Unsurprisingly, our hike yesterday started off with spotting some of the smallest creatures around: snow fleas! Do you see all of the tiny black specks in the picture below? No?
Here's a closer look:
That is a snow flea, also known as a spring tail because of the two long tail-like appendages that they tuck under their abdomens. They keep these "tails", called furcula, tucked away until they want to move, at which point they release them, launching themselves into the air every which way. These tiny hexapods (snow fleas are not insects, nor are they fleas) are active all year long. Springtails are very, very common and can be found any time of the year, although they are easiest to spot in the winter against the white snow. During this time, they only come out on warm days to feed on dead plant material, algae, fungus, microscopic organisms, pollen, bacteria, and sap. Snow fleas are able to withstand direct contact with the snow because their bodies contain a protein which grabs ice crystals and prevents them from growing, acting as a sort of antifreeze. Snow fleas are not parasitic or detrimental to humans or animals in any way; in fact, they are useful decomposers that help break down plant matter and add nutrients back into the forest soil.
Although fascinating, snow flea tracking does not usually lead anywhere so we moved on. We saw the tracks of our good friend porcupine again and decided to follow them again to see if we could actually get a glimpse of the creature we were following in the last tracking post Tracking Porcupines (And Other Fun Stuff). We wandered back deeper into the wood into the realm of beeches and moose maples and almost immediately I found this:
There were many more too, all within 20 ft of each other. Most of the trees that had been scraped and broken were moose maples, a favorite tree of their namesake, moose. It is true that deer and other animals will scrape and break these trees but most of them were broken well above my head, too high for a deer to reach. I can't tell for sure but I believe that a bull moose came through here in the fall rut, hormonal and frustrated and knocked these saplings over with his antlers. It most likely happened months ago, though, so I kept on. Zak kept following his porcupine but I found some nice raccoon tracks so I decided to see what the coons were up to last night.
Raccoon tracks are fairly easy to distinguish because of their long, distinct toes and their waddling pattern of walk. They waddle much less than porcupines but they do not hop around like weasels.
I found a raccoon highway of sorts so I called Zak over to follow it. The porcupine will have to wait for another day (it will definitely still be there, nearby its den, as they do not move around too much).
I wonder who lives in this hole. Flying squirrel maybe.
As I followed the raccoons down into the thick conifers I found some interesting scat, probably a couple of days old, with raccoon tracks going over it. The tracks of the animal that urinated here probably melted.
And then I found the culprit a couple of yards away:
These are snowshoe hare tracks. You can tell that the hare was bounding quickly as the hind feet are in front of the two front feet. This is not the order that they landed in. The hare most likely landed on its front feet and brought its hind feet forward, giving it more leverage to spring it's body forward quickly. Snowshoe hare urine is easy to identify as it is almost always bright orange, or even red. Although it can be easy to mistake for blood, it isn't, the orange color comes from the plants that the hare has been eating.
We continued to follow the raccoon highway, which was steadily growing larger, as it led us down a steep hill. On the slippery clamber down (mostly on my behind in my case), Zak noticed this:
This lichen, sometimes called Old Man's Beard, is in the genus Usnea, which contains 600 species. It grows in wet, cold areas on dead wood, often at higher elevations, although it can be found anywhere in the world. I had been looking for Usnea and was planning a trip to the one place we knew that it grew, Mt. Moosilauke in New Hampshire. I decided not to harvest any of this lichen, though, as it is rare here in the Northeast and the population that I found of it was fairly small. The reason I was looking for it was because of its extraordinary medicinal properties. I had known of Usnea before because Zak likes to use it on wooden masks that he makes because it stays alive and keeps growing over time, but I never knew that it was a healing herb. I first heard of it's properties in the book Herbal Antibiotics, 2nd Edition: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-resistant Bacteria by Stephen Harrod Buhner. According to Buhner, the herbal actions of Usnea include analgesic, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antimitotic, antineoplastic (cancer), antioxidant, antiparasitic, antiproliferative (cancer), antiprotozoal, antiseptic, antiviral, drug synergistic, immunostimulant, and an inhibitor of biofilm formation! He also states that Usnea has traditionally been used throughout the world to treat skin infections, abscesses, upper respiratory and lung infections, and fungal infections. Buhner also cites a very old treatment for large wounds in which the lichen is soaked in mashed garlic and then placed in the wound to soak up the blood and prevent infection. I highly recommend Buhner's book as it goes into extreme detail about many different natural alternatives to antibiotics while still maintaining readability for the average layperson. To learn more about usnea, and many other herbal antibiotics, you can click the ad below:
Usnea aside, we kept walking (or more like sliding uncontrollably) down the hillside until we reached a new beaver pond. Looking across the ice, we noticed some tracks and a long slide. This caught our attention immediately as there are few animals that slide, namely mink, and these tracks and the slide itself was WAY too big to be a mink. Beavers will sometimes slide into the water, usually on muddy banks, but cannot slide across the ice like this creature did. The only option that was left was river otter, but they are very rare here and it never crossed our minds that we would ever see one or even any sign of one up in the hills of Northern Vermont. The other clue that told us this was an otter was the way the tracks were spaced from one another. You can see that there are clusters of two tracks very far away from one another. This is a classic example of what a member of the weasel family looks like running. Looking at the picture below, can you imagine how it might have bounded across the ice before sliding on its stomach?
