Cecil the Solstice Weasel

Tracking Club (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, December 2014)

Tracking Club (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, December 2014)

The latest Tracking Club outing to the Bruce Trail in Orangeville can best be described by this seasonal poem:

Cecil the Solstice Weasel

‘Twas the day before Solstice and all through the field,
There were tracks, trails and stories being revealed.
All the trackers were walking with observant care,
In the hope that short-tailed Cecil might be there.
Then, what to our wondering eyes should appear,
A trail heading east, made by a white-tailed deer,
Something crossed its path with a galloping habit,
I knew in a moment, it must be a rabbit!
After the quick rabbit, a coyote trail came,
Then we saw another trail that wasn’t the same.
A red fox was hunting near a rock pile,
“Cecil the weasel was here!” I said with a smile.
We saw four tiny tracks and a tail print on snow,
Where the weasel had waited, crouching down low.
Down a hole, he had been with a leap and a bound,
Cecil must have been hunting and doing his rounds,
Preying on deer mice, meadow voles and short-tailed shrews
A glossy-coated hunter on a night-time cruise.
The fox attempted to thwart his fiendish ways,
Culminating in an exciting, high-speed chase.
From across the field, we heard a raven chorus.
We followed Cecil’s trail to the edge of the forest.
Here, there were mystery tracks on the snow surface,
Made by a small mammal exploring with purpose.
The width of her trail was much smaller than Cecil’s
Could it be? Were these the tracks of a Least weasel?
Her surface walk and rope-like scat confirmed the truth.
Looking across the field we rose with gratitude,
For the gift of stories, fresh air and warm sunlight.
Happy Solstice to all and to all a good night!

Short-Tailed Weasel Track with Tail Imprint in Snow (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, December 2014)

Short-Tailed Weasel Track with Tail Imprint in Snow (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, December 2014)

For more information on Weasels, please visit my pages:

All about weasels:
https://natureguelphtracking.wordpress.com/mammals/weasels-otters-and-relatives/all-about-weasels/

Least Weasel
https://natureguelphtracking.wordpress.com/mammals/weasels-otters-and-relatives/all-about-weasels/least-weasel/

Short-Tailed Weasel
https://natureguelphtracking.wordpress.com/mammals/weasels-otters-and-relatives/all-about-weasels/short-tailed-weasel/

Long-Tailed Weasel
https://natureguelphtracking.wordpress.com/mammals/weasels-otters-and-relatives/all-about-weasels/weasel/

Aye, there’s the antler rub!

In Shakespearian times, shepherds forecasted rain when mists arose on the surface of ponds and then ascended to the hilltops. True to the forecast, the tracking club was indeed misted with liquid sunshine (as my Scottish kinfolk affectionately like to call “rain”) during the November outing at Guelph Lake.

Upon discovering numerous vole highways across the trail, I could not help thinking, “O Wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here?”

We noted zigzag pathways into the goldenrods, made by cottontail rabbits. Deer tracks headed west into the adjacent farm field. The deer moved from a walking gait into a gallop, dew claws registering, endeavouring to move quickly through deepening snow.

Deer Track (Guelph Lake, November 2014)

Deer Track (Guelph Lake, November 2014)

At the edge of the farm field, we picked up a skunk trail. The trail led us up and over snow drifts. After determining that the skunk was intent to wander, we abandoned his trail near some browsed Sumac trees. While appreciating the velvety texture of the Staghorn Sumac branches, something caught our attention, “Aye! There’s the rub!” A male deer had shredded the bark of the nearby trees by rubbing his antlers and forehead on the trunk. Bucks do this to deposit their scent and to relieve itchy antlers during the rut.

Antler Rub on Sumac (Guelph Lake, November 2014)

Antler Rub on Sumac (Guelph Lake, November 2014)

A coyote trail pulled us further into the young forest, towards the back pond. A Rough-Legged Hawk observed us from her perch before heading eastwards to a line of tall Maples. Shakespeare wrote, “When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it” in reference to riding a horse but I can see a parallel with tracking a coyote as well.

Coyote Track (Guelph Lake, November 2014)

Coyote Track (Guelph Lake, November 2014)

At the back pond, we found a crayfish chimney. As the crayfish burrows down into a water-filled tunnel, it uses its legs and mouth parts to bring up pellets of mud to the surface, much like a brick layer laying bricks, until the chimney is complete. It is suggested that crayfish chimneys help oxygen flow down the tunnel, into the water beneath.

