It seems these tracks had been made at some point during the day. I’ve read a few places that since opossums do not tolerate cold well, they will sometimes switch their usually nocturnal habits around — foraging during the day instead. Basically they forage whenever makes sense temperature-wise. Opossums do not hibernate, and must continue to find food throughout these cold months.

Alternating track opossum walking prints. This is a slow gait, with the hind foot registering just behind the front foot of the same side (in faster gaits, a hind foot tends to register ahead of the front foot). From the top of this photo, you are seeing the right front foot, with the right hind foot directly behind it — the hind foot is the more indistinct blob. A little further down and to the left of this pair you see the left front foot, with the left hind foot directly behind it. And so on.

Opossums also have a two-print “amble” track, where the hind foot registers beside the opposite front foot. This pattern is not shown in this post, but is similar to a raccoon’s “walk” gait.

If you look at the bottom left of the photo below, you will see that our little omnivorous opossum friend visited our compost bays. It came up the far left side, skirted along the top, and came back down the far right, by the active bay. The compost itself was not particularly disturbed, but it’s possible this little marsupial friend found something to eat off the top.

Below you can see the tracks that run alongside the active compost bay’s wall. The opossum clearly spent a lot of time back-and-forthing in this area, so perhaps it did find some noms after all.

Having followed the tracks as far as I could, I headed back inside for dinner. But there was one sweet little coda to this snow story. On my way back inside, I noticed a second set of tracks “joining” our opossum friend. Walking in parallel to this nocturnal marsupial were tracks from…. a cat. Parallel tracks are unstuck in time: anything that marks the snow becomes part of the same story. With diligence, you can untangle the timeline, and work out what happened when. But sometimes, on your way back inside on a chilly evening, headed to a warm bowl of stew, sometimes it is nice instead to indulge in a fantasy of an opossum and a kitty cat, headed off together on adventures unknown.

~Kate

Categories
fauna thinking big tracks & scat

Snow Stories: Shrew-d Observations?

Knock knock, who’s there?

For each question I answer in the woods, five more appear. “Solved” tracks are surrounded by stories I haven’t read, and some where I don’t even know the language. I am getting better at recognizing animal tracks and sign. I can usually narrow things down so we’re at least pointed in a helpful direction. But I have so much to learn. If I have the shapes, do I have the movements, if I have the movements, do I have the “when”… It goes on and on forever. I know that I will never be done learning, and that is fine with me. I hope I will never be done learning. I love to solve a puzzle, and work a problem. But I have no illusions the puzzles will ever end. The only constant is change. Besides, as John Hodgman said, “beginnings are really the only happy endings”.

The large tracks are fox, and the small tracks crossing the path are from our mystery critter.

I did an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, with extra attention to the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Philosophy is not where I started off in school, but it is where I ended up. Because philosophy contained the most “whys”.

Philosophy let me dip my toes in the most worlds. I could study advertising and environmental ethics. Nuclear bombs and modern symbolic logic. Darwin and art and how the brain works and it was all the same degree.

That’s a little explanation for my love of the “why”. It runs wide and deep. Why is this here. Why is it this shape, in this place, at this time. In tracking I am always skating between the known and the unknown. Being curious, and being methodical. Confidently working the puzzle, but reigning myself in if/when I get too rash or brash. Keeping an eye on my assumptions. Not thinking I have all the answers, but not getting so stuck in the questions that I can’t move forward.

Here is a short piece of an unfinished story. One of so many unanswered whys.

I came across this opening in the snow the other day. It is a small opening, in a grassy part of our property. I found it while following fox tracks, and was surprised by what I saw. Though it seemed to be a little hole for a little rodent, the fox tracks didn’t even seem to pause. Mice make up a good sized part of a fox’s winter diet. So why had this fox gone right past this hole?

Perhaps it hadn’t. Though both tracks had been made since the last snowfall, perhaps it was at different enough times that one wasn’t aware of the other. But also… why was there scat and urine at the opening of the hole? Isn’t that a bit, well, brazen? In a world so affected by smells, so full of critters who can and do literally sniff you out, why would you leave such a signpost on your doorstep?: “Here there be noms.”

