Joe said that it looked like someone had been rolling a tire through the woods, and I could see that.
My walk today took place far from home, and with a large group of friends. And it was an official walk, a training session for my full-time job. We were learning about tracking from one of the best, and in one of the best possible places.
The Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary is a former and once-again farm. It was also once a stagecoach stop and a trainside attraction. Princeton was once a favored summer retreat for the hoi polloi of Boston, accessible by that train. Today, it's sleepy, natural and beautiful.
The animals seem to like it, anyway. They were everywhere. And the key word is "were." Although we only saw two of the creatures we sought, we tracked ten more through the woods.
We started small. On the road out in front of the old Goodnow place, now the sanctuary headquarters, we found many of the hoppers we all know so well. Gray squirrels are the most obvious and most prevalent. Their large back feet and small forelegs form an interesting imprint in the snow. And I learned today that it's normally the width of Joe's fist with the thumb slightly extended. Now the red squirrel, that's a fist with the thumb tucked in. We saw their tracks, too, and then saw one scurrying through the underbrush along an old stonewall. An eastern cottontail rabbit hasd also passed that way.
Down by the farm pond, we found a river otter slide. The pond was frozen, so we walked out onto it, and found that the critter had moved from well across the pond, leaving a trail that led into the distance, then along a stonewall and into an open water patch near an outfall pipe. Here and there it slid on its belly. Looked like fun, but it was more likely to save energy.
Into the woods we went, past a huge fallen bitternut hickory tree. About fifty feet up, four wild turkeys sat perched, out of the snow, but in the breeze. The recent ice storm ravaged these woods. All around us the tops of trees had snapped off, leaving long, tan stretches of freshly split trunk wood open to the sky. Joe said it looked like a giant had come through with an axe and swung his way through the forest at treetop level. As we walked, we found tracks that may have belonged to those specific birds, but definitely more. In one section of woods, six wild turkeys had marched together. They crisscrossed the trail of a red fox we followed for seemingly a mile, an animal which Joe termed as the most boring red fox in the world. Never changed its gait, and just moved straight ahead forever.
With fresh snow on the ground, we could only wonder at the timing of it all. As we back-tracked the red fox, we found the tracks of several porcupines and some evidence that at least one had done some nibbling up in a tree. A coyote bisected the fox's prints, as did numerous whitetail deer. Here and there mice, voles and shrews left their marks. Did any of these animals even catch a glimpse of each other? Or was their timing such that they all set their tracks independently, wandering through the woods with nothing but the sound of falling ice trickling through the trees?
When the red fox crossed the tracks of a fisher, we changed directions. Since we couldn't find any bobcat tracks, we settled for the big ferocious weasel. Rather than tracking him back to where his prints began, we tracked him forward, knowing that catching up with him would be near impossible. In fact, we followed him to the street, where the pavement swallowed up his story. With ten of us moving through the woods, though, we had certainly left a take of our own.
Time: 160 minutes
New species: Red squirrel (third mammal species of the year).
Stranger hellos: None.
What else got done: more manuscript writing.