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

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

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

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

European Hare modified bound
European Hare modified bound

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

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

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

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

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

Porcupine debris

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

Porcupine scat
Porcupine scat

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

Grouse track

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

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

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

Grey Squirrel remains?

Donna Naughton explains in Natural History of North American Mammals that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snowshoe Hare bound track

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

Fox and Snowshoe Hare

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

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

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

White is tight, Black is slack,

Red and Green are in between.

Blue Square, Pumpkin rare.”

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

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

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

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

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

Deer scrape and urine

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

Tamara’s photo of everyone watching the sunset

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