Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Activation Energy

"The activation energy, it takes so long
Yet I am heartened by a robin's song
And at kingfisher's call I catch a track upon the trail
I move, I move, I move..."

I realize in looking through my photos that it could appear that I'm outside all the time, and that it's easy for me to joyfully prance through the woods, eshewing the pleasures of woodstoves and chicken soup and netflix in order to be one with the wilderness. Well, yes and no, but mostly no. The truth is that often it's damn hard for me to haul myself outside, especially when it's 5 degrees F out, and often even when it's warm and sunny. I enjoy a cushy couch, a mug of tea and PBS Jane Eyre movie just as much as any Joe Shmoe.

What gets me away from the couch and outside is knowing how I'll feel once I'm out there in the open expanse of woods, sky, and snow. Even once I'm out, it takes awhile for me to sink in, to release some of the busy-ness of thought and judgement, to stop pouting about aching muscles or a rumbly belly. I've never regretted saying yes to that "Call of the Wild," even on those days when I go out and seem to suck at tracking and my brain won't stop chattering. Because beneath the pessimism of those days, I feel and know that my soul is being fed in a deeper way.

The truth is, most of the time any initial resistance or negativity gets swallowed by the alertness and curiosity that comes from being out in the woods alone. What was that noise? How close is this animal whose tracks I'm now seeing? Am I paying enough attention to where I am so that I'll be able to get home? Just how gorgeous is the light right now? So gorgeous.

Here are some highlights from my days off here in Jericho, Vermont, days when my energy did indeed activate enough for me to get out there and explore my amazing backyard.

Here's a closeup of that duck shot. Yes, this is a duck that took off from this little marshy stream, creating a full body print in the snow. Awesome!
Red squirrel tracks led to this little midden of cone shells, half of which were on the snow and the other half were in the hole, which seemed to be dug under an old piece of firewood.

So here are some long-tailed weasel tracks...
Beautiful long tailed weasel tracks...
  ...that bounded through the snow and into this birdhouse! There was comfy snow inside. Yet I didn't see any obvious tracks coming OUT and I definitely looked in to see if the dude(tte) was there. The only thing I can figure is that it hopped out in exactly the same snow holes as it's hops in created...but I didn't see much evidence to support that. Total mystery.

Here's three sets of sign I found on the same hemlock tree. The first is an old woodpecker cavity that was expanded and marked around the edge by a red squirrel, who might be living there right now! (I knocked, but no one answered.) The second has obvious incisor marks as well--a red squirrel gnawing at the nutrient rich mini-burl, and perhaps also feeding on the black fungus. The third is the most recent, simply a woodpecker feeding on insects this winter.

Bear scrape on beech tree.
Finding this bear scrape was a big moment for me. My tendency is to zoom in on a track. I could stay with one track for an hour, sketching, photographing, measuring. My tracking mentor Dave Moskowitz in WA continually encouraged me to freakin get up and walk the trail, for that's when the rich learning comes. Sue Morse has broadened my perspective even more. As a forester, she knows habitats intimately. Now I know where to look for sign...near food sources such as wetlands, at trail intersections, along travel routes like ridges and saddles. I'm learning what species certain animals eat and like to mark on. I now go out looking for track and sign not by randomly wandering the woods, but by going to these areas.

On just such an endeavor, I came across a very steep jumble of rocks which led up to a small forested ridge with a steep creek ravine on the other side. I thought I might find some sign at the top since it was a natural funnel, a travel route that animals would likely take in getting from A to B--not a hugely important part of a species home range, but important nonetheless. After searching the white birches, where bears love to mark, I came across this beech, right in the middle of the trail, with only this one slash mark on it. A bear had come by and said, "I was here," and moved on, not looking back. Finding that sign felt awesome, and the memory of it will serve me the next time my "activation energy" needs a boost.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


This is what I call the perfect classroom!
I had heard that Ithaca was gorges, but little did I know that it would be a feast of gorgeousness for my eyes and soul. We held workshops and evening sessions in which our participants included ornithologists, foresters, university students and professors, a massage therapist, a falconer, nature connection mentors, community college staff, wildlife photographers, a veterinarian, whale experts, you name it! It was so stimulating and inspiring to be around that many folks who could chime in with their own knowledge and experience. It got me thinking more deeply about how I can more fully give my own gifts to the world as well. Here are just a few highlights from the weekend.

