Down in the Valley: A focus on snow trailing and animal gaits

 In apprenticeships, beaver valley, classes, deer, earth tracks, grey county, mammals, Mentoring, naturalist, nature, nature connection, nature education, Ontario, Tailing, trackers, tracking, training, wildlife tracking

 On a cold and windy January Saturday we met in the Beaver Valley to start our weekend of tracking and trailing.  Most of us were on snowshoes, skimming across the layers of snow and able to keep a good pace over the drifts.  First off, we slipped off the road down into a cedar swamp, where we were sheltered from the brisk wind.  The animals might have had the same idea. We immediately encountered deer and coyote trails, occasionally hard to distinguish from each other in the deep snow, and so we spent some time figuring out the features that would help us tell them apart, as well as talking about how each animal was moving through the snow (its gait).  Talking about the weather patterns of the past week helped us with aging the tracks. 

Deer beds were tucked in among the cedars, and fairly fresh coyote tracks across them gave us a glimpse of the ongoing dance across the landscape of predator and prey.  Two patches of urine again spoke to this relationship, the coyote leaving its strongly smelling urine directly over the deer’s milder-scented mark. And now the “it” of the coyote was transformed into a “she”: a patch of blood in the urine told us that the coyote we were following was mostly likely a pre-estrous female, almost ready for the breeding period.  
We were struck, as we have been at other times, with the very high browse line on all the cedars. These were hungry deer, perhaps already running low on resources.  A high browse line on the black spruce nearby was even more surprising.  Spruce is a food of last resort for deer, and we wondered about the population density of deer in this area and their pressure on the forest.
Porcupine Browse Sign
A little past the deer and coyote urine, we found another mark, florescent green and piney in scent, surrounded by clipped branches of spruce that had been dropped to the ground – tell-tale sign of porcupine! Our next clue, a typically trough-like and stained porcupine trail in the snow, led us to more urine and a large pile of scat.  And looking up, in a large cedar, there was the culprit, high up on the trunk.  Not more than fifty feet away, we spotted another of the species in a second cedar.  This tree sported a fresh-looking pileated woodpecker hole. As we looked around at other such holes in surrounding trees, Matt spotted something peculiar above us: a couple of dozen quills sticking upwards from a branch that was broken at the end.  What a strange sight!  What happened here?  Was it a porcupine falling off a higher branch breaking its fall and losing quills?  We found no sign of a body at the base of the tree, even after digging down in the snow. How long had these quills been here?  What happened to their owner?
Did this Porcupine fall from the Tree?
Leaving the porcupine mystery for future wanderers to stumble upon, we headed up to the bridge over the Beaver River. Our next mystery was a clump of black fur, with a bone in the centre of it, half buried in the snow under a large cedar.  Our best guess, most of us agreed, was the tail of an Eastern Grey Squirrel (in its black, or melanistic, colour phase).  What happened here?  Where was the rest of the squirrel?  Why had we found it outside its usual deciduous forest habitat?
We set out to the north over a large snow-covered plain, following the northward course of the river’s current (surprising for those of us used to the ubiquitously south-flowing rivers further south).  A wasp’s nest low to the ground in a small shrub pulled Christina off the trail – what a strange location for it! Who made this nest?  We were pretty sure we knew – do you? Our main clue: the “paper” was plainly lined, unlike other more ornately scalloped nests we had seen of a different species.  Hmmm… 
Checking out Porcupine Tree Trails
Through the open field and back into a cozy grove of cedars on the river’s west bank – with a few of us taking a detour to inspect a sugar maple almost fully stripped of bark by porcupines – we stopped for lunch.  After some rest and refueling, and drying of socks and gloves, we were ready for some trailing practice. Breaking into two smaller groups, we were challenged to find a good trail and follow it for a couple of hours, meeting back at the bridge over the Beaver River in the late afternoon.
In the evening, after a shared dinner, we all sat down as a group to review mammal gaits and track patterns, and to map out our day’s adventures. After recording the details of our morning together, we listened to each other’s afternoon trailing stories. Both groups, in the midst of all the visual “noise” of deer trails in the forest had hit upon a coyote trail to follow. We shared the track patterns we had seen, the stops and starts, the steep climb uphill to the west of the valley.

Grey Squirrel Tail 
One group had followed their particular trail a little further than the other, and found it led to a coyote bedding area high up the west slope, with seven coyote beds, many trails leading in and out, and several scats in the beds – showing the animals had recently eaten.  At various points in the day, we had wondered why we were seeing so many walking coyote trails (trotting is their baseline gait when exploring and looking for food).  Had the coyotes been travelling on full stomachs all this time, with no urgency to look for food?  Our learning about the coyote’s gait and its potential connections to the animal’s physical state brought our weekend’s theme into practical focus.
  Written by: Malgosia Halliop – 2nd year Tracking and Apprentice (and Level III Track and Sign – Congratulations Malgosia!)
Nighttime Study Time

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