Squirrel Skylights and Coffee-drinking Coyotes?

IMG_5091The tracking club met at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph. The temperature was close to O degrees Celsius. Deep snow brightened the landscape under an overcast sky.

 

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Coyote Track in Deep Snow

Cotton-tail rabbit tracks greeted us as we wound through a conifer forest beside Marden Creek. A nearby trail captured the group’s attention. A mammal had alternated between a trot and a walking gait through the evergreen trees. Its stride length was 22 inches while trotting. A second trail caught our attention. The animal was travelling with a companion. Most of the details of the animal’s prints were concealed by the deep snow. However, upon closer inspection, we noticed two claw marks registering above the floor of the track. Coyotes!

 

Ann called out from further up the trail, “There’s another clue up here!”

Cottontail Rabbit Fur

Cottontail Rabbit Fur

A pile of rabbit fur captured the group’s curiosity. The coyotes had been successful in their hunt! What was the story of the hunt? We carefully observed the details of the trails in front of us. We noticed that one of the coyotes moved through the conifer forest while its companion appeared to have been waiting; crouched on a rabbit highway downhill from the trail. Did the rabbit get startled by the coyote moving through the conifers? Did it head towards its well-travelled rabbit highways, hoping for escape but instead finding a hungry predator instead? Tracker-extraordinaire Mark Elbroch says, “Tracks and trails are truly a script for those with trained senses, and they tell many stories rich in drama, suspense, mystery, love and sometimes horror.” So true!

Marden Creek

Marden Creek

The creek beckoned for us to explore the trails under a bridge and on the snow-covered icy surface. Two trails caught our attention. One trail looked like an animal walking slightly pigeon-toed after exiting the open water nearby. Byron found a second trail underneath the bridge – a mammal with 5 toes in a 2×2 bound. We wondered if a mink had been tracking a muskrat in this wintry, watery realm.

The group wandered uphill, clambering over old quarry remains and rocky crevices. A 2×2 print entered an opening in the rocks. The mammals’ trail width was about 2 inches and we wondered if a long-tailed weasel had been there. The coyote’s trail reappeared nearby and Adrian seized the moment to smell the canine’s urine, noting that it “smelled like urine from someone who had been drinking coffee”. Is this a sign that the coyote was dehydrated? Is a coffee-like smell connected to coyotes and mating season?*

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Red Squirrel Tunnel with skylights

The best trail was yet to come. Carolyn showed everyone a tunnel between two cedar trees. The width of the trail matched a red squirrel and some surface tracks matched red squirrel as well. However, the red squirrel had done something quite bizarre. It had poked its head, up out of the tunnel every few centimetres or so, making a series of “skylights”. As our curiosity expanded, we smiled, imagining why and how the animal had done this. We all agreed that none of us had seen that before😊

*I did some reading on-line and learned that canine urine smells strongest when the canine has a meat-based diet and is snow-hydrated. This urine is often darker. Alternatively, a kibble-fed, water-hydrated canine will have lighter coloured urine that does not smell as strong. Since mating season for coyotes is in January and February, I understand that dominant males use strong-smelling urine to mark the edges of their territory during this time period. Interesting!

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Red Squirrel Tunnel with skylights

Written by T. Anderson

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Trailing Lynx

Grey Ghosts of the North: Trailing the Elusive Canada Lynx

Written from the point of view of a Canada Lynx by Tamara Anderson and Ann Schletz

Lynx Tracking Expedition, Vermont Wilderness School, February 17-20, 2017

Lynx Track

Lynx Track, Jackman Maine

Still dark in the early hours of a mid-February morning, the lynx awoke and left the sheltered lee of the granite boulder where he had waited for the wintery northwest wind to abate.  The rock shelter was a favorite place and he had used this place many times before.

Lynx Den SIte?

Lynx Den SIte?

Like a forest ninja, the lynx moved stealthily through the dense cover of spruce and cedar trees, winding his way downhill towards the river.  Occasionally, he took short detours to explore the well-worn hare trails, looking for breakfast.  Having had no luck hunting on the upper slopes of the forest, he headed down into a snow-covered wetland which was covered with the tracks of busy weasels.  A small creek was no barrier to his explorations and he leapt over it with ease.  Eventually his wanderings brought him to the steep snowbank that marked the edge of a logging road.  Carefully, he walked across the logging road and up the steep snow bank on the other side.  His toes splayed outward as he moved on the soft, fluffy snow, leaving a zigzagging trail of tracks behind him.

