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Three Simple Awareness Tools

I have been considering awareness a lot lately. I have been wondering at how we can become more aware of in our relationship to the wilder places in the world, in relation to other humans we interact with, and in relation to our understandings of ourselves. This thinking has branched off into how to use my awareness to help me move with more stealth when needed (sneaking games, creeping up on animals I want to see closer, etc), and to understand baselines in different environments I inhabit a little better. Awareness, maybe in the context I am thinking of, is a little more complicated than “the state of being aware”. Let’s break it down before we build it up a little.

Aware comes from late Old English gewær which means “to be watchful”, or “to be vigilant”. Gewær comes from the Germanic base of ware. This is the same root as “beware”. I think I am looking for a deeper context, one that embraces a sort of multi sense synergy where the use of many faculties comes together to create a deeper perception than usual. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Aware as “having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge”. This is good, but what if instead of or we use the word and, which would turn the definition into “having and showing realization, perception, and knowledge” which adds layers instead of options. Let’s start with this.

So awareness in the context of wildlife tracking can be a network of skills, knowledges, feelings and experiences used to help one better understand the baseline of the wilder world.
A couple of definitions of baseline :

“Baseline is the environmental condition collaboratively created by all the animals and birds—all their creeping, crawling, hopping, grazing, prowling, and flying; all their barking, howling, chattering, grunting, whinnying, and singing. It is the intricately woven tapestry of the preferred status quo, and every creature adds its particular contribution to this “baseline symphony…” – Jon Young, from What the Robin Knows

“Baseline is the normal ebb and flow of the patterns and rhythms in any given area at any given time. It is a combination of the levels of sound, movement, color and scent in that general vicinity.” – Eddie Starnater, Principles of Natural Camouflage

To understand the baseline, say in our homes, we have to practice being aware. Aware of the tap dripping in the kitchen, the cat mewing waiting to be fed, the placement of the lamp in the living room. To be aware, we need to know how to understand baseline, to know these sights and sounds so intimately, that if the tap were to stop dripping, the lamp moved an centimeter or two, the cat gone quiet at the usual feeding time, than you would notice the variation from the norm. You would know the disruption of the baseline of your home.
The two concepts feed into each other, each informing and shaping the other. As we practice awareness we learn more about awareness and baseline. It might sound confusing but really there are some simple ways we can build awareness in our homes, on the street, or down in the woods, which can then put us in the right headspace to pick up on baseline and become aware of the phenomena that disrupt that baseline.

Three tools I appreciate and am coming to know are sit spot, owl eyes, and fox walking. Only occasi0nally do we talk about sit spot at the tracking apprenticeship but on a scale of usefulness, I would put it at the top. The practice – and it takes practice – of getting out to a place near your home on the regular and just sitting there watching, listening, smelling, feeling, tasting, experiencing that place, repeatedly over different times of day and seasons really helps to build relationship with the place. Say you walk up to the side of a river and sit on the bank. Our sudden appearance can startle some birds, scare off a Squirrel or two and generally disrupt the daily affairs of some animals, not in a life or death way for them but like the way a unplanned road closure might affect your drive to work. But if we hold our spot and can sit long enough, for maybe 30 minutes or so, we can begin to see the world around us along the rivers edge slowly get back to baseline. The birds tend to go about their business after a while, the Squirrels will make their ways around you, and often if the birds are getting over your being there, then the rest of the world either won’t know you are there or they’ll just ignore you if you aren’t acting in a threatening way. By engaging in this sit spot practice we can start to get to know the life there, the plants, fungi and animals. The rocks, rivers and sky. We can watch new seedlings sprout and watch the past years leaves decay. In time, with commitment to the sit spot practice, the animals will know you, your habits, and scent and your presence can become part of the baseline at the rivers edge.

Another practice is Owl Eyes, which can also come in handy at the sit spot. Owl Eyes is practicing our wide angled peripheral vision. This is a great tool for noticing small 0r large movements in the periphery of our vision, so we can notice something like a Chipmunk running across a path beside us without having to make sudden big movements by turning to look, which might disrupt the baseline of the area we are in.

Practicing Owl Eyes can be tricky in our focused tunnel vision world, but it helps break into wider perspectives which we often lack. How do we do Owl Eyes? Start by looking directly in front of you and find an anchor point, something that doesn’t move that you can directly look at. Maybe it’s the top of a stump across the river from you at your sit spot, maybe it’s a stone along the bank. You just want to pick something that is eye-level with your gaze. Now focus your eyes on your anchor point. Once you’ve got that point locked in, you can stretch your arms out in front of you, and while continuing to focus your vision on your anchor point, start wiggling your fingers way out in front of you. Keep your gaze on your anchor while still wiggling your fingers. Slowly begin to move your arms apart from each other but continue to wiggle your fingers. Keep slowly moving your hands apart stretching them wide but all the while keeping your eyes focused on your anchor. Keep spreading you arms out wide towards the sides of your body until you just notice the wiggling fingers in your wide angle vision, all the while continuing to maintain the anchor point in your gaze. You’ll likely lose focus on the details of the stump or the stone along the bank, but you are beginning to engage that wide peripheral vision which tends to perceive more movement. You can begin to take in 180 degrees of movement, birds flitting around, the flick of a Deer tail, or maybe even quick scurry of a Shrew. As you see movements you can zoom back in to your focused view, and slip right back to Owl Eyes as desired. Try turning your head slowly from side to side, keeping your vision wide as you do so, and take in the breadth of the world.

Fox Walking is another beautiful skill to work on to help us both in our awareness of the wilder world around us, but also in touch with the land itself. It’s all about learning to go quietly, and being quiet tends to include a lot of patient listening to other forms of life, and really listening and paying quality attention to others is awareness, and awareness is what helps to build the profound relationships most of us want.

The Fox Walk starts with posture. Alexis recommends holding your body upright, as if a string was coming out of the top of your head and pulled taught. You aren’t leaning forward, but instead head and shoulders held as level as you can throughout the entirety of the movement (no bobbing up and down which would attract more attention to you from wildlife). Next, bend slightly at the knees while still maintaining your upright posture. Bending the knees slightly brings our center of gravity a little lower to the ground and can, with practice, increase stability and balance while walking across uneven terrain. While putting all of your weight on one foot, lift the other slightly off the ground and moving the foot just a little ways ahead of you, being sure not to put your foot out too far. Remember, this is a slower walk, and we don’t need to take big steps. Alexis recommended taking 3 seconds to take each step. Maybe that can even be a time to work up to. Go slow at first and see where you can speed up later.
If you are wearing conventional shoes, slowly bring your heel down first and roll forward toward the toes. Or if you like to move through the woods barefoot or in soft soled footwear like minimalist toe shoes land the outer edge of the foot first, rolling the rest of the foot, outer edge towards the arch, down. While bringing the now front foot down to the ground keep your weight on the back foot. Use your front foot to feel out sticks or debris which may snap or crunch if you commit the step, and if you suspect you will make some noise, feel out a different spot to bring your foot down, minimizing the disruption of baseline as much as possible. While Fox Walking, be sure to take short, easy strides, feeling the ground with each step. Place your feet in front of the other in a straight line as possible with out crunching any debris.

Often when humans are moving through the woods we are lumbering giants, making a ton of noise and pushing every one else in the forest away with our heavy footfall and intense gaits especially when hiking. If done well Fox Walking minimizes disturbance by slowing us down, reducing out noise, narrows our trail, strengthens our thighs, improves balance and can help us impinge less on the forest and all the inhabitants. As you practice Fox Walking get into Owl Eyes and try and let your feet see the ground, feeling for debris, while your wide angle vision perceives everything else going on in the visual plane. Practice Fox Walking to your sit spot to minimize your disturbance as you come in, hopefully allowing baseline to slip back quicker or to not disrupt it at all.

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Tracking Journal for 15.08.21

We’d spent the most part of the day before and the morning of the 15th working in the tracking sandbox going over pressure releases. Pressure Releases are sign written within or without the track of an animal created by pressure against the substrate the animal has moved over. It is an indepth examination of the tracks looking beyond the identification of the animal and instead looking in the track for depth of motion and meaning. I previously wrote a more detailed post on pressure releases which you can read here. While working in the tracking sandbox there had been some live sightings of a rather ubiquitous, but ever interesting creature; One who would emerge from a small hole in the lawn about 3 m from the box, disappear into the underbrush, and then reappear later, bounding back through the grass back to their burrow where they would seemingly dive right in.

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This hole measured about 4.3 cm (1.69”) and when I went to measure I noticed a more flattened dustier side where the small semi-fossorial mammal had emerged from. I crept a little less than 50 cm (19.69”) away and laid flat on my belly and watched the hole. There was a lot going on behind me, folks checking out the tracking box looking at their own tracks and seeing if they could see their stride and movements reflected in the compressions in the sand, but I kept my patience in hopes to see the creatures up close. And you know, as most sit spots or or quiet moments do, it paid off to watch and wait.

