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Moose-a-palooza – Sunday, September 1st, 2019 Algonquin

It was a cool morning at the Algonquin Park Research Station, after a clear and starry night. The sun was shining. There was a slight wind from the south. Around 6:00am, tracker Ann saw a moose. She described the moose as a “tall, dark shadow standing against the trees”. They both surprised each other. The moose looked at her, took a step towards her and then decided to head west, up the foresty hill. Alexis found a moose trail that morning (the same one?) and the tracking apprentices sleuthed out that trail along the gravel road. The tracks showed that the moose was mid-size, using a slight understep walk. After noticing that the moose seemed to prefer browsing on Red Maple branches, we wondered about seasonal food choices for moose and came up with this Moose Musing; “Is Summery Red Maple akin to yummy strawberries as Wintry Balsam Fir is to Kale Stems?” After trying a piece of a Red Maple leaf, I decided that yes, it tastes good. Balsam Fir is good too but it has a slight bitter flavouring as well – maybe important for easing woody winter moose digestion?

We followed the moose trail to the edge of Sasajewun Lake, pausing to observe a polyphemous moth caterpillar and a nice pile of marten scat. The marten had enjoyed a feast of sarsaparilla berries and blackberries as observed from the scat seed content. The moose trail went uphill where Ann had seen the moose earlier in the day. The group decided to practice trailing skills and move as silently as possible through the forest. We observed more moose browse on red maple, old winter moose beds and scat. We found ourselves in a myriad of moose trails. It was moose-a-palooza. Alexis picked up the moose’s scent and the sound of bird and chipmunk alarms could be heard in the distance but the moose was able to evade us. The group headed down into a lush forest valley and then out to the Bat Lake trail. It was an excellent weekend with great people. I am so grateful for the opportunity to connect with the animals and their stories by immersing ourselves in their tracks and signs. Thank you Alexis!

 

– written by Tamara Anderson, ring 3

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A Bear walks into the woods…. August 31st, Algonquin Wildlife Research Station

We began our morning with quick breakfast and some gratitude and intentions in the driveway of the research station before heading out towards the old Moose pens to investigate some possible remains from a carcass that was brought there by park staff earlier in the season.

First though we stopped to check out some Moose antlers and a Moose skull. When we took the time to look at the

Moose skull dorsal view

dorsal side of the skull we all noticed how there was a depression a little beyond and between the supraorbital foramina (the small holes above the eye sockets) and wondered for a while what this depression was all about? Why would a skull have a dip like that? Could it be there to help the structural integrity of the skull somehow? We wondered if it might have been an injury, but when we looked at another Moose skull over the weekend and noticed the same depression, and even read about the depression in a book about animal skulls we recognized that all moose seem to have them.

 

We also noticed a small scat in the depression, and Alexis mentioned that it may just be a vole scat. Perhaps the vole is marking territory – claiming this massive skull as it’s long term snack.

Vole scat in the Moose skull depression

We then flipped over the skull to look at the dentation of the skull. Someone brought up the question of how we

Moose skull ventral view

might age the Moose by looking at how many cusps we can find on the teeth – this is something I still hope to learn about as we weren’t entirely sure the equation, but it was something like if the Moose is under 1 1/2 years old, the teeth would be bicuspid, and if older the teeth would be tricuspid. This is something I hope to look into further.

 

 

Moving along the trail we noticed some Beaked Hazels and how their leaves were folded over. We even opened a few to reveal a white webbing which held the two halves of the serrated leaves together. This fold and webbing may be due to an known insect associate, the Juvenal’s Dusky Wing (Erynnis juvenalis).

Folded Beaked Hazel leaves from the Juvenal’s Dusky Wing (Erynnis juvenalis)

While examining the middens of a Red Squirrel, the author saw the edge of a small bone sitting on the ground surrounded by Pine needles. When I reached for it and grabbed the bone I immediately sensed that it was much larger than it looked. I pulled on the bone and it slowly, yet easily came out from the soil. It was a skull! A Black Bear skull! We were all very excited and excavated the area around the skull to discover a left mandible.

