Tracker Tales

When I pulled into the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library parking lot this morning I didn’t expect any of the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Tuesday Trackers to be waiting for me given that the temperature was at least -20˚. But, Jo Radner was ready and waiting. She joined me for the drive to the John A. Segur West property on New Road.

Standing in the small parking lot was Stephen Lewis, another diehard participant. And as  Jo and I fiddled with our snowshoes, Heinrich Wurm pulled in.

And so, we four intrepid trampers took off over the snowbank and immediately met some tracks. A little back tracking and attention to details helped us determine a bobcat had crossed the trail. There were red and later gray squirrel tracks, deer, and mice. Most were old for the animals, especially the squirrels and mice seemed to be hunkered down in their holes–certainly a good choice.

j-junco tracks and wing marks

By the time we reached the old log landing at the end of the trail, we noticed lots of junco tracks and their small wing impressions. Seeds aplenty were scattered across the snow. Our conversation soon turned from the little birds to an experience I had this past week when a saw-whet owl flew into a thick stand of hemlocks I was crashing through like a bull in a china shop. I had just finished saying that much to my surprise the bird flew in as I broke through the branches when one would expect a bird to quickly depart, when Steve pointed at something in our midst.

j-mouse discovery 1a

We all moved in for a closer look.

j-mouse discovery 2

A dead mouse splayed on the branch of a gray birch. My brain played with that sight over and over again. Yes, we’d seen numerous crazy mouse tracks left behind by either deer or white-footed mice–it’s difficult to determine which, for both have long tails that leave drag marks between their footprints. Jumping mice hibernate so they could be ruled out.  Jo asked if I could tell which of the other two it might be. I’m happy to say that even well-respected tracker Paul Rezendes, author of Tracking and the Art of Seeing, has this to say, “There are more than 120 different species of North American mice, and about half of them fall under the general rubric ‘white-footed mouse.’ The deer mouse is a type of white-footed mouse, and to me there is not perceptible difference in tracks. There are several anatomical differences, but these change from habitat to habitat. The white-footed mouse measures up to about seven and a half inches long (including its three-and-a-half inch tail) and weighs one-half to one ounce. Its color is gray or light brown to dull orange-brown above, with a white belly, throat, and, as its name implies, feet. The deer mouse is gray to reddish brown on its upper parts, including its tail, and white below, with longer hind feet and a tail usually longer than its body. Both animals have bicolored a bicolored tail.”

j1-mouse 1

Our next question was, “How did it get there?” My mind immediately went to a December 13 entry on page 419 in Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious Day by Day about butcher birds overwintering. Mary discusses how northern shrikes preferred food sources are other birds, mammals and insects. “This tundra-nesting bird comes as far south as New England in the winter, where it preys mainly on mice, voles, and small birds.” She goes on to explain that the bird often kills more than it can consume and leaves some food in the freezer for future feeding adventures. “The manner in which it stores this extra food is what gives it the nickname ‘butcher bird.’ It often impales prey on a thorn, broken branch, or even barbed wire, or it wedges prey into narrow V-shaped forks of branches, where it hangs until reclaimed by the shrike.”

Bingo! I think we figured out what we were seeing and in Mary Holland’s book we have my dear friend, mentor and former LEA and GLLT Education Director, Bridie McGreavy, PhD, to thank for the photo.

We could have turned around then, so thrilled were we, but we hadn’t even reached the wetland. And so, a quick check to make sure everyone was comfortable and on we trekked.

j-deer crossing Bradley Brook

When we found more deer tracks, we decided to follow them in search of beds. At that point we found no bedding areas, but did see that the deer had crossed Bradley Brook.

j-Bradley Brook frozen

It was the first time I’d ever seen the brook frozen over and we took advantage by making our way to the other side.

j-water on lungwort 1

We continued looking for tracks, but found other things as well, including dried lungwort. I mentioned that lungwort, like other bryophytes, will immediately photosynthesize when water is added. Jo wanted proof and so I had her pull out my water bottle and pour it over the leafy structure.

j-lungwort turning green

Within minutes . . .

j-lungwort magic

magic.

j-beaver works 1

As we crossed the wetland, we searched high and low for evidence of wildlife. Up high, chickadees and goldfinches sang from treetops. Down low–not a single track. We did find a few examples of beaver works.

j-beaver works 2

And we thought perhaps the lodges were active.

j-beaver works 3

We hoped.

j-checking the beaver lodge1

But our hope was dashed.

j-beaver lodge 2

No vent hole above and no evidence of life anywhere nearby. Perhaps they’d abandoned this for a second one we spied.

j-stone lodge

Only thing is that the second one also supported no mammal life at the moment, for it turned out not to be a lodge after all, but a boulder covered with snow.

j-beaver dam

Just beyond the boulder lodge, however, we found the old dam, which still stood strong.

j-sharing smiles at the dam

Our smiles were equally strong as we acknowledge what a fine day it had been and this would make the perfect turn around point.

j-Heinrich looking skyward

Jo and Steve took one last look at the brook below and Heiner turned his eyes skyward.

j-heading back

Heading back, we all did the same for we heard military planes flying overhead and could see their contrails.

j-looking north

But it was the cloud formation that really drew our attention.

j-clouds 2

Steve mentioned lenticular clouds and it seemed the perfect explanation given that these lens-shaped structures probably formed after the flow of air encountered Mount Washington.

j-mouse in tree crotch

Our journey back found us going off trail again, and we did find a couple of deer beds, but what will stand out in our brains for this day’s tramp–the mouse with the very long tail and tiny white feet. How it got there, we don’t know for sure, though the shrike story does make sense. What I am sure of is that it will become part of our tracker tales.