See how at the top of this twig there are many narrow grooves, whereas at the bottom edge there are wider ones?

Well, young tracker, that's because rabbits have grooved upper incisors! FREAKY DEAKY, aye?

Know what's even freakier? That they not only have grooved incisors, but they have a double layer. Evolution gone crazy!!

We were unsure whether a bound we found in the snow along the marsh was otter or mink. It took one of the participants crawling under the boardwalk to find these beautiful mink tracks.

In deep snow I find it super hard to tell a deer trail from a coyote or fox trail. One feature to look for is what Sue calls "nail drive"--see the points in the front of the track where the nails have driven in?
These are red squirrel incisor marks from where it peeled the shreddy bark off this honeysuckle for winter bedding.

Perhaps the coolest find of the weekend: see how this trail starts out of nowhere, bounds forward and into the base of that tree? That's a FLYING SQUIRREL trail. Yup, it flew out of nowhere, landed and bounded to the tree. Freakin sweet find.
Closeup of the flying squirrel "sitzmark" where it landed (right) and bounded to the left.

And the falconer happened to have his juvie red tail with him one day. SWEET.

Grateful to be able to look this being in the eye. A powerful experience.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Finding My Way To Porcupine

The icicle-clad cliff, topped with hemlocks.
I still remember the terror I felt during the first year of my wilderness immersion program, Anake, in Washington state. My instructors wanted me to wander. Wander?? Just go out into the woods and follow my curiosity? With my sense of direction?!? Hell, no, thank you very much.

And yet that wasn’t my real answer. I was drawn by the call of the wild, so I did wander. Short forays at first, longer ones with friends, then alone on my bike and in my running shoes, until I had the whole area between the Mosswood Marsh, Kayak Lake, Osprey Swamp and Lake Margaret mapped. Mapping was my savior.

The other day behind Ann’s place here in Jericho, Vermont, I wandered around and discovered a breathtaking cliff, at least forty feet high, partially composed, it seemed, of glacial erratic--strange rocks randomly placed, deposits from glaciers long since melted and gone. I was enamoured…and yet the sun was fading. I decided to take a different route home, and clinging staunchly to my intuition and the daylight I had left, I made it.

A couple days later I was determined to find the cliff again to look for porcupine dens. I struck a different course, and using the sun as well as my compass I estimated where the cliff would be. With my faith in my intuition and Anake navigation skills singing me onward on the one shoulder, and my critical nay-saying self on the other, I made my way through the forest. I discovered deer beds, red maple stands and red squirrel trails until—yes!! Just over that hill was the exact spot that I was looking for.

What a success. I have come a long way. Hey, I still frantically call my little brother sometimes from a thousand miles away to ask him to look up directions on his smart phone for me. I forget travel routes in my own neighborhood, in which I lived for 18+ years. But today, I was triumphant.

The cliff was mesmerizing. Icicles, moss, swirling quartz deposits and well-hidden cobwebs danced together in the mid-afternoon sunlight. While I was looking for the porcupine dens on the warm, south-facing side of the cliff, I stumbled upon a fantastic bear bite on a striped maple. Wow…the secret lives of animals that exist all around us.

Bear bite! My finer points to the mark of a canine as the bear turned its head sideways to grasp this maple.
I scoured the west half of the approximately 50 yard long cliff, perplexed that I hadn’t found any hideouts of my quilled friend. Finally, as I walked downhill toward the eastern end, the cliff turned even more directly toward the south, and there it was: a perfect porcupine grotto! A rectangle carved into the rock with a load of porc scat there. Another smaller, more hidden den was nearby, again containing lots of the fibrous, deer-like scat (but bigger).

Porcupine scat

Porcupine Grotto--note 8" L shaped ruler on the ground.
Thanks, porcupine. Thanks, glaciers. Thanks, Creator. I’m loving exploring this wild, snowy place, and feeling not quite so lost in it as I've felt before.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Lewis Creek: Ursus is Everywhere!