It didn’t take long for a small brown head to emerge from the hole, cautious and low, presumably listening and waiting themselves for any signs of alarm or caution in the topside environment. The head finally came up over the brown newly cut grass tips, and I looked into the deep dark eyes searching the world around them. I noticed the ears were so much larger than I had imagined before, and the face, stretched and longer than I had noticed in the past. I watched the nose working quickly taking in and deciphering smells, probably smelling the sweat on all of us humans working in the tracking box along with the aromatic Apples (Malus domesticus) ripening on the nearby trees. They might have even smelled the Chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) feed put out for the chicks earlier in the day.

I watched in awe and wonder, struck by the beauty of this ordinary everyday animal whom we all have seen, likely ignored and passed by on countless occasions. Steffanie noticed another small head come part way out of the hole and pointed it out to me while I fumbled with my camera. I took a few photos and just continued to watch in amazement and joy at this wonderful being who only a moment ago was pretty much invisible to me. How long had they been hanging out right beside us? Why weren’t they scared? I still havn’t researched all I’d like to of the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) but I will be digging deep into the books this week to learn as much as I can. Sometimes it just takes a short experience to open a whole world of wonder that I end up having to pursue.

I got up from the Chipmunk burrow and went back to the sandbox where folks were finishing up examining their tracks and Alexis took over guiding them through a few more exercises in deciphering movements and motion. It is always fun to see the motions written in the sand and has already been triggering me to spend a little extra time watching in the sand pits at a couple local parks I have been in since the weekend.
We finished in the box, had a quick lunch and headed out to a local woodlot near Alexis’ place and set to some new focused work : debris tracking. Now debris tracking is hard for me. It has been in the previous years of the apprenticeship and continues to be so. I think Alexis recognizes this so he chose a place where there would be a lot of trails to choose from. He showed us some tracks at the edge of the White Pine (Pinus strobus) plantation/forest and offered us the challenge to go alone, or in small groups pick up on a trail and follow it.
Now I suck at this. I don’t mean to say I will always suck at this, but for now, I suck at this. For me, when I am debris tracking in a Pine forest, I am near blind to the variations in debris to properly sight a Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) track. Also when I use my sense of touch, every nook and crevice created by sticks and Pine cones becomes a possible Deer track. So I tend to end up on all fours feeling my way through the underbrush thinking I am on a trail when really I’m just fondling the forest floor. This went on for a bit so I stood up and tried another possible way; I would look for browse and follow the feeding sign.

White-tailed Deer browse on Valerian (Valeriana officinalis).
White-tailed Deer browse on Valerian (Valeriana officinalis).

This new idea worked for a few feet. I found a couple plants whom I did not know who were recently topped by a passing ungulate. I could tell it wasn’t an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) or a Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) because the cut wasn’t at a 45° angle, and wasn’t too clean of a cut, which are common signs for lagomorphs and rodents (the Orders in which Cottontails and Porcupines are a part of). I also found some more with rougher cuts on the Raspberry (Rubus idaeus var.) and may have gotten a little distracted looking for fruit myself. But from there, the brambles pulled at my clothes and wove within themselves to hide any sense of a path or way through. At this point I was ready to give up, but luckily, Lucas was nearby and willing to hang out with me while I felt lost and incapable. I think Lucas was having problems himself. He was finding tracks, lots of them, but he was finding tracks going in all directions. Many overlapping trails were converging and diverging all over the area and Lucas seemed to be discovering all of them. Behind us we heard that Madeleine was on fresh trail and making headway so I ditched Lucas in a perhaps selfish attempt to learn how to appropriately discern a Deer track and stay on the right trail. Turns out Madeleine was the one to ask.

(Here is a video from the 2019-2020 tracking apprenticeship where Alexis is explaining the use of a tracking stick. I have not uploaded it until now because of the amount of wind noise, but I do believe that the video is worth the watch in spite of this noise as he explains a very useful tool in a very simple and accessible way.

Madeleine admitted to me later that she wasn’t feeling so into this debris tracking challenge, but she got down and began looking anyways in hopes of finding something. And she did. She found a pretty clear track and began looking for another in front of that one. She told me that when she found the second track, she pulled out her tape measure and measured the distance of the stride for future reference.
“25 inches,” she told me. “So I just held out the end of the tape measure, extended to 25 inches and I looked for the next track there.” She improvised a tracking stick with her tape measure (check the video for more info on tracking sticks). She tried again and found another. Eventually she found some pretty fresh Deer scat too, which was a big boon to both her morale and her search. From there she kept on finding more until I and others came along asking her for help to learn how she was finding all sorts of tracks in hopes that we too could find some. When Madeleine left to show Hugh, Lucas and I kept on her trail in hopes of continuing on and making more track discoveries. Lucas did identify a couple more, but I got distracted with a possible scat which had been deposited on a Spruce (Picea sp.) limb about 70 cm (~2.5’) from the ground which was apparently riddled with insect tunnels. The scat looked like it had landed and then some had dripped through the branch and leaves and fallen to the forest floor below. The scat also looked older than the fresh ones and Madeleine had showed us only moments before, and when I took the chance to open the scat up a little, we found that amidst the unknown material there was something I did recognize; The scat contained a single Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) seed.

While investigating the scat there was a call to come together and continue on through the forest in pursuit of a possible Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) den, but as we were together I felt an insect crawling on my arm. I looked down and got real spooked for a moment. I could only see a portion of the animal and that portion was a couple of tremendously long legs. The insect was moving quickly and I didn’t spot their body for a second, but once I did I relaxed. Turns out it wasn’t some giant unknown forest spider, but instead it was a Walking Stick (Diapheromera femorata), the only species of Walking Stick insect in northern North America, who are totally harmless to people and quite interesting to watch and examine as they make their way quickly through your hands. When the walking stick got around to my side where I could not see them again, someone noticed that they had 5 legs, which I was only able to look at in the photos that Madeleine took later on. I have learned that if they lose a leg in their nymph stages of life, they can regrow them, but if they lose a leg as an adult, then that leg is gone for good.
I passed the Walking Stick off and recalled a thing I had read about a couple of years ago about how Walking Sticks and others in the Order Phasmatodea will climb tall trees and drop their eggs (about 3 or 4 a day, up to an average of about 150 per year per female) from great heights down to the forest floor below. The eggs have a a little cap, called a “capitulum” or pluralized, “capitula”, which is similar in form to the elaiosomes in some plant seeds. These elaiosomes are rich in fats and proteins which ants like to ingest. Some researchers hypothesize that ants collect the eggs from the forest floor, bring them to their nests, eat away at the capitula which are similar to the elaiosomes, and then ditch the eggs in the middens of the ants nests where they sit until they hatch.
Now I need to clarify. I cannot find direct quotes, specific papers, or any links immediately between Diapheromera femorata and this myrmecochoric (seed dispersal by ants) action. There are papers about this action with general links to the Order Phasmatodea, and many articles which make the connect, but none cite a specific source which links the specific species to the action. In fact, many sources detail the dropping of eggs from female D. femorata and when the eggs hit the forest floor, they sit a year and then hatch. Maybe I’m being too specific here or maybe this is mentioned in academic articles I do not have access to, but so far in my research I no longer believe it to be fact that D. femorata eggs are dispersed by ants. Anyhow, let’s look at the pretty picture.

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After we let the Walking Stick continue on their way we continued in our wide circle through the Pine plantation until we came across a Fox den which Rachelle had discovered earlier. The den appeared unused in a while with plants growing around the rim and no visible well used trail entering into the den. We did however find a bone of what appeared to be chewed on by three different mammals; Porcupine, Squirrel, and Shrew (unsure which species on the Squirrel and Shrew). This was an interesting find as I have never seen (or registered seeing) Porky chews on a bone before. I had heard about it, but not until that moment had I understood the specific shape to be from the Porky teeth. I am indebted to the White Pine I have been observing since this winter for helping me see shape and depth of a Porcupine bite.

Only a few meters away as I remember, maybe 50? or so, we found another Fox den, but perhaps this other one was more recently utilized. There was a more visible dirt trail or mound leading down into the den, but this one still did not appear used in a while. While discussing the den, Alexis mentioned that this den would likely not have been used any more recently than May, and I asked for clarity on this. I figured if the Foxes are mating around January, then surely they would still be in the den with their pups in June? But as my further research has shown, Alexis gave a more accurate account.
The gestation period for Red Foxes is only about 50-55 days, likely giving birth around mid-late February. At 25 days old, maybe mid-late March the Fox kits are still spending most of their time underground, but shortly thereafter, at four or five weeks old, maybe mid April, kits are starting to come out of the den more often. At 12 weeks old, mid-late May, kits are hunting for insects and eating fruit near the den and spending much more time outside. The den seems to continue to be the centre of the kits world for a while, but little time seems to be spent nearby. I have watched some den focused trail cams and seen how the sightings of the kits seem to dissipate as the spring wears on. Finally, dispersal takes place around August but this implies leaving parent territory, so this would be long after the Fox has already left the consistent shelter of the den. If the den we were investigating was used this year than it also says something about the colonial speed of mosses in a Pine forest during a wet summer. The mosses had begun to faintly reclaim the path that the kits and parents would have taken to emerge and submerge into the den.