Lynx Trail

Lynx Trail

He ducked under the boughs of the tight conifer trees, shedding a few dark guard hairs on the meandering trail.  His acute sense of hearing and sight wakened as he smelled fresh snowshoe hare trails underfoot.  The ground began to slope downward and his pace quickened.  A snowshoe hare was foraging on a well-worn hare run at the base of the hill.  He could see it!  The lynx was invisible to the hare below.  There was no wind to give away his scent and his heavily furred paws moved silently on the snowy surface.  With lightning speed, he burst into a bounding gait, leaping and sliding down the steep slope.  When the hare sensed what was happening, it was too late.  The bounding cat reached forward with his long front paw and grasped the hindquarters of the hare with razor-sharp claws.  Snow sprayed into his face as his long canines bit into the head of the hare, killing it instantly.  He sheared the back of the rabbit to open up the carcass and began to eat, starting with the meaty hindquarters.  He made sure to eat the liver, lungs, adrenal glands and kidneys next.  These organs provided him with essential Vitamin A which he was unable to get otherwise.  The lynx used his rasp-like tongue to remove the meat clinging to the bones between the hare’s toes.  All that was left after his meal was the hare’s intestines, a little blood, a rear foot and some toes.  The lynx carefully used his front paws to gather snow to cover up the cache of remains.  He left the sheared flap of skin from the back of the hare beside the cache.  Depending on how successful his hunting would be in the next 48 hours, he might return to this cache to finish off the remains if he became desperate for food.

Cache of Snowshoe Hare Remains

Cache of Snowshoe Hare Remains

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The lynx looked up at the open, cedar swamp in front of him.

Cedar Swamp

Cedar Swamp

With a full belly, he walked northwest across the flat terrain and found shelter under a large spruce tree about 100 metres away from the cache.  He curled up in the snow and made a large oval, resting bed.  As the sun began to rise at 6:40am, he faced the eastern sky in a sphinx-like position. His belly, throat and chin were buffy white.  His throat fur flared out to the sides of his cheeks, forming a ruff that was outlined in short, black stripes. The heat from his body melted the snow, forming a hard-packed icy layer with impressions of his four legs beneath him.  When the lynx was ready to move again, he stretched and then exited the resting bed.

Lynx Resting Bed

Lynx Resting Bed

As he moved slowly out into the open cedar swamp, he paused to check his route before heading southeast.  He meandered slowly across the swamp as the sun continued to brighten the sky.  His two outside toes splayed to keep him on top of the snowy surface, leaving a trail of cross-like tracks as his long-toed, hind tracks registered directly on top of his front tracks.

Lynx Trail Crossing a Cedar Swamp

Lynx Trail Crossing a Cedar Swamp

He wandered though some conifer trees at the south end of the cedar swamp, looking for more hunting opportunities.  A deer mouse bounded across the snowy surface and found cover as a short-tailed weasel emerged from the trees.  The lynx headed west along the edge of the cedar swamp.  He paused to lift his black-tipped tail and spray urine backwards behind him.

Lynx Urine Marking

Lynx Urine Marking

A few metres further, he stopped to produce a couple of darkened scats with tapered ends. The lynx left these marks uncovered on the landscape.  In another couple of weeks, breeding season would be at its peak.  If another male lynx were to come here, he would know whose territory it was.

Lynx Scat

Lynx Scat

As he circled back to the cache site, he crouched down momentarily, facing the direction of the cache.  Long tufts of black hair projected from his ear tips and a white rim of fur surrounded his large yellow eyes.  The lynx was frozen for a few minutes except for a few excited, short flicks of his tail as he remembered the success of his previous hunt.  If there was another hare on the well-worn hare highway, he would need to get within 6.5 metres to have a successful hunt from flat terrain.  His senses did not pick up anything new on the trail.  He walked slowly back to the cache site and climbed up the steep hillside west of the cache.  The well-camouflaged, grey-bodied lynx continued on his journey as a group of trackers began to descend on his trail, putting together the pieces of his story from that morning.

Lynx Trailing Map

Lynx Trailing Map

Crusty Snow and Good Company

 

Found this little one in the spruce trees near my home this past week.

Found this little one in the spruce trees near my home this past week.

