Monday, January 30, 2012

January Tracking Intensive: Snow, Snakes, and Skulls

The marvelous and mysterious Marcus Reynerson made an appearance this weekend, guiding us on a series of adventures. The title of this post says it all, but let me explain.

Saturday was a day of tracking in the snow up in the Cascades. I was still nursing a broken ankle that kept me off snowshoes, but I heard some great stories when people got back that evening. There's the mystery on everybody's mind: why is some snowshoe hare urine bright orange? One group followed bobcat tracks, and saw the places where the cat had looked around and scratched a tree. Two students went out and found a hollow tree which was described as a "bear shrine" where bears scratch the burned interior of the old tree.

So that's the "snow" part of the title. When we got together in the evening, Marcus and Dave shared some tips for recognizing non-mammal tracks. Have you ever thought about how many toes a woodpecker has? Or how a salamander moves? Can you really picture the sequence of footsteps as a beetle or spider walks along? Many of those invertebrate tracks will show up in the spring and summer, but the winter mud here gives plenty of opportunity for tracking birds and other critters. We trackers aren't above catching beetles and filming them in order to study their movements. And yes, we got to see a picture of snake tracks from the Oregon Dunes.

On to "skulls." Dr. Tom Murphy over at Edmonds Community College is a graduate of the Tracking Intensive, and opened up his lab for a day of extreme osteological geekiness. He has an impressive collection of animal skulls from the northwest, as well as fossil hominid skulls. We started off with a quiz of 16 animal skulls and a talk on skull terminology. I can hardly tell my fossa from my condyle, but with lots of hands-on examples the terms became useful. After lunch Dr. Murphy talked about primate locomotion and human evolution, and we wrapped up with another quiz on mammal families. The day was a blend of scientific detail and vivid imagination--I liked to look at the skulls and imagine the flesh and muscle on the living creature. How does the skull reflect the senses and strategies of the animal? What does it feel like to be a shrew or a moose? Who has eyes on the front of their heads, and who has them on the sides? What can I tell about the individual animal who once wore this skull? And what does my own skull reflect about me? Lots to ponder until we meet again in February.

January Tracking Club

Despite the rain, a group of ten people showed up for this Saturday Tracking Club. There was soggy snow all over the Snoqualmie Valley, and so the best place for clear tracks was under the Tolt Bridge in Carnation. After a quick awareness game, we scampered under the bride and found more than I had bargained for! There were a lot of questions to ask, like which small mammals hang out under bridges more often, mice or shrews? Can I tell song sparrow tracks apart from junco tracks? Hint: junco tracks are stouter, sparrow tracks more spidery. Some five-toed masked bandit had also been spending plenty of time under the bridge. How many were there? Where did it or they go from here? I was especially glad to bring my visiting dad to this tracking club. It was a good chance to share inquiry and problem-solving, some of the really fun adventure of finding and following footprints of wild animals.

After we wore out our noggins with detailed bridge tracks, we went to Chinook Bend, where a young eagle circled around us. We walked down the road and tracked some larger animals in the snow. Big, cloven-hoofed, shaggy brown animals, to be precise. Cows? Moose? There were two of them strolling through the snow-covered meadow, and their tracks went from one clump of orchardgrass to another. The orchardgrass was chewed down to the ground. Why did they choose this species of grass? A quick taste test revealed that the orchardgrass was sweeter than the other plants growing there. Eventually my dad got bored with the big beast tracks (they were elk) and wandered down to the river to watch buffleheads and mergansers. People who know me won't be surprised; I'll take birds over mammals any time.
Tracking Club, as usual, was a good day of questions and adventure, showing how many stories can be recorded in the landscape when we stop to pay attention. Pretty much everyone can work up enthusiasm about good animal questions, even dads who are reluctant to get on their hands and knees on the dirt. Go tracking with someone you love today.