Story of the Day Nov 17

We woke up to the gentle warming embers of the wood stove as the sunrise cast its morning glow across the snow-covered landscape. It was all too easy to pop up excitedly out of our sleeping bags, as we knew we had another beautiful day of tracking in the snow ahead of us, and we were blessed with a white blanket of “natures greatest cheat sheet”.

Byron treated us to a morning workshop on animal skulls. We first examined the skull that was found in Algonquin on our trip together earlier in the summer at the Wildlife Research Station. Byron announced “This is a Bear skull, and this is your freebie. For the next few examples, I want you to tell me what this is NOT, not what you think it is.”

This way of questioning had us diving deep into our observational skills as we eliminated possible species, and got us to identify key traits and characteristics of each skull, creating connections before considering naming the animal.

A quick walk around the farm revealed some fun nature mysteries, just steps from the front door. We compared the sizes of the tracks made by an eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) to those of the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) that we had followed on the previous day. In the snowy substrate, we were able to clearly see how the cottontail was able to almost float on the surface of the snow by splaying its feet.

We also followed some feline tracks to a couple of different sheltered spots under the woodpile and out behind the house. It appears that both our friends the house cat and the cottontail spent some time here out of the wind.

A short drive took us to a nearby grey county forest, and right from the parking lot the landscape lit up with stories of what came before us. We could hear chickadee, blue jay, and ravens calling. Converging trails of coyote, deer, snowshoe hare, red squirrel, chipmunk, mouse, and grouse had everyone’s eyes in all directions. We split up in small groups, some of us walking alone trailing for the better part of an hour.

A crow call brought us all together for a short lunch break, and Byron announced that he had found the “evisceration station” just up the trail. We followed what felt like 1 or 2 coyotes on a narrow trail that diverged and became 5 or 6 coyotes. The trail lead us to three separate locations that were bedded down with blood, hair, and rumen, a white tail deer kill site. We followed our noses to discover the skeletal remains of a relatively young doe that had almost been picked clean.

We used the opportunity to examine the differences between the dewclaws on the front and rear hooves of the deer. We lay down tobacco, and left an apple as an offering, thanking the deer for the opportunity to learn from her and helping us to connect to the circle of life.

On our way back towards the parking lot, the familiar waddle and quill marks of our friend the porcupine lead us to a den in the hollow of an ash tree. You can see some scat at the base of the den, and climbing claw marks on the adjacent trees.

Fresh tracks lead to a hot pursuit of a deer, but the sun was going down and it was time to call it a day.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to uncover some of the mysteries of the forest with you all. Here are a couple more fun, tracking stories for you. I hope you all get out and play in winter wonderland, and take advantage of the season’s substrate to hone in on your tracking skills.


Landscapes large and small – September 1st, Hockley Valley Conservation Area

September 1 Hockley Valley Conservation Area – Landscape/Ecological tracking

So I want to begin with mentioning that photographing landscapes and geological changes due to climactic changes over the last 120,000 years is tough. But that was a big focus of the day, so I’ll try to discuss some of the finer points which I remember.

We began the day by having an opening circle at the top of a small hill surrounded by Red and White Pines, chattering Red Squirrels and maybe even a Black and White Warbler. After some gratitudes Alexis shared about some of the geology and indigenous histories of the land, some old old histories some being “rediscovered” and reconstructed still. We learned about the rivers and trails used as trade routes. We learned about the settlement history as well and how settlers cut so much of the older forests down that the hills began eroding into the rivers. We learned about how this erosion contributed to the decline and eventual extirpation of the Atlantic Salmon who used to swim along the banks of the rivers who’se headwaters all bubble up just a short ways from where we sat.

I then spoke a little to the glacial impacts on the land, the legacy of the Laurentide glaciation and a little on how it shaped the land. We spoke of the the height in some areas being about 2000 metres high, and the sheer weight of the glaciers, heavy enough that still, 15,000 years later, the land is still rebounding, rising up after being pushed down.

We talked a little more about the glaciers then and there on the hill, but we also wanted to get out and look at other features on the land, as a yet to be idenfied nest down the hill was one. So we got up and made our way down to check it out. We looked a the shape and briefly passed around some ideas, but decided we would come back at the end of the day to decide who’d built it.

Who’se nest is it?