Author with Bear skull discovery, photo by Annie S.

We wondered as to how long the skull was there for, how the bear died, whether this bear was larger than your average Black Bear, and many more questions. We couldn’t find any other pieces and there was lots more adventure

Bear Skull, photo by Alexis B.

to be had so we chose to move on. Later when back at camp we measured the length of the skull. It was 29.5 cm long (11.6 in), which is on the larger side of a Black Bear (Mark Elbroch writes in his book Animal Skulls that the range for an adult Black Bear is 23.5 cm – 34.9 cm).

 

We noticed many exciting things within the next few minutes including a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker drilling holes in a Paper Birch when along came a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird to visit the sapwells left by the Sapsucker. It seemed as if the Sapsucker wasn’t interested in visitors and the Hummingbird didn’t stick around.

More Bear sign was found just a little further up our trail. We found some trails or runs of pushed down grasses and brambles, which when measured were about 25 inches wide, which is just about right for a Black Bear. In Mammal Tracks and Sign, also by Mark Elbroch, it states that the trail width for a direct register walk for a Black Bear will be

Bear track

between 20.3 cm – 35.6 cm (8 – 14 in). A few of us bent down and were using our hands to feel for the tracks as they were often better sensed by touch than by sight. It was tough work at times looking carefully for bent Pine needles or broken twigs, but it did work out. We measured some of the foot prints left behind – a right rear track was about 16.5 cm (6 1/2 in) long – and noted the vegetation around was abundant in ripe Red Raspberries, and the occasional Blackberry.

 

This would have been an ideal location for a Black Bear so it was no wonder we found runs throughout.

Bear run

Another reason why the Black Bear may have been attracted to the site was that a few months before, just around the Summer Solstice park staff had found a dead Moose and dragged the Moose close to where we were tracking. The story goes that the Moose was likely hit by a car (we heard a leg was swollen) and then tried to make their way away from the road when Wolves came in and may have finally killed the badly hurt Moose. When park st

Bear eating at Moose carcass, photo by Wildlife Research Station Manager Kevin K.

aff came across the carcass near the Research Station they moved the body to a more “private” locale behind the old Moose pens (an old research project) and set up a trail cam. Lucky for us they got some really good shots of a Black Bear disembowling the Moose carcass.

 

Others were ahead of me by the time I got to the site of this Once-A-Moose, and all that was left were a few scattered vertebrae, ribs, femur, the mandibles, and some other pieces which I do not know the names of. Though, I do know the Scapula, and I do love a Scapula. I find them often, but mostly from Deer. I used to think that Scapula may have been connected to the origin of the word Spatula, but there is no connection, though a Scapula could possibly used as a Spatula.

Moose remains

Scapula vs. Vertebrae

I began asking my co-trackers which bones they thought were cooler : Scapula or the Vertebrae? Seems like most people think the Vertebrae are cooler…. whatever.

As we all left the Moose pen area we came across a hydro pole which seemed to have years of markings along it’s length. It was something I remembered from last year, but some of the chews seemed newer. I am still trying to figure out how to decipher between chews and claws. A mystery for the future.

I want to take a moment to reflect on the fact that we no longer have Black Bears and Moose as common inhabitants of most of Southern Ontario. They were once prolific, roaming the thick Carolinian forests up towards through the Great Lakes Region and beyond. Through deforestation due to agricultual expansion or cleared for development, and population growth equalling loss of habitat Black Bears and Moose were pushed out, extirpated, with only rare sightings (Scarborough Saturday May 13th 2017 being a recent example near Toronto) since.

I wish for the sake of a healthier landbase, intact ecosystem and for the sheer joy and study of these animals that there were still Black Bears down here.

We continued on with some more debris tracking through Pine and Spruce duff for quite a while, everyone down on

Stephanie T. and Alexis B. bebris tracking

hands and knees, slowly counting out the tracks as they saw them, with a few folks collectively finding more than 100 tracks in a row! A hard feat in any substrate let alone old needles, cones and twigs.

