Sunday, January 4, 2009

Winter in Massachusetts

Yesterday we visited Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary for an excellent animal tracking workshop.

We wanted to learn more tricks to help us understand things we see in the woods.

After going over material in the heated classroom, we ventured outside where we saw tons of tracks in the snow.

Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Greg Weiler

We saw tracks of various wild canines, including coyote and most likely red fox. I also learned that the gray fox (which we've seen in our yard) has retractable claws and can climb trees.

In the woods, you can tell wild canine tracks from domestic dog tracks mostly by where the tracks are going and how precise they are. Wild canines are trying to conserve energy, so their tracks are straight and their hind feet often land in the exact spot their front feet just left. Domestic dogs are likely to be a bit more sloppy when walking.

Also, by measuring different attributes of the track (the size of the print itself, distance between prints, etc), you can determine if the track falls into the size range of the wild canines in your area.

Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gary M Stolz

Similarly, you can tell the tracks of moose and deer apart based on the size of the stride and the size of the hoof print. We've seen both deer and moose in the woods where we walk, and when we see tracks, we often wonder whether they're deer or moose. Now we should be able to tell.

Until yesterday, I never knew that deer have dew claws that sometimes leave an imprint. Dogs and cats sometimes have dew claws too - so you might be familiar with them.

The Audubon property has a large deer population. We saw lots of tracks, and watched groups of deer several times. My fingers were too cold to take photos though.

Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Jesse Achtenberg

Sometimes in the woods we find deer antlers. I didn't really understand before yesterday that deer grow new antlers each year. The growing antlers are covered with velvet. In the fall, deer rub their antlers on trees, removing the velvet. Later in the fall, the antlers will fall off so the deer can conserve energy through the winter.

The size of the antlers depends on the health of the deer, so in a bad year, a deer might not have as large a rack as during a good year.

Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

We also saw river otter tracks scampering across some snow-covered ice.

Afterward, our trusty GPS guided us to The Clam Box in Ipswich where we had great fried clams and the best clam chowder I've ever tasted. I don't know if the chowder was super good or if I was just so cold after being a bit under-dressed for the tracking workshop that it tasted better than usual. But to me yesterday, that clam chowder was fantastic!

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