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!)