Tracking! That’s what it’s good for! Today was dedicated to trying to wear out the dog, so I don’t have to worry about him during the Thanksgiving festivities. To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to a walk in the snow. Sure, it looks dramatic at first, but I worried that I would get cold, or that my new boots would hurt my feet, or that I would get cold. I don’t like being cold. In fact, for being a naturalist, I’m really pretty wimpy about it. It was around 20 degrees this morning, something that my high school pals still in Montana would consider a heat wave. There is really only a skiff of snow on the ground. But I still hauled out my new boots, my serious snow pants, and my heavy winter coat. Add handknit gloves made from alpaca yarn (and love), and a good hat and I was probably ridiculously over-dressed. But we set out for a bit of a wander around the stormwater treatment ponds, which we like to call the “frog refuge” because of the amazing chorus of frogs that we hear there in the summer.
I’m not really sure how it works, but it seems like the snow makes it easier for Corrie to follow scents. It’s like the cold traps the scents closer to the ground or something. Right away, Corrie was on the trail of something interesting. I couldn’t make out what he was after, because there were tons of dog tracks at the start. This is a common place for folks to come walking with their dogs. But pretty soon Corrie’s nose led him off on a less-traveled path and there seemed to be a particular set of tracks that stood out to me. I am not so good a tracker that I can always know one track from another, and telling domestic dog tracks from any other sort of canine track is challenging for me. But this particular set of tracks seemed somehow “neater” than the others. Not neat as in cool (although all tracks are pretty cool), but sort of “tidy”. They were always in straight line, and didn’t wander from side to side or jump around. In places where the tracks separated from the main trail to check out a tree or bush, I didn’t see any human tracks next to them. The tracks were definitely canine, with 4 toes, clearly registering nails, an over-all rectangular shape, and a relatively small heel pad. The heel pad was small enough that I occasionally got confused about which way the animal was traveling, although Corrie never seemed to have a question about which direction we should go to follow it. I had seen tracks similar to this in several places, but I kept flashing on a scene very different from this one, on a sunny day in the Oregon Dunes with a tracker that I respect very much. He had mentioned this tendency of fox tracks to have such a small heel pad that you could mistake it for a toe.
This fox took us on quite a wander. We waded across a stream following some raccoon tracks, and actually back-tracked all the way to the large cedar tree at the edge of the creek where the raccoon came down out of the tree. It made me wonder what the raccoon was doing up there in that tree. We were not there particularly early, and the tracks seemed like they were fresh from that morning (it had been windy and snowing overnight, but these tracks were clear and crisp). Had the raccoon taken a little nap up there and then resumed hunting early in the morning? Was this particular raccoon confused about how it’s supposed to be nocturnal and was sleeping through the night? Was there something to eat up in that tree? I did not figure out the answer to any of those questions. We did try tracking it forward instead of backwards for a while, but it had walked out onto the frozen over edges of the ponds. Corrie, not being from a place where things freeze much, walked right out onto the ice and broke through. Fortunately, it was only knee-deep on him in that spot, but between that and figuring that he would probably be just as clueless if we were to actually catch up with the raccoon, we decided to head back over to the fox trail and see where else that took us.
And boy am I glad. I have been pondering for years if the mammal activity I see on this creek is otter or beaver or both. It’s tall tall grasses along the bank, so I haven’t ever found tracks, but there are long well-established slides all along the bank. There is clear beaver activity along the bank, with beaver-sharpened sticks and stumps everywhere. So I would have assumed it was all beaver sign, if it wasn’t for super-helpful Corrie who has pointed out on previous visits that some of the scat along the creek smells deliciously of fish scales and crayfish parts. We have had more than one bath immediately following a trip to the frog refuge specifically because this scat is so appealing to Corrie. The creek is separated from the main pond by a narrow strip of land where the maintenance road is built up. Years ago, another tracker that I respect very much (one who doesn’t have a website that I know of) pointed out in Discovery Park in Seattle that any time you have a narrow strip of land separating two bodies of water, you should look for otter sign. I don’t know enough about beavers and otters to know if they would share habitat so closely as this, or if perhaps beaver scat would smell like otter scat under certain circumstances (even though beavers are herbivores and their scat should smell like…well, bark). Otters are definitely not herbivores, and that tracker in Discovery Park said that she had actually seen otters lunge up on to the rocks to catch and kill shorebirds. But mostly they eat things that make their scat smell like fish. So given that I have been pondering this for a couple years now, I was super stoked to see a small haul-out in the snow on the shore of the creek. And clear as day in the middle of that haul-out was this track on the right. At a glance, I might have mistaken it for a raccoon track, except that no tracks led up to or away from it in the snow. There was only a disturbance in the snow about two feet in diameter right on the edge of the creek, and this one track right in the middle of it. I think it is an otter track, although I am always open to having someone point out if I’m missing something obvious that makes this a beaver track, or something else altogether. Just a few feet down the creek was a clear beaver drag. I couldn’t get a good picture of it in the brush, but there was a beaver-cut branch dragged under the fence in a slide that had mug drug over the top of the snow. The snow had only been on the ground for a day, so that means a beaver and an otter had been using this same bank within a few feet of each other on the same day. I would feel really guilty going here without Corrie, but maybe I’ll have to come hang out here for a while without him and see what I can see.
From there, we left the fox track for a while to follow the maintenance road through the boggy spots. Eventually, I noticed that those same tidy tracks had appeared along the edge of the maintenance road, as if our friend had decided that that was a good route for getting from place to place also. We followed the trail as it headed off the road down into the little clearing where I harvested most of the stinging nettle that I used for teaching native fibers at SOAR this year. Lots more beaver sign, and with the leaves fallen from all the alder trees, I noticed several stalks of nettle that I hadn’t seen before, some of it HUGE. I noticed a couple stalks growing up through the trees that were easily 12 feet tall, and probably taller. I’m curious to watch the rotting process of these stalks and see if there is a point where they are field-retted, similar to flax, where the silky bast fibers are more easily harvested than the way I’ve been doing it by harvesting them in the fall.
Eventually, the fox trail headed over the railroad tracks and into the neighboring lumber mill, so we didn’t follow. Heading back to the maintenance road, we followed it back to the car. On our way, I wondered if the fox had missed its chance at breakfast after all. There were lots of rodent tracks crossing the road. I don’t know my rodents well enough to know them from each other. This first one had this pattern repeated several times straight across the road. I know that from left to right in this picture, you are seeing a front foot, front foot, and then two hind feet side-by-side, and that the animal was moving from the left to the right across the picture. On both sides of the road were small holes in the snow where the tracks originated and disappeared. In the second picture, the tracks curved all over, instead of heading straight across the road, and there were no holes that I could see on either side of the road. I think the straight line in the middle of the tracks is a tail drag, which makes this a jumping mouse? I know there are some folks reading this who know, so you should leave your thoughts in the comments.
And in all that time, I didn’t even think once about being cold.