Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Vacation

Just in case anyone is wondering where I am this week, I took the week off to look for jobs, and to use up some time (use it or lose it, y'know).

So, I probably won't have any posts this week. Stay tuned...I'll be back next week.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Frost and Feet

Brrr! It was -9*F overnight, -7 when I got to work. The frost had made beautiful pictures on the porch windows.

The trees looked like rock candy on a stick:

And the birdbath was steaming away. I watched a bluejay land on the post earlier, then hop down to the edge of the bath to get a drink. I'm glad I invested in this heated treat for the birds. Even though I don't often see a bird at the bath, I know they use it. It's gotta be better than eating snow for moisture!

I had my first official tracking class of the winter today, and it couldn't have been nicer weatherwise. The cold of the morning had worn off and conditions were great. I had 14 participants (!), and they were a great group, some local and one couple who drove over four hours this morning to get here before 10:00!

Most of our tracks today were squirrel, hare, mouse, fox and coyote. Overall, nothing too exciting, but the tracks were all very nice. Here is a typical example of what we saw - a nice series of snowshoe hare tracks that tell a story:

You can see where the hare came along, slowed down and stopped. It sat for a moment, hopped again, and stopped, perhaps to nibble on some twigs (we did find some nice hare browse in another location with similar tracks). Then it hopped off once more, and gathered speed (the tracks stretched out) before stopping again (off the photo).

Here we had a really nice set of snowshoe hare tracks. The animal hopped and stopped, sitting with its front feet in front. Note how widely the toes are spread on those back feet!

These coyote tracks that passed under the bridge, crossing from Graveyard Bay to the outlet of Rich Lake, were a pretty nifty find. At first I was trying to describe the set on the right: the animal possibly loping and then galloping. But in some of the sets, there looked like five or six footprints, not just four. Something odd was going on. Then one of the participants piped up: didn't you say that the coyotes often travel one behind the other? Couldn't this be multiple animals loping/galloping and they just aren't quite in synch? By golly, she was right.

Then we took a closer look at the trotting tracks to the left. They are nice and neat, but about every third one is doubled: two footprints. Again, we believe this was multiple animals, and one wasn't quite on target with the tracks of the first.

My next tracking class for the public is 27 February, 1:00 - 2:30 PM. Meanwhile, my school tracking programs start in two weeks. I've had a chance to brush up now, so I'm ready to begin the Snow Patrol season.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Cheshire Moon

The waxing crescent moon last night looked to me like the Cheshire Cat's grin after the cat had vanished.

It was a gloriously clear night, with Orion resting above the trees, Betelgeuse red on his shoulder and Sirius glowing brightly beyond his feet. I didn't have my remote shutter release with me, though, so my star photos didn't turn out. Tonight's supposed to be clear, though, so perhaps I'll give it another go.

Frigid Friday - The Weekend Weather Report

The Weather for Newcomb, NY
Friday, 22 January - Sunday, 24 January 2010

Friday: Sunny, with a high near 30*F and a low of -5*F tonight. Calm wind becoming east around 5mph.

Saturday: Sunny, with a high near 32*F and a low around 1*F. Wind chills during the day predicted at -2*F.

Sunday: A 30% chance of snow before 1 PM, then a chance of rain. Cloudy with a high near 37*F and a low around 35*F. Calm wind becoming SW between 10 and 13 mph, with gusts to 24 mph. By night the chance of precipitation (rain) rises to 90%, up to one inch possible.

*** The weather is subject to change without notice ***

Snow conditions at the VIC as of 10:00 AM on Friday:
Trails are well packed and we are holding steady at about 14" at the snowstick. We had about 1.5" of new and very fluffy snow earlier in the week, but this has since been packed down. Skiing is probably fast, due to packed nature of trails here and at Santanoni. Snowshoes are still required, regardless of how well-packed the trails are.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I Never Listen to Myself

I woke to a beautiful morning - the sun was rising, the sky was blue. I couldn't wait to walk the dog. While putting on my coat and getting Toby leashed up, I said to myself "take the camera - you'll regret it if you don't." And I answered myself "the last several times I've taken it, I haven't used it." So, I left it home. And of course, we found some great tracks. So, Toby got a very short walk, as I dashed back home, fed the dog, and headed off to work early, camera in hand to stop and photograph the tracks we encountered.

The first thing one might think when seeing these tracks is that a fox came along, gathered itself up and then jumped up on the snowbank.

A closer look should give you pause, however. Are these really fox tracks?

Consider: are there any claw marks? Is the overall shape of the track round or oval? Does the negative space between the toes and the footpad form an "X" or an "H", or is it more curved? The answers are no, round, and curved. This was a cat. We have had a bumper crop of feral cats this year, thanks to some neighbors, and many patrol the neighborhood. It's no surprise at all that Fluffy would be hunting up along this area, for it is now a field (of sorts) and no doubt great hunting for mice and voles.