You can see here that it was sliding in and out of the water. Otters will maintain these holes all year long so that they can escape from predators quickly by diving under the water. Otters have no problem swimming in icy water as their dense fur keeps them extremely warm, the same fur that unfortunately has caused many of these playful creatures to be slaughtered. Otters have more hairs on one square inch of their body than the average human has on their entire head, making it some of the densest in the world.
(There were also some other, smaller tracks coming from the hole in the ice. They are probably muskrat, maybe even mink. I did not pay much attention because I was so excited about the possibility of an otter. )
We followed the tracks where they came up out of the water again. Although they were still unclear, at this point, we were almost certain that it was an otter.
Can you see the webbing between the toes?
A very wide slide:
We followed the otter tracks for probably about half an hour from pond to pond, when we ran across this little guy. This is a mink hole, only a couple of inches in diameter, going into the soil beneath a tree. There is one very distinct mink track a couple of inches from the entrance.
All of these animals were here because of the series of dozens of ponds. They were all using the water for food and safety, raccoon, mink, muskrat, moose, and otter. And the only reason the ponds were there is because of the beavers. Although we haven't seen any beaver tracks at this location yet, we know they are there because of their dams, lodges, and of course, trees they have cut down, like the large yellow birch pictured below that they never quite finished. It is apparent to me that the beavers have been in this area for a very long time and their population is quite large.
We lost the otter tracks but we did find this:
Deer hair. Although it doesn't seem like much, anytime you find this much hair, the deer is almost definitely dead. The hair was covered lightly in snow so it probably died a day or two ago, but there were fresh coyote tracks from today everywhere, and I mean everywhere! Oftentimes, the actual deer, or parts of it, are very close by, hidden somewhere in the brush. We knew that parts of it were still around because of the large amount of chickadees, crows, and ravens about. Oftentimes, gatherings of these birds will lead you to something dead. Finding a dead deer is very exciting as you can often scavenge some great stuff, such as bones and sinew for tool and jewelry making, toes for rattles, or even whole skulls and antlers! We soon found a small piece of bone so we were sure the carcass was somewhere close by. We split up and followed the tracks every which way, but even after half an hour of searching the quarter mile area, all we found was more hair and some stomach contents. These coyotes were smart, and they were not giving up their kill easily. We decided it was probably best just to leave it and let some other animals have a meal. Although we didn't find the deer, I did find where the otter tracks picked up, and the chase was on again!
We followed it from pond to pond and then it started to do something really strange. It started climbing frozen waterfalls, going uphill! In the middle of the bottom quarter of the photograph above, you can see a slide and tracks going up. The water here was not very frozen, and still moving quickly under the ice, and sides of the ravine were much too steep to walk on so we had to track the otter from the ridge above for a long while. After climbing for hours, we finally reached more beaver ponds, culminating in one final and very large beaver pond with open water. We lost the tracks here as the otter went into the water, but I suspect that this pond was its final destination. Zak believes that it may have been seeking out a mate as it is very unusual to see a solitary otter (they are very family oriented). I think that it may have simply been seeking out a large pond with better food sources. I have a feeling it knew where it was going and probably makes this trip often. I guess we'll never know. We spent over four hours tracking the otter for miles, often jogging, and now we found ourselves at a road again, lost and very far away from my car. It was getting dark and for the first time all day, we snapped into reality and realized how hungry and tired we were. We chose a random direction and followed the road. After half an hour we knew where we were, we also knew that we were going the wrong direction, so we had to turn around. It took us another hour and a half or so to walk home (it was closer to walk home than to walk back to my car). We were cold and exhausted but made it back just in time for dinner! This is a day that neither of us will forget for a very, very long time.
Did you like this post? Do you want to learn more about the living beings around you? Do you want to see more posts like this? Check out Zak's favorite book: Naturally Curious: A Photographic Field Guide and Month-By-Month Journey Through the Fields, Woods, and Marshes of New Englandby Vermont local Mary Holland! I get a small portion of the sales accumulated by all ads on this blog so go ahead and check it out, learn something new, and support this blog while doing so. I'd really appreciate it.
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