I had to run back to the cars to grab my sweater and when I met up with the group some folks were admiring some mink tracks by the small creek on the trail and others were investigating what might have been woodpecker holes in what appeared to be a dead White Ash tree. I took a look at the tracks, and discovered a couple more headed towards the short foot bridge, and then went to the bridge to see if there were more around there, of which I couldn’t find any.

I then took to the White Ash tree and noticed folks were peeling away the loose bark to reveal beautiful galleries below. As we looked on the galleries and wondered we noticed some of the larvae which appeared to be creating them.

Galleries in the Ash

The strangely triangularly ridged larvae were about 27mm long, 2 -3mm wide and slimy looking. They were in the

Emerald Ash Borer larvae

widest sections of the oscillating S shaped tunnels feeding on the phloem between the bark and the inner wood. It’s within this thin phloem tissue that the tree conducts fluids, sugars and other nutrients to the rest of the tree.

By hijacking this nutrition corridor, the larvae are able to feed, grow and emerge as full grown Emerald Ash Borers, a highly invasive species which are killing off a few of the native Fraxinus species across North America.

It was beautiful to see such delicate forms of the larvae and also recognize the damage they are doing and as we all left wishing luck to the woodpeckers on the front line of Ash defence.

As we walked a deer trail up through a lush little valley of Goldenrods the day was overtaken by insect sightings and wonderings. We saw a couple caterpillars, such the Banded Tussock Moth (Halisydota tessellaris) and a Milkweed Tussock Moth (Euchaetes egle) hanging out near by. One interesting sighting which I am still uncertain about were some eggs which we could not identify certainly.

Banded Tussock Moth

Milkweed Tussock Moth








They were sitting on the leaves of a Goldenrod. I believe they are eggs because of similar looking eggs I saw in the book “Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates”. The eggs in the book were Assassin Bug eggs (Reduviidae), and they look so similar, my guess is that these are Assassin bug eggs as well, but I am not certain. Luckily it is a big family, who like Goldenrods and many live in our area, so the chances are high.

Assassin bug eggs

As we climbed the hill further there were some galls on Wild Grape folks were exploring. Again, this is another mystery I can’t figure out for certain but are likely some variety of Midge, or small Fly species. It is one of those times I wish we had spent a little more time with, perhaps cut a few open to check to see what the insides looked like and if we could find a larvae within.

As we kept walking I noticed the Blue Stem Goldenrod, which is one of the easier Goldenrod species to identify. It grows in woodlands, and I have mostly seen it in more open woodlands, with high “loose” canopies. It may grow in more dense tree cover, and Lawrence Newcomb says it may grow in open clearings, but I have not seen this so far. Blue Stem Goldenrod is named for the blue-purpley stem upon which the beautiful golden asterish flowers grow.

Blue Stem Goldenrod

Note the blue stem of the Blue Stem Goldenrod

We climbed a little higher and checked out the False Solomon Seal and the Canada Mayflower, both of whom’s berries we tried. I do like the taste of the Canada Mayflower, but it may not be for everyone. I have found no references to the plant being edible or inedible, but it was one that I have tried and I enjoy.





Gypsy Moth egg deposit

While looking down at the Mayflower, others were looking up at a tan brown furry mystery on a nearby Sugar Maple

tree. The the soft hair like mass was about 35mm long and was fairly flat against the tree. I stroked it a couple of times and remembered that I had seen this before at the Arboretum in Guelph. While others were passing around the Insect Track and Sign book I was helping others by offering clues, but no direct answers. This way they would think about it longer, wonder at it deeper and would have to observe a little more to draw out conclusions, and they did. We hung out for a while at this and other similar signs on some other nearby Maples and through sleuthing on the tree and researching in the book it was revealed that this was the egg mass of the Gypsy Moth! The female Gypsy Moths lay their eggs in a large mass and then pull the tan hairs from their abdomens and affix it somehow to the eggs, protecting them. What some mothers go through!