Fox den, -18.5 cm wide x 15.5 cm tall (roughly 7” x 6”).
Fox den, -18.5 cm wide x 15.5 cm tall (roughly 7” x 6”).

There were some bones nearby, I think all of which were smaller, no longer than 8 cm (~8”). Some were broken with the marrow gone, but none felt hollow like a bird. This led me to believe mammal. I know Foxes can and will go after birds, but the bones did not feel that way. Through scouring about the site we discovered many holes nearby but all of which were smaller than the hole pictured above. I think many of us came to the conclusion that this was a former Groundhog (Marmota monax) burrow before it was occupied by the Foxes. Groundhogs dig multiple entrances as a means to escape potential predators. But soon enough I got to wondering if the Groundhog actually made it out alive afterall? Someone found a mandible in the leaf litter and we passed it around to identify.

The mandible was 7.8 cm (~3”) long, with one large white incisor, one premolar, and three molars. We did not find the other mandible (other half of the jaw) or the cranium. At first someone thought it might be an Porcupine, while someone else thought Squirrel, and I thought I heard someone mention Skunk (Mephitis mephitis). Skunks didn’t make sense to me as this animal had at least one very large incisor and lacked the canine and jagged “mountainous” dentition that the Skunk would have. And Porcupine looks similar to Groundhog, but would likely be a lot larger, unless it was from a juvenile. I wondered at that because of the condition of the teeth and as Alastair, who is doing his second year in the apprenticeship, later pointed out in an email the shape was right for a Groundhog.
At the rear end (posterior) of the mandible, the coronoid process is pointed and sharp similar to the Porcupine, but the Groundhog’s is rather deeply lobed in comparison. Also the condyloid process (below the coronoid) is larger, and thicker on the Porcupine. Size matters. It may not be a constant that a Porcupine will be larger, but it will be true commonly enough to make assumptions.
Another realization I had while writing this out is that Porcupines usually aren’t on the Fox diet until the Porkys are dead. Then the Fox can flip them over, or with the help of another animal who flips the Porky over, then the Foxes can access the belly and dig in there. The quills keep most predators at bay while the Porcupine is alive. Skunks? Nope. Their notorious spray keeps the Foxes away. Groundhogs? They are certainly Fox food. So finding a Groundhog mandible beside a Fox den? Seems the likeliest of all three.

Wondering about the mandible led to a good conversation about when it is appropriate to give answers to folks or when to leave the mystery for people to figure out themselves. We discussed how leaving the mystery can allow a person to dig deep, and through that digging discover so much more. When the mystery finally gets solved a day, a week, 2 years later, than that reward is often profound and can have a significant impact. But there are also times when leaving it hanging for someone can turn them off of future learning, there is no hook to catch them with. Sometimes having a name for something empowers folks to look that something up. It gives up common language to start from. It has also been pointed out to me that it can be a weird dynamic between white-encultured European descended teachers to “coyote” mentor indigenous folks on their home territories as white folks systematically repressed and criminalized the land based knowledges and interspecies teachings of indigenous people, while allowing for white scientists, biologists and naturalists to observe, take, dissect and write up, and ship back to Europe just about anything they could reach. In light of this, and many other scenarios now I tend to think it best to read the room and know who you are talking with, ask people for the preferences and see where that can take them. Even as a teacher/mentor/educator/someone-who-knows-something-and-wants-to-share, I am learning all the time how to do better by the people I am working with.

“Eft” life stage of the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)
“Eft” life stage of the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)

As we were heading back towards the cars I happened to spot a small creature making their way through the litter of the forest. It was a newt! Specifically the Eft phase of an Eastern Newt (Notophtalmus viridescens) and naturally I began calling out “Red Eft! Red Eft! Red Eft!” in my excitement. I bent over to check them out while others came up to investigate. I had never seen an Eastern Newt before but had read about them, seen photographs and heard friends tell stories about them. I was pretty stoked. My friend Dev had described the Red Eft as a the punk rock-phase of the Eastern Newts life. In their larval form Eastern Newt is greyish olive brown with black speckling along their length, with a dorsal tail fin that extends along the tail and up on to the body. They live in water in their larval form and have beautiful gills behind their heads (which look like long ears adorned with fringe). They have a dark eye line that runs from the nose to the back of the head.
But when the Newt undergoes metamorphosis into their juvenile Eft stage, they go a bright red with orange spots, their skin gets grainier and not as smooth, they lose the eye line, leave the water to roam dryland, and become their most toxic. Through this punked out period they wander and roam, looking for new ponds to hang out in. During this time, the Efts are mostly nocturnal. This “Efthood” period can last 2-4 years while the Eft tries to figure out who they really are (*joke). Finally when the Eft decides to settle down, they slip back into the pond (usually the one they first emerged from) and undergo a transformation into adulthood, which means losing the bright red colouration, turning a drab olive brown and getting the speckling and eye line back. But like every punk I’ve met, there is still a little wanderlust/shit disturber left somewhere deep inside… If an adult Eastern Newt is ever in a tough spot (the pond dries up, has to migrate, needs to get rid of some parasites, etc), they can revert back to the Red Eft stage, lose the tail fin and eye line, and hit the road (though hopefully not the road for real).

In my research I have discovered a correction to the details I implied with the apprenticeship crew. There are many texts and websites which indicate that the skin of the Eastern Newt contains a neurotoxin called “tetrodotoxin”, most of which is concentrated on the dorsal (or back/top side). This toxin makes the Newts not so tasty to many different possible predators. Some have written that it is not present in larval stages (In the 1981 paper by Susan G. Bradley, she implies that Taricha and Notophthalmus species are toxic, and only them, and in response Edmund D. Brodie wrote in response that “[a]ll members of the salamander family Salamandridae that have been examined have skin toxins and would be dangerous if ingested by humans.” Many folks have written about this generalized toxicity to humans.
BUT!!! I have also read (Mills, 2016) that this toxicity does not affect humans. So I am back again at not knowing what is most correct. Maybe the toxicity levels are individually expressed and a Newt going through a rough patch is extra toxic? Maybe some humans are less susceptible to the toxins? Maybe some people chew more when they try to eat a potentially toxic salamander? I really don’t know whats going on here, but it is in my lifelong question book to try and learn more about.

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We often head out with understandings of what we know, what we think we know and what we think we do not know. Every outing this notions are challenged and we realize that we might be uncertain about something we thought we understood, or recognize that something cryptic to others might be clearer to us. I appreciate the pressure releases, debris tracking, encountering species I do not know much of or about because it is a reminder that I have a long long way to go in my journey of understanding and relationship building with everything around me. My relationships to substrate, to weather, to amphibians, mammals and to myself is ever tumbling in successional waves, growing more entrenched and richer but then in a moment burning up or blown apart only to allow new possibilities to create themselves in my awareness of the world. It’s incredibly magical and inexhaustible in its profound capacity for wonder and awe. I am very grateful for that.


Notes:

Biology and ecology of the Northern walkingstick, Diapheromera femorata (Say) (Phasmatodea: Diapheromerinae): A review

Capitula on Stick Insect Eggs and Elaiosomes on Seeds: Convergent Adaptations for Burial by Ants

Severin, H. 1910. A Study on the Structure of the Egg of the Walking Stick Diapheromera femorata Say; and the Biological Significance of the Resemblance of Phasmid Eggs to Seeds. Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 3(1): 83-93.

