Intrepid Travelers

(from the wondermyway.com photo blog of GLLT Education director, Leigh Macmillen Hayes)

When we gathered at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Fairburn parking lot on Slab City Road at 9:30 this morning, the thermometer registered 4˚. But the good news–no wind. And . . . the six Tuesday Trackers who decided to join me and brave the elements were dressed for the occasion.

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First though, it seemed I wanted to test their endurance so we circled up for a few minutes and they used mirrors to see how a deer might see (and I should have taken a photo, but didn’t) and then I shared some casts I’d made of track prints. This one was a red fox and not only was the hair a bit visible, but so was the shape of a chevron, which some see as a boomerang in the heel pad of the front foot. I should note that this particular cast was made from a road kill specimen, so the toes and nails aren’t exactly as close together as they typically would be, especially on a cold morning in January.

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The next cast to view–a coyote in mud. I love this one because it demonstrates the direct registration of a back foot stepping into the impression made by the front foot. And the X we always associate with the canines, including Eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, was visible. Notice the parallel toes close together and nails that point inward–all for the sake of retaining heat.

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And finally in this morning’s demonstration, a bobcat cast with more of a C shape between the toes and heel pad.

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At last we walked down the road to the trailhead for the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

I chose this trail for today’s adventure because I had a feeling we might see what we saw–an otter slide! It’s a rare winter day when such activity isn’t visible there.

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I was thrilled to note that a few people had beat us to the sight and observed the same. As we stood above the dam, we spied where the otter had come up out of the water, made its way around several trees . . .

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then slide down into Mill Brook below. By the tracks and impressions in the trail we could envision his motion. And if folks had wanted to quit then, it would have been okay because we’d been so honored already.

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But they are a hardy group and right near the otter slide, prints of another were noted and based on their wee size and the diagonal angle of their presentation we knew we were looking at the track of either an ermine or long-tailed weasel. It’s difficult to tell the difference between the two by the print size. But the cool thing was that though they appear light in the photograph, the prints that we saw were a mirror image of what David Brown drew on his Trackards. (I think I should get a commission for promoting his cards, but really, they are the best.)

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Following the weasel prints, Tom found a hole by a tree and got down to check on any activity within. His report came with a grin: “It’s deep.” Was the weasel successful in finding a meal? We don’t know. But we do know that it’s typical of them to check out every little hole and make some of their own.

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Continuing our journey, we’d hardly gone far from the dam when we happened upon another creator of fine tracks. Bingo! A red fox by its shape, size, and chevron.

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And then. And then we found prints left behind by a mink, their size a bit larger than the weasel. By now, we were in seventh heaven. Or so we thought. For there was more.

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I’d just said to one of the group that we’d seen otter, weasel and mink–all members of the Mustelid family. It was due time for a fisher . . . and what to our wondering eyes should appear?

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I’d just said to one of the group that we’d seen otter, weasel and mink–all members of the Mustelid family. It was due time for a fisher . . . and what to our wondering eyes should appear?

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Being good trackers, we decided to back track it, for one shouldn’t follow an animal and put stress on it. And so we headed toward the pond.

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One in our group had gone ahead and under a hemlock Heinrich discovered a meal partially eaten. The fisher prints led directly to and from it. A mushroom? That was my first thought until I took off my mitten and played with it. A roll? Whole wheat? Had the fisher stopped at Burger King or raided someone’s ice fishing party? Did he eat the meat and discard the roll? Not into whole wheat? Certainly he prefers a gluten-free diet.

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Behind the hemlock, we followed his tracks and noted a spot where he’d sat and fussed about for a bit. Was this his lunch site? If so, he’d at least not left any wrappers behind.

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As the morning went on, one set of tracks led us to those made by another and near the fisher we found more red fox impressions.

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Astute eyes for we’re all so trained, also noted a dash of pee by a broken branch. Typical red fox behavior, especially given that this is mating season. But . . . in the air we couldn’t smell that delightfully skunky scent we associate with fox pee.

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That is . . . until Pam got down. It was not as strong as we sometimes notice so we wondered if it was because of the cold air.

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Despite that, Tuesday Tracker initiation involves getting down on all fours like Bob did. . .

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and sniffing just like Paula. Come on–you know you want to join us and gain some bragging rights.

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We decided to follow the fox for a while doing what we shouldn’t have done as we followed its forward motion rather than back, but suspected it was long out of range. We weren’t sure if it was one or a pair. At a tree, rather than pee, it or they seemed to dance around and possibly poke a nose into the snow. By now, the cold could have been getting to us and we were making up the story we read on the powdery page.

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Eventually we did come to two sets of fox tracks and split our group in half, each following one set to see if they’d intersect again.

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Well, the fox tracks led us back to the fisher and suddenly to the snowmobile trail. We saw that the fisher had headed up hill and thought we might spy it again if we followed the trail that leads toward Whiting Hill, so up we did climb. In no time at all, we found a pattern left behind by a little brown thing (LBT by tracking standards) and knew it was either a deer mouse or white-footed mouse out on a risky mission in search of seeds.

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Next, a snowshoe hare had crossed the trail and we recognized it by its snow lobster shape. If you look at the second set of prints in this photograph, you’ll note that the animal was moving toward me and the two larger prints in the front were of its hind feet which had wrapped around and landed as the two smaller front feet leaped forward. Thus the overall impression looks like a lobster–at least in our minds.

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Just beyond the hare, we met what we’d been looking for, the fisher. And then on a stone wall, Paula discovered two holes where it must have dug down looking for a meal. Was it successful? We so wanted a kill site to know what the critters had been eating, but saw no signs of blood or hair or bones or carcasses.

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What we did see–a dribble of fisher pee that Pam checked out.

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In the midst of fisher tracking, we came upon intersections, including one of a coyote and red fox. What kept us guessing was the apparent foot drag of the coyote. Was some of it tail drag? The snow under the powder was quite crusty so most of the fresh prints we found today didn’t require the mammals to break through the snow. But . . . had this coyote injured a foot on a previous journey when it was breaking through?

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As the morning went on, the Trackers had to leave one by one and two by two until it was only Pam and me still on the prowl. We followed the fisher for a long way, and noted where it paused momentarily upon humps, but never discovered any sign of eating.

Eventually, we too, had to find our way out of the woods. It was rather easy for we followed the tracks the others had left behind. And chuckled at the patterns we all left in the snow. Not exactly discernible. What will the mammals say when they pause and study our prints?

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Crazy humans! Ah, but I think they’ll also call us intrepid travelers, for like them, we prowled about on a frigid winter day.

We all left thrilled for we’d seen the tracks of so many in this mammal corridor. And curiously we noted those we hadn’t seen: deer and squirrel in particular, as well as moose and bobcat. Another day perhaps.

Today’s Tuesday Trackers included Pam, Heinrich, Nancy, Paula, Bob, Tom, and yours truly. Intrepid indeed.