On Sunday we headed to Lewis Creek, a forest that Sue managed (not only is she a fantastic wildlife tracker, but she is also a forester and was a college-level literature and writing teacher for over thirty years...yup, my mentor is well-rounded, and by that I mean badass).

Sue explained that this particular area of the Lewis Creek watershed was planted heavily with apple trees by pioneers. The trees have long been neglected by humans, yet they still produce a hugely important food crop, especially for the black bears (Ursus americanus). We wandered slowly and happily through the forest of birch, cherry, ash, maple and serviceberry, punctuated by large swaths of apple trees. Glacial erratics (read: large rocks that are way fun to climb) rose randomly out of the ground, and the creek flowed audibly under unsteady ice.

Quite a different day quickly rose to around and then slightly above freezing!

Highlights of the day...remember, cover the captions if you want to guess.

Love this squirrel marking sign. You can see those upper incisor marks.
An apple partially eaten by a squirrel and cached visibly in this branch crotch for later.

Old scars on an apple tree--apparently it was a favorite. Notice all of the parallel diagonal scrapes all up the length.
Woodpecker? Red Squirrel marking? 

Nope...BB shot! We carved at this one til the metal was visible.
So much of this everywhere, especially on the apple trees, but also on species like this white ash. This is probably a front claw...hinds often register deeper and more vertically.

A deer's tracks surrounded this...the plant is a fern. Deer unearth ferns in the winter to eat the carb-rich rhizomes.

Most likely a northern short-tailed shrew, probably in a walk. (Anyone know how to tell vole snow trails from shrew--size overlaps...) The trail ends in a hole which leads to a subnivean (beneath the snow) tunnel. This is where most teeny mammals spend the winter, safe and insulated by the snow...until a weasel decides to investigate!


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Best Tracks of Colchester Pond

The Keeping Track internship officially started for me this past Saturday at Colchester Pond, a beautiful area just east of Lake Champlain. Ice fishers were set up on the lake as we skirted the edge and headed into the forest.

Sue Morse does a number of wildlife monitoring trainings, generally one Saturday or Sunday a month from October through April. I covered myself in fleece, wool and down, stuck my toe warmers (thanks Mom!) into my boots, and tromped into the woods to support the class. It was a freakin' cold day. Stayed between -5 and -10 degrees most of the day, and we gave out all of our emergency down jackets and all my extra hand and toe warmers to participants. Despite the chill, we had a great time!

Here are my faves. If you want to guess you'll have to cover the captions!

Bear bite (anchors with upper canines on right side, pulls lower canines toward from left to right) on white birch--one of its favorite trees to scent mark

In a mixed conifer/hardwood forest above the lake. Yup, bird of prey lands, swooping up some small mammal. Sue saw this and said, "Often you can find innards or blood near wing marks like this," after which a student promptly reached into a hole in the snow (off the photo to the left) and pulled out the frozen, coagulated blood that I placed next to the ruler!!!

My first fisher tracks! A slow gallop or lope.

Closeup of fisher hind right foot. Note dropped toe one on left side, just as our own right thumb is the lowest digit on our right hand.

Peromyscus species...probably white-footed mouse who favors woodlands and is active in the winter
Strange gait, eh? I kinda flipped out when I spotted this 3-legged dog running on the ice. Glad to capture the trail.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Neovison vison

Just ten feet away from me it’s a zero degree Fahrenheit evening, still and cold with Orion just peeking over the eastern treeline. Luckily there’s a window, a hot woodstove, and a chocolate colored dog in between me and the out-of-doors. A fine time to re-start a blog, if I do say so myself.

“The Adventures of Auntie Booger” originally chronicled my internship in Costa Rica waaaay back in aught-nine. Welcome to its reincarnation, which will follow my wildlife tracking and conservation biology internship with Sue Morse of Keeping Track in Jericho, Vermont.
A wee bit different climate than the next recent photo from this blog
Mystery Tracks
Alright, it’s storytime! I arrived here in Jericho just in time to find out that the first program of my internship was cancelled, so I have a week of time on my hands in the back woods of Vermont. YES! The perfect excuse to do things like get my first haircut in a year, make chicken soup, re-start Kamana 3, and most importantly, explore my new surroundings.  

