Friday, December 16, 2011

Tracking Stories (combined)

This morning I followed my fox down the hill to the lake. By "followed," I mean I walked next to his footprints, and by "my fox," I only mean the local one who lays dainty beaded necklaces of tracks all over my yard and across my doorstep. In the delicate trails woven through hemlocks, along fallen logs, to and from the compost pile, and zigzagging down the driveway, I hear poet Mary Oliver give my wild neighbors a voice…“Listen, says fox, it is music to run over the hills” (Straight Talk from Fox in Red Bird)

Music…reading…both are wonderful metaphors for animal tracking. The recent snows are an excellent tracking medium, and noticing tracks can make the woods come alive. Last week, behind the garage, I found a mess of the fox’s tracks around a small lump of leaves covered in snow. Two bright yellow dabs of urine indicated that this was a scent mound, used for marking his territory. Male members of the dog family, Canidae, will use raised leg urination (RLU) to let others in the area know that this territory is taken and defended.

You may think I'm crazy, but I got down on my hands and knees and sniffed the urine. Red fox and gray fox urine each have their own unique scents. Both are slightly skunky, but the red fox smells much sharper and stronger, while the gray fox's scent is mellower. The smell test confirmed that I've been tracking a gray fox. This scent marking is also why I've been referring to my neighbor as "he." By the end of last winter I had noticed enough side-by-side fox trails to be confident that my yard housed a pair of foxes. I don't have enough evidence yet to be sure that the female is still around, but this is the beginning of mating season, so I may know soon.

Back at the lake I found a gray fox highway. Perforating the snow were at least eight different sets of tracks going in many directions along the edge of the ice and up onto shore. One of the trails was very different, definitely not a fox.

Large (as long as my entire pointer finger) and with five toes arranged asymmetrically, these tracks bounded along the bank in the 2x pattern. This is a common track pattern in the Mustelidae or weasel family, and we can find half-inch tracks from the least weasel all the way up to four-inch tracks from the river otter and fisher arranged two-by-two down trails in this area. Each set of tracks is the result of the back feet landing exactly in the prints left by the front feet.

Being so close to the lake, I expected the animal to suddenly break into a slide at any moment. River otters will often belly-sled over leaves, mud, ice, or snow, leaving long, foot-wide troughs between short groups of tracks. I walked faster as we followed the trail over logs, down near alders on the shore, and under balsam fir branches. Not once did they break from the 2x pattern. So, in my notebook, I would record these large weasel tracks as “likely fisher.” These large, dark brown weasels, with a reputation for being inquisitive and ferocious, are an important predator of porcupines in the region. Hunters often share stories of seeing fishers while sitting quietly.

Tracking is always a “probably” kind of game. Any animal can do any gait, and foot size overlaps among many species. While habitat, behavior, scat, kill sites, and many other clues can help with identification, there is always an element of uncertainty.  The sense of a mystery that might not be solved is what keeps me hooked.

Red-cheeked and warm from the walk, practically dancing with joy at the chance to read new stories, I have to say I agree with the fox: it is music to travel over the hills.

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