I am not yet able to tell the difference between the tracks of shrew/vole/mice, unless there is some “gimme” to make it obvious. Like these wonderful gimme tracks in our woods, where the mouse very kindly left clear tails print in the snow.

So. Dang. Cute.

As I said, we have mice and voles and shrews here (at least). They each leave slightly different tracks and sign. For my money, this scat and tracks were a bit different than a mouse’s. Pushing us more into vole/shrew territory. Or some other wee rodent/insectivore I did not think to think of.

Maybe, I thought, maybe the fox walked past because it didn’t want what was in that hole. And maybe there is a reason the critter who made the hole wasn’t too worried about being found?

Shrews are small insectivores. They are similar in size and shape to mice, except with more of an anteater-style snout. They look a bit like a mouse that got its face stuck in a vaccuum cleaner. One day while out for a walk, I found a dead shrew in our woods. Specfically, and importantly, I found a killed but uneaten shrew in the woods. Before I learned more about shrews, I wondered why on earth critters would pass up a morsel of protein like that?

As is often the case, it’s because the critters knew more than I did. Apparently shrews don’t taste very good. They produce a potent venom in their saliva, making them one of those rare beasts: a venomous mammal. Though foxes and other animals will kill and sometimes eat them, they’re not first on everyone’s menu. And apparently that bite hurts. (Yes, even for us humans. Shrews are best left untamed.)

Like I said, I don’t have an answer for this particular puzzle. It might be a shrew, it might not. We just have some pieces and plenty of “whys”.

Alongside the “whys”, here are a few things we do know:

  • the scat was left, along with what appears to be urine, at an opening to a tunnel
  • the tunnel appears to be in the “subnivean” layer. Literally meaning “under snow”, subnivean is the area above the surface of the ground and below the surface of the snow. Mice, voles, and shrews all use this layer as winter habitat. (Once, on a a truly magical winter walk, I walked past a snowy spot where I heard some scurrying around. Still one of my favourite memories.)
  • Though the timing is a mystery to me, both this creature and a fox used the same area. Either the fox went through and then the little critter moved in, or the little critter was already there when the fox went through.

What happened when, and what that critter was… I don’t yet have an answer. I could have dug into the tunnel to try and find out who lived there, some trackers do. But my curiousity has limits, and digging up another critters’ home, to satisfy an idle “why”, is on the other side of them.

T.S. Eliot wrote:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

I’ve always enjoyed that poem. But I think this short stanza is too long to happen within a human’s life. We’ll never meet the end of our exploring. The place is too rich, too full of mysteries, too full of whys. I’ll go back to where I started, and I will know the place a little better. But the exploring, that never ends.

Categories
fauna tracks & scat

Snow Stories: Fowl Play

So many snow stories in the stack! But we’ll go in reverse order this time — even if there are some shrew-d observations and im-possum-ble sightings that came before this one.

Today, tale of turkeys. Though not the *tail* of turkeys, just their footprints.

I’ve seen what I believed to be turkey sign in the woods a few times over the past weeks, before there was snow. Sizable areas of ground that had been thoroughly scratched up. But without tracks, I couldn’t be certain. There was one day where I found turkey scat inside the scratched patch, so that one was pretty conclusive, but the rest were conjecture. I love turkeys, and always like to see confirmation that they are around.

Scratched ground from turkey foraging at bottom of the image, tracks leading away up top.

Our first summer here we had a little turkey family who would pass through our yard like clockwork every evening. A bundle of baby turkeys, trundling through the yard alongside their adult protectors. It happened over a few weeks, and we got to watch those goofy little turnips growing up before our eyes.

Another summer, we had a large tom come and take advantage of a sand pile we keep in the yard near our firepit — he used it to have a truly epic dust bath. If you thought it was enjoyable to watch a tiny silkie chicken enjoying a dirt bath, you should see a tom going to town for his spa-day.