I headed out today to the marsh in the backyard to look at some mystery tracks I had spotted yesterday. On the snow-covered ice next to slow moving marsh water that connected one large pond to another were three trails. The trails spanned only about sixty feet, starting and ending at openings in the marsh vegetation. Being unfamiliar with new northeast species, and with my tracking skills a bit rusty anyways, I was mystified. I couldn’t stop hoping for flying squirrels, red squirrels, ermines, and long-tailed weasels, but none fit well. Red squirrels are semi-hibernating, ermines are too small to make these tracks, and I couldn’t imagine flying squirrels or a long-tailed weasel enjoying a marshy cavity. I felt intuitively that I was missing something obvious. As I stood on the shaky marsh ice staring at those tracks, I realized that rather than waiting for a stroke of inspiration, I’d get down to business: sketch book out, measurements taken, brain and body activated.

My trail far left; barbells pattern next, then two more trails
Instant Gratification: Rare But True
No less than about five minutes into my “dirt time,” the tracking gods smiled down upon me. I heard a scuffling and caught sight of a brown blob quickly bouncing out of one of the marsh entrances and then back in. Immediately my brain registered the obvious: Mink! Neovison vison! DUH! YES! WHAT A GIFT! I froze (it wasn’t hard considering it was about negative five degrees F out), trying to spy the thing through the cattails. Out of the hole it hopped, through the reeds and away.

I was pretty dang stoked. I have this story I tell myself that I never have cool animal sightings in the wild. I like to forget about the time on our Anake survival trip when I was sitting alone at a river’s edge and  saw three northern river otters in a choreographed lope up the opposite bank, weaving beautifully in and out, in and out, like a mammalian braid, until they seamlessly ran into the water. I gloss over the time I woke from a late afternoon outdoor nap in coastal California and got to watch a bobcat enter the new RDI orchard, methodically stalking and then pouncing on gopher holes. Or the time the ruby-crowned kinglet decided to pay me a visit at my dreary winter sit spot in Washington, playfully scouring spores from a sword fern not four feet away from me. The list goes on, and I name these encounters to prove my story wrong. But I digress.
First tracks out of the marsh vegetation: front foot below; mud from hind foot above
As I said, I was stoked. I was full to the brim. So, happily, I finished my notes and walked into the forest. I headed toward a neighbor’s pond and marsh that I hadn’t explored yet, passing by old deer and domestic dog trails I had seen earlier. I was traversing the edge between the forest and the marsh, taking pictures of what I thought were flying squirrel tracks, when suddenly I realized that someone else was travelling that edge habitat as well. To my left about thirty feet, there she was again, the dark brown mustelid with her flexibly sleek body moving forward in its silly rocking-horse gait. As I watched her romp through the forest, I immediately thought of my friend Alexia. Alexia, too, sometimes giddily bounces around her farm and through life, and she’s often accompanied by this mink’s distant cousin, the domesticated ferret named Hob.

Hot (and Bumbling) On The Trail
I felt like Roald Dahl’s BFG (Big Friendly Giant) as I fumbled to put the camera I had been using into my pocket, and clumsily navigated the perilous marsh ice and prison-like hemlock boughs in order to follow Neovison. A beautiful two-by-two lope was laid out before me, gorgeous in the powdery snow. I was surprised at how old the trail looked, considering it was made only seconds before. But the dry, light quality of the snow caused much of it to fall in the tracks, giving them an aged appearance.

Clear prints in bottom left corner; follow the 2x2 lope all the way to the tippy top of photo
That little mink knew what she was up to. It seemed she was travelling mainly from one downed tree to another, passing by—but not exploring in depth—upturned root balls and the crevices under fallen conifers. I assume she was travelling in an opportunistic fashion, perhaps sniffing for rodents as she loped along. The two-by-two gait showed up sometimes as the “barbell” pattern I’ve seen attributed to douglas squirrels: in all the bounds, the mink’s hind feet landed directly on top of the front tracks, so the group of four shows up as just two depressions, and the gap between every other group of two is bridged by a drag line. I had caught a glimpse of this as the mink moved away from me—she took a small bound (creating the drag marks between two sets of two impressions), then a larger one (no drag marks), then a smaller one (drag marks), then a larger one (no drag marks).