Oops! The deer came bounding over the snowbank and woo-hoo! There's ice under that snow and deer don't really have non-skid pads on their feet.

A nice straight line of nice neat footprints - could only be a wild canid (unless it was a deer, and there's no way these are deer tracks). The feet were small, so it must be a fox.

Looking closely at the footprints in this trail, you can see claw marks, which gives us a clue that this is not a cat.

This next set of photos (three) are of a great set of tracks, which I'm not 100% sure I've deciphered. Here's my story: a grey fox came trotting along from the bottom left side of the photo. Then "something" happened, after which the fox lept forward, then turned and rapidly left the scene.

Looking closely at the "something," we see definite footprints, then what looks like feet skidding left and right on the ice.

A real close look at the "something" shows that this fox left a couple drops of urine behind. Yes, I got down on my belly and took a sniff; I couldn't detect a thing (a clue that it wasn't a red fox); this combined with the fact that I've only ever seen grey foxes in this area, tells me that these are grey fox tracks. Like the fox tracks from Vince's class, the urine drops are placed behind the feet, which says that this was a female. Was she just marking her territory and then slipped on the ice? I saw nothing that suggested this was two foxes and that mating took place (besides, it is still a bit early for foxes to be breeding, although they may be forming up pairs now - there were certainly plenty of tracks in the area, so there could be a potential mate hanging around).

Oops! There's ice underneath that snow!

This next pair of photos show a couple important characteristics of grey fox tracks. With the front foot, the negative space between the toes and footpad forms an "H"...

...whereas on the hind foot, this same space forms an "X":

On red foxes and coyotes, both feet would show an "X" in this negative space.

Last weekend while leading a tracking walk on the VIC trails, I was asked where all the scat was. We rarely see scats on our trails, so when I do find some, I'm always very excited. When I saw a dark spot on the snow this morning, I was thrilled - it had to be a scat. Sure enough, there it was: a nice tidy scat pile, left by the fox. Full of hairs, the ends tapered and twisted - no doubt at all who left it.

I loved this pair of tracks. We have a fox going left, and a cat going right. But, to the undiscerning eye, this is a strange animal that walks with extremely pronated feet.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tales from the Crypt

Yesterday I thought I'd do a tour of the basement at home and blog about the life I found there in the middle of winter. Unfortunately, the only signs of life were the onions that had sprouted:

Everything else was dead and dessicated.

The remains of a mouse lay out in the middle of the floor. At first I thought it was an owl pellet, due to the compact grey form and the bones, but, of course, there's no way for an owl to have been in (and survived) my basement. Nope, this mouse just up and died. Starvation? With the potatoes and onions stored down there?

A second mouse bit the dust.

Did the cold kill this spider? It couldn't have starved to death - look at all its catches.

All around the windows and walls assorted insects, spiders and goodness knows what all else provided decor.

I guess my basement isn't a safe haven in the winter.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Shameless Advertising

If you are interested in learning some tracking techniques, and if you are willing to travel to Newcomb, I will be teaching "Tracking 101 for Adults" on Saturday, 23 January 2010.

The program begins at 1:00 PM. We'll be indoors for the first part of the program, learning footprint and gait patterns, scat ID, et al. These are the basics you need to get you prepared to identify what you see.

Then we'll strap on snowshoes and hit the trail. At the moment there are lots of great tracks on our property, so hopefully this will continue through next weekend.

Bring water with you, and a snack, but be sure to eat your lunch before you come. And you'll want to bring appropriate outdoor gear (hats, fleeces, mittens, etc.), although we have snowshoes to lend if you need them.

If you want to come and play with us, give us a call - program is pre-registration. Our number is 518-582-2000.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Frigid Fridays - The Weekend Weather Post

The Weekend Weather Report
for 15-17 January 2010

Friday, 15 January: 30% chance of light rain, mainly before 1 PM. High 35*F, low 22*F. West wind 6-8 mph, gusts to 26 mph.

Saturday, 16 January: Partly sunny. High 35*F, low 18*F. Light and variable wind.
Sunday, 17 January: Mostly cloudy. High 34*F, low 22*F. 30% chance of snow after 1AM. Winds light and variable.
Current Conditions: It is raining lightly. The snow is rather packy, but holding steady at about 14 inches. Good snowshoeing on packed trails, and probably same on ski trails (like Santanoni). If you are making your own trails, it may be hard-going.
*** Weather is subject to change without notice***


One of our staff came in yesterday afternoon from a quick jaunt around the Rich Lake Trail to tell me I should go out and investigate the scene of a crime. "Piles of fur," she said. So, I grabbed radio, camera and snowshoes and went to check it out.

There were three locations with piles of hair, and lots of tracks all around.

