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!)

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