Monday, February 13, 2012

Winter Wildlife Tracking with Nick and Valerie Wisniewski

Another fantastic wildlife adventure: complete!

Through the club I am President of, The Wildlife Society Student Chapter at FLCC, I was able to arrange a tracking weekend workshop, and hire 2 lovely people from Walnut Hill Tracking and Nature Center (Orange, MA). I met the Wisniewski's last summer when I traveled to them with my Black Bear Management class that I was enrolled in last summer. We were studying this interesting type of marking behavior that black bears do, and these people are some of the only experts that I've been able to find.

For more info on this bear behavior: Back to bloggin'...for now.
Anyway, I loved learning from them last summer, so I decided to see if they could come visit us at our Muller Field Station for the weekend. I invited club members and other conservation department students, and some staff members for the experience.

Friday afternoon, Sasha (our advisor and my friend) met Nick and Val at the field station to give them the tour and get them settled in. We left them to explore for the night, and returned the next morning. We had a GREAT group of people that all came together for the weekend, and who were all very enthusiastic. I was thankful for this because I didn't want people showing up for a free 'weekend away' and to not take it seriously! This was far from the case. Students involved were: Myself, Kelly, Kasey, Leslie, Judi, Petra, Deanna, Sean, Marshall, Tyler, Dakota - - and staff members: Sasha (advisor, conservation technician), and Nadia (Muller K12 outreach coordinator).

We learned about track patterns, stride, straddle, track shapes, pads, negative space, other things to look for like nails/fur on the track, gait names, and how to measure all of those wonderful things! Nick and Val were teaching to us on a basic level, because although we had differing degrees of knowledge/experience about wildlife, we were still ALL basic trackers. It's a huge, wide field of knowledge and takes a long time to learn!

Unfortunately I don't have pictures of all the species tracks we identified, but I will list them off:
  • Red fox
  • Canadian Goose
  • Short-tailed weasel
  • Long-tailed weasel
  • Vole sp.
  • Mice sp.
  • Red squirrel
  • Gray squirrel
  • Possibly flying squirrel sp.
  • Mink
  • White-tailed deer
  • Raccoon
Other types of sign ID'd:
  • Deer bed
  • Deer rub
  • Red fox scenting
  • Bird nests
  • Vole tunnels
  • Mink slide
  • Coyote scat
  • Deer scat
  • Deer browse
  • Chewed walnuts
  • Squirrel bites
  • Woodpecker holes
  • Woodchuck hole
  • Dreys
  • Otter latrine site
Live sightings:
  • Canadian Geese
  • Mallards
  • Red squirrel
  • Gray squirrel
  • Blue Jay
  • Downy/Hairy Woodpecker
Our field station, was beautiful this weekend. On Friday night, it started snowing. Here in the NE and in NY, we've had little snow this season. But, it started likely flurrying as we were getting Nick and Val settled in. By Saturday morning it was a beautiful, snowy landscape.

Photo credit: Leslie Crane
Myself, taking in WINTER!

The following are pictures taken over the weekend, I'll try to ID everything. It's difficult now a day or two later, and I don't have items for scale in hardly any of the pictures or labels. We were really moving on the fly! And I didn't want to get in anyone else's way. I will try to include at least one fun fact I learned about each species mentioned.

Meet and greet outside the house!

Photo credit: Sasha Mackenzie

First find of the day! Deer scat.

Frosty little jelly beans. Deer scat morphs with the season or even daily with what the deer are feeding on. Currently, in the winter, deer are browsing on tough, woody vegetation. Their scats are hard, compact little pellets, as you can see in this picture.

Next find: short-tail weasel tracks. Weasels are bounders!

As you can see, there are only 2 holes in the snow. That's because the back feet land where the front feet were previously.

Checking out some mink tracks! You can't see them in this picture, but they are running right along the line of ice and snow, on the snow.

Photo credit: Sasha Mackenzie

Bounding along!

Activity around a plunge hole. Mink are semi-aquatic Mustelids, and they are well insulated against the cold air temps AND water temps.

Travel between docks. You can see one in the picture, and I'm standing on the other.

Behind me, on the other side of the dock, was a bank covered in long grasses and weeds, all bent over from the snow. This makes the PERFECT cover for small critters. In this picture is a hole in the snow that the mink created. Perhaps going after prey? Or just to go somewhere else...?

Beaver chewed speckled alder.

Nick using calipers on some Canid scat. Unable to identify it, but narrowed it down between red fox and coyote. Both have scat diameter ranges that overlap eachother, so it's hard to tell. But definetely a wild dog left this scat behind. What's interesting about this, is that those stalks of milkweed you see, I left out back in January as a marker for a live trap I had set out during my Winter Ecology course. About a week and a half-2 weeks after, I went back to the spot while on a walk, and found this scat on top. It's common for dogs, especially wild ones, to scent, urinate, scat on top of something (a hummock, downed limb, plants sticking up, trash). Does it help lift the scent? Is a visual marker? What are they trying to tell me? Get out? Or here I am?


Canadian Goose tracks

Learning to measure straddle, or trail width.

Learning to measure stride, or length between tracks.

Valerie sniffing out some red fox urine. If you haven't smelled it before, and you live in red fox country- go outside. They're in mating mode right now, and the musk was almost thick on the air. We could smell it everywhere we went, and in my opinion, it's not an altogether unpleasant smell!

Everyone belly-down and sniffing for the scent spot on the red fox trail!

Dakota getting a sniff!

Leslie taking a turn...and...

Photo credit: Leslie Crane

Here we found a squirrel midden in a rotted out black walnut.

Squirrels, particularly reds I think, are very territorial. They will create caches and middens at the center or core of their territory. As a part of that territorial behavior, they will often bite along a tree or branch. This is a visual marker as well as a chemical (they have scent glands in their mouths) marker that warns off other squirrels. The redder or fresher looking wood in this picture is the bite area.

A midden of walnut husks.

My beautiful roommate, Kasey, and I! Bundled up against the snow :)

Tons of little mice tracks. Not sure of species: Peromyscus or Mus.

Photo credit: Sasha Mackenzie
Judi, our resident Brit, loving the snow!

And the last track picture I'll include are parallel track patterns of a white-tailed deer. I believe these are WTD because of the width of the trails. The deer on the left was dragging, most likely HIS, hooves. And the other, was picking them up out of the snow. If you look to the top of the picture, you can see the deer on the right begins to drag as well.

Photo credit: Sasha Mackenzie


    1. Very good pictures

    2. Thank you Alyssa, for putting this event together. I had a great time and learned a lot! Thanks to Nick and VAL, for coming out and sharing some of your experience with us.

    3. really informative and great pics. Can you tell me what a Drey is? Have never heard that word before. Also just a tidbit on the geese, being Canada and not Canadian. Just a bit of random nonsense.

    4. Ahh thanks learned something new today.


    Thank you for reading and wishing to leave a comment! Unfortunately, due to a high number of spam comments being left under the "Anonymous" heading, I had to disable that feature. You may still leave a comment with a Gmail account, or under the OpenID option! I welcome comments, suggestions, stories, and tall tales!