Along the shores of Lake Huron in Saugeen FN
We got out of the cars and stretched a little, letting the blood recirculate to all the places it struggled to reach on the drive out there. We laughed a little dizzy from standing up too fast and handed out the books and grabbed our bags.
In less than a minute we all had our eyes to the lovely Yellow Lady’s Slipper growing alongside the trail in. A few short seconds later, Scarlet Painted-Cup (Castilleja coccinea) and Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) dotted the moist grassy knolls between the sand and the water of Lake Huron.
This was a sandy beach country, with small patches of Cedar, rushes, and grass anchoring some of the taller mounds of sand preventing their erosion back into the lake. This is where the lovely Scarlet Painted-Cup (Castilleja coccinea), otherwise known as Indian Paintbrush or just Scarlet Cup, and the Sundew helps us to understand this landscape and perhaps start making some connections with who else may be out here. I am always trying to remember that these plants we meet can teach us about the land as much as the animals we track.
We moved on just a little further to study the trail of a yearling White Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) walking alongside their mum, a track we picked up on a couple of times. We also noticed the trail of a younger fawn further North along the beach. The track of this young fawn was only about 2.7cm wide! It is sometimes hard to imagine an animal who can run so fast and will grow so big with such small feet… and some don’t make it at all.
We later found a young fawn’s unguis, perhaps analogous to our fingernails, which make up the walls of the hoof, in some nearby scat.
The unguis is composed of compressed hairs glued together by the proteins in the deer’s body. It adds to the strength and rigidity of the hooves and this durability is likely why the unguis made it through the coyote’s digestive track mostly unscathed. It still smelled like it had made it’s way through the coyote’s digestive track.
Shortly before lunch I heard a call from up the waters edge. Someone had found something special. I made my way carefully past more sundews and other lovely beach plants and came around some short cedar’s when Alexis asked “Does anyone want to make a guess…” and I stood there for a moment, stunned and then thought I knew. “Just call it out if you think you know” Alexis instructed.
“Snapping Turtle!” I called out, but immediately thought differently as others pointed out the obvious. This skull was too big to be a Snapping Turtle.. And if a turtle at all, likely some sort of Sea Turtle, but that just wouldn’t belong here.
I heard others mention fish quietly, and I realized who it was for real this time.
“Carp?” It was a Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio), and what a mighty big skull this fish had.
Non-native to the Great Lakes, but spread widely throughout, this large fish may have been visiting this flooded beach to mate, and lay eggs, or perhaps just washed ashore dead and eaten by some carrion eater. We found scales in the grass and in the water beside.
We took some time for lunch, and continued on admiring strange hare tracks with an uncertain course, a turtle trail cut through the silt of an ephemeral pond in the middle of some four wheeler tracks, a person whose tracks told they may walk with a limp on the left side, and a Black Bear, crawling up the sand bank and heading into a thicket of Eastern White Cedar. All quite engaging, full of mystery and wonder. This is why tracking takes hold of us, inspiring awe at the mundane: being able to see into time when weren’t present and noticing the ways life and death moves across the landscape (and lakescape).
One of the most impressive mysteries came near the end of our day together. Annie and Steph had spotted some old scat on a trail to the west of the one most of our crew was exploring. I walked past them and heard the excitement in their voices grow louder, higher in pitch and faster in cadence. Finally I had to turn back and see what they had found.
“..and a hand! And look at those teeth!”
I was glued to the scene before I even saw what they were looking at.
“A Shrew!” they announced as I walked up and sat down beside them. I saw the lump of grey patchy fur and small boney hands. I scanned the form in front of us and saw the rusty red teeth they had excitedly been yell-talking about moments before. I agreed that I also thought it was a shrew, but then offered a question, why was it here, dead and dishevelled looking?
We threw out some answers – perhaps someone had stepped on them [singular them]? Perhaps they just had died? Was it an owl who ate part and spit out the rest? A couple more hypotheses were thrown in, and I offered what I had learned last year from reading the Short Tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) entry from Donna Naughton’s book “The Natural History of Canadian Mammals”.
Short Tailed Shrews taste terrible to most animals. Great Horned Owls, who have great hearing and sight, lack in the smell and taste department. They eat shrews readily, but most mammals find them gross.
I shared that I had seen quite a few dead shrews, many with bites out of their sides, but mostly intact and left behind in the woods likely where they had been killed. I then proposed my theory that this chewed up shrew was caught and killed by a larger mammal predator, perhaps fox or coyote, and then when they tasted the shrew thought differently of eating them, and instead spit them out. This would make sense for the mangled look of the body, and for the fur missing.
It was decided that this was plausible and we replaced “Grim Shrew” (as we had been referring to them) back where they were found and made our way to meet up with the rest of the group before we walked back to the parking lot for the tired drives home.
It was a good day.