Wildlife Tracking Weekend – June 2014

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Wildlife Tracking Weekend – Sauble Beach, June 14 2014
Our second tracking weekend took us to the Sauble Beach area, overlooking Lake Huron. We met at Alexis’ place and drove further north to the spot where we’d spend most of the weekend. It was late morning when we reached our destination and came together as a group. We circled up then entered a sandy trail in a hidden spot by the Sauble River.  Immediately ahead of us were sand and mud, green fields dotted with flowers, flat stretches of rock, clusters of trees, and the lake reaching all the way to the horizon.  
We began by studying deer tracks in the sand. The tracks were small, likely from a yearling, and fairly fresh. Alexis pointed out some details in the gait that could be used to determine the sex of a deer. We looked also at the pressure releases on the tracks, telltale ways in which the sand clumped and shifted around the track under the pressure of movement, speed and direction of travel. From these we could begin to form a story of how the deer had moved, when it had changed direction, and sometimes even where it had hesitated or turned its head.  In the mud close by, we found an interested puzzle: bird tracks with several squiggly rows of dots to one side. Some examination of the tracks and our field guides suggested a likely killdeer, gleaning flies and ground beetles with its beak.  A few details distinguished the tracks from the similar tracks of sandpipers, but we also had extra evidence in the form of killdeer flying and on the ground close by. 
Nearby, on a muddy path among the tracks of ducks, geese, and songbirds, we came across tracks of an animal in an uncharacteristic gait: raccoon in a gallop with very pronounced claw marks registering.  Among some confusing details, the long hind tracks and kidney-shaped front heel pads gave away the species.
As we walked on, we were struck by the wealth of plant diversity around us.  As Alexis focused on animal track and sign, Dan, the botanist in our group, shared his knowledge of the plant species around us, some of which he pointed out were provincially rare. Among them were round-leafed sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), Indian paintbrush (Castilleja spp.), shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa), Ohio goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum), common juniper (Juniperus communis), grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca), fringed bluet (Hustonia canadensis), silverweed (Argentina anserina), bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), starry Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum), ninebark (Physocarpusspp.), balsam ragwort (Senecio pauperculus), mossy stonecrop (Sedum acre), northeastern sedge (Carex cryptolepis), field sagewort (Artemesia Campestris,), hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens)and three species of St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.).
The day had started cool and cloudy, but by early afternoon the sun shone bright and clear.  We made our way towards the lake, meeting a garter snake and finding a beautiful soft feather – could it be a breast feather from an owl?  Lunch was eaten on flat rocks overlooking the water, the sun warming us up against the cool temperature and breeze from the lake. 
After lunch, the discovery of bird bones led us into a grove of trees. A skull with hooked beak nearby was judged likely to be a cormorant. This led to some questions about cormorants – how does the hooked beak help them in their hunting strategy?  What IS their hunting strategy?  Heading in and out of the trees someone spotted a song sparrow launching away from the ground in alarm. Right at the spot, we found a tiny nest, encircled and almost covered by tall grass, and containing four tiny marbled eggs.  We stood off to the side and at a distance, hoping for the sparrow to return to its nest, watching and listening to song sparrows and redstarts around us.  Suddenly, someone with sharp eyes made out a well-camouflaged smooth green snake in the grass. We picked up the snake and clustered around in excitement, marveling at its smoothness and vibrant colour.  We thanked the snake and let it go.
We were drawn under the umbrella of a large elm surrounded by cedars. There we found a possible pellet containing feathers, scaly bits of footpads and a claw. A very furry scat lay nearby. Heading out of the trees again, another nest, this time in a tree, with only one egg.  Some discussion and a lingering question – could this be a redstart nest? As we came out of the trees: a snakeskin lodged between stones, grey and translucent with holes where the snake’s eyes would have been. We crossed another field and headed again into trees. This time, we followed a sand trail, a great surface to notice tracks of snakes and caterpillars. We tested some scattered small indentations in the sand with a string, triggering attack by an ambush insect.  Along the trail lay a ropey coyote scat. 
As we heading back towards our starting point, frogs became a brief theme.  Tamara pointed out the differences between green frogs and bullfrogs and how to tell male and female frogs apart. A couple of leopard frogs were briefly caught and released, with an unsuccessful attempt to release one onto mud to create a frog trail.  Alas, the mud was too firm and we also discovered that frogs won’t hop in a straight line on cue!

We closed our field time for the day and headed back to Alexis’s place, but not before spotting a beautiful European Hare browsing by the side of a small side road on our way back to the highway. Then a drive back and time to set up camp, share a potluck dinner, do some field guide research, discuss some lingering mysteries, and have a good night’s sleep!

written by Malgosia Halliop

Day 2 Story of the day to be continued……

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