 

I admit I got distracted at this point, checking out the Spotted Tussock Moth and following them up a hill. The brilliant yellow middle contrasted with black spots along the back, and the long white lashes at the head and rear, a truly beautiful caterpillar. I have no shame for watching this colourful larvae make their way across the forest floor.

Spotted Tussock Moth

As everyone made their way up the hill to join the few of us who were already up there, we decided on lunch. Tracking can be taxing and sitting down to packed lunches in the thick of Algonquin is pretty nice. While sitting down for lunch our second skull discovery appeared. Alexis found a Deer skull behind a large glacial erratic (a boulder placed in an unusual place by a retreating glacier) which we then passed around to examine. We all guessed at how old the Deer was, what time of year they died, and how long had it been since the Deer had died? We could tell the Deer was a buck, a male, due to the remnants of antlers still attached to the skull. This would also imply that the buck had died before January or February when the antlers drop. Alexis also explained that White Tailed Deer often leave the park and yard up before the heavy snowfalls so they can navigate better. Personally, I have always wanted to visit a Deer yard in winter. I would see how the Deer move through their shared trails, the height at which they browse, and be witness, through the tracks, to the social dynamics of White Tailed Deer in a very real, very snowy Central Ontario winter. Likely pretty different than in Southern Ontario. It is amazing how a few hours drive away, the landscape is so different.

Alexis challenged everyone to guess at who’d been chewing the remains of the antlers. Can you guess by looking at

Deer skull

the photo?

 

 

After we packed up our lunches we made our way down a hill heading in the general direction of the research station, when Brier noticed a large Bear track in the debris. This track was great. Lots of definition and depth, you could count the toes and it was big. I didn’t get to measure the track as we were on the move but when I looked and assessed the track my thought was that it was a left rear track. Someone pointed out that the little toe is on the inside of the track and the big toe on the outside, opposite of a human foot or hand, and they also told me that the little toe will appear lower in the track, closer to the posterior of the foot. I would love to be challenged and have someone point out some details to show me otherwise, but we were on the move and the momentum of going downhill is sometimes hard to beat.

Left rear Bear track?

As we descended further towards Lake Sasajewun and the research station someone noted a big dead Spruce with a

Bark sloughing from Balck Backed Woodpecker

lot of the outer bark missing. Alexis asked if anyone was familliar with this and Tamara piped up that it could have been a Black Backed Woodpecker looking for insects. They remove the outer bark layer on trunks of trees and look for insects beneath to feed on. Some species of Nuthatch have even been seen to use the first scales they pry off as pry bars to help remove other scales, thus making the work easier.

 

Close up of bark sloughing

Across from this Spruce was a Paper Birch where we noted signs of a Downy Woodpecker opening small flaps in the bark where a small insect, the Xylococcus betulae would live.

Trap door on Birch

Xylococcus betulae, a Scale Beetle creates small welts in the bark of the Birch tree it infests and then in winter the Downy Woodpecker comes along and pecks a small vertical slit in the bark and pries the bark strip open to access the Xylococcus beetle just below. Some call it a “trap door”. Amazing ingenuity of the birds!

Close up of trap door

We lowered the hill and came out on to a road which led towards the canoes we were going to take to cross Lake Sasajewun and along the way found a pile of Fir cone scales which had been likely left behind by a Red Squirrel. In the pile of beautiful purple brown scales were also small winged seeds which when tossed into the air, helicoptered down as a Maple seed would. A few of us tried eating a couple of the seeds and they were potent! Powerful Fir taste rang through your mouth and seemed to spill out your nostrils. They were medicinal in strength. I had to eat a couple more just for the experience alone.

Fir cone scales and seeds

At around 2pm we got into the canoes and began paddling out into the small narrows towards the north end of the lake. When we reached a suitable place to bring the boats to shore we immediately noted all the varied plant life growing in the area. Pitcher Plants, Sweet Gale, Blueberries, Blackberries, even a couple of Sundew digesting Dragonflies. We couldn’t tell which Dragonflies, as most of the insects were gone, but there were plenty of wings left behind to tell of the banquet that was had.