On my computer I labelled this photo "mink on a stick" heh heh
It certainly looked like Neovison was having fun. Bounding through the forest, jumping through root ball windows, hopping on top of a log and moseying along it. I lost the trail only about 30 minutes after finding it, where Neovison encountered another downed tree and turned left, running underneath it. I couldn’t find where she exited, so I started to walk a large circle around the tree, hoping to cut the trail. All I saw were tons of deer tracks, which incidentally looked quite similar to the mink’s trail, what with the deers’ toes dragging.

Instant Gratification: Not Quite As Rare As We Thought Previously
As I continued to be on the lookout for mink, I pondered why this spot was so popular for the deer. There were meandering slowly through an area that had a concentration of many wind-fallen hemlocks. I found some feeding sign on hemlock needles, but not a ton. “I’ll have to come back here to find out where they’re bedding down,” I thought, and turned to my left to have my second instant gratification answer of the day: two beautiful deer beds in the snow. A third lay close by. Post-rest scats littered one, just where its bum must have been lying, and hair as well as a clear body print was visible in the other two. Wow.

Can you find at least one spot where the deers folded front legs register as two triangles, and a corresponding rounded back imprint below it? Most visible in upper left, but two others are also in this photo. 
I circled the spot where I had lost Neovision twice, but to no avail. Either she was still hanging out under that downed tree, or she had given me the slip.  I happily walked back to the house, trailing a fox for a bit on the way, enjoying the crazy crispness and the streaming low sun in the late afternoon sky.

What’s In A Name?
“Neovison.” I searched for the etymology of this name, and came up mostly blank. The best I could find on an obscure web page on minks that has no home page (read: not terribly reliable source) was “vison: probably Latin; visor (a scout).” Sweet! The skills of the scout are what we in the nature-connection movement are striving for—stealth, care-taking, protection, intimacy with the land. From my 7th grade Latin class I remembered that “neo” means new. I’ve held the sacred question for a couple years now of what it means to be a scout in the modern day. It’s one thing to rub my face with charcoal and feel the thrill that accompanies sneaking around in the woods, but what does it really mean to be a “new scout”? How can I be intimately in relationship with both the landscapes and the people of this world? How can I walk in both worlds, carrying the lessons of the wild into the human sphere? How can I care for both?

And then I added an “i” to vison, which yields “new vision.”  A new perspective.  So true for me as of late. From the Renewal of Creative Path gathering I just participated in to my solitude in this totally new landscape, I am blessed with new perspectives. New vision abounds, and I intend to step into each day of this new year with it.

Thank you, Neovison vison, for gracing me with your presence today.

Snowy marsh
(p.s. Fellow trackers, please correct me on any of the tracking details of this in the comments section!)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Land Up North

Hello patient blog readers! It’s been almost a month since my last post, and for good reason: Nicaragua. For two weeks in mid-May, Nicole, Carolyn (Liner) and I traveled around the country of Nicas north of us. We miraculously made the capital city transit from San Jose to Managua in one day on a total of three buses. When the Ticabus stopped at the border, our passports were collected into a ziplock bag (gulp) as five “medical doctors” in white smocks and respirator masks slowly traveled the aisles of the bus asking us our names, ages, passport numbers and any “cold or flu symptoms.” The last column, unsurprisingly, contained only one repeated word: “no!”. Carolyn, who actually did have a cold, looked back at me with a panic stricken face, mouthing, “What do I do??” “LIE,” I whispered assuringly. She covered her coughs by clearing her throat many times for the prestigious “medicas,” and thus earned the nickname “Swiner Liner” for the remainder of the trip.