Virginia Herpetological Society page on Eastern Newts

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Wild Plants June 27, 2021

Sunday morning, this group started off at the home base of the farm, sharing in the sunshine and some words of appreciation. After this, we had some time to pass around the binders/assignments and opened up some time for folks to journal and sit with plants on the land. Some highlights included Greater Celandine, Mugwort, Milkweed and Valerian. During this time we also drank Red Raspberry and Catnip tea – delicious!  Make your own tisane at home with a handful of plant material, boil water then take the water over to the cup and pour over – let steep covered for 5 minutes and sweeten to taste if desired.
Next up we harvested Motherwort for a tincture using the “folk method”. We harvested the flowering tops, chopped these up fresh and put into a jar. Then, we covered with 40% vodka and labeled the date, location and ingredients. This tincture will sit for 4-6 weeks in a cool and dry place before straining out the plant material. While it’s infusing, try and put it somewhere high traffic where you can check that all plant material is submerged and shake/agitate it every day. Once strained, store out of direct sunlight.
We also made a quick fridge pickle of Day Lily (Hemerocallis) unopened flower buds – just submerging in vinegar and spice to taste – those will be ready in approximately 2 weeks. 
We also watched Alexis make a St Johns Wort infused oil. Dry wilt (let dry for 8 + hours to remove some of the water in the plant) and then chop the flowering tops into a jar. Lightly compress and the cover with oil (we used olive oil). This can infuse in a window as a solar infusion – checking to make sure that the plant material stays covered by oil and any water condensation is wiped out with a clean cloth/paper towel. The oil can go rancid if things are not clean or there is too much water! 🙂
Then we each had a chance to plant a plant on the property – some highlights included Bergamot/Bee Balm, milkweed, and even a sunflower.
Then we went down the road to a forest for the afternoon of slow walking, meditative harvesting of Red Raspberry leaves (from first year plants) and spotted much more Valerian, some Houndstongue and Wild Grape as well as Red Elderberry.

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Wild Plants – June 26, 2021

Our day on Saturday June 26 was all in anticipation of eating! Although the beauty of the forest and the abundance of plants to learn were in our minds – June is the shoulder season of eating greens and the beginning of edible flower season.

It was only a few feet along the trail before we noticed an amazing sight – the unfurling of a non-photosynthetic plant – Monotropa or Ghost Pipe.

Monotropa uniflora

This incredible plant gets its energy and sugars through mycelial connections – thank goodness for fungi.

Some plants along the forest edge included checking the ever abundant Poison Ivy (an awareness tester for any forager!) and the presence of healthy Coltsfoot. We compared the shapes and textures of the leaves of Wild Ginger with some nearby Violets – there are so many senses to use while learning about plants – touch, smell, sight to name a few 🙂

After a great discussion on sustainable or regenerative use of plants and what we can offer them – compost, love and care, or seedballs to name a few ideas – we set about harvesting for our potluck. Some of our choice edibles included Riverbank Grape tendrils, Wood Sorrel, Dandelion greens (from plants that haven’t flowered yet), Day Lily (Hemerocallis) shoots, Catnip for tea and Red Raspberry for tea.

After we cooked up our greens, dried our herbs for tea and frittered up the flowers of Milkweed and Elderberry, we still had time that evening for a fire under the stars.

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Tracking Journal for 17.07.2021, Saugeen Shores

We hadn’t even left the house yet when I got to wondering what I was seeing adorning the walls in the morning.

On one of the exterior walls was a long perforated tube of what looked like crumbling foam or mortar. It was caked on and spread horizontally between the bricks. There were obvious grooves in the hardened goo where I thought for a moment that the substance had been slowly squeezed from whatever receptacle was carrying it. Only on closer inspection did I start to consider that it might not be made by human hands.
My research so far offers that this might be the nest created by a female Organ Pipe Mud Dauber (Trypoxylon politum). She builds these nests out of mud she forages from spots nearby. She’ll amass the mud on vertical walls with protection from the rain, forming multiple cells within long tubes. Then, she’ll fill the tubes with spiders she catches and paralyzes and eventually will also lay an egg within the tube. From there she patches everything up and goes about her life.
In time the egg will hatch, and the larvae will consume the spiders trapped in their cell, until they pupate and become adults when they will emerge to fly away and mate, hopefully beginning the cycle again. The construction is pretty cool. There are other “potter wasps” who build nests from mud but the Organ Pipe Mud Dauber seems to be the only species I can find who builds long tubes like this. I am left wondering about occurrence of horizontal nests vs. vertical nests, which is more common? Are different subspecies building differently or do they just use whatever topographies the host wall affords? A answer may come in time.

We eventually got into the cars and made our way an hour or so West towards the Saugeen First Nation territory on the shores of Lake Huron. The shoreline is sandy with lot of grasses, sedges and forbs along the waterline but as you move Northwards along the water the sand gives way to pocked rock. On the other side of the narrow beach was coniferous forests made up of mostly Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), White Pine (Pinus strobus) and Tamarack (Larix laricina). Little points would have been reachable if the water was lower, but with high water levels of the Great Lakes this year the points have become small islands and were unreachable with the gear we brought. But in the small sheltered coves between the islands and the beach we saw a few Great Egrets (Ardea alba), Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon), Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus), and Common Terns (Sterna hirundo). There were more bird species around but I couldn’t i.d. them all. Along with the birds, some of the plants we noticed when we first walked in were Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), Shrubby St. Johns Wort (Hypericum prolificum), Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia), and unknown species of Sedge (Cyperaceae family). The floral landscape was different from previous years when I had been to this site, but this time we came in July rather than June. What a difference a month makes in the world of wildflowers!

The first animal sign I really got into with everyone were these long branching ridges in the sand, around 2-3 mm in width. When we excavated the sandy ridges we found smooth shallow tunnels which seemed to imply that someone was burrowing these tunnels, and recently too as few of the ridges had caved in (perhaps also aided by the fact that the sand was still wet from morning dew or possible rain from the day before).
While folks were poking at the ridges, gently removing the displaced sand from the top of the tunnels, someone found a critter inside.

The critter, likely an insect larvae, moved pretty quickly across the sand, and then would stop, wait a second, then move on again, duck under a small bit of sand and then try and burrow down to hide and create a new tunnel. I quickly got a couple of photos but none too close or too clear. While others hunched over the tunnels, Lucas was deep into Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney’s book Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates searching for leads. There were a few possibilities offered in the book, including Darkling Beetles (Alphitobius diaperinus) which seems to lack the front pincers, and be more mealwormy. Another possibility was Rove Beetles (Staphylinidae family) and while most Rove Beetle larvae are a lot larger than the one we found, and spend more time in soil rather than sand there are species that will create mole-like tunnels in sandy areas adjacent to water bodies, and size of some of the smaller larval tunnels can range from a width of 1-5 mm, so that could be it? I am still in the process of sending out images looking for identification, but currently there are no response at time of publishing this post. Another unanswered question.

Close to the larval tunnels we found sign of foraging birds. The sign presents as holes about 25 mm (1”) deep into the sand caused by a bird jamming their bill into the sand probing for insects. We got to wondering about who the bird may be, and a few options came up, including : Woodcock (Scolopax minor), Plover (Charadrius spp.), Sandpipers (Scolopacidae family), and more I can’t remember. I have read in Mark Elbroch and Eleanor Mark’s book Bird Tracks and Sign that for better chances at an i.d. it is good to look for the food that the bird is probing for, and that will help narrow down the search, but without solid i.d. on the food, we may not get a solid i.d. on the bird… until some tracks were found nearby. I sadly didn’t get a photo of the track, but the measurements were 38 mm L x 50 mm W (1.5” L x 2” W), and taking the size, habitat, and location I would lean towards Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata) whose breeding range includes this part of the world, and has been tagged nearby on inaturalist.org recently, and in previous years. While not a definitive answer this offers some further leads to pursue in the future.

It didn’t take long to find more tracks and trails through the soft wet sand. Only a few meters away from the larval tunnels and possible Snipe probes were some larger bird tracks.
Now I’ll admit that I have a problem when out tracking. I jump to conclusions incredibly quickly, and then slowly and surely, doubts trickle in. I saw this big track and immediately though Great Blue Heron (GBHE). It could make sense as we had been seeing them along the beach, out in the water and flying overhead, but then other folks started chiming in with other possibilities, some of which I could not ignore. Was it the Great Egret and I was just underestimating their size? Was it a Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and imagining seeing the hallux (toe 1, which generally points towards the posterior of the bird) print in the sand? While feeling out a track, noting the general impressions, size, and shape are important and useful, it is also important sometimes, especially for beginners like me, to get down and take measurements, compare evidences and ask questions.
The track measured about 20 cm L x 15.25 cm W (8” L x 6” W). Which would technically exclude Great Egret and Wild Turkey as their tracks would be too small, but let’s be generous for a moment. The metatarsal pad (the spot on the bird foot where you can imagine all of the digits coming together) doesn’t show to solid in the track; When I see Turkey tracks, that point in the track is usually solid and pretty clear here it was kind of vague, so another point against Wild Turkey. But what about the Egret? One more disqualifier would help confirm my presumptuous conclusion of a GBHE. The confirmation came from Elbroch and Marks book.

“Great Blue Herons appear more robust in tracks, but are still difficult to distinguish”

Bird Tracks and Sign, page 97

Not that that one factor could confirm, especially since that one factor may be the most tricky to notice or decipher, but some stacked evidences continued to confirm the initial assessment. For me, this isn’t a moment to assume my first guess is always right, but instead a reminder that I need to take my time, look for multiple reasons why the sign I am finding is what I think it may be, and to also include some reasons why the sign I am finding is not from another species. This extra effort will only lead to more insight, greater depth of perception and likely, more accurate reads on tracks and sign in the future.