Another insect investigation began when Annie found a stick with a strange looking cocoon. It was another familiar one I had learned about during a winter tree i.d. workshop. This one was only about 15mm long, with a small hole at the base. I thought at first the hole was at the top, but Annie told me that I was holding the twig the other way around from how she had found it. We examined a little further and then checked out our book and it was in there. This cocoon was from a Sawfly and it survived. These cocoons are predated upon by Short Tailed Shrews, and I have been reading that Sawflies are consumed so much that a Short Tailed Shrew may consume up to twenty-three thousand Pine Sawfly cocoons in a year!! Holy Short Tailed Shrews! They were cool before, but now their Sawfly-destroyer-cool! Not that there is anything wrong with Sawflies… it’s just cool that the Shrews eat so many of them.

Saw Fly cocoon

Saw Fly cocoon








We moved on and Alexis explained more about pillows and cradles and how we can use these land based sign to age a forest. We spoke about how when a tree falls the roots come up with it, leaving behind a gap or cradle in the forest floor. The presence of these ‘cradles’, depressions in the soil where the root mass once was, along with the ‘pillows’ or small hills of decaying wood, roots and organic matter can tell us where a tree once stood, which direction it may have fallen in. If we see many of these in a forested landscape we know that the forest has been there for a while, with lots of trees growing and falling and decaying back to the forest floor. The absence of these pillows and cradles can also tell us something. Perhaps the area was logged, hence no remaining tree mass to decay and turn into the pillows of soil and new life. If the forest floor is pretty flat, then perhaps the area was cleared entirely and plowed. Plowing levels the soil, evening out the rises and subtle valleys making it easier for crops to grow.

It was interesting to walk through the woods, down the hillsides and being mindful of this when we encountered a depression in the earth. We can look into the past by considering how the hills got there (glaciation), and how the smaller lumps and bumps were formed (trees falling in the woods), and seeing the small ephemeral tracks from ourselves and other animals which are left behind.

Tiny and massive disturbances on the land which map a deep history which we observe as we make our way through the woods. It really is awesome and wonderful.

We took a break in a previously cleared area, a small open meadow with radiating spokes of Deer and Raccoon trails leading to and from a nearby Apple tree. Folks ate and laid about, watching the Broad Winged Hawks or the Turkey Vultures making their way overhead. We reviewed notes taken of Coyotes in a straddle trot, and chatted about future places we should explore.

Open meadow.. previously cleared

When we got up some of us passed the Apple tree and I noticed one with a significant bite taken from it yet still hanging about 185cm off the ground. Some Deer had delicately taken a couple of bites from this Apple while still being careful enough to not let the fruit fall. I measured the incisor marks and they were about 9mm across the width of one tooth, and generally 20mm across the both of them. I have been trying to look up incisor widths or measurements for a White Tailed Deer, but I can’t find any specific measurements yet to compare to.

Apple on the tree

Apple with incisor marks left behind








Meandering down to the river got me excited. This quiet cover of old Northern White Cedar, Balsam Fir, Moss, and Ferns gracefully dappled this tributary to the Nottawasaga River as it flow out to Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. I remember this course because I remember why I want to be here – the Salmon. I can’t quite remember if they are Chinook or Coho Salmon, but I’m going to roll with Chinook as they seem to be the best lookalike from my research. The Chinook Salmon are originally from the Pacific Ocean, but have been stocked in the Great Lakes since the 1960’s, originally to control the non-native Alewife and Rainbow Smelt populations, and also to create a recreational fishery which might bring some money to local economies along the shores of the lakes. It seems to have been a success with lots of communities benefitting from the endeavour.

Why Pacific Salmon? Why not our native Atlantic Salmon? I have been answering this question as I tell people the story of our day out, so I’ll explain as best I can here as well.

Atlantic Salmon were never in Lake Huron, or at least that is what I can gather, but they were in Lake Ontario, and had been there since the lake was part of a post-glacial sea around 12,000 years ago. They were a staple to many indigenous populations and were revered and regarded with deep respect. When early colonists arrived in what would become southern Ontario they could catch Salmon by the barrel. But this did not last.

As colonists cleared once forested habitats throughout Ontario during the 19th century, the once rich soil no longer held by the lush root systems and ground cover of riparian edge species was washed away due to weather, land use and erosion. Alongside this, the absence of tree cover and shade along river and stream edges allowed for an increase in water temperatures, further rendering the rivers unsuited to the Atlantic Salmon. The last Atlantic Salmon was caught off of the Scarborough shoreline in 1898.