Crayfish Chimney (Guelph Lake, November 2014)

Crayfish Chimney (Guelph Lake, November 2014)

With thoughts of miniature, mud mountains, we ascended to the top of the Rotary Forest hill. We found another antler rub on an Oak tree and enjoyed a glorious view of the buck’s domain. We returned to the beginning of the route by following deer tracks and chickadee calls.

And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything”. ~William Shakespeare

 

*If you are interested in viewing the page “Polar Bears” from my recent visit to Churchill, use this link:

https://natureguelphtracking.wordpress.com/mammals/bears/polar-bears/

Fairy Rings and Swamp Monsters

Crisp temperatures (3 degrees) and a slight wind from the Northwest greeted the tracking club as we arrived at the Vance Tract, otherwise known as the Cranberry Bog. Within five minutes, a tracking mystery revealed itself to everyone. There, in the middle of the trail was a bird wing, matted with saliva from a hungry predator. We began to see other feathers nearby that were marked with grey, white, sandy brown and dark brown barring.

Cranberry Bog, October 2014

Cranberry Bog, October 2014

After some sleuth work at home, the feathers were identified as belonging to a ruffed grouse. We wondered if maybe a fox or a coyote had eaten the woodland drummer.

Cranberry Bog (October 2014)

Cranberry Bog (October 2014)

The trail then plunged through dense goldenrods where potential goldfinch scat was observed underneath the flowers that had gone to seed. The group headed Southwest through the coniferous forest along a trail that looked wide enough for deer. Along the way, we noticed a squirrel hole in a cedar tree and a causeway between two swampy ponds. Fresh deer tracks were observed along the causeway, near the remnants of a paper wasp nest. The tracks seemed to disappear into the swamp. The group decided not to trail the deer into the swamp and avoid the risk of encountering swamp monsters.

Swamp Monster (Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

Swamp Monster Track (Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

Once across the causeway, we entered a cedar forest adjacent to the Cranberry Bog. There were a few bare patches on the forest floor, where Wild Turkeys had been scratching the soil to get at seeds and insects.

Wild Turkey Sign (Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

Wild Turkey Sign (Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

We smiled at some bizarre mushrooms growing in a curved line across the forest floor and then noticed another curved line of mushrooms a few metres away. Had we found a fabled fairy ring? According to folklore, fairies create a ring of mushrooms by dancing. Anyone that steps inside of a ring may become invisible, unable to leave the circle and forced to dance until exhaustion.

Fairy Ring? (Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

Fairy Ring? (Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

After doing a quick head count to make sure that we were all accounted for, we continued along the edge of the forest and discovered a tall, White Elm Tree.  We admired the layered bark that looked similar to a coffee crisp chocolate bar, noting a white layer which helped us identify the species of Elm.  This elm tree looked healthy except for a cobra canker fungus growing out of its side.  I learned that the length of the decay is generally one-and-a-half times the length of the canker.  These canker are often centered around a wound or a branch stub and the decay leads to a high risk of stem breakage.*

*Rot, Decay and Other Tree Defect Indicators, n.d., viewed October 26, 2014, http://www.ont-woodlot-assoc.org/sw_tree_defect_indicators.html

Cobra Canker Fungus on an Elm Tree (Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

Cobra Canker Fungus on an Elm Tree (Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

The trail meandered through the cedar forest until the canopy opened up into a brighter, red and white pine plantation. We found evidence of red squirrels eating pine seeds on tree stumps and marvelled at the squirrel’s ability to eat mainly one type of seed on each platform.

Red and White Pine scutes from a Red Squirrel (Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

Red and White Pine Scutes from a Red Squirrel (Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

The forest opened up into a climax forest of oak, beech and maple. Corn cobs were evident on the trail, reminding us to look for masked bandits that had pulled cobs in from the neighbouring farm field. We circled back around to the causeway, and found a calcium-rich deer bone that had been chewed by rodents.