IMG_7067 numbered.jpg

Another interesting observation that came from taking the time to really look at the tracks and ask questions came when Hugh noticed that the space between toes 3 and 4 are larger than the space between toes 2 and 3. Remember, birds toes are numbered in order, beginning with the inside of the foot and circling out. This difference in width is slight, but still perceptible. This seemed to be a pattern written along the all of the observable trail of the GBHE. This means, at least for this particular bird, and perhaps all GBHE when the opportunity for checking arises, that you can tell left and right feet if you only have one track to look at.

We saw many Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) tracks in the area, along with domestic Dog (Canis familiaris) and more small birds. I tried to take notes of everything but really there were so many tracks and signs that by the time I finished really looking at one, folks had leap frogged to the next sign. We ended up deciding to head to a spot on the beach for lunch but undoubtedly along we found more tracks!

Sometimes it takes a track you are familiar with to learn about tracks you aren’t as comfortable with. These tracks were the gateway to new knowledge that I hope I can observe in the field sometime soon.
The above tracks are from an American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), with the Crow making their way towards the camera. I can see that toes 2 and 3 are closer together than toes 3 and 4. This is a common trait for species in the Corvidae family (Crows, Ravens, Jays, Magpies, etc). While observing this track other folks in our crew brought up that while this trait is common for Corvids, Blackbirds (Icteridae family) have a different trait worth noting. Some of the birds in the Icteridae family, Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), their toe 3 hugs toe 4 closer than toe 2 does with 3.
Maybe another image can help:

This is going to change and shift depending on substrate and one track in a line of them will look different than the next, but as a general rule, this can help identify members of these two family groups.

We moved on from here and came across more signs from all sorts of other animals living and dying along the beach. We tried to make our way towards a Great Egret who was half hidden behind tall grasses in hopes that there would be sand where they were standing and if we were lucky, tracks. But as we walked closer, the Egret flew further away up the shoreline and the spot where they had been standing was puddles, rock, and grass. We did find a dead Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) close to where the Egret had been. It was an interesting discovery.

Maddie and I work together and are doing the tracking apprenticeship together. We both noted that we could tell who the animal was by the smell of the corpse. Raccoons smell a special way when they are dead, as with Carp, Deer, and some other dead animals I have encountered. Skunks obviously have a specific smell, but I think it takes a second to recognize it. We had been smelling dead Skunk for a few months at work in the Spring and now I think the scent is forever lodged in our memories.
We sang the song for the dead Skunk and took a moment to examine the mandibles before moving along up the beach.

Still from video of Alexis Burnett explaining how to see the American Toad tracks in the sand.
Still from video of Alexis Burnett explaining how to see the American Toad tracks in the sand.
American Toad track drawing by Seb Barnett from Tracks & Sign of Reptiles and Amphibians by Filip Tkczyk
American Toad track drawing by Seb Barnett from Tracks & Sign of Reptiles and Amphibians by Filip Tkczyk

Throughout the day we encountered many frogs and toads of various species; Northern Leopard Frogs (Lithobates pipiens), Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus), and American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus). We found them hopping through the grasses and sedges on the treed side of the beach, and along the shallow edge of the lake bordering the beach we walked along. Most of them were small, perhaps newly embodying their young adult forms.
Along the way we also found tracks from some of them. The above images show the tracks of an American Toad we were studying, and a drawing of American Toad tracks by Seb Barnett from Filip Tkaczyk’s book Tracks & Sign of Reptiles & Amphibians. Check out the video below for detailed explanation from Alexis as to how to see the tracks better.

We ducked into the Cedar woods on the treelined side of the beach and began exploring in there. It was a lot cooler than out in the hot sun on sand, even if the trees cut some of nearly imperceptible breeze coming up the beach. A crew and I found a Raccoon skull and discussed some i.d. features for a bit and then emerged to hear about something exciting the rest of the crew had found.

Panorama image edited for clarity and definition
Panorama image edited for clarity and definition

I was hoping we’d find something like this. But the challenge offered to our group was beyond a basic i.d. but instead also looking at a nearby Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) trail which intersected with a long trail like the one in the image above. We looked to see if we could figure out who came by first, and who was there later. It seemed like long trail maker had come by first, and then the Grouse (if I remember correctly). I bet anyone reading this can guess who the long trail maker is… It was a snake! What kind of snake? Well, I have my guess but very little to back it up. But something cool that Rachelle pointed out was that the direction of travel can be read by thinking of gravity. If the sandy trail bordered by grass is lower than the grassy sides than the snake can easily slide down into the trail from the higher grass. The tricky part for the snake though is getting up the other side of the little trail-valley. How does the snake do this? Well that’s a bit complex.
Snakes have a few different types of locomotion, and seen in the image above are two of them, rectal-linear and serpentine. Snakes achieve serpentine locomotion (also called lateral undulation) by concentrating weight in specific areas of their body and pushing forward from those spots. By doing this the snake is propelled forward. Contrary to mammals, the faster the snake is moving (while using this serpentine locomotion), the wider the trail width.
The snakes ventral scales also help by inhibiting sliding. If you look at a snake’s ventral scales you will see how they appear similar to overlapping shingles on the roof of a house. These scales overlap along the bottom of the snakes body and you can imagine how they would create a smooth plane if the snake is moving forward. Now if the snake ends up sliding backwards, either from slipping or climbing, the ventral scales will catch on small particles or ridges on whatever surface they are making their way across. This catching by the ventral scales alongside body weight distribution helps to propel the snake forward the same way that the tread on our shoes or friction ridges on our feet help us move forward. All this to say that I think the snake was moving slowly when they first came out of the grass on the left hand side, and then sped up, building momentum for the push up the right hand side of the small trail-valley.
And of course, only a few steps later we spooked a Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus), who literally jumped, and then slithered (or serpentine locomoted?) under the a nearby Cedar and then tried to tuck themselves under a log. Of course a couple of us couldn’t resist getting a little bit closer for a photo.

IMG_7112.JPG

With all of the excitement of seeing the Massasauga so shortly after checking out the snake trails we ended up over shooting the trail that would lead us back to the vehicles we came in, but when we finally got back to the trail we found Black Bear (Ursus americanus)tracks which were maybe about a week old, but still firmly set into the fallen Pine needles.

There was so much we saw that day, and even the next day when we were visiting the other side of highway 13, but I have gone on long enough already to describe anymore for now.

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Tracking journal for June 13, 2021. Orangeville Sandpits

The first popsicle sticks were going in and I was coming up from behind everyone. Folks were already crouched down investigating the gravelly crusted sand when Alexis asked everyone what they saw. A couple of people mentioned some details about some possible tracks, and others noted that they could see some sand. I circled around trying to get a better view myself, but I couldn’t see much at all. Then the sun came out from behind the clouds, and the tracks appeared, with the popsicle sticks placed carefully behind the imprint of the heels. Two things clicked in that moment. I recognized the gait pattern in the popsicle sticks, and once that happened, I started to see the tracks. Sometimes, I can’t see the tracks right away and start to feel a little like I am falling behind, but instead of giving up if I can’t find all the foot prints, I switch my perspective and start to look for other clues. If I can make out one track, can I guess the animal and then guess some baseline gaits? Can I look for signs on vegetation nearby, or maybe even associated signs in the environment (I’m not likely to find a Deer track in my urban yard, but a Rabbit is possible)?

With the tracks above I could narrow down the animal to a couple based on size and shape and ultimately we figured out the tracks were from an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus). We spent some time talking about how to take measurements correctly and how look for tracks in sandy substrates. One thing someone pointed out was the discolouration of the sand as the moisture content evaporated. I could see this with a few of the tracks that day, but never really considered it up to then. It was helpful to remember that the sand below the superficial layer may still be holding moisture from the dew that morning, or from rain earlier in the week.
Alexis also began explaining the J-shape phenomena when looking at Cottontail tracks.

Cottontail feet, like human hands, tend to have a leading toe/finger. You can see my middle finger is longer than the pointer or the ring finger. You can look for this leading toe, and once found, can help indicate which side of the body this foot is on, either left or right. Looking at my leading finger, can you tell which hand this is?

We moved on from the Cottontail tracks and walked up the trails until we came to a broad meadowy area, where we almost immediately found a couple of tracks, and one of my favorite discoveries of the weekend, an egg!

I began taking a ton of photos right away hoping to be able to I.D. both the egg and possibly the potential predator. I didn’t think the egg had hatched as only a small portion of the egg had been broken. Alexis explained the hatching process better than I could by elaborating on the “egg tooth” and how the chick will poke at the shell from the inside breaking a small hole in the shell. As the chick rotates around the egg they continue to poke at the shell along the same axis creating an extended crack along the circumference of shell, “unzipping” the egg from the inside out. This process tends to split the egg generally in half instead of the chick trying to crawl out of a corner of the egg. The opening on the egg pictured above seems to show that the egg was predated.

