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 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.


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.


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, “[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.


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


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

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

Sharing plans that we’ve

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

We’ll frolic and play,

Drink from an apple popsicle

Tracking in a winter

Tracking in a winter

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


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


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

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