Since 1916 Pacific Salmon, and more specifically, Chinook Salmon from the Frasier River in BC were stocked into Lake Ontario and Lake Huron. Folks thought that the fish were good to eat and fun to catch so they brought them to this side of the continent and worked to keep their populations well stocked. The populations never really took off until Ontario, Michigan and New York state governments pushed together in the 1960’s to stock the Salmon. Since then the Salmon have been stocked yearly and there is suggestions that some of the Salmon who are spawning may be naturally reproducing on their own and their young, the Smolt, are returning to the lakes to live out natural lives before returning to home tributaries to breed again in 1-3 more years.

I don’t really know much about Salmon ecologies, or most anything about fish in general, but I do know when I am moved by watching an animal in the wild doing it’s most basic work of migrating and breeding. When I got down to the river and began watching for the Salmon it felt like I was in an airport or train station waiting for a long missed friend or lover who was coming to visit. I was searching through the shimmering refractions of light and fallen logs for any sort of movement. I was decieved by rocks a couple of times before hearing the quick splash of whipping caudal fins upstream and knew they had arrived.

I had to wait for some of our crew to catch up and I was anxious and frustrated in the same way a child might be when having to wait to open presents at a birthday, but they showed up and I quickly made my way to a wide shallow part of the river where we’d seen the Salmon congregate last year. This year was the same. There were about 6 or 7 of them moving through with a couple holding down small territories in the corners and spillways, possibly in an attempt to disrupt the advancement of late arrivals. I ran from this pool to a bridge of fallen logs I had laid across the year before, but as I didn’t see a fish within 20 seconds of laying down I quickly got up again and walked back to the wide pool where everyone else was gathering.

Last year I watched as folks attempted to touch the fish, and this year I was burning to give it a shot as well, to grasp the wild heart of this late summer river, if only for a second or two.

I followed Alexis’ lead of getting low to the shore so as to not scare the fish with our looming bearlike predatory shadows and instead move slow and carefully, becoming part of the river and observing more than moving. I was sitting on a sandy island created by a dam of logs and braches in the middle of the river but I was

Alexis watching the Salmon

still too far away from the fish to feel like I could really feel them so I began to slowly take off my shoes and socks. I remember having so many things in my pockets that it felt like forever to stuff them in my shoes. Wallet, camera, notebook, other notebook, loose change and my field lens all stuffed in beside my socks and I began very slowly making my way towards the one fish who held the spot between Alexis and I.

When I got close enough to reach out and touch the Salmon’s tail a larger Salmon came in close and whirled in the pool, pushing my Salmon off for a moment, but as they returned I leaned in and gently grasped the caudal fins and gave two tugs.

The feeling of the fin in hand was pretty neat. Again, I don’t fish. I haven’t a lot of experience hanging out with fish, or grasping them for a photo, or even eating them (I don’t really like the taste most of the time). Grasping the fin was new to me and I savoured the sensation. The fin felt like my ear, thin, cartilage-like yet more defined and with more muscle, as if every spine in the fin had muscle and flexion all it’s own. It was strong and toned, and the slight strength used to pull away from my hand was indicative of a greater strength which the fish could rely on, and had relied on to get all this way upstream.

I felt the tension of the moment dissipate after that moment and I went to get my things and put my shoes back on. The group’s voices rose a little in volume and it seemed we were getting restless to keep on tracking the riverbanks on our way back to the parking lot.

I walked back on the opposite bank of the rest of the crew, looking for sign of animal predation on the Salmon, but only found a dead one at the bottom of the river, too deep to dislodge with an armlengthed stick I found, so I just left it and kept searching. I was hoping that more scouts would have more luck discovering something.

Last year, as we departed that same pool we’d been at earlier, we had found a flayed Salmon skin on another island in the centre of the river, as well as a fairly intact, but entirely dead carcass of a male Salmon just beside the shore. It was a lovely chance to get up close and see the entirety of the body. We even cut the Salmon open and milky sperm spilled out onto the forest floor (sorry for the description, but that’s how it was!).

I didn’t find too much more Salmon sign as we walked back, though there was lots of other things to look at. Pileated Woodpecker sign on a Cedar tree, some Ant filled scat, but my head and heart were still with the Salmon.

