This afternoon I talked my friend Leanna into snowshoeing back out to Inkpot Lake with me – some students had told me they’d seen signs of Black-backed Woodpecker activity out there, and I was skeptical but I wanted to check it out. We took snowshoes instead of skis this time to make bushwhacking around on the boggy lakeshore easier.
Being a pair of naturalist nerds, we spent the whole hike out stopping to examine the tracks and scat we found along the trail. (Click any image to bring up a slideshow with captions.)
More fisher tracks.
Ruffed Grouse again – you can see the impressions of the wings where it took flight.
Snowshoe hare tracks.
No clue. Maybe a raccoon latrine?
Ruffed Grouse tracks, with scat in lower left.
Coyote (or possible wolf?) scat.
Did we find any signs of Black-backed Woodpeckers? Did we have any other interesting wildlife encounters at the lake? Come back Friday to find out. (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.)
One of the lakes on our campus has the evocative name of Inkpot. Unlike the rest of them, which are clear, pristine, eutrophic kettle lakes, take a canoe out on Inkpot in the summer and you’ll discover that it’s surprisingly murky and full of aquatic vegetation. Part of the reason for this, according to one of the science teachers here, is that it’s at a slightly lower elevation than the other lakes; another reason is that a sluggish stream flows through it from a nearby spring, meaning it’s the only lake on campus with any current. There’s even an old beaver dam at the outflow, although it doesn’t appear to be actively maintained by beavers anymore.
The current means the ice is thinner on Inkpot than on the true kettle lakes, and I’d heard that last weekend someone saw otters there, coming and going through a small patch of open water. Today a friend and I skied out that way, and while we didn’t see otters or any open water, we did see otter tracks of varying ages criss-crossing the surface of the ice. At one point an older set of tracks appeared to vanish at the lake’s edge, and I managed to push my skis through a snowdrift to get a closer look.
So yeah, today I learned that otters make snow tunnels just like mice and squirrels do!
One other small point of interest: getting out to this lake, at the far western end of the property, required skiing a much longer, hillier trail than I’d done before, and actually getting to the edge of the lake required leaving the groomed trail and going down a slope through a couple feet of fluffy, unpacked snow. And then back up it when we were done. On skis. There was a lot of screaming and falling. Leanna, the friend who went with me (and the person in the panorama above), composed a haiku about the experience that she wanted me to share with you.
On an adventure Otter tunnels in the snow Sp-lat on my back
She is adamant that “sp-lat” should be pronounced as two syllables.
Due to some temperature ups and downs, when I went for my walk Saturday afternoon there was only a light coating of snow on the ground. (This is no longer the case, thanks to a snowstorm Sunday night.) Animal tracks show up beautifully clear and sharp in half an inch of snow, and even the tracks of common species can be fun to find, photograph, and follow.
Based on the size and shape, I’m pretty sure these are raccoon tracks. Skunk tracks look similar but are smaller, and I don’t think the pattern is right for a fisher. You can see the five long toes on both the front and hind feet (the tracks with the bigger, longer pads are the hind feet) and the dots left by the claws.
On the same walk I found the tracks of deer, red squirrels, gray squirrels, mice, a small weasel of some sort (we have long-tailed, short-tailed, and least all here), and something that I think was probably a fox. The woods are full of life, and if you play detective you can always find clues, even if you rarely see the animals themselves.
Okay, I didn’t actually see the otters themselves, but this is almost as cool. This week I’ve been teaching my students the basics of identifying animal tracks. (I’m hardly an expert on the subject myself, but I know enough about it to teach a short lesson, anyway.) In the woods near one of the lakes we found this odd groove in the snow, as though something had been dragged.
It was a bit of a mystery until we followed the trail down to the edge of the lake.
An otter had been playing in the ice and snow, running around and doing belly slides. What looked like a trail left by something being dragged through the snow was actually from an otter pushing itself along on its belly. I love that otters seem to enjoy playing in the snow every bit as much as people do!
Speaking of people playing in the snow, you haven’t lived until you’ve watched a group of teenagers play snowshoe kickball. Snowshoe kickball is just like regular kickball, except it’s played in the snow while wearing snowshoes, and there’s generally a lot of falling down.
High temp today – 37ºF, so mild and springlike!
Sunrise at 7:01AM, sunset at 5:25PM – that’s 10 hrs 25 min of daylight, another 20 minutes more than last week
Compare this photo to the last one I posted from the same place – even though we’ve had mild weather the last couple days, Pickerel Creek remains iced over for now.
