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When You Don't Know

Monday, June 15, 2020

We walked on down the Fork that evening and saw some really cool tracks in the fresh silt. Some were easy to identify, like these chipmunk prints, overlain by the small asterisks of white-footed mouse (to the left of the photo). 

Some were just weird and I, who function as the Answer Chimp for so many people as regards natural history, had no idea what I was looking at. I thought this trail might have been made by a tiny whitetail fawn, because of the split in the foot, but it isn't quite perfect or right. Unless it was just born, and its feet were very soft and the hooves not hardened. I just don't know. It's not often that I don't know even a little something about a track. Hmm. Input welcome. The way they're in a double line bugs me, too. The creature has a little weight to it, from the ridge of mud at the back of the track. Just doesn't look like a box claw punctures, no tail or shell drag. 


For comparison, here are some for sure whitetail fawn prints, from June 2, 2018, right behind its mama's hoofprints. Maybe. Size is good. And if it was brand new, it was probably stumbling, which could account for the asymmetry of the track. So maybe I've got that one figured out. 

Then there was this amazing sinuous mark. The whole thing is about 3' long and 1 1/4" wide. 

The tiny marks along the side didn't look like feet to me. Thought it might be a baby turtle, but the "footprints" look too fine, too pointed, to me, and there isn't a tail drag mark. I decided it might have been made by a snake, navigating the puddle as it drank. (The imprint was about 1 1/4" wide).  Shila suggested that the fine marks might be the impressions made by the snake's ribs as it hitched through the silt, as that's how snakes move--by hitching along moving their ribs to walk their spine along their path. I loved that suggestion. 

But as always, I'm open to others.
Here's a closeup of the fine marks on either side. Halp.

These, I knew, were from a bird. By the size of the feet, the way it was walking, and where it was (smack in a LOWA territory), I thought it was probably a Louisiana waterthrush. 

This is a track I've never found on Dean's Fork. And there was only one! I'm virtually sure this is a river otter's front foot! I know you might be thinking raccoon, but coon fingers are much longer and thinner, with more prominent claws. Otter claws barely register, even in soft mud. They're just wee pinpricks here,  the toes are short, and the toe tips are kind of bulbous.

Alongside a deep rut full of water was this beautiful feather, from the breast or belly of a barred owl. I've found wing feathers, but I'd never found a barred owl body feather. That felt like a gift. The whole walk felt like a gift: the beaver pond, laboriously but seemingly magically restored; the beaver gliding in his watery realm. The tracks, known and unknown. Those beautiful kids walking ahead of me, because their legs are so much longer and they stop and kneel less than I do. The fact that they love taking these walks of discovery with their mama. 

Something I wanted to show them: the Corn Salad Festival. Astute blogfans will notice that this is taking place on the very grounds of the Ironweed Festival. You could have knocked me over with a barred owl belly feather, because the flowers of this weak-stemmed plant, rising over the grasstops, looked like snow in late May. 

Valerianella umbilicata, or Navel Corn Salad, likes the open moist meadow. The weird name comes from its fruit, which apparently resembles a navel. It is related to the popular salad green mache, but is a different (native) species. Need to check on the fruit as it develops. Here's a photo by Steven J. Baskauf from

I guess it's kind of umbilical. Pretty cute. 

I've never seen it bloom in a blizzard like this, and I've been down here in late May a lot. Just goes to show you that one year is not like another. I brought Shila down two days later and the show was mostly all over. Talk about an ephemeral!

I love how it looks with the old bar gate and the black barn. Way back there, you can see just the roof of the chestnut gristmill that used to stand so proud.

It was all too beautiful. It looked like a Hudson River School painting, my beautiful kids lounging in this impossible landscape like the pastoral peasants. All it needed was a few cattle, but they haven't been in this pasture for several years. I miss them.

Dean's Fork is always changing, evolving, being changed by human activity. Nothing is the same on my walks, no matter how many times I walk it. Seasons change, plants come into and out of bloom, birds set up territory, breed and leave, and I am dazzled by it all, witness to something ancient and new, all at once. 


Hi Julie: I'm not touching the possible fawn prints, but I think your sinuous 1 1/4" wide track was made by an insect, either a giant water scavenger beetle (Hydrophilus triangularis) giant water beetle (dytiscid) or a giant water bug (belostomatid). I was going with turtle on that one until you pointed out that the tracks were narrow marks, not the usual round footprints. It seems early in the season for a belostomatid, but it may have overwintered. I think the two beetle species will also overwinter. I caught a giant water scavenger beetle years ago and when I first saw it, it was walking in shallow water and looked like a small turtle. I don't recall the track appearance, but they are certainly big enough to make an 1 1/4" wide track.

Murr Brewster asked if deer have little caps on their hooves when they're born. And my friend Kat wrote me this:
One little thing? I don't know much of anything about baby deer hooves, but I do know something about baby goat hooves. When kids are born their hooves are covered with a sort of spongy white covering that chunks off in the first couple of hours, exposing the hard hooves below. It's not that the hooves are particularly hardening, but that the hard part is becoming exposed.
Overripe, past due kids will sometimes begin losing that coating before delivery, and in those cases we really watch out for infection due to tearing of the uterine canal in the mother. Many vets automatically prescribe antibiotics when it happens, but I'm more of a wait while diligently monitoring kind of gal.
Anyway, it's a minor detail, but one I thought you might appreciate.
Just as an aside: when your first kids are born, and you're sitting in the barn totally falling in love with them, and their hooves begin crumbling away, it's completely terrifying.

ISN'T THIS COOL?? So the weird look of those tiny hooves could be the little caul that protects the birth canal from their sharp tips. Stumbly little fawn still wearing shoes?? JZ

So cool!

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