Ant filled scat

We did stop again at the nest on our way out to gave it another look and refer back to the Track and Sign of Insects book we’d carried the whole way. There was discussion and a little debate as to who had built and was living in the nest., until finally Annie and I teamed up and she got on my shoulders to courageously take some closeup video of

Yellow Jacket nest

the wasps departing and returning. From her photos and her video we could see that the wasps were yellow and black helping us to exclude one of our two possibilities. It wasn’t the Bold Faced Wasp afterall, but instead Yellow Jackets. I think having settled that, we could all go home fulfilled.

Yellow Jacket nest


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


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


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 – light intensity


Disk-fissure – more intensity


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.



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



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.



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











Story of the Day for May 11 2019, Orangeville Pits

Overcast and windy for most of the day until around 2:45ish when a light rain began. 8-10°C

Waxing Crescent 44%


We began the day with an opening circle on the sidewalk across the road from some newly constructed and in the midst of constructed houses, edging on to an old sandy quarry and mixed Cedar forest. It seems sometimes like this might be the wrong place to be tracking, but life exists everywhere so off we went, and almost as soon as we stepped into the construction site we discovered some tracks.

First thing we noticed was that the claws were pretty far out in front from the toes and there appeared to be 5 toes in the tracks, at least the clear ones. Some of the tracks showed a faint rear track in front of a front track, and the stride measured in at around 16.5 cm (6 ½ in). Some thoughts were quickly thrown around and then finally we settled on Mephitis mephitis moving at an overstep walk. Can you see the hind foot landing in front of the front foot in the photo?

Nearby we also noticed a couple of potential Vulpes vulpes tracks. There was a thought to peel the top layer of mud off but it seemed like the track wouldn’t lift so it was left to it’s own to fade to time.


We took a sandy path further away from the newly built homes, passing Sylvilagus floridanus chews and Canis latrans twisted hair-filled scats and came across a hole, a deep hole, a 35.5 cm (14 in) deep hole nearly straight down into the sand right in the middle of a heavily used path. Who could it be? There were measurements and estimates, more measurements and guestimates, but no conclusions from the group, even after we saw a small track – 7.62 cm (3” in) x 6.35 cm (2.5” in ) – just off to the right of the hole. Tamias striatus, or Tamiasciurus hudsonicus..  We just couldn’t tell. Can you? 


Pellets seemed to be falling from the sky today. We may have found 5 today. Big ones, little ones. Skulls, jaws, mammalian bones, bird bones, all over the Pits.


Next we moved on to look at some Odocoileus virginianus tracks, and we talked about the dew claws and how on one set, the fronts or the rears, the dew claws are closer to the two hooves in front of them. We also noted that the dew claws which were closer to the hooves were used for traction, to help the animal “steer” better. These closer dew claws also tended to be fatter yet not as splayed out or wider set than the others… Do you remember which dew claws are closer to the hooves used more often to help “steer” this animal as they move?

As we moved through the sand we noted many more animals making their ways through. More Canis latrans, more Odocoileus virginianus, but we took some time to examine the Meleagris gallopavo tracks, and especially the remaining sign. We examined the scat left behind, and how the scat will be in different forms depending on the sex; there will be longer and tubular, perhaps even slightly “J” shaped for one sex, while the other’s scat will be globular, rounded and clumpy. Whose is clumpy? Whose is tubular?

It was fun to notice how when they nip the grass they are leaving a pretty straight, flat, even cut across the top, which eventually dries, withers slightly and changes colour, from green to a pale yellowy white. Lagomorphs and rodents will bite the grass off at a 45° angle, deer will be a little ragged, and dogs and cats even more so.


We continued on, looking at gaits of domestic dog and remembering that this is a practice, a skill which will take a lifetime of practice and study. We will learn to see the tracks and the gaits the animals are using. We will learn to know these gaits by heart, and perhaps even imagine seeing the animals in our minds moving across the land as look at these tracks left behind. The science may developing into a profound intellectual knowing which may help us to develop our instinct and our gut knowing, and someday, with lots of study and practice begin to sense from seeing how the tracks land across the substrate, a deeper connection with these animals we are tracking. I look forward to a time when I know and understand the science in a deep enough way, that I can read the signs with a little more instinct and a little less intellect.


Afterwards we broke out on our own for a discovering a bird kill site, a larger rodentish skull, and some old honeycomb at the base of a Tsuga canadensis full of holes. Then, after regrouping and slowly making our way through sheltered forest of Thuja occidentalis, Populus tremuloides, Prunus serotina, and Betula alleghaniensis, we found another pile of bones! This time a bird.

