Reading Signs

By Boak Wiesner

Meeting some other intrepid souls on the boardwalk, they passed along a tip about some interesting tracks, out by the Red Barn. At their feet, I pointed out the muddy tracks of a skunk, who had hitched his self up on the boardwalk for a little easier travel.

DSC_0154Let me tell you, old age has very little to recommend it, but two things are in its favor when it comes to things natural. One is, you walk slowly, and, if you’re of a mind to be observant, many things become apparent. And two, after having looked at nature for most of my life, my past experiences and learnings can be brought to bear on a particular occurrence I may come across. This is of great benefit when reading sign, i.e., determining what animals have been doing based on what evidence they leave.

A Pileated Woodpecker flew overhead, its undulating flight unmistakable. I’ve recently learned that its hat, for which it’s named, was one worn by freed slaves in ancient Greece as a mark of their manumission. These big birds chisel huge holes in wood looking for tasty larvae and pupae.

DSC_0137With sound intel about those tracks, off I went in search. The high temperatures over the last three weeks melted much of the snowpack and now, on a cold morning, the crust was so firm as to hold all of my weight with just boots on. I was able to find the exact place as it had been described very thoroughly. I spent some bit of time examining those tracks.

DSC_0105They didn’t look cat-like, as, since I have two cats of my own, and have watched how they walk in snow, I know they leave a long line of single tracks when walking, not sets of two prints. And cats don’t show claws like the canids. Seeing as to how there were several sets of the same tracks, and that they were coming out of and returning to woods near a marsh, and they showed some finger-like projections, it would seem these were of a raccoon, or even an opossum, and had been enlarged by melting. My glove I included for scale.
DSC_0116A rock encased by a circle of Red Oaks caught my eye. Doesn’t seem like much at first glance, but look again: it’s a big rounded piece of granite. And it’s been there a long time. So? Well, the nearest felsic granite to here is up by Lake Saganaga; around here, the bedrock is the Platteville Formation: nice, light tan limestone. So the action of glaciers did the rounding and moved this rock to here. Perhaps the farmer who cleared the field removed to the little ravine where it now sits.

The bitterly cold wind might have blown away thoughts of spring from my thoughts but, pausing on a downed elm for a bit, the sure sign that spring is here scurried through a thicket in front of me – the first chipmunk of the year! They’ve been slow asleep since the fall, slow rather than fast, of course, as when they hibernate, their metabolism slows down dramatically.

DSC_0131I came across the tracks of its active-all-winter cousin, a Red Squirrel. Maple sap is running to these little guys bite off the end of a branch and let it flow! Red Squirrels have no patience to make it into syrup like us big sweet-tooths, but then, they have no patience for much of anything.

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist volunteer.



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