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Reading Summer's Best Book: Animal Tracking on Dean's Fork

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

 It's good to have a place that fixes you, a guaranteed cure for whatever ails you. Dean's Fork is a medicine that I take regularly. When I have the time to do the whole road, it's a seven mile roundtrip of cure.

 It's downhill all the way. So it's uphill all the way home. Which is kind of cool--I just cruise along letting gravity and curiosity take me farther than I probably ought to go. It's easy to go all the way to the end. Then I pay the price coming back, but the uphill is so gradual and I stop so much that I don't even notice it.

 A midsummer morning is best, for the chicory's out then. After a rain is awesome. My "book" is freshly imprinted with good things to read.  Raccoon:

 A fresh kill, probably by a screech-owl, spattered across the road. The little owl probably reached into a roost hole in the wee hours and pulled his supper out, then fluttered down to the road with it to kill and pluck it. A downy woodpecker would be a pretty good talon-ful for a screech owl, and it would need room to work. Of course it could have been a Cooper's hawk who dun it, too. Haven't seen evidence of sharp-shins nesting in the area this year.

It's a downy woodpecker, most likely a juvenile. Juvenile downies are old enough now for all of their feathers to be out of sheath, so I'm not going by that. The hint is in the yellow staining on the tips of the tail feathers, upper left. That came from the sawdust and droppings in the nest cavity, where the bird sat for a long time. The other hint is the lack of wear on the feathers. By this time of year, adult downies have a lot of wear on their tired feathers. While we are looking at this, dig the tribal coolness of the pattern on those tail feathers!

I think this is an American toadlet, about to leave its puddle. It's maturing too early to be a gray tree frog. Deans Fork is a giant herp factory, with its deep, persistent puddles in the truck tire ruts all along its shaded length. This spring was a total bust for mountain chorus frogs, spring peepers and wood frogs. Even American toads had a terrible time, breeding as they do in May. Very few made it, because it started out nice and wet and then dried up completely. The rains started in June, too late for the early breeders. But the gray tree frogs, which rely on midsummer rains for ephemeral puddles, are having a banner year. Most puddles I see now are packed with gray tree frog taddies. This is why amphibians live a long, long time. Not every year allows them to reproduce.

The old gristmill that used to be a destination for me is now just a roof on a pile of chestnut, thanks to the Derecho of June 29, 2012. It is still beautiful, but I miss the mill. This is what she was in her golden years, before the storm.

And now, all fallen in. It feels a little odd to have been here long enough to be able to reminisce about its past glory, but not as odd, I expect, as it would feel to be here long enough to remember when it was a working gristmill. I suspect the old fellow who still runs cattle here can remember that. I have run into him a couple of times. He makes me laugh because he cusses so much, wrassling tractor implements all by himself on a road where nobody goes.

I look back up the Fork and am thankful for the black barn, still standing proud, her slate roof still intact. "When the roof goes, the barn goes." DOD, talking to me again.

Down near the end, my second set of bobcat tracks, these from a small female. The first were from a big male. You'll remember these from the last bobkit post. The way the green stone kept his inside toe from hitting the mud.

The same animal:

And in a wet spot nearby, a mink! (Or, correction: probably a fox squirrel, thanks to an anonymous commenter.) Bunching up his tracks in fours, his odd little crescent-shaped heels giving him away. Hind paws are the bigger ones, on either side of the two front paws. Picture him humping along rabbit-like, his hindfeet striking ahead of his forefeet. That would be a squirrely way to travel more than a minky way.

I smile big to find tracks from a tiny box turtle, dragging his tiny turtle tail in the fresh mud, headed to get a drink. His plastron is only an inch across. Box turtle tracks are rare, rare, rare, and these are my first set of juvenile box turtle tracks! Knowing there is a juvenile out there, knowing that somehow two box turtles bumped into each other a couple of springs ago and the female managed to lay eggs that June and miraculously get them past all the coons and possums and snakes for three months until they hatched, makes me SO happy. Taking the Dean's Fork cure, I am. Reading a really good book in this mud. 

My friend Michael, a daylily breeder, calls these "ditch lilies." A European import, now in bloom all along the roadsides. Now I call them that, too. I've got the damn things spreading all through my front flower bed. As soon as they're done blooming they're going, to make more room for things I really want. It will be about the third time I've been sure I've dug them all out. They always win, and come back stronger than ever. D'oh! Ditch lilies!

But they look mighty fine down here on Dean's Fork.

Bacon and I look back up the Fork.

Blue sky has been very rare this summer, and I'm loving its reflection on the water.

I can never get enough of this vista, looking back up toward the black barn. 
Sometimes you get a dog in your vista, sometimes you don't. 

We'll keep loping down Dean's Fork on Sunday. 


Been a while since I've been turtle tracking! The sugar sands of the Pine Barrens are great for that. I once trailed a box turtle to what looked like a nest mound, but when I dug into it, I discovered it was actually a cat latrine...

Nice tracks, but I'm pretty sure the tracks that you have identified as mink are actually a squirrel, possibly fox squirrel. They are not the right shape or pattern for mink. Mink tracks are more star-shaped, and mink move with an asymmetrical gait, not the two-by-two gait these tracks show. Try this link for some nice mink tracks:

Posted by Anonymous July 8, 2015 at 12:29 PM

I see it, Anonymous. And agree. Too long-toed for mink, and as you say the bunch pattern is more rodent than mustelid. Thank you! The only thing that bugs me is the lack of a discernible long heel on the hind feet, which I typically associate with squirrel tracks, and which is what pointed me to mink instead of squirrel. Will change the text. Care to tell me who you are?


Fascinating post. So glad you tell us what we should be seeing and usually miss.

I enjoyed going with you via this post on your hike. The bobcat and turtle tracks are interesting. Keep on hiking, I know you will.

It is the greatest of blessings to live next to a giant herp factory. It is such a great blessing that I feel uplifted even KNOWING someone who lives next to a giant herp factory.

I have just recently rejoined Facebook after a long time, and discovered your blog. I am learning so much more about nature from it and I love it! I'm a big fan of butterflies, and next year will be a 30 year member of the Massachusetts Butterfly Atlas project. I'm also a member of both the Massachusetts Butterfly Club and the North American Butterfly Association.
With my butterfly interest I'm out all the time looking for them. I take pictures to document my finds. While I'm there I take other nature related pictures of plants, animals, and such. Reading your blog helps me to be more alert for other
aspects of nature!
Karen A. Parker

Posted by Anonymous July 9, 2015 at 8:08 PM
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