Fur/hair was scattered about at each of the three locations indicated above.

A close inspection of the fur/hair proved that it was indeed deer hair. Deer hair is very coarse, especially in winter. This is because the hairs of the winter coat are hollow, the air inside providing additional insulation.

Looking closely at the ends of the hairs, I could see they were neatly severed, like someone had cut them off with a sharp knife. There were no tooth marks, or signs of shredding.

As you can see, the perpetrators were all over the place. There were no signs of blood, no signs of a struggle, no signs of dragging. All of this leads me to suspect that these animals were lugging along a portion of an already deceased deer. I wonder if it was part of the same deer whose skull the girls brought in a couple weeks ago.

There were two spots where the animals left scent posts. I sniffed each, trying to ascertain whodunnit (I suspected coyotes). The pee was slightly musky with an overall sweet aroma. This was new to me. As I've mentioned before, red fox is skunky, so it was easy to eliminate that. I've never seen a grey fox on this property, and the tracks were simply too big for grey fox anyway. I've smelled what I thought was coyote urine before, but it was only musky, not sweet at all. I've sent an email to Vince to get his opinion - will keep you posted.

There were several sets of tracks coming across the ice of the bay. You could see where the coyotes had been walking in-line, and then split up. Because the sun was getting quite low in the sky (it was after 4:00), the light was getting dim.

I love this one, for it seems the coyote stepped up on this snowy stump to take a look (or maybe a sniff) around.

The coyotes came ashore here - their tracks were all over the place.

Here we see where a canid came along, gathered itself up, and leapt onto the boardwalk. I'm always amazed when they do this, for they must leap between the cables, which is a space of maybe 8". This leads me to think this animal was a fox, not a coyote. Plus, I know foxes routinely use this route, then head up the hill towards our birdfeeders - good mousing up there.

Because it was so mild, the snowfleas were out! I didn't see any actually hopping about, but apparently the migration was on.

So, questions remain. In a perfect world, I'd scout the shoreline and look for the rest of this deer. But, I don't trust the ice on this lake. There are springs underneath and in some areas the water is always on the move, making ice crossings potentially dangerous. Perhaps more clues will show up as the season progresses.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Weasel Wanderings

This morning was rather dark and dismal outside. It had tried to rain overnight, so there was a coating of ice on the car and the snow had a light crust. I was running late, so Toby got a short walk. For a change of pace, we detoured up to an abandoned property where kids ride dirt bikes in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter. I'm glad we did for I found this wonderful weasel trail, which included a slide:

I came back afterwards with the camera because I don't have any weasel tracks in my photo collection yet. I suspect this is a long-tailed weasel because they are the most common. If we were in England, this would be a stoat (short-tailed weasels are also stoats, apparently; to them a "weasel" is the least weasel, which you'd have to go up to Canada to find here).

The slide measures about 2" across.

Here's a shot looking up the slope. You can see where the weasel came from the woods and apparently did a little investigating.

After it slid down the wee slope, it bounded across the road, leaving these 2x2 tracks behind, which are typical of the weasels. The tracks were filled with snow, so they weren't too fresh. This animal may have come by sometime in the early night (it snowed a bit after it rained), or the tracks could've been from the previous night. I'm leaning more towards that because of the amount of snow in the tracks. It snowed quite hard a couple times during the day yesterday, resulting in about a half inch of new snow, which looks about right in these tracks.

A fox had passed by last night, too. Because I've seen grey foxes here, I'm pretty sure this is a grey fox trail. The tracks to the right show the typical "C" or rotary gallop, curving to the left. The tracks on the left are mine.

For comparison, here are my dog's tracks:

I can tell you he was pacing (a type of trot, where both the left feet move at the same time, then the right, then the left - like pacers at the race track) because that's his basic gait. Pacing is not a normal gait for most animals. Camels come by it naturally, and horses can be trained to do it. Looking at the tracks, though, you really can't tell this is what he's doing - you have to see the animal in action to note it. What you can see here, however, is each foot making its own track (no double registers here, where the hind foot lands where the front foot landed), and basically a sloppy pattern. Domestic dogs, for the most part, are not the efficient travellers their wild bretheren are.

So, here's a closer look at the fox's gallop:

With canines, the front feet are larger than the back (they are supporting more weight than the hind feet). In the gallop the feet land front-front-hind-hind, both hind feet coming down in front of the front feet. This animal was travelling from right to left in this photo, so the left-most tracks are the hind feet.

I took a close-up of one of the front footprints because I wanted to verify the size for grey fox. When measuring tracks, you want to measure the impressions made by the foot pads at the bottom of the print, not the hole in the snow, which is bigger than the actual foot. This foot measures about 1 6/8" ; on average a grey fox front foot measures 1 3/8 - 1 7/8", so this falls within the range.

And, of course, there is always the ubiquitous deer trail.