Our trail camera has managed to record turkeys in our woods a few times. Unlike the savvy fox and the skittish deer, turkeys give fewer bleeps. When we’re up there at the same time as a flock, and see them in person, they make a noise I think of as a turkey clearing its throat, and then everyone just walks a little faster and in the opposite direction to us.

From the trail camera, around 7:30AM on an October morning. There are at least two turkeys in this photo… see them both?

As I said, I love wild turkeys. Much like the chickens, I love that they have their own turkey agendas and they are just getting on with it. They have places to be and things to do.

Besides their overall temperment and interesting looks, here are three specific things I enjoy about turkeys: (1) you can tell the sex of a wild turkey from the shape of their poops; (2) they roost in trees; and closely related to 2, (3) wild turkeys can fly.

I don’t know why it took me until adulthood to learn that turkeys can fly. If you’ve only known “meat birds”, it’s a pretty easy fact to miss. The poultry we breed for eating has been thoroughly messed with. We alter not only their diet and the environment we force them to live in, but also the fundamentals of their biology. We’re so focused on forcing them to grow large amounts of breast meat, that a bird who should be capable of flight is grounded for the whole of its life, all for a larger portion of meat at Thanksgiving. Ugh.

How I learnt wild turkeys can fly, and that they roost in trees (don’t worry I’ll circle back to the poop bit) happened in an incomparably magical way. On YouTube one day, I stumbled across a video of turkeys taking flight, and was gobsmacked. The very next day, I went for a walk in our woods, and saw turkeys take off from our walking path and roost for the night in our trees. Now that is an immersive learning experience.

Though they don’t roost there anymore (that I know of), there were a number of evenings when if I went for a walk at dusk, and looked closely, I could spot turkeys tucking themselves into high branches for the night. For such large birds, they are surprisingly difficult to spot once they are still! Watching a wild bird settle into the branches of a tree for the night settles your soul.

Sweet dreams.

On turkeys’ more rambunctious side, I had another extremely memorable encounter, on one of those S’Marchy days in the seasonal borderlands between late winter and early spring. I was standing in our yard, making maple syrup. I heard some kerfuffling on the hillside, and looked up to see a gang of turkeys turkeying through the woods, headed my way. While I was recording them… well, see for yourself!

I like to think that turkey was trying to give me a high-five.

Last but not least, let’s talk poop. Scat is such an important part of tracking, and it’s wonderful to learn some of its right-in-plain-sight secrets.

Male and female turkeys leave different shaped deposits of poop behind. Male turkeys, “toms”, produce scat that is more of an “I” or “J” shape, while female turkeys, “hens”, poop more of a coiled or shapeless mass. It all has to do with their plumbing.

Here is a very good description of why:

“The quirk of clumping results from the fact that turkeys, like many birds, expel their droppings from a multi-functional orifice also used for reproduction. Separation of the terminal ends of their genital and digestive tracts just isn’t their thing. And that a one-stop shop is called a cloaca.

In female turkeys, the droppings exit the large intestine into the cloaca. Because this little corridor is large and stretchy (remember, it fits around their eggs as well), the droppings can curl and clump before finally exiting.

Male turkeys have a rudimentary phallus in their cloacas located near the tail end of their digestive tract. That means less space for the droppings on their way out — no wiggle room for coiling.

Why don’t all birds show this kind of sex-specific poop shape? In other species, like chickens, the males’ genitalia are further reduced, so their poops are less distinctive.”

~ “Turd Tales“, Discover Magazine

The more you know!

So was it a tom or a hen’s track I was following in the snow, rummaging around the floor of our woods? Well here’s the “evidence” below. I bet you can tell for yourselves now, turkey trackers!

Categories
fauna tracks & scat

Snow Stories: “Gone Fisher-ing”

Well who is this friend?