The egg itself measured about 55 mm L x 40 mm W. While measuring the egg and inspecting the fracture lines and opening I noticed to deeper points in the fracture and wondered if they could be points where the predators canines had pierced the egg shell. I decided to measure the distance between these two points to see if I could match it to the distance between known predators of eggs in the area, as I have previously in an other instance of egg predation. The measurement came out to 26 mm wide. 26 mm wide is just one millimeter wider than the average intercanine width in the collection of Raccoon (Procyon lotor) skulls I have, and also within Raccoon range as indicated in Mark Elbroch’s book “Animal Skulls”. Other common predators of bird eggs in the area include Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis), Coyote (Canis latrans), Mink (Neovison vison), American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos ), and Gulls (locally, the Larus genus). Looking at the most common species, and the environment where the egg was found, I still come to the conclusion of Raccoon. I could be wrong, and am often, but this is what I figure so far.

We moved along and came to some more Rabbit tracks, and while wondering about them Alexis reminded us that tracks can get bigger, with toes splaying and substrate warping in mind, but tracks will never get smaller. A foot can only scrunch up so much. This is helpful to remember as I had begun to wonder if the Rabbit track we were looking at could be a Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus) based on the spread of the toes, but it would have been smaller than the smallest measurements for Snowshoes found in the literature.

All through the day we came across small ant mounds in the gravelly sand. Thousands of small mounds looking mostly the same size and shape, about 5-8 cm across, and not more than 2 cm tall. All of the mounds had a center hole as well. They looked like the kinds of mounds you’d find emerging from the cracks between the sidewalk stones in a more urban environment. We looked in the Insect Track and Sign book by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney but only one of the mounds presented looked sort of right, the mounds of Lasius neoniger, sometimes called the Cornfield Ant, as they colonize disturbed areas like farm fields. According the the Lasius neoniger entry on antwiki.org, “[Ants] cycle soil, bringing up old, deep, inorganic layers and laying it on top of the rich surface layer”. I suppose this could be what is happening with the mounds as they draw up soils or sands from below and deposit them on top. I wonder if this is still the case when it comes to sand? Do the lower layers of sand have more minerals or nutrients than the superficial layers? Is there a benefit to the ants of increasing mineral content to the surface layer?
While wondering the Cornfield Ants we were called over to help consider some White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) tracks.

When we were all over at the Deer tracks there seemed to be consensus right away that the Deer had come down the hill (towards the bottom of the image) and then turned around and went up the hill (towards the top of the image). There as a bit of debate on how many Deer, but I think everyone agreed on one after a quick bit of questions. The real fun part was trying to decipher the string of steps. Where did the Deer step first? Which foot landed where? Could we tell where the Deer turned? Could we read the pressure releases on the sand and be able to read the movements of the rest of the Deer’s body (head down, head up, look right, shift in body weight before a big step, hesitation, etc..)?
We ended up pacing around, step up and stepping back, debating, offering ideas, refuting our own theories and accepting others for about an hour in the hot sun. Luckily there was a small shrub to our left which offered a small bit of shade for those who needed respite from the puzzle. We laid down some tracking cards, indicating where we thought the Left Front, Right Front, Left Hind, Right Hind landed and offered up our explanations. The cards were picked up, shuffled about a little and laid out in new orders along with new suggestions. Smaller groups broke off, and a little ways away practiced embodying the Deer, trying to decipher the trail through mimicry and noting the placement of their own intuitive movements. These new footings were brought back to the group and tested alongside the multiple other theories in play. It was exciting and as one tracker mentioned it was the kind of thing made possible by tracking in a group setting. In the heat of the day, wondering over hot sand, some of us would not have lasted nearly as long if we were alone. But the opportunity afforded us by being with a crew, stepping back when we needed and jumping in when instigated by curiosity, allowed us the space we collectively needed to keep the interest and motivation alive to sort out the mystery. You can scroll through the images below to see the steps we ended up settling on.

After the focused session in the hot sun we started to move towards home. It was getting later and we were hot. Luckily the path home meant a bit of a slow meander through an Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) forest with a small creek running within. While there we split up once more to investigate the creek edges in search of any tracks we might be able to find.

Alongside some Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) tracks Alexis found a spot with what looked like 5 points digging into the mud. He suggested that it looked a little bit like a possible bird probing into the mud, but could also be something else. Did we see a track or was Alexis just wanting to see something that wasn’t there. My first thought was a Mink track (you can see one at the very bottom of the page) but most Mink tracks I have seen have toes accompanying the claw marks. Then someone suggested Turtle.

A couple of years ago I came across a two trails through wet mud at the edge of a field near a pond and wetland. The two trails were peculiar because they ran beside each other keeping the same distance for the extent that the trail showed up in the mud. I have tracked and trailed a few different animals but never had I seen two animals keep in perfect step with each other. These two trails were made up of individual tracks which appeared very similar to this one in the photo above. It had taken me two years to learn that the two trails were actually created by one animal with wide-set legs. A Turtle! Now, when someone suggested a Turtle I had look again. I couldn’t find any other trail or any other tracks of this kind nearby. Maybe others could find some, but I didn’t. It looked like the Turtle tracks I had seen before, but without the two trails I had to just succumb to the probability that a Turtle walked towards the small creek and that perhaps the other tracks had been disturbed by other animals moving through, or mud filling in the gaps of the 5 points after the turtle left or something. But I came to agree that this was likely a Turtle.

I truly appreciate the folks I was tracking with for offering challenges and insights, seeing things I couldn’t yet and sharing them with me. I appreciate getting the chance to share what I know and see with them and creating a community of students learning to the land together.

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The Sunday Creek Bog Wolves

Written by Tamara Anderson, February 16th, 2020

At some point between February 13th and 15th, two wolves travelled through the Sunday Creek Bog in Algonquin Park and captured our hearts by letting us uncover and share a few moments of their lives.

In the
early hours of the morning on Thursday, February 13th, the
temperature was about -3 degrees Celsius and the sky was overcast.  A light snowfall blanketed the Black Spruce
Trail in Algonquin Park. The temperature began to drop steadily and the sky
cleared.  The wind was mainly coming from
the northwest.  The stars shone beside a
waning moon. The next day, Valentine’s Day – February 14th was
mostly clear.  The snow began to fall in
the evening and continued until about 7:00am the next morning. 

Wolf bed (blanketed by snow)

Two wolves
travelled together northwards on the east side of the Sunday Creek Bog, moving
in single file.  They could trot at 8-10
km an hour and cover up to 45 kms in one night. 
These two companions had travelled throughout the night with peak
activity occurring at dusk and dawn. Their trails separated for a moment.  One of the wolves sat down and maybe groomed
herself a little.  They continued a few
more paces and she sat down on her haunches briefly.  They were both tired and needed a place to rest
far enough from the main trail to avoid encounters with humans.  A few strides away, they decided to bed down,
sheltered by black spruce trees.  The two
wolves were about 5 metres apart, with some small spruce saplings in
between.  They faced westwards, able to
see each other and the nearby snow-covered bog. 
This would be a good place for sounds and scents to carry – to be picked
up by perked canine ears and noses. The wolves curled up with their noses under
their tail.  They slept on their side and
on their belly, leaving behind long, crimped hairs that were black, white and
brown.  Their beds were softened by downy
leaved, Labrador Tea plants poking up through the snow.  One bed measured 23 ½ x 23 inches and the
other measured 23 x 22 inches.  The
length of their sleep depended on how hungry they were.  With a full belly, wolves can sleep up to 5
hours.  When they woke up to leave their
beds, the wolf closest to the north edge of the bog stepped into the soft,
melted snow under her body, leaving a perfect track measuring just under 4
inches in length and 3 inches in width. 
The track eventually froze solid as did the wolf bed in the frigid,
wintry temperatures.

Annie in a wolf bed

The wolves
continued along the edge of the bog, their trails weaving through the spruce
trees.  They were likely searching for
prey.  They eventually chose a route
across the bog, heading west along a corridor of wetlands north of Highway 60,
in the direction of the Big Pines trail. 
Their tracks slowly disappeared, gently erased by wind and blowing snow.

Snow covered wolf trail

It was dusk
on the evening of Saturday, February 15th and a red fox now trotted
along the wolf trail.  It was nearing the
end of mating season and pups would soon need tending.  The snow fell lightly all around him.  He smelled the air, thinking about the
possibility of a kill site ahead.  He was
clever, benefitting from the company of wolves and the prospect of scavenging
from a carcass but also cautious, knowing that they would harm him if he got
too close.  This day-old trail would put
some distance between him and the wolves. Traveling along the wolf trail was
much easier than making his own path through the deep snow. His light body
(only 8-15 lbs) did not sink as far as the heavier wolves who weighed somewhere
between 50-115 lbs.  He could trot at
6-13 km an hour and cover up to 10 km during a typical foray.    