Written by T. Anderson

The Tracking Club met on Sunday, January 15 at the Ignatius Farm.  The Ignatius Jesuit Centre is located on 600 acres of land in Guelph.  German Jesuits first settled in the Guelph area in 1852.  The Jesuits played a role in establishing St. Joseph’s hospital, Catholic schools and the Church of our Lady Immaculate.  The Guelph Jesuits moved to the land that is now the Ignatius Jesuit Centre, in 1913.  This land had previously been the territory of the Mississauga Nation until 1792 when treaty negotiations occurred between the Mississauga Nation and the British government.  Since that time, the Ignatius Jesuit Farm has become a pioneer in organic crop management and small-scale community farming.

Sunday’s tracking conditions were challenging.  Many of the tracks were encased in ice or frozen in crusty snow.  However, this challenge did not stop Carolyn, Adrian and Tamara from exploring the cattail marsh, forest and field, west of the Ignatius Farm.

The first set of tracks were found in the cattail marsh.  A long-tailed weasel had bounded (or loped) across the snow crust, leaving tiny groups of four tracks that appeared more like two tracks.  Tamara shared a story about a long-tailed weasel that lived in her kitchen for a few days.  Visit Tamara’s Tracking blog for more information: https://natureguelphtracking.wordpress.com/mammals/weasels-otters-and-relatives/all-about-weasels/weasel/

The trackers skirted the edge of the wetland as Carolyn proved that the middle was still a little wet in places.  The edge of the wetland revealed a coyote trail and a barbed metal fence line.  Tamara was keen to follow the coyote trail to find out where it crossed the fence line.  Sure enough, the coyote had found an opening in the fence to cross into the field.  The trackers followed suit and came upon some unusual canine tracks.  The canine used a bounding gait, similar to a rabbit.  After reading Mark Elbroch’s section on coyote gait interpretation (from Mammal Tracks and Sign), we learned that bounding can indicate alarm, fear or chasing prey.  We observed rabbit tracks with the same gait and admired the similarities between predator and prey.  The forest called to us and we wandered onto icy trails, meeting a nice dog walker who was being walked by his polar-bear-furred canine.  The forest revealed a mysterious raccoon trailed that ended at a cedar tree.  A large blob was obscured by branches and foliage at the top.  Was it the raccoon?  Were there two raccoons?  Why did I forget my binoculars?  Was it a Beverly Hills-sized squirrel dray?  These were good questions to ponder on the way back to the parking area.  To wrap-up the morning, we observed a Pileated Woodpecker fly overhead in a classic undulating flight pattern and clambered over a rock pile while discussing “coprophagy” and how rabbits recycle their own droppings.  The next tracking club meeting is scheduled for February 12th at Preservation Park.  Hope to see you there!