The tracks I see most often in our woods are canid. A mix of fox and coyote. Well, the tracks I see most often are probably squirrels (eastern grey). But sorry little guys, while I enjoy observing your trails, I rarely spend much time trying to parse them. Rarely… though not never. As we’ll get to in a moment…

The outlier I’m always delighted to see are the mustelids: the weasel family. In particular, fishers. The mega-weasel. I see their tracks infrequently, and it is such a treat when I do. I love that there are fishers on our property.

This is a wildly unpopular opinion. But popularity is rarely my litmus test for worthiness.

My full rant is too long and too, well, rant-y, to insert here, but let’s just say there is no animal I give people a pass to villanize. It is too flat a vision of the world, too often rooted in a mix of ignorance, hearsay, and assumptions. There is no animal that deserves to be outright demonized for being destructive or taking more than it needs — and as humans we better take a dang hard at ourselves before laying down that judgement.

I nearly missed the fisher tracks this time — even though the fisher crossed the full width of the woods… twice. It was only in half-noticing that one of the squirrel tracks intersecting our main trail looked a bit extra “busy” that I discovered there was a fisher track mixed in. (See above: Ignore the squirrel tracks at your peril.) Larger five-toed* prints mixed in with the little squirrel ones. It was a galloping fisher! (*Note: the littlest toe often does not show up in fisher tracks.) Since I was sticking to our trail, and the fisher wasn’t, I nearly missed it.

Though I am not very good at working out the timing of a track, I still enjoy seeing the synchronicities. Below you see two visitors to our woods walking in parallel. I don’t yet know enough to know how long ago the tracks were made, or who walked through first, but side-by-side is how they lie now: a fox and a fisher, walking the woods together.

Here’s more of an aerial view so you can see everyone’s toes.

Fox at left, fisher at right.

And here, in one of my favourite bits of the track, a single tree is encircled — initially walking in the same path towards it, the fox goes around to one side, and the fisher to the other. Two roads diverged.

Fisher at left, fox at right.

Only to meet up again on the other side.

Fox at left, fisher at right.

Fishers are a good size, and have some fairly distinct gaits that show up pretty clearly in our woods. But in addition to the tracks themselves, there are the other cues to watch for. There is what the track looks like, its dimensions and spacings etc, but also where it’s going, and how it’s going there.

Galloping fisher

Following coyote here, I most often find they cross the property in fairly straight lines — often with another coyote a little ways off, walking roughly in parallel. The foxes go reasonably straight, but are also pretty likely to go exploring. Their trails wander more than the coyotes, the trail is often marked with their distinct scent, and I’ve found sign of them “tightrope walking” on fallen logs a number of times.

Check out that busy little rodent highway crossing the fisher tracks (the stippled snow on a diagonal)

As for fisher, I (literally) feel the pattern before I notice it — walking with my head down, I keep bumping my shoulders on trees. What seems to be a reasonably direct path is actually playing connect-the-dots: the fisher is choosing a path that moves from tree to tree. Fishers are great climbers, and squirrels are a major part of their diet. The fisher version of checking the fridge…

Take life one tree at a time fisher friend. See you again sometime.

Categories
fauna tracks & scat

Snow Stories: “You’re Invisible, But I’ll Eat You Anyway.”

I went for a walk with a fox yesterday.

Not at the same time of course. He* was long gone by the time I followed in his footsteps. (*I am calling the fox “he” for a reason, which I will get to.) But Neil and I often chat about how spending time with animal sign feels like time with the animal. Perhaps because you are so focused on its fox-ness. Everything but this fox is quiet. You are tracking this fox’s steps. Wondering what this fox was doing. When was he here and where was he going. Okay, he went here, and then here, but then where…. a-ha! over here.

It is a tremendous thrill for me to see the animals who live in or pass through our woods while they are actually in front of me. But what I love about tracks and sign is that I truly feel like I can take a lot of time “with” an animal, without disrupting it. I am not spooking its prey, or jeopardizing its chance at dinner. I am not causing it to waste precious foraged energy running from or avoiding me. It doesn’t need to worry about protecting its young from me. We can be together, apart. A healthy respect for the wild-ness of both its life, and mine.

