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.