Deer Bone (Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

Deer Bone (Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

Nuthatches, woodpeckers, chickadees, robins, blue jays and mourning doves made welcome appearances along the route in addition to some lovely plants like button bush, heal-all, knapweed and blue cohosh. As we gathered together at the end of the hike, a red-tailed hawk circled overhead. One of my tracking heroes, Mark Elbroch says, “The earth is like paper, the animals are writers, and the tracks and trails are letters and words left behind for those who are fluent in the language and willing to pause and read.” Thank you for reading:)

Cranberry Pumpkin Muffin (Made with cranberries gathered at the Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

Cranberry Pumpkin Muffin (Made with cranberries gathered at the Cranberry Bog, October 2014)

 

 

 

Twilight Tracking

Tracking Club took a brief pause during the summer months and started up again in September for two evening tracking programs in Kiera’s Forest, near the Guelph Lake Nature Centre.

One member brought a hummingbird nest to share with the group during one of the Tuesday outings.  We were amazed how soft the inner lining of the nest was.

Showing a hummingbird nest (September, 2014)

Showing a hummingbird nest (September, 2014)

After crossing Conservation Road and heading into the wilds of Kiera’s forest, we encountered a “snake board”.  We did not find any snakes underneath the board but we did see signs of Northern Short-Tailed Shrews.  We noted a well-used shrew trail dug into the soil and signs of chewing, made by tiny incisor marks carving into the corner of the board.

Shrew Chewing (September, 2014)

Shrew Chewing (September, 2014)

Underneath a second snake board, we discovered the remains of a bird and a broken egg shell.

September 2014 007

After finding several vole highways across the trail and looking for evidence of vole scat and vole nests, we wandered over to Deer Hoof Pond.  This pond is a great spot to look for leopard frogs and deer prints.  We were able to see the tracks of a mother doe and her fawn moving across the muddy shore of the pond.  A resident raccoon shared evidence of his travels as we noted his prints along the slippery banks.

Invertebrate tracks captured our attention while we wandered beside the woodland sunflowers.  We stopped to observe a leafroller caterpillar that had rolled its pupae into a Staghorn Sumac leaf.

Leafroller on Sumac

Leafroller on Sumac

The trail continued to meander up the hill towards the Memorial forest grove and we paused to look closer at potential signs of the American Woodcock.  We noticed beak marks probing into the soft soil beside the muddy laneway – a woodcock in search of worms most likely.

American Woodcock Feeding Sign

American Woodcock Feeding Sign

At the top of the hill, we enjoyed a glorious view of purple, gold and white asters in full, fall colour.  Near the lookout, a clear deer print pointed like an arrow, eastward towards the adjacent farm fields and we decided to follow it.  At this point, twilight began to settle in and we walked parallel with a line of old maples, ever watchful of the nearby fields.  We discussed how Northern twilights are long and beautiful compared with short twilights of the South.  I noticed how the air temperature changed significantly from one place along the trail to another – pockets of warm and cold air.  I wonder if this is caused by natural features that absorb more sunlight (and heat) during the daytime?  I also wonder if this is something that wildlife are intentionally aware of, when they build their dens, nests and burrows?

The trail descended close to the forest.  Suddenly, we noticed a deer out in the grassy field – in grey and brown winter colouring.  As our eyes adjusted, we saw 3 more deer grazing.  We watched the deer as the light slowly disappeared.  A brown bat circled overhead and a quick movement to our Northside, revealed a woodcock flying over the wildflowers and up into one of the large Maple trees nearby.  Then another shape flew by, to the South of us.  It flew low and quick, heading Northward with narrow wings and a long tail. It was a Nighthawk!  These amazing birds flash white patches out past the bend of each wing as they chase insects.  I learned that Nighthawks are not hawks but instead, are closely related to Nightjars.  Nighthawk numbers are also unfortunately, declining.  I read that they have one of the longest migration routes of all North American birds – migrating as far as Chile, where they spend their winter months in South America.

Twilight Tracking

Twilight Tracking

While walking back to the cars, we definitely enjoyed listening to the chorus of crickets, grasshoppers and toads trilling.  Sleeping birds rustled in the branches as we walked past their evening roost. I was also quite content watching and hearing the sparrows and goldfinches gather together during the last light of the day. They must have been eager to share the day’s news with one another and reconnect – just like us!  I am grateful for the Canadian twilight in September and as always, for fun friends to go tracking with.