We examined the carpometacarpus, the ilium, the femurs and the skull! We tried to look up the skull in Mark Elbroch and Eleanor Marks book “Bird Tracks and Sign” but we couldn’t decide in the end who this bird was. We had some approximations, but no certainties.. Do you know whose skull this is?


We closed out the day with a closing circle, sheltered from the wind and rain sharing our gratitude for the animals, for the forest beside the subdivision, for the skulls we found, for the comradery of our crew, for the sand pits full of tracks, and for the chance to reconnect with land. All left looking forward to next month.

Written By:  Byron Murray – 2nd year Tracking Apprentice


Twas December 2nd

Twas December 2nd

Written by Tamara Anderson


‘Twas December 2nd, when all through the house

Plant apprentices made medicines, some with calendula flowers.

The salves were made on the stove top with care,

In hopes that there would be plenty to share;


We learned about the folk method for making tinctures

And the standardized calculation for herbalist thinkers.

With guidance from Alexis, so lively and quick,

“Almost there!”, the cough drop liquid was becoming thick.







When out in the kitchen there arose such a chatter,

Fire Cider was being made with plant-based batter;

Turmeric, cloves, ginger, garlic, white pine and horseradish;

Onion, jalapeño, cayenne pepper, rosemary and lemon zest.

What to our wondering eyes should appear on the counter;

But many tiny jars of salves, syrups, and balms to prepare for winter.

The secret planta gifts were gathered on the table,

The gifts were plant-based, like syrup from maples;

Or small zines about winter weeds made from paper.


And then, in a twinkling, the weekend was done.

Hugs and well wishes to all for making it fun.

Hearts filled with love and gratitude

For the many plants that we used;

And for the people who harvested and prepared them;

May our paths cross again!

Herbal cough drop recipe:



Kitchen Fun, Medicine Making Day 1

This weekend was all about warmth! We received a warm welcome from Bobbi, Alexis,  River and Violet when we arrived. Throughout the weekend I felt the warmth of being surrounded by friends and warmth in the cozy farm house and hanging around the woodstove.

The heart of the weekend was in the kitchen, were we all got our hands oily from making infused oils balms and salves!

We dived right in, spending the morning straining sun-infused oils, and admiring their various colours.

Red St. Johns Wort oil and Yellow Red Clover oil

Straining Calendula Oil

Next we tried our hand at infusing herbs into oil on the stove and used the newly infused oil to make balms and salves

Cayenne oil, for a muscle pain relief salve

Making salve is messy! Alexis shared his helpful practice of having one set of utensils set aside especially for this greasy, waxy work.

We got to work, with some teams making different balms and slaves, a labeling crew and Nicola + Tanya working to prepare Elderberries for cough drops and Elderberry syrup.


Here are some of the balm’s and salves we made:

Winter Sun= Calendula infused olive oil, coconut oil, vitiman e oil,  peppermint essential oil, beeswax

Calendulime= Calendula infused oil, Lime essential oil, vitiman E oil and beeswax

Universalve= Plantain, Calenduala and St. John’s Wort infused oil with vitiman E oil and beeswax

Barefoot Fix= Calendula , Oregon Grape, Yarrow infused oil with vitiman E oil and beeswax

Hot! Burn Salve= Lavander and Bergamot infused oil, with coconut oil, vitiman e oil and beeswax

Simultaneously Tamara, Daniella, Maddy and Tim got serious about cough-drop making! It was a collective learning adventure, as it was everyones first time making lozenges. This team really devoted their care and patience to the task! First they simmered a blend of healing herbs (cinnamon, elecampane, calendula, elderberries)  in water .

This mixture was reduced, and honey was added, then slowly heated

It took a while…. lots of testing, tasting, then finally the mixture (now the most stunning gold colour) was ready to cool!

It was all hands on deck to form the small candies before the mixture got too cold and no-longer pliable.

We coated the cough candies in slippery elm powder for extra-soothing action!

Phew! Just in time!

Over dinner the last of the days creations simmered away: 

Elderberry syrup with Rosemary, Cinnamon, Black Pepper, Cloves and Honey, Yum!

Thanks for a bustling day full of so many herbal creations, great conversations and laughs!

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