Up ahead of
the fox, martens loped while snowshoe hares bound across the snowy surface near
a corridor of wolf tracks.  The wolf
tracks were coming and going from the east. 
A wetland complex may have been their intended travel route, eventually
connecting with the Opeongo road a few kilometres away. Along this route, scent
marking would be important.  Urine and scratch
marks on the snowy surface would be used to mark territory.  Wolves have scent glands between their toes. Their
urine smells a bit like burnt sesame seeds. 

Matt-bear track

As the
morning sun rose, two ravens flew across the bog into the spruce trees near a
suet feeding station that the park naturalists had built along the trail.  A charm of blue jays tweedled their sweet
songs in the spruce forest. White-winged crossbills joined the chorus with
chirps and twittering songs.  The male
had pink plumage and the female was greenish yellow.  Chickadees and a red breasted nuthatch flitted
among the branches sheltering the trail, looking for humans with outstretched
hands and seeds to share.  The Canada
Jays were there too, plunking down on the spruce boughs with fluffed up
feathers, talking to one another with soft voices.  Ice froze onto the nearby granite rocks in
frozen rivulets, like thin stalactites on ancient cave walls.  

The wildlife trackers arrived that morning on Sunday, February 16th, eager to piece together the animal’s stories that were freshly hidden under blankets of snow.

Mac lifting up the frozen wolf bed
Lee holding a wolf bed

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Tracking in a Winter Wonderland

Boyne River Valley

Saturday, January 18th

Kinglets sing

Are you listening?

On the trail,

Snow is glistening

A beautiful river,

We’re happy together

Tracking in a winter wonderland

Boyne River Tracking, January 2020

In the forest, we can see
a deer bed

And a cosy den for
porcupines,

We’ll follow mink trails

And beaver chews

As we follow the Boyne shoreline

Dear deer bed

Later on

We admire

The warm glow of a fire

Eating lunch in the
shade,

Sharing plans that we’ve
made

Tracking in a winter wonderland

Justin Beaver Tracks

Beaver tracks ahead!

We’ll conspire

As we dream and inquire,

To face unafraid

The river crossings that
we’ve made

Tracking in a winter wonderland

Dear Byron being deer-like, eating frozen apple yummies

When it snows

Ain’t it thrilling

Though your nose, gets a
chilling

We’ll frolic and play,

Drink from an apple popsicle
buffet,

Tracking in a winter
wonderland

Tracking in a winter
wonderland

Kindest regards and
gratitude to Felix Bernard and Richard Bernhard Smith who wrote Winter
Wonderland

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Return to the Kinghurst – Story of the day for November 16, 2019

We met up at the Kinghurst Forest, a snow covered forest I hadn’t been to since the tracking evaluation in the previous year of the apprenticeship. It was just as wintery last March as it was this November, ideal for picking up on a set of fresh tracks and trailing an animal for a while. It had also been over a month since we had all gotten together so it was to see everyone and get out into the woods once again.

We crossed the street to check out a set of tracks which Alexis had found during some preliminary searching and we took the time to guess at who they might belong to.

I walked up to the tracked incised into the snowy shoulder and wondered at who may have left this trail and at what speed they were travelling. I thought I heard someone say a gallop, but it looked like a bound to me, which really was only the beginning of my confusion that day. I stared on behind the group and was confused while folks moved on to the next tracks. I took the above photograph, and left with them. A couple days later I wrote to Alexis in hopes of clarification and he replied with the description that the gait in the photo was “a ‘modified bound’, technically a gallop because the feet are not touching down simultaneously and one is in front of the other.”

European Hare modified bound
European Hare modified bound

He suggested I check out the section on Jackrabbits in Mark Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks and Sign. Here is what Mark writes:

Jackrabbits use a modified bound to move about, in which one hind foot touches down before and in front of the other; it is technically a gallp when the hind feet do not land simultaneously. At all-out speed, the hinds land nearly one in front of another, and their trails are easy to confuse with galloping canids like foxes or coyotes.”

I am getting it and beginning to understand now, but out there, that morning, I was lost. I announced to everyone that I believed that the tracks were made by a Snowshoe Hare, but others guessed European Hare, both of which inhabit the area where we were tracking that morning. Their clues were interesting and convincing. The Snowshoe Hare prefers more sheltered forested landscapes, with lots of cover and places to hide, while European Hares are used to and prefer meadows, pastures, fallow land, and some patches of woodland or scrubby cover. Annie and Kelly explained to me that another sign might be that the toes of a Snowshoe would be more splayed than the tracks showed. Another clue Alexis provided was that in his experience Snowshoes will cross a road from cover to cover rather than making use of the road as an open trail, again being out in the open just doesn’t sit well with the Snowshoe Hare. It was left at that and I looked over the tracks a little longer as folks moved up an embankment into a neighbouring woodlot to investigate the tracks of Chickadees and Junco’s who appeared to have been munching on the fallen Ash, Maple, and Spruce seeds littering the snow.

While on the other side of the street a couple folks say a couple of White Tailed Deer moving away from us far into the forest. I missed them by the time I caught wind of what they were looking at, but I kept looking out into the woods while others moved off across the street to follow a Deer trail.

While I followed behind I came across two stragglers who were investigating a narrow trough in the snow with alternating tracks and a bit of disturbance in the snow along the sides of the animal’s trail. There was the possibility of a Raccoon bandied about, but then I think we all decided on Porcupine, and really it wasn’t that far away that we came to a Spruce tree with broken twigs, urine and scat littering the snow at the base of the tree. We looked up and there was a Porky, still shuffling about maybe 30 feet up the tree. I couldn’t get a good photograph up the animal up high, but I did get some of the sign surrounding the tree. The sign around the tree has been the main indicator of Porcupine inhabitation more so than looking up at random trees, or even following tracks. Instead I look for debris like nipped twigs or even branches which have been cut for easier access to buds, or the smaller twigs themselves. Once those have been feasted upon they are then dropped to the ground. I try to remember to examine the fallen twigs for the typical 45° angle cut which rodents and lagomorphs leave when browsing on herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees.

Porcupine debris

Scat was also apparent at the base of the tree, though I have seen much more accumulation in the past, beneath a nearly denuded Hemlock. The Porcupine scat is tubular and curved like a large fat macaroni noodle but with rounded ends and is not hollow. Scat is a big giveaway of a Porky’s location.

Porcupine scat
Porcupine scat

After examining the Porcupine debris we moved off and continued quietly on the Deer trail we’d begun following earlier. It was a strange trail which led us through the woods allowing us to visit with and learn from other tracks along the way, such as a wandering Ruffed Grouse trail, likely browsing on the buds of the Hop Hornbeams in the forest. We did see the seeds from the Hop Hornbeam on top of the snow, as well as seeds from Ash, Cedar, Maple, and White Spruce. Do Ruffed Grouse eat seeds? Author of Birds of Forest, Yard and Thicket, John Eastman says they do, but makes no mention of any of the above mentioned tree seeds. In Bird Tracks and Sign the measurements offered for Ruffed Grouse tracks are 4.1 – 5.7 cm (1 ⅝ – 2 ¼ in) long x 4.4 – 6 cm (1 ¾ – 2 ⅜ in) wide, but I sadly forgot to measure these ones.

Grouse track

As we kept on the Deer trail I followed along unsure of what was happening up at the front, but still examining the forest floor, and listening for alarm calls which Alexis had pointed out. I am not the greatest at listening for these bird calls yet, but I know some of them, and I know that if I am walking through the woods, unaware and snapping twigs and branches underfoot than those birds will alarm and let the rest of the forest know we’re there. Another thing they may be doing is alarm if another animal is making their way through the woods, maybe a fox or fisher, than the birds will alarm alerting the woods of the potential danger.

I heard one alarm, but this one from a person and I suppose it was more excitement than alarm. They had found a kill site. I rushed up the hillside and leaned in close eager to investigate this one for myself.

The killsite measured about 17 cm across and contained blood, fur, and some small depressions which could have been tracks, but we couldn’t make them out. We examined the hair first, and discounting Rabbit, Mouse, Red Squirrel, we landed on a black morph (or “phase” – I use the term “morph” as it is condition the animal pelt being black all of their lives, and not just for a period of time, which “phase” may be confused) of a Grey Squirrel.

Grey Squirrel remains?

Donna Naughton explains in Natural History of North American Mammals that

the Melanistic (black) phase is most commonly seen in northerly parts of the range in Ontario, where there may be some thermal advantage to the coloration during the winter. The melanistic colouring may also just be due to chance (i.e. genetic drift), a not uncommon occurrence un animal populations at the edge of the range.”