Coyote Shenanigans

Spruceline Farm, June 2014

Around my place, we have a pair of melanistic coyotes (basically a mottled black and brown coyote). The best way to understand the meaning of melanistic is to think of the black version of the grey squirrel. My understanding is that melanistic coyotes are black versions of the Eastern Coyote. The following story will tell you a little bit more about them…

I woke up at 3:00 am on June 1st (2014) to the strong smell of skunk wafting in through the open window. I could hear my dog (Basil) barking excitedly and my first thought was that he had been sprayed by this same skunk. I got up and walked over to the window where I could see him under the outdoor light. He was facing North, barking into the row of spruce trees across the lawn. Suddenly I saw something bounce out from the dark edge beyond where the light could reach. It moved into the light, approximately 8 feet away from my favourite border collie, who was fortunately tied to his dog house. It was a black coyote! It had long, skinny legs and a lanky build. I watched it grab something dark that was lying on the ground near Basil, move the object a little bit (closer?) and then turn around and bounce/gallop quickly back towards the dark lawn. The coyote did this about 4 times (that I saw) before it decided to take the small, dark object and run off across the lawn and through the tree line. Basil was obviously pulling on his chain everytime this happened, lunging towards the black coyote – seemingly providing immense “glee” for the coyote. I have never seen that kind of interaction before. My impression was that the coyote was playing “Keep-Away” with Basil which was very intriguing to say the least. We have previously found voles around his doghouse and we have wondered how he managed to catch voles while being tied to his doghouse during the night. I believe that the coyote’s “toy” was a vole and I wonder if they sometimes leave a vole for Basil as a “prize” for his participation in coyote entertainment.

Basil (participant in coyote entertainment).

Basil (participant in coyote entertainment).

P.S. I would love to hear other stories about this if anyone else has seen something similar. The coyote was a little bit taller than Basil but not by much so I don’t think that it was a predator prey interaction (which is what most internet sites say). My sense is that it was purely a “fun” interaction. Once again, I have been awestruck by an animal and how similar we all are.

The following tracks were gathered in the morning as I ventured out onto the gravel driveway to observe evidence of the coyote/Basil interaction:

Coyote footprint (grass), Spruceline Farm (June 2014)

Coyote footprint (grass), Spruceline Farm (June 2014)

This grassy clump found along the coyote trail (running from the freshly mown lawn onto the gravel driveway) measures 8cm (length) x 5 cm (width). I love this track. It was still moist in the morning and I envisioned it sticking to a coyote paw and then falling off mid-trail in his/her evening escapade.

Dark Coyote Hair, Spruceline Farm (June 2014)

Dark Coyote Hair, Spruceline Farm (June 2014)

Coyote track in gravel

Coyote track in gravel

Obviously, tracking in gravel was difficult. It was also very warm and buggy that day. Note the claw marks digging into the soil as the coyote literally leapt forward in the direction away from my dog. I noticed interesting pressure releases in the tracks that showed gravel deposits around the outsides of the track. After reading about pressure releases in Tom Brown’s Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking, I believe that the spray of gravel that left a hill on the top, left side of this photo indicates a turn as well as an accelerating movement. Once again, I was shown how much I don’t know about tracking. Tracking in gravel is hard, literally and figuratively. I did find some short white fur in the area where I thought that the vole had been placed.

Here is a fascinating episode of the Nature of Things all about the mysterious “Coywolf”.  I highly recommend watching this:)

http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/episodes/meet-the-coywolf

 

Muskrat Sunday

Mallard Pond, Luther Marsh
April 27, 2014

It stirs the soul when you set foot in a place and the first call that you hear sounds primordial. Sandhill cranes do that for me. Their “purling rattle” stops me in my tracks and beckons my attention in an ancient way. It is thoroughly enjoyable to share this with others who have never heard the sound before. After returning home and reading about sandhill cranes, I discovered that they are the oldest known surviving North American bird species. I must admit that these birds are one of the reasons why I return to Luther Marsh again and again.

Tracking Sticks

Tracking Sticks

Walking the perimeter of Mallard Pond and looking for animal signs was truly therapeutic this past weekend. We were “shaking off the road dust” of a long, cold winter by warming our faces with sunshine and cleaning our lungs with cool, moist air. Winter had taken its toll on a few marsh residents and we were able to see an opossum, deer and muskrat carcass near the shoreline. We paid careful attention to the feet and noted the perfect detail of claws, toe pads and palm pads in both the opossum and muskrat.

Muskrat photo by Marcus Garvie.

