November Tracking Weekend – Pressure Releases – Day one

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The first snow of the season had fallen in the area the day before, and as Lee, Christina and I drove north amidst light flurries we hoped for the snow to linger.   We’re all a little impatient to start tracking on that white winter canvas again. But by the time our whole group had gathered together at Allan Park, the temperature rose, the sun came out, and the snow hastily retreated, not ready to commit.

However, we were all eager to explore and learn in this brand new location on a beautiful November morning. Heading south from the parking lot, we took the main trail towards a large, flat pond, faintly rippled by wind. “Please, no horses in pond,” a sign next to it read, which was surprising but sensible advice, and conjured up amusing images in my head. We swung left to a slope next to the pond and encountered crisscrossed deer tracks. We examined, marked with popsicle sticks, and discussed our observations. The general consensus was that there were two trails, one going down the hill and one going up. The theme of the weekend was pressure releases, so Alexis took the opportunity to tease out some ways in which these particular tracks had moved the earth around them, indicating changes of direction, slight turns, and other specific movements. 

Snowshoe Hare
Leaving the deer tracks and heading along a new trail, we came across a wide sand path, covered with a wealth of tracks. Some prints with five clear claw marks were briefly confusing, until we backtracked slightly and identified the tell-tale J-shaped asymmetry of hare tracks in one of them.  Zooming out, we could see the track pattern of a snowshoe hare moving at high speed: its feet spread wide, back feet well ahead of front, and even the front feet staggered one in front of the other, creating a stretched-out set of tracks for each bound. 

On the same sand path, Alexis took advantage of some human boot prints to delve more deeply into pressure releases.  We had a brief introduction to some of Tom Brown Jr.’s terminology on the subject – expecting more focused study with a tracking box the next day – and some new tools to use in interpreting animal (and human) movement. Approaching each track as a miniature landscape, we heard about ridges, peaks, caves, plates, fissures, and other specific terms used to describe the precise impact increases in movement and speed have on the soil in and around the track. This is the micro perspective: tracks as miniature geological events, each tiny formation giving precise clues as to its big picture meaning.

We shifted our attention, walked uphill. On the way, a predated turtle’s nest, with scattered fragments of rubbery egg-shells, inspired many questions.  After lunch, we found more deer tracks to study and to test what we’d learned about pressure releases.  Here, we found pressure on the left side of the tracks that showed us a turn to the right.

Heading deeper into the woods, a semi-regular line of depressions in the leaf-litter along the trail gave us pause. So regular, and yet… something was off.  The depressions were circular and the leaves looked to have been pushed outwards, almost swirled, instead of showing momentum in any one direction.  Hmm… A good test of our perception.  We clicked in to see that the pattern showed a small animal bounding along the path, stopping to dig in each spot – the fall larder-building of a squirrel.

Flying Squirrel Latrine

The clouds shifted. Several sprinklings of light snow and hail let us know the temperature was around freezing. Further through the woods, as we scampered up and down slopes, more finds: small pellets of scat piled up in tree cavities, in a pattern characteristic of a specific small forest animal (any guesses?); bitternut hickory nuts, and the trees themselves with their faintly striped bark; a pile of crow tail and flight feathers, intact at the shaft tips, as if they had been plucked carefully one by one; another pile of beautiful black, blue and white feathers – some with hints of other jewel-like colours – beside a small beak on a mound of earth. What was the story here?  Who was this bird and what had happened to it?  What other animal was involved?

Bitternut Hickory
The sun was moving westward; our afternoon was nearing its end.  But a few more discoveries were ahead of us: a tiny and perfect nest; a tall grass meadow; a fox’s den, in an ideal location to survey and hunt smaller creatures in that same meadow.  And, a little later, as we reconnected with the trail back to the parking lot, two sets of tracks.  The first, a single, clear canine track, walking straight as an arrow acrossthe human path instead of meanderingly parallel to it – so much information to be gleaned from one track in the right location.  Beside it, some other tiny tracks, easy to mistake for chipmunk, but with other clues pointing to the possibility of a short-tailed weasel. 

A great day of shifting weather and shifting perspectives; zooming in and out of details; seeing patterns large and small making their impact on the landscape and on our ways of seeing.

By: Malgosia Halliop – 2nd year tracking student

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