Sundew digesting Dragonflies

Along this edge of the lake we spotted some older Wolf, Moose, Muskrat, Otter, and Canada Goose tracks. It seemed more secluded than the south end of the lake, further away from the main road of the park

There was potential Bog Lemming sign, chewed up Sedge seeds littering the mucky soil left bare as the water level was low.

When we all ducked into the woods away from the open shore of the lake we took a moment to pick apart some wolf

Wolf Scat photo by Tamara A.

scat, wonder at the brown tawny hair in the scat and try to sort out who the wolf had been eating. Lots of guesses were thrown around; Muskrat, Mink, Marten, Moose, etc.. Eventually Alexis suggested Beaver. It seems to fit, but now I need to go out and watch a Beaver and really check out their hair.

After the Wolf scat it was time to turn back. We weren’t far but it was a long day of beautiful discoveries, it felt like we’d been out for a week, yet only an hour or two at the same time.

Just for the fun of it, here’s a photo of our potluck spread. It was a great way celebrate the day.

Potluck dinner

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Studying Pressure releases in the tracking sandbox – July 6th and 7th, 2019

Studying Pressure Releases can be very difficult, especially if you are doing it on your own, or perhaps having only one or two resources to work from, so it made for a lovely weekend up at Earth Tracks headquarters to study Pressure Releases with a motivated, curious and fun group of folks, despite the heat and humidity.

Pressure Releases (“PR” from here on) are sign written within or without the track of an animal created by pressure against the substrate the animal has moved over. This could be some dirt thrown up by a boot coming down on a muddy path, or a tiny sand ridge created by the pressure of a frogs hind leg as the frog lands in a sandbox (more on this example later…).  They are created in the substrate by a bodies weight, by the shifting of that weight, and through the motion generating pressures and then how the substrate reacts to those specific pressures.

Tom Brown Jr's book "The Science and Art of Tracking"

Tom Brown Jr’s book “The Science and Art of Tracking”

There are many examples of PR, all of which we learned about this past weekend can be found in Tom Brown Jr.’s book “The Science and Art of Tracking”. We really studied three causal qualities of PRs actually

  • 1) Pressure Against The Wall, which can teach us about turn a body in motion has made, sudden stops and even the eventual position of the next track by observing the increasing intensity of pressure required to create different possible PRs in the previous track. With names like “ridge”, “crest”, and “cave”, these PRs are like microcosms of the greater landscape though they are sign written by a foot (or other part of a body in motion) putting pressure on the substrate.
  • 2) Changing Or Maintaining Forward Motion, which teaches us about how much energy was required to, you guessed it, change or maintain forward motion. This might include speeding up from a slow jog to a fast jog, to a fast run for a human, or in the coyote counterpart, trot, bound, and gallop, all the while only looking at one track instead of requiring a set of tracks to determine a gait pattern.
  • 3) Roll and Head Position, which could mean looking at the depth of toes or the heels to determine if the animal, human or not, was looking up or down.

Tom Brown covers many more PRs with seemingly endless variability for each depending on a wide variety of influences and outcomes. I would be helpful to find his book and study it while working in a tracking sandbox.

Alexis explained the PRs, using diagrams written on a flip chart to help elaborate, and then demonstrated by moving through the tracking sandbox. He asked us to imagine an hour hand of a clock protruding from his chest and facing 12:00 and then he turned his torso very slightly so he would be facing 12:15 on the clock, and then 12:30, and then 1:00, with each turn taking a new step to create a new set of tracks. Each track would show slight variations in the pressure in the wall of the track highlighting the turns Alexis was making. These could be read by turning our heads so we could see the horizon of the sand and noting the peaks in the displaced sand which now stood atop the wall of the track, or by the way a toe seemed to dig into the floor of the track creating a small indentation or “cave” where the floor of the track met the wall.
This is just one small example of a PR.

The day went on, and we all took turns stepping into the sandbox moving in small ways, or big ways and then after stepping out of our tracks examining the PRs which remained.