So, a Black Squirrel got got in the woods, but who was it that got them? We searched for signs of other animals near by and found some from a Red Squirrel chewing on a Spruce cone along with some of their tracks, but no tracks of a potential predator. One guess was that whomever ate the Black Squirrel may have come from the trees and then returned again after the kill. I thought this was great, obvious, but also not. I don’t always remember to think in all dimensions when examining tracks or sign. It was helpful to remember that animals will climb the trees to rest and hunt, and once again to enjoy the prey they’ve aquired.

We were wondering about whether there was some other sign beneath the snow so we dug down deeper into the small bowl of snow and our search only revealed more blood. It ended as a mystery with some guesses to hold us over.

After the Black Squirrel killsite I walked up to others who were laughing and examining the Deer tracks. They had been inspecting the Deer trail for a while and had come up with a strange theory. “The Swollen Testicle Theory”, Matt explained. “See how the toes are angled out in each track? This can be a sign indicating a doe who is pregnant and she is waddling along in the forest, but that just doesn’t make sense. If a doe was pregnant, she’d only have been gestating a week or so. The size of the tracks themselves point to a buck, a bucky possibly dealing with swollen testicles!”.

Angled tracks within the Deer trail. A sign of Swollen testicles?

It was an interesting theory. I have seen and read about bucks having swollen necks during the rut due to testosterone (the blood vessels in the neck enlarge so that they become engorged with blood). I have also read that during most of the year, bucks testes are protected by the body wall, but during the rut they do enlarge and descend. Leonard Lee Rue wrote in The Deer of North America

In November and December, a buck’s thyroid, adrenal, and testicular glands all reach a peak of activity, weight and hormone production…The sperm laden teiticles of a 150-pound (68 kg) buck will measure 3¾ in (9.5 cm) in length by 2¼ in (5.7 cm) in diameter.”

So, Matt’s theory could make sense, and a buck’s testes may be swollen enough to change the way the buck moves and holds his legs (imagine “Man spreading”), thus changing the direction and degree of his toes in his tracks. I have not tracked many bucks in the rut yet, but this will be something I am looking for in the future.

After shooting out ideas and developing Matt’s “Swollen Testical Theory”, we kept on the trail of this buck, but as we did so we came across a Fox track. I had been tracking Foxes throughout the week and was excited to follow this trail a little more (tracking goes well with my distractability).

The Fox track was quite beautiful, steady strides that went up and down hills with some noticeable changes to the length of the stride, but you could feel the ease at which the animal moved over the snowy landscape. We flowed up and down following the animal, trying to trail quickly as my excitement grew, but there was a sudden change in the trail which caused me to pause.. the Fox themselves had paused. We could see it in the trail. It’s even got a name : a T-trail. Again, from Mark Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks and Sign:

When walking or trotting animals pause momentarily or stop for longer periods, there is often a “T” in the trail. The vertical line of the T shape is the typical trail pattern, and the horizontal slash (the “cross” in the T) is created by two front tracks sitting next to each other that break the typical rhythm of the footfalls. T-trails are common where animals have heard something in the distance, are pausing to investigate a road before crossing, and at trail junctions.”

While taking the photo of the T-trail I dropped my glove into the trail, nearly destroying this moment in the Fox’s story, but luckily it landed directly ahead of the T. I asked Annie to pose adjascent to the T-trail so I could get a good shot to elaborate on what the Fox had done. And just as the Fox continued on after a moments pause, so did we.

I followed that Fox trail, up and down over many hills, glancing down to see the detail of the track, up ahead to see the next few tracks and the direction the Fox was headed, to the right and left to decide which direction I could take to avoid branches, fallen trees, my fellow trackers getting ready for lunch, and then down again to be sure I was still on the Fox and had not picked up some other trail by mistake. I wasn’t alone either in this pursuit. Alastair and Stephanie were with me, and at times ahead of me. We were all caught up in the trail and decided that lunch could wait, we wanted to explore a little more. And that exploration paid off. Right before the Fox made their way into the thicker Cedar woods, a Snowshoe Hare trail came into view and bounded along side our Fox trail. I was excited to see the Snowshoe trail after the earlier confusion with the European Hare and now I could certainly see the difference.

Snowshoe Hare bound track

The splayed toes of the Snowshoe made the track quite big. 12.5 cm (5 in) long and 9 cm (3½ in) across! That was just one of them, the left rear (again remembering that in a bound, the rears land ahead of the fronts). The group width was about 20.3 cm (8 in) and 28.5 cm (11¼ in) long. It was huge, and the detail was lovely in the snow. Later in the day we came across another Snowshoe Hare bounding trail with a single bound covering a distance of 221 cm (80 in)!

Fox and Snowshoe Hare

It appeared as if the Hare had come along after the Fox, as some of the tracks overlayed the canid’s trail, but it was a beautiful sight to see these two animals tracks together in the snow. As we marveled over the tracks and their size, Tamara came over and infomed us that lunch was happening, so we turned back and joined up with everyone and told of what we saw.

Lunch was passed with jokes and stories and then we decided to head down towards the frozen swamp to see what we could find down there. Along the way we found a Deer bed so we tried to decide which way the Deer was laying, or if they had in fact gotten up and changed direction a couple of times (we settled on this one), and some took measurements. Tamara challenged all who were considering the bed to find a hair. It was a fun, friendly and exciting competition between four of us, and Kelly even found one of her own hairs in the bed before Tamara noticed two white guard hairs laying on top of a Maple leaf near the centre of the bed. We checked the kinkiness of the hair and our assumption of Deer was further justified. Deer hair is hollow and went bent will kink like a straw, instead of curl in a loop like many other mammal hairs do. It is a pretty good field test to determine White Tailed Deer or not.

As we made our way down a gentle slope towards the frozen swamp we came across a nearly illegible and confusing Porcupine trail, two sets of Raccoon tracks including one with a crooked right rear foot walking along a frozen creek, that huge Snowshoe bound I mentioned above, and some Black Ash trees. We spent time looking at the Ash trees and reciting our own versions of the mnemonics we use to remember all the various species.

White is tight, Black is slack,

Red and Green are in between.

Blue Square, Pumpkin rare.”

Black is slack may refer to the set back lateral buds or the long loose leaf scar below the lateral buds

Looking at the photo and considering the rhyme “Black is slack”, or “Black is back” as some know it, we can see how the two lateral buds below the terminal bud are set lower on the twig. Another possible interpretation of the rhyme could in consideration of the leaf scars. White Ash has a tighter narrower leaf scar while the Black Ash leaf scar is long and loose.

The “Red and Green are in between” refers to midlengthed leaf scars which are narrower than the Black, but still wider than the White (to add to the confusion, Red and Green Ash are also sometimes considered the same species by some authors).

“Blue square” refers to the twigs themselves and not the leaf scars. The Blue Ash twigs have “winged” edges which make the twigs feel square-shaped to the touch. “Pumpkin rare” is in reference to the commonality of Pumpkin Ash, a wetland species which grows in the south and thought to not exist in Ontario until discovered here in the 1990’s.

We continued on our way through the woods, though now slowly making a roundabout way back towards from where we’d come. We stopped to check out a scrape spotted in the snow. In fact, most the snow had been cleared away, and some dark coloured urine had been deposited at the front end of the scratched up soil. We took turns bent low peering into the soil to decipher anything we could, scrying for any information we could discover about this buck. The whole scrape measured 56 cm (22 in) long, and had no signs of hair or even a clear track, and seemed a couple of days old. Now, as a team of trackers really getting into the spirit of things, most of us took a turn smelling the urine and trying to define the complex full bodied bouquet. Some said it was sweet and nutty while also being dry and tanniny. There was a dark earthy leathery undertone. Someone mentioned an amber beer, slight caramel and I threw in “waxy,” which I have noticed in a scent which often appears in Deer urine when they have been feeding on Eastern White Cedar. I have wondered if any pre-colonial culture on Turtle Island had ever used Deer urine for anything? Such a complex and synergistic emalgum of scents and undertones I imagine it could have been used… A lingering question for me is what are the constituents of Deer urine? Is there a concentration of Thujone from the Cedar? Are there unhealthy bacteria present? Do these bacteria affect humans when we smell the urine? Can we track a Deer’s health through the scent of the urine? What about diet? And, likely so many more questions once any one of the above were answered. Who do you even ask about these?

Deer scrape and urine

We left the woods and made our way for the corn field where we’d begun our day. I went ahead in case I could see those Deer folks had seen earlier in the day, but I had no luck. Instead, I went slowly up the hill investigating small Junco tracks and old dekernaled corncobs along the edge of the field. Once at the top of the field the others came along. All were excited and some hungry, eager to celebrate our first weekend back together in over a month. We watched the sunset for a little and Tamara, in her foresight thought to take a portrait of the group.

Tamara’s photo of everyone watching the sunset

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