Muskrat photo by Marcus Garvie

In Mark Elbroch’s “Behaviour of North America Mammals” I read that muskrats are not true rats and are most closely related to voles. I believe it! We often needed to watch where we stepped on the shoreline because of an extensive network of muskrat bank burrows. It seemed like there was some friendly “vole competition” going on since the true voles of the Marsh also had an extensive network of underground tunnels nearby. The receding snow had uncovered unusual tracks called “eskers” or “trail castings”. Voles create these tubular deposits of earth when excavating underground tunnels during the winter months.

Vole Eskers (Trail Castings)

Vole Eskers (Trail Castings)

Lured by the blue waters of Mallard Pond, we surveyed the marsh for birds. Margaret spotted some Buffleheads. Ann found a white-fronted goose swimming near some Canada geese and a relaxed muskrat sunbathing on a feeding platform of vegetation. Jenny observed a beautiful, male yellow- rumped warbler. A northern harrier also showed his characteristic white “rump” while flying low to the water. Marcus spotted possible coyote tracks in the muddy shoreline and coyote scat along the trail.

Canine track in mud by Marcus Garvie

Coyote track in mud? by Marcus Garvie

Other memorable scats included: fox, mink, rabbit, deer, and of course, muskrat. Ann found the largest owl pellet that I have ever seen. We looked it up and learned that Great Horned owls can make pellets that are up to 11.4 cm long! That would be an uncomfortable object to have to “cough up”. The edge of the marsh also revealed some spring awakenings. Mary-Ellen found two garter snakes in courtship adjacent to a muskrat trail, where a crayfish was hiding with eggs underneath.

Spring awakenings!

Spring awakenings!

After eating a delicious waterside lunch accompanied by the sounds of sandhill cranes, ravens and grouse, we headed to the north side of the pond. It was then, that we were treated to a display of synchronized swimming by the muskrats. As we walked along the trail, the muskrats would dive into the water a few metres ahead of our footfalls, resurface and then swim parallel to the shore. Every so often, they would dive into the water again (usually when the camera came out), resurface and then continue swimming elegantly westward with their rudder-like tails sculling from side to side. Thank you to everyone who came on “Muskrat Sunday”. The spring concert was magnificent!

Muskrat swimming

Muskrat swimming

 

Cat and Mouse

Sunday March 23rd

Waterside Park, Rockwood

An enthusiastic group of trackers met outside the Rockwood Conservation area on March 23rd. We carpooled to the Municipal Park in downtown Rockwood.

Image

Tracking Club, March 2014

The first tracks belonged to a cat hunting alongside the Eramosa River. The cat tracks seemed to follow and interact with another trail which we recognized as a deer mouse.  This trail proved to be very interesting.  It showed us that deer mice can be “feisty fighters”.  The tracks of the deer mouse jumped from side to side, often turning to face the cat.  The quick whip of the mouse’s tail as it turned was captured neatly in the snow.  Near the end of the trail, the mouse tracks showed two rear paws registering in the snow as the mouse perhaps boxed at its foe in front of an evergreen.  The tracks disappeared at this point and we all hoped that this brave underdog had made it safely up the tree.  We wondered if maybe the deer mouse was watching us track its harrowing adventure while it breathed a sigh of relief from a sheltered bough.

The spring conditions must have encouraged the local mammals to get out and about. We followed their tracks on the ice-covered shoreline of the river and in the adjacent forest.  In total, we saw the tracks of 12 different mammals and saw 4 bird species:

  1. Cat
  2. Deer Mouse
  3. Cotton Tail Rabbit
  4. Raccoon
  5. Domestic dog
  6. Skunk
  7. Mink
  8. Red squirrel – caching a dryad’s saddle mushroom
  9. Grey squirrel
  10. Chipmunk
  11. Porcupine
  12. Deer (Carcass)
  13. Robin
  14. Turkey Vulture
  15. Raven
  16. Crow
Image

Valerie demonstrating how a rabbit moves.

Chris spotted a raven which provided a good reminder to look up and listen for bird language while pursuing mammal tracks. We back-tracked a crow’s trail to where its tracks emerged from beneath a cedar tree.  One member, Marcus followed the tracks further and discovered a deer carcass that we might have missed. 

Image

Observing crow tracks and a deer carcass.

Thank you to everyone for coming and sharing your knowledge and your stories.  It was a very fun morning spent tracking beside the beautiful Eramosa river.