Disk

Disk – light intensity

Disk-fissure

Disk-fissure – more intensity

Dish-crumble

Dish-crumble – even more intensity

 

We took a break on our first day to drive a little ways to a nearby woodland, but then got back in the sand the next morning. We began with the 3rd study, Roll and Head Position, where Alexis stood in the box and demonstrated head turns and the resulting PRs.

Examining the PR created in the track by looking over the Left Shoulder. Note the longer shadowed area on the left side of the left track denoting the greater depth to which the left foot sank due to the shift in weight.

A highlight of the morning was being visited by a Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens) which was quickly placed in the tracking box so we could observe their movements and the PRs left behind as they hopped out and made their way back to the pond.

Lithobates pipiens

Note increased depth in the print of the hind leg on left side denoting more pressure from this foot created by pushing out of the sitting position while hopping out of the sand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later still, we tried another activity in the box. While everyone else was looking away, a student moved through the box with variying speed and actions while being filmed. When the student was done and camera stopped, everyone returned to the box to try and decipher what had just taken place. We used our bourgening knowledge to explore the PRs and movements highlighted in the tracks to figure out what had just happened, and after a few minutes of discussion and comparing ideas, we reviewed the video to confirm or challenge what we thought had happened. What excitement it was to be right! What joy to be wrong! It was so much fun to see where there was a forward bend with head facing the left, when we thought the head was straight and the fissures and crumbles were created by increased speed. This activity was certainly a hit.

First, try and decipher the tracks… then watch the video.

Studying PRs is a lifelong commitment. Perhaps many lifetimes of work is required to truly master and understand all the possible interpretations which lie in a track.

I am in deep gratitude to Tom Brown Jr, Alexis Burnett, and all the other teachers who take the time to pass on these skills to others so that we can hopefully build on this great moving body of knowledge even more, and explore, decipher and celebrate the mysteries we encounter, in the sandbox or the woods.

 

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Story of the day – Krug Tract in the drizzle

Our cool (but not chilly) breezy day began with gifts and gratitude. Upon our arrival at the Kinghurst Forest Nature Reserve we were blessed with a sighting of a great blue heron. As people were packing up their belongings, those listening closely may have heard a shallow peeping noise coming from the ditch. Before we could look twice, a spooked baby fawn darted across the road and back into the forest. We immediately went into tracking mode and delayed our usual gratitude circle to get lost in the moment.  We noticed some blood in some of the hoof prints.

Here is Alistair measuring between tracks with his walking stick. He has marked out a ruler along the side and bottom. This way he can better interpret the gait patterns and this tool helps him find the next track. As he finds the tracks he can then mark them at the back of each with a popcicle stick. This way he can look down the trail and see better the repeating pattern of the fawns footfall.

measuring with walking stick

measuring with walking stick

We followed the fawn’s trail all the way down the road. making out faint tracks in hard packed gravel.

After tracking the fawn for a while we got back to opening circle.

Our field guides help us dive deep into the mystery of the questions that arise through careful observation.

Alexis examining a blue egg. Could be a Robin egg, but there are other birds who lay similar sized blue eggs.

Stephanie takes a souvenir home to examine more closely.

 

As we passed through the forest, we found blue bird egg shells, and wondered if they were from a robin or from some other kind of bird that also has a blue shell. Someone noticed that the shape of the shell seemed to be more oval than that of a typical robin egg.

Kaya’s bug protection is ON POINT.

We examind some long dark feathers that have possibly been sitting in the same location for multiple years. Like an old kill site, definitely a feeding site. The feathers had been chewed off, not clipped.

Porcupine kill site?

looking at beaver chews

looking at beaver chews

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Throughout the day it drizzled a bit but we got to see fresh tracks in the soft ground and the smells were just so full. Grateful for another day on the land.

jewelled leaf

jewelled leaf

 

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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.

Castilleja coccinea

Castilleja coccinea

Drosera rotundifolia

Drosera rotundifolia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

unguis

unguis

small deer track with measurement

small deer track with measurement

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.

Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio)

Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio)

Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio)

Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

"grim shrew"

“grim shrew”

shrew head and hand

shrew head and hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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