Nature Notes Wednesday (Tuesday Edition) – Tracks and Lichen
Today was an absolutely gorgeous day; warm, sunny and in the 50′s. Given our warm winter so far, today just seems that much more out-of-place – even though January thaws are far from uncommon in the northeast. Regardless, I took advantage of the beautiful weather to get some exercise and fresh air, and found this beautiful lichen at the base of a tree while walking up the road:
Identifying mushrooms is tough; I discovered, once back in the office, that identifying lichens is even harder. To give you an idea of what’s involved, check out this online key to identifying Lecanora species in the northeast (I love that the key says ‘likely’ to occur). Now, granted, I don’t even know if this falls into the Lecanora (family? genus?) so this key is of even less help. I did find this guide to identifying macrolichens, which this lichen clearly is (you knew that, right?) but it says right off the bat that you need a macrolichen key, so I’m back at square one. I’m going to just call this a lichen and move on.
I also found some tracks in melting snow which I took the time to photograph and scale:
When I lead tracking programs, the first question people ask is always “what is it?”. If you read my post on coyote teaching, then you may already be anticipating that I won’t answer that question directly. Rather, I will engage my participants in a conversation about what they observe about the track and its surroundings, and help them discover what’s important to notice. Identification (if we get there at all) doesn’t begin to happen until we have made sure that we’ve noted everything we can that might be of value. Since you and I aren’t face-to-face, (and I can’t evade your question directly), I will share with you what I try to take into account when looking at animal tracks.
First, there’s something wrong with this situation. We only have one track to look at; trackers will always tell you not to make any conclusions based on a single track (or set of tracks, in this case). It’s important to be able to compare tracks over a distance to see how the animal’s foot changes (or doesn’t) in shape or size as it moves over varying terrain. Also, taking not just the track but the animal’s whole trail into account is important. How wide is the trail? How far apart are the individual tracks (or sets of tracks)? How is the animal moving? Does its gait change?
Since we don’t have all that information at hand (there weren’t any other tracks from this individual in the area – the rest of the snow had melted) we’ll work with what we have. The tracks indicate a bounding pattern; you can see in the photo that the larger back feet have landed in front of the front feet and both sets of feet are side-by-side. The right hind foot (closest to my hand) measures roughly 1 & 1/2″ long. That isn’t a precise measurement since the snow had been melting all day, and tracks spread as they melt. But we can see that there’s still a good amount of detail so they’re not more than 8 hours old.
Even though I didn’t have any other tracks from this animal to observe, I continued to study other animal tracks in the area as I walked along. I (roughly) compared size with other tracks that might have been from the same species as well as other animals to note aging of the those other tracks and other details.
Given the size of the tracks, number of toes (we can clearly see 5 on the hind feet), shape of the feet and side-by-side bounding pattern of all four feet we can narrow this animal down to gray squirrel (most likely) and cottontail rabbit (less likely). We have both species present on our property, although given the location of the tracks (deciduous forest/wetland with semi-open understory) squirrels would be more likely found here than cottontails.
So, I’ll answer the “what is it?” question by saying, it’s likely a gray squirrel, but without further information I won’t say definitely.
Squeals of outrage from my unseen participants: “What?? All that fuss for you to tell us it’s probably a gray squirrel??” Remember, it’s the process that’s important here, not the answer. I’d rather give people the tools they need to answer questions for themselves (or even learn how to ask them in the first place) than just go off on a walk pointing things out and naming them. What’s the fun of that? Learning how to see and ask questions of the natural world is far more valuable.