They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

~Henry Breston

This fox started his visit to our home with a stop for a snack. He came down from the woods via a slope behind our house. The slope is a sort of overgrown garden that we still haven’t fully figured out. Perhaps it once had more form, but I believe it is mostly there as a berm, defending the house from the pressure of the hillside — being situated on a wooded hillside can put an awful lot of (literal) pressure on a house.

The “garden” slope has lots of brush and grasses, which I’m sure are full of all manner of things for a fox to munch on.

The fox, I believe, agreed.

Below is his first stop. A depression in the snow beside a grassy opening makes me think he stopped for awhile to hunt a mouse. Which is the inspiration for this post’s title — lifted from this fasinating article by NPR, exploring how foxes hunt (hint: it may have something to do with magnetics!), which is well worth a read.

Based on an extra footfall, and the indistinct shapes within the prints, I believe the fox then retraced his steps a bit, before continuing on.

Either just before or just after his meal, the fox marked his trail. Under this little cedar was a splash of pee. Usually it is not until I find urine with this distinct foxy scent, that I will confidently switch from “canid” to fox. As is often the case, I was initially following these tracks in roughly reverse order. So I was following “canid” tracks for quite awhile.

After the shrubbery was good and marked, the fox was off again.

From the “garden”, the fox moved on towards the driveway, making another marking pitstop along the way. Here is where I decided the fox was likely a “he”, based on the position of the feet and urine. Both male (dog) and female (vixen) fox will scent mark, though males are much more likely to cock their leg when they do so.

The fox went down our driveway a little ways, before I lost the trail. I then picked up a trail coming back up our driveway, on the other side. I believe this to be the same fox, based in part that we have seen fox do this in real time — they seem to think of “partway down our driveway” as some sort of boundary line …or at least as far as they get before they remember they wanted to check out our yard as well.

Some of the tracks coming back up the driveway were harder to find. There is a lot of “noise” at the top of the driveway. Plow marks, tire tracks, bootprints, and all the various activity under the birdfeeders. Can you spot the fox track in the bootprint below?

It’s right in the centre of the bootprint, with the toes aiming at the top of the image.

How about now? Sometimes using the spacing from a nearby track can help you find a hard to see print.

Enhancing the photograph to make the print more visible helps as well. 😉 But that’s not really an in-field tool (though I guess it could be…).

The fox then went behind the front garden, around the car tent, over to our walking path through the backyard. When they come through the yard, animals often follow our bootprints, and it’s a bit incredible how well their tracks can disappear into our trail.

Finally the fox went behind the chicken run (note: the chickens are just fine), before trotting away down the lower hillside, into the coniferous woods. There look to be many tracks down there, and perhaps I will go read some of those stories another day.

I hope you got your invisible mouse, little fox. And I hope to see you again soon.

Categories
fauna tracks & scat

Snow Stories: Just the tracks, deer.

The first of the real snowfalls last week. Which means the official start of one of my favourite seasons — tracking! When I get to go read the stories left behind in the snow, from all the critters who wander in the woods, while I’m being a human in our house.

While I can be a patient person, it would be a stretch to say it’s my default setting. Though I am reasonably good at waiting until the snow has actually finished falling before I go looking for tracks. Reasonably.

Worth the wait.

Not far along our main walking loop, I found deer tracks intersecting the trail.

How many deer do you see?

I love animal tracking for a host of reasons, but one is that it can be an exercise in reason. I once received a good piece of advice for drawing, which has proven useful in many areas of life: “Try to see what is there, not what you want to be there.”

I visit the woods to try and read the stories that are held by the snow, but I want to practice seeing what is actually there, not what I expect to find. That said, creativity and empathy are very useful tools in the tracking toolkit. Imagining what an animal might be experiencing, how it thinks, and what its motivations are, may help you follow its path.