Turning around on the bridge to face the other direction, I snapped this photo of tracks where something crossed the creek on top of the ice.
The “something” was a snowshoe hare. Their name comes, of course, from the enormous size of their hind paws, which are the same size as a wolf’s! Check out this photo showing a full set of tracks (the big ones are the hind paws, the smaller ones the front paws). Not only do my feet show you the scale of these tracks, but they also demonstrate how deep the snow is – I’m sinking over my ankles, while this large member of the rabbit family barely made a dent thanks to the large surface area of its feet.
I have yet to actually lay eyes on a snowshoe hare, only on their tracks. Brown in the summer, they turn white in winter to blend in with the snow. You can read more about them here.
Recently I found an intriguing set of tracks in the deep snow, just over a ridge from the edge of one of the lakes.
The track field guide I own is useless for deep snow (we have about a 15″ base now), where instead of nice neat paw prints I find these clusters of tracks where an animal leaped and bounded through the drifts. Each of these groups of prints was roughly two feet long, with about three feet of clear snow in between where the animal leaped. So, something bigger than a squirrel, smaller than a wolf, and more athletic than a porcupine. Fisher? Marten? Fox? You tell me.
Looking for signs of life in the January woods is a bit like being a detective searching for clues. One thing I find myself constantly noticing is all the little sheltered snow-free spots that look like they’d be perfect places for small animals to hunker down.
The hollow under this log actually went back further than I could see.
And in this case, something – probably a red squirrel? – agreed with me about its shelter potential. There were tracks leading through the snow straight to the log.
Wednesday night we finally got some fresh snow, and since I was miraculously free yesterday afternoon I took advantage of the chance to tramp around in the quiet woods for a couple hours. (And I do mean quiet. Even birds were few and far between, though I flushed several grouse toward the end of my walk. I could hear every gust of wind approaching from far away as the sighing of the trees got closer and closer.) When the sun started peeking out I tried in vain to capture how beautiful the light illuminating the treetops was.
I was also on the lookout for animal tracks. Most of what I saw were from the ubiquitous red squirrels, but crisscrossing the trails in several places were what looked like small tunnels through the snow, about an inch across.
At one point the tunnel-maker had emerged to hop across the surface, leaving tiny tracks.
My field guide to animal tracks was frustratingly unhelpful, but I would guess these are the work of the tiny shrews I spotted occasionally on the forest floor early in the fall. (If anyone has any different insights, please share in the comments!) I’m hoping that if I get out in the snow regularly this winter I’ll be able to find more interesting prints – bobcats, bears, wolves, who knows!
The plates in my copy of the Peterson field guide to animal tracks suggest that the wide loops mean the snake in question was moving quickly. Apparently a more leisurely-crawling snake leaves a straighter trail. (Incidentally, the Peterson animal track guide is a delightfully idiosyncratic field guide, with as much anecdote- and sidetrack-filled narration as actual hard information on identifying tracks. I kind of love it.)
The snake stopped to investigate a ghost crab burrow, as well.
The next time a kid asks me if the the burrows in the sand are “snake holes,” perhaps I’ll think twice before saying no.
February and March are such teases in Ohio. Right now we seem to be having a bit of a mini-thaw and the sound of dripping water is everywhere, but I know there are more snow showers in our forecast for later this week. I’m certainly guilty of complaining about the knee-deep layer of snow that’s been on the ground for the past several weeks, but I’m gaining a whole new appreciation of that fluffy white snow now that it’s being replaced by slush and mud. What’s worst is when you step into what looks like a drift of nice snow but turns out to be a thin layer of snow on top of a lot of slush and liquid. Instant soaking foot. Eeeeew.
When you live in the woods, one of the nice perks of having a thick coat of snow on the ground is seeing all the animal tracks. During the day the only mammals we see a lot of are the gray squirrels, but the tracks in the snow reveal what a busy place our woods are at night. I’m a novice at identifying tracks but you’d be amazed what you can learn from a little Googling.
Note the five toes. These were definitely too big for a squirrel, and I know raccoon prints are more hand-like – wouldn’t they have longer “fingers,” and a distinct “thumb”? After comparing with some picture online, my guess is skunk. But who knows.
These are a little easier.
Five toes in front, four in back: teh internetz inform me that this is a trait of mice and squirrels. And since the track ends abruptly at the base of a tree trunk, I think it’s a safe bet that these are indeed from my old buddy the gray squirrel.
Too bad none of the tracks in my woods are quite as interesting as these…