The Mystery Track

Luther Marsh

Sunday March 9, 2014

At the last tracking club meeting, we encountered a mysterious trail that looked like a porcupine trail. It seemed strange at the time that this trail did not have the usual trough pattern that is left behind by a porcupine’s belly and tail dragging behind it in deep snow. We tried to fit the trail pattern into what we already knew about the common mammals that live at the Marsh and decided that it must be a porcupine or maybe even a funny-looking skunk trail. We moved on, past the tracks and I didn’t give it a second thought until I came home and haphazardly opened Mark Elbroch’s tracking guide to glean information from its beautiful pages. The book fell open to a page that showed the same mystery trail pattern that we had seen that day. My jaw dropped. I stared at the page in disbelief and recalled the track with 5 toes that had left me in tracking stupor for many weeks last year. The trail pattern in the book belonged to a Fisher. This amazing animal had caught me again! I showed the page to Ann and she agreed that it looked like the same trail we had seen that day. Unfortunately, we did not take any measurements that could be used for a positive identification and we had missed the opportunity to share a possible Fisher trail with the tracking club! Aaargh! No doubt about it, we had to go back.

The Mystery Track

The Mystery Track

A week or so later, we headed back up to Luther Marsh and picked up a similar-looking trail. We decided to leave the question of the mammal’s identity open so as not to jump to any conclusions this time. We back-tracked the trail to a location under a spruce tree where the prints looked like they had just “fallen from the sky”. This was interesting and we decided that the tracks had to have come from an animal that could climb and jump from trees. The tracks measured 6 cm (width) x 10 cm (length). The tracks showed 5 toes where there was a thin crust of snow. The animal’s stride and straddle were both 21cm while walking. The gait turned into a 3×4 lope and then into a gliding 2×2 lope (likely to conserve energy in deep snow). We followed the trail to a patch of snow that had been disturbed. On closer inspection, we found a ball of fur in the scrape, possibly sheared by the animal before opening the carcass. We also found a dark hair with a yellowish band of colour beside a crescent moon-shaped scat (see Elbroch’s guide re: Fisher scat p 479 and 530). We dug into the scrape and found a cache of snowshoe hare remains. At the edge of the forest, where the conifer canopy turned into bare deciduous trees, the trail went arboreal. While we pondered the trail, a snowshoe hare suddenly popped up, unable to maintain its hiding spot any longer and darted away towards distant cover. After acknowledging the limits of our climbing skills, we abandoned the Fisher trail at this point. With eyes looking skyward for any sign of the furry mammal, we headed back, thinking of the mysterious creature that had both eluded us and shared its marvellous story with us at the same time.

A Snowshoe Hare

A Snowshoe Hare

Advertisements

Winter Wandering

Nature Guelph Tracking Club

Nature Guelph Tracking Club

Luther Marsh

Sunday February 23rd, 2014

After equipping ourselves with snowshoes, the Nature Guelph Tracking Club travelled over several drifts to reach the Mallard Pond trail. The 1 inch crust offered some good tracking conditions on the surface of very deep snow. We trekked like this for a couple of hours under a blue sky in -7 degrees °C weather.

The first section was a shrubby area with dogwoods and buried cattails beside the frozen pond. We encountered a coyote trail. The claws were spread wide to distribute its weight. One track (left, hind foot) left a small blood trail possibly due to a chapped or injured paw.

Injury on left hind track.

Injury on left hind foot.

While heading to the pine forest, we discovered a track that presented a mystery. It looked like a squirrel or a rabbit track but then we remembered to look at the whole track and trail. It turned out to be a deer track with its dew claws registering on hard, crusted snow. The walking pattern of tracks turned into a bound as the deer tried to manoeuvre quickly through the deep snow.   The tracks had bits of forest debris blown into them which made us wonder if they had been made before the wind storm a few nights previous.

A raven called while we continued wandering along the deer trail towards the forest. The group paused to admire a snowshoe hare track and a beautifully crafted goldfinch nest, made with thistle down. The trail led us to a couple of deer beds at the edge of a pine plantation. In the beds, we found some hollow hairs that made a kink when we bent them in half. We discussed the merits of hollow hairs and heat conservation. Near the deer beds, we found grouse droppings underneath a cozy conifer shelter. Ann and Eleanor saw a grouse fly up and out of a sheltered evergreen.

Eleanor in a deer bed.

Eleanor in a deer bed.

A porcupine trough in the snow led us further into the forest where we observed porcupine chews on a pine tree. I wondered if that is why these interesting mammals are called porcupines. Interestingly, the French word for porcupine is “porc-epic” (referring to the spines).  Maybe the English translation should be porcuspine?

The second last track that we saw was a fresh track. It told the story of a deer bounding away quickly through deep snow. I wanted to trail it, knowing that it was probably close to us. We decided to leave the deer alone and not stress it out. We recognized that pushing it needlessly would cause it to use valuable energy stores that it needs for surviving the hardest part of winter. We decided to head back after a discussion on persistence hunting and the evolution of the human form to find food to survive.

On the way back to the car we found some interesting tracks. They were similar to a porcupine but there wasn’t a trough left in the snow behind the animal. We left this one as a mystery and enjoyed a trailside lunch before heading home. On our drive home, we were rewarded with beautiful views of a group of deer in a cedar forest deer yard. According to Mark Elbroch in “The Behaviour of North American Mammals”, the canopy of a deer yard reduces the snow pack by blocking up to 50% of the snowfall before it hits the ground. Yarded deer wear in a network of runs and troughs followed by every deer which ease movement and speed flight from predators. It was a good tracking day. I am grateful for the tracks, the sunshine, the fresh air and the excellent company.