Red Wings in the Rain

Adventures in Bird Language Tracking

Bird Sit Map Guelph Lake 2016

It was 7 degrees Celsius and windy this morning during a chilly 7:00am bird sit at Guelph Lake.  The rain drizzled for the first two periods of the sit and then tapered off for Periods 3 and 4.  Moments after the intrepid birders, Ben, Carolyn, Ann and Tamara had found sit spots on the hilly shoreline, the Red-Winged Blackbirds began a chorus of “Deet” calls.  After about 3 minutes, they stopped.  This shock wave of alarm eased into “Aujourd’hui (Conk-a-ree)” songs and territorial claims along the high waters of the lake front.  Carolyn was seated near tall Pine trees and she watched a pair of robins fly from the trees to the edge of the lake and back again.  She noticed that both robins carried nesting material to the trees.  Aside from Period 1, these two birds were very quiet, working in secret to build a shelter for their soon-to-be family.  A Great Blue Heron flew across the sky from the Southeast to the Northwest, its long legs trailing out from behind the pterodactyl-like bird.  Ben noted some Black-Capped Chickadees near the forest.  Tree swallows darted along the shoreline, catching insects on the wing.  We were amazed at the diversity of loud songs from a male Northern Cardinal during Periods 1 through 4.  He sang; “Pretty, Pretty, Pretty” and “Fire! Fire! Where? Where?” and “Look here! Quick, Quick Quick.”  Carolyn shared her understanding that male cardinals appear more attractive to the females when they have a variety of songs.  After reviewing songs on the Bird Language web-site (see link below), I learned that some male cardinals add a “chrrr” call at the end of their “Look here! Quick, Quick, Quick” song.  This “chrrr” call is thought to be a very difficult sound to make and it indicates physical fitness – an attractive quality that females look for.   An osprey hovered above the lake during Periods 3 and 4.  Its feet were outstretched and positioned for a dive, in anticipation of catching a fish.  The songbirds did not seem to mind this aerial predator.  A Canada Goose appeared at the edge of the lake.  It waddled uphill, passing us on its way, to dine on a buffet of grass at the top of the hill.  A diving duck appeared at the shoreline and dove underwater, not to be seen for the rest of the bird sit.  A pair of song sparrows, like the robins, worked quietly and secretively at the edge of the lake near some cedar trees.  One carried nesting material to the ground while the other remained on-watch nearby.  At the end of the sit, we wondered about the variety of calls and alarms given by the Cardinals and Red-Winged Blackbirds.  One sound that puzzled us was the “Check” calls by the Red-Winged Blackbirds.  Are these contact calls or alarms?  We also noted the quiet behaviour of the nest-building robins and song sparrows – two birds that are normally quite vocal.  We understood the intent of this behaviour as not wanting to draw attention to their nesting sites.  Throughout the bird sit, the seemingly carefree goldfinches flew overhead in flocks, singing about “Potato-Chips” and “Chocolate Chips”.  Ann shared her understanding that the goldfinches will wait to nest until the thistle plant is ready to provide food and nesting material in the late summer.  Ann also shared a delicious apple, blueberry, rhubarb crisp.  We wrapped up the bird sit wondering about the staggered nesting times of birds and feeling in awe of the intricate symbiotic relationships between birds, plants, insects and nesting times.    Written by T. Anderson

Recommended link:http://birdlanguage.com/resources/bird-voices-audio-library/vocalizations-list/

Bird Sit Guelph Lake 2016 (2)

 

Can geese cause wake hunting?

Adventures in Bird Language
Written by Tamara Anderson
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It was still dark when everyone arrived at the shore of Guelph Lake on October 25th. Anticipation hung in the cool, autumn air. What will the birds be up to this morning? As the sun rose in the eastern sky, we each set out to find a location to sit and observe the language of the birds. At the beginning of the 7:00am sit, the wind picked up and crows called from the farm fields in the northwest. Were they preparing for a morning meeting? As the wind calmed, a small flock of dark-eyed juncos flew into the cedar trees near the nature centre bird feeder. A red squirrel alarmed from a walnut tree close by and then proceeded to eat his nutty breakfast. The events that followed proved rather interesting. A mourning dove flew north from the lake edge, to the bird feeding area. Shortly after, a noisy flock of Canada Geese took off from the water and flew westward. A silhouetted shape emerged from the shoreline and flew directly overhead, following the path of the mourning dove. Ann identified it as a Cooper’s hawk. I watched the accipiter silhouette fly just behind me; its wings had narrowed and were tucked in close to its body. I was amazed how its flight pattern and shape matched that of a large mourning dove. Who would have thought that Cooper’s hawks can be shape-shifting ninjas? I read in Jon Young’s book What the Robin Knows, that hawks and other animals have an energy-saving strategy called wake hunting. Wake hunting occurs when a predator takes advantage of a disturbance in the landscape. For example, in the summer as I mow the lawn, numerous bugs fly up from their hiding places in the grasses. The barn swallows seize this opportunity to dive in and feast on a buffet that has been agitated by the machine’s wake. At the bird sit on Sunday, we wondered if the Cooper’s hawk had used the noisy wake of Canada geese leaving the lake in its attempt to hunt the mourning dove. In addition to the birds, we were entertained by a muskrat at the base of the lake. The muskrat surfaced three times and always swam towards the west. Were there three muskrats? Was the muskrat stuck in a time warp? As often happens, the bird sit ended with a few answers and more questions. The natural world is fascinating!