While my brain might leap to all sorts of conclusions about what’s in front of it, I am most effective when I stop to separate the idea wheat from the chaff. I can form theories about the tracks I find, but I won’t hold on to them too tightly until I see corroborating sign.

In the photo above, there are tracks from three separate deer. There is a deer gait called a “pronk” or “stot” which results in a 2×2 pattern, which could theoretically explain the tracks on the left. But the spacing is wrong, and it also wouldn’t fit with the rest of the “story” — the tracks at right appear to have been made around the same time, but with a very different gait. I followed the tracks though until I found more clear sign that this was the story of not two but three deer.

Three tracks running parallel, travelling R to L — you can see the middle and lowest tracks diverging at the right of the photo.

I was nearly at the other end of our property when I found the first split, but there it was — the tracks separated out and divided clearly into three separate paths.

Here is what I feel pretty confident I read in the snow that day:

  • I was following the tracks of 3 deer, one notably larger than the other two.
  • The deer travelled through our woods sometime after 1:30PM on Saturday Jan 2nd, and before ~12PM on Sunday Jan 3. I based this on having walked the same area on the Saturday without seeing tracks, and that the tracks I found on Sunday early afternoon were partially filled with the snowfall that began midday. (Meaning the tracks had been made before the new snow began falling.)
  • The larger deer was much more likely to walk a little apart from the other two, which stuck very close to each other’s path.
  • The deer were aware of the route Neil and I had taken the day before, often following our steps. We often joke that we have to go up to the woods and do a lap after a snowfall, to open the trail up for the wildlife.
  • The deer entered our property from our neighbour to the east. They roughly followed the path on the southern edge of our woods, but they turned off the path to follow Neil’s trail — where he went the day before, to go look closer at the bark of a tree.
  • They traversed diagonally from Neil’s tree bark pitstop over to the western walking path, where they followed our footsteps until nearly back up at the north edge, when they turned and headed back east — crossing back into the neighbour’s woods.
Above are my tracks on the left, and Neil’s on the right. I am a little shorter than Neil, and scuff more. There are deer tracks mixed in.

For a long section, the deer followed the footprints on the western trail which Neil and I had left the day before. The deer occassionally switched sides, moving between my (left) and Neil’s (right) footprints. The two smaller deer mostly walked together. Below you can see one of the spots where the three distinct tracks separate, as they switch between which of our footprints they will follow.

Five tracks diverged in a snowy woods

Below is where the deer left our property, to go back into the woods of our neighbour to the east. This was actually where I began tracking, I followed the deer’s trail opposite to the direction they had been walking.

You can also see “neighbour sign” here — he has driven a lap of his woods since the last snowfall.

In collecting data, you see what you see, but you can also see what you don’t see. And what is in the negative space may be as interesting and informative as what’s in front of you.

Here are a few of the things I saw that I did not see:

  • The deer did not stop moving while on our property. They appeared to walk continuously without pausing to eat, rest, or investigate while they were here.
  • The deer were not “spooked” during their walk. Their gait did not change; they maintained a steady walk the entire time.
  • The deer did not appear to urinate or defecate while on the property.
  • The deer did not continue to follow the trail for its full loop. They turned relatively abruptly off the open double-wide walking trail to cut through the woods instead, and cross back over to our eastern neighbour’s property. They were very near the top of the hill when they turned, which is probably the area in the woods which smells the most like us — it’s where we arrive when we drive up in Evie, the EV.

Each walk when I see tracks is many walks in one. My own, and those of each of the animals I am following. The walks that preceded mine, though sometimes literally following in my footsteps. Stories all around. It can have quite a lot to say up there, even when it’s quiet.

There is a phrase — “soft fascination” — to describe the particular restful state we experience when we observe nature. My mind is more active while tracking than it is while softly fascinated by birds in the trees, or summertime ants busily doing ant things. Perhaps it is “actively quiet”.

How long was I up in the woods? I don’t know, I tend to lose track of time in my active quietness… but perhaps I could measure the depth of snowfall on my hat to find out. 🙂

Happy trails folks!