After a massive late night dinner in Managua, we slept well at a nearby hostel and the next day flew to the Corn Islands off the east coast of the country. While Nicole and a friend from home got their scuba certification, Liner and I chose a small, splatter-painted one room bed/bath/pooper accommodation right on the beach run by Gracie. We especially enjoyed the Ron Don seafood soup she made us, the rat that ate our freshly baked loaf of coconut bread, the mosquito net over our bed, and Adam, Gracie’s helpful nephew who, upon hearing we were thinking of taking a ferry ride to Rivas and then the bus back to Managua, told us nonchalantly that he puked for the entire nine hour ride as he sat surrounded by baskets of fish. During that week, we wandered the touristy pulperias in search of the biggest jar of peanut butter, found the best restaurant with the cheapest breakfast pinto, and spied on fish schools and sharks while snorkeling. We caught Frisbees in the surf, watched local boys of indigenous, Spanish and Carribean features play baseball like major leaguers, and listened intently to their Spanglish/Rasta/Carribean-accented trash talk. We explored the non-touristy north side of the island, getting lost, fearing cannibals, and finding our way back to town through forest, orange grove, and a baseball field surrounded with mango trees. We got disgusted by the amount of trash on the island, pondered the effect of tourists on the ecosystem and quality of life of the locals, and then chatted with an awesome local guy William about all of the above. It was a great week, except that it marked the end of Carolyn’s travels when she had to fly home because of a death in the family.

Nicole and I continued on alone, flying back to Managua and taxi-ing to Granada, a bright colonial city that still retains the aesthetic of its conquested past. The buildings wore different shades of tropical colors accented by white borders and church bells residing in massive churches seemed to greet us around every corner. Almost all the roofs of every building were beautiful orange tile, their dark, hardwood rafters highlighted by decorative rafter ends with “angry cane” reed ceilings and hanging plants. Bicycles abounded, and you were always seeing single bikes that contained multiple people: a father with his uniformed kindergarten son sleeping through the ride on the handlebars, a teen boyfriend/girlfriend combos grinning as the lady sat close to her boy on the top tube, a middle aged couple dressed nicely as if going out to dinner. We spent two days in Granada, wandering (I found a monastery/museum where Bartolome de las Casas, one of my most admired historical figures, lived), sitting in the central park to people watch (I accidentally got dog poopie on my foot while I was here and a kind one-armed man insisted on pouring water on it to help), finding great food (there was an indescribably beautiful moment where, in passing, without communicating verbally, I traded a pastry for a mango with an ancient thin-as-a-straw Granadan woman), walking down to Lake Nicaragua (and going to Mass on the way back), and spending the evenings in the backpacker haven that was our popular hostel, the Bearded Monkey (I met David from England, who, when I asked him to describe himself in three words, chose “kind sophisticated romantic,” which made sense since we proceeded to talk about God, love and best man speeches).

From Granada, Nicole and I bused down the West coast of Lake Nicaragua to the town of Rivas, and then took a small ferry over to the dual volcano island of Omatepe. We gave fake names and passport numbers to some more sketchy swine flu officials and then talked a taxi driver into a cheap fare to a beach on the isthmus that connects the two volcanoes of the island. We chilled on the beach for a day, attracting the unwanted attention of some Nicos who saw us dancing to Ranch music, and then bused to the north end of the island in search of the Volcan Conception. In the town of Moyogolpa we found Norman, a fantastic young local guy who led us up, explaining (in Spanish) about the white faced capuchin monkeys we saw in the trees, how his grandmother was around for the last eruption and how she uses guanacoste tree seed pods as soap. Luckily, it was windy, so the clouds and volcano gases parted for us to see an awesome view of the island and north coast towns. I enjoyed a big bowl of beef soup when we got down and we settled in for a nap on the plancha back to Rivas. The rest of the trip was uneventful…I bought some underwear two sizes too small in Rivas, we stayed at a smelly hostel where a smiling old woman named Soledad (picture on the right) entered our names in beautiful cursive into an ancient record book, and the following day we took a series of three buses and two taxis back to the Ranch.

What a trip! It was a whirlwind full of emotion as we dealt with unforeseen events on the trip and also processed the past five months we’ve spent at the inspiring, comfortable, challenging place that is Rancho Mastatal. By the next time I post, I’ll most likely be back in the States…can’t wait to see you all!