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Sounds like a Chipmunk Dance Party

Broad-winged Hawk Circling

Broad-winged Hawk Circling

Adventures in Bird Language Tracking
Sunday September 20, 2015

An inspiring moment from this weekend’s bird sit is that almost half of the participants rode their bike to Guelph Lake for a 7:00am meeting time. The bikers (and drivers) were greeted on arrival by a wild turkey on the South side of Conservation Road. There was a cool, light wind and the sun was low in the sky when we started our bird sit on the North shore of Guelph Lake. The water sparkled and we could hear the sound of fish jumping. The dew dripped off of wild grapes leaves and the bugs started to stretch their flying muscles and move around. As the sun rose higher, we were bathed in warm, golden rays and serenaded by cricket songs. This all seems quite utopian; however, there was unrest in the Animal Kingdom that morning. An aerial predator was on the hunt. A zone of quiet in the Northwest was like an “elephant in the room” during the first 30 minutes of the bird sit. In every other direction, we could hear Chickadees, Goldfinches, Canada geese, Blue Jays, Kinglets, American Robins, Song Sparrows, Cedar Waxwings, Nuthatches, Woodpeckers and American Crows. Some sounds were companion calls and some were alarms. The young Goldfinches were saying “Feed me” to their foraging parents in tall, sandpapery cup plants. Flocks of Jays, Canada geese, and Gulls flew overhead from the East to the West. Some were heading noticeably Southwest. The quiet zone to our Northwest remained unchanged. Suddenly an orchestra of “chuck” calls from our little friends Tamias striatus seemed to echo from every direction. It was a surround sound of tribal chipmunk beats, much like a woodland dance party. Had we read pages 301 and 302 of Mark Elbroch’s Behaviour of North American Mammals ahead of time, we may have recognized this sound as an alarm call. According to Elbroch and Rinehart, when chipmunks vocalize “chuck” calls repeatedly, it is an alarm for aerial predators. Within moments, a Cooper’s hawk flew fast from the quiet zone in the Northwest edge of the field to the Pine Forest in the East. John and Spencer had a good look at the accipiter. As we came together at the end, the hawk flew over and everyone had a chance to see it. As we wrapped up the bird sit, we glimpsed two more hawks circling high above. A pair of Broad-winged Hawks climbed a thermal overhead. The chipmunks didn’t seem to mind these migrating raptors; they had returned to foraging and general chipmunk cuteness. In closing, we walnut likely forget the or-kestral sound of the chipmunk’s alarm for aerial predators:)

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FISP can’t be right…or can it?

Adventures in Bird Language Tracking

Field Sparrow Singing Photo by A. Schletz (Rotary Forest, May 2015)

Field Sparrow Singing Photo by A. Schletz (Rotary Forest, May 2015)

Four letter bird-banding codes boggle my mind.  This morning’s tracking club outing demonstrated the art of naming birds concisely as we tracked bird language from a hill overlooking the Rotary Forest at Guelph Lake.  Early morning sunshine and warm winds from the South bathed the landscape as we each sat, observing and listening to bird calls, songs and alarms.  The first of four 15 minute time periods commenced with a crow call.  This was the busiest time period.  Tree swallows chattered overhead, mouths agape, hungrily eating insects on the wing.

Tree Swallow Photo by A. Schletz (Rotary Forest, May 2015)

Tree Swallow Photo by A. Schletz (Rotary Forest, May 2015)

Field Sparrows (FISPs) announced their territories like the diminishing bounce of a ping pong ball.  A Northern Flicker alarmed from the forest edge to the West.  Could a bird of prey or a mammal have caused the alarm?  We later tracked his flight path over each of our sit spots as we mapped the story from a birds-eye view.  The next three time periods included watching a flock of 29 Blue Jays fly west to east across the top of the hill.  A Red-Bellied Woodpecker churred regularly from the forest to the west, announcing his territorial claim.  The toads trilled from the pond and Red-Winged Blackbirds perched along the shore.  American Goldfinches sang their “potato chip” and “sweet, sweet, sweet” songs.  American Robins chuckled.  The sounds were overwhelming at times but also amazing to try to decipher.  A coyote call signalled the end of the fourth time period and everyone reunited at the top of the hill.  We mapped out the bird language as best as we could, reminding ourselves, like the territorial Savannah Sparrow to “Take, take ,take it eas-y” and enjoy the process.

Bird Language Mapping (Rotary Forest, May 2015)

Bird Language Mapping (Rotary Forest, May 2015)

Bird Language Tracking (Rotary Forest, May 2015)

Bird Language Mapping (Rotary Forest, May 2015)

The next Bird Language Tracking event is on Saturday June 13th at 7:30am in the Guelph Lake Nature Centre parking lot.  Hope to see you there!