Sunday, March 2, 2014

Winter Bark 2014

In the gentle afternoon light on a day at least 15 degrees below freezing, it’s easy to track trees. During a hard winter with constant snows and unrelenting winds, trees are about the only thing you can invariably track. Of course the only track a tree leaves is its long shadow and I am not inclined to mar the smooth snow with the pancake tracks of my snowshoes. In a hard winter the snow is that deep.

Of course the classic winter scene is graced with conifers

But that redundant green is best seen from afar, and the essence of tracking is to go mano-a-mano, so to speak, with one organism. That said, after a snowfall obscures the green above, the trunks of large hemlocks and pines are well worth handling.

The white snow does wonders for the complexion of trunks dead and alive. It even turns the tables on birch trees that in all other seasons come across as the lightweights of the forest. But in the deep snow, the yellow birch looks venerable.

Its bark looks like it has recorded all the sounds of the surrounding forest in a Braille ticker tape.

After a snowfall the white birch is not white at all and at a time when there is not a insect in sight, you can get bug eyed at what appears to be a coded bark with half the code already cracked.

I blush to say that in my greenhorn days when I didn’t dress warmly enough for the winter woods, I tore off birch bark for insulation, so my feeling that birch trees always look cold is probably not fair to the birch. But there are trees not any bigger than the birch that give the impression of being quite toasty in the cold.

Indeed ironwoods can give their impression that they are shedding in the snow and I might go so far as to say they are the hot irons of the woods but what flame appears to be in the bark is so grayed over.

And the shag-bark hickory quite eclipses the ironwood in that regard, after it all it is one of the few trees named after its bark.

While the spring buds and fall nuts of the shag-bark are sights to see, the tree shines in the winter snows. Compared to the other large hardwoods, white oak, red oak, and sugar maple, the hickory has a modest crown. In the winter with its beckoning bark it’s hard to miss.

One of our winter chores is to look for dead and sickly trees worth cutting for firewood. As we wended our way through our valley in the so-called dead of winter, we kept seeing shag-barks everywhere. By the way, after 15 years not one has died on our land and none look sickly. We marked one for possible sacrifice and then quickly reconsidered. It was too close to one of the god-like trees in our woods.

The shag bark we want to cut was growing from the seeds or root of that Darth Vader, no sense raising its ire.

It always behooves a naturalist to try to say something half scientific and I can make one stab at that. The trees with expressive bark that are so notable in the winter avoid the lichens that can turns trees with predictable bark into unseasonable pastels. In our woods the bitternut hickory suffers most in that regard.

In the state park, the red oaks can be coated with a sickly green.

However, most flatter barked trees get by with just a lichen badge 

or more subdued gray lichens.

a fate the rougher barked trees seem to avoid.

(Many of my stabs at science have stood for years before I see something to prove me completely wrong. This stab lasted less than 24 hours after first writing it. On my hike the next day, I saw this shag-bark hickory

with a slight green blush of lichens on its bark.)

But eerie beauty of the winter woods argues against worrying about science. The trees after all seem quite cut off from their roots, one source of their life, and all the life giving foliage on top has fallen by the way side also unseen under the snow.

What is left is the only things solid in a world momentarily gone soft. And as the cold works on my brain I get this vision that these are pillars foraged of iron from the earth‘s hot core. Doesn’t their heat begin to melt even the ice ringed below?

Idle but warming thought for me, but other animals count on that melting.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Inside a Porcupine's Brain: Winter Tracking 2014

I am not sure why seeing a porcupine's trail in the deep snow makes me philosophical.

Perhaps it's because of the limited range of a porcupine. When the snow is deep, it doesn't take as long to find its den. Less trudging through the snow, more thinking.

Of course, I can track beavers to their holes in the ice that leads to their lodges.

But porcupines are there for the touching, though I won't advise that. Leslie followed the trail while I took a photo of the porcupine's recent meals, patches of gnawed bark up pine tree trunks.

When I got to the tree where the porcupine had its den I told Leslie I didn't see it and she told me to get closer. I saw the quills, but, didn't  thrust the camera close to the porcupine.

Not that porcupines panic when they are in their den. Last March I got a photo of a porcupine that didn't quite fit into the trunk.

I was impressed that its quills were relaxed. Being inside the trunk of a large tree must be therapeutic. No doubt a porcupine finds its center inside a tree.

But philosophically speaking there is no center in the woods. Stepping back from the tree, the porcupine's tracks in the snow proved that.

Turning around I saw further proof in the continuation of the porcupine's trails in the snow.

If only I could have climbed the tree and taken a photo from the top to make apparent how the woods stretches the brain of the animal that thrives in it.

At this time of year I make my own presence felt in the woods, not as the ever philosophical tracker but on my own account. I cut down trees for next winter's firewood. Logging, for I do drag logs out, is universally depicted as a heroic act, and what I mean by "heroic" is unthinking. Man sees tree, chainsaw roars, and timber the tree is down on the ground, especially when a mass of men sets out to level the trees for profit. But one person in the woods in the winter, colder the better, with only a hand saw begins to get an inkling about why the mammalian brain is shaped with such convolutions. The brain must comprehend four dimensions in a deceptively unpredictable realm. Trees hang around a long time and each has its quirks.

Let me hasten to add that this is not an instantaneous realization, not instinctual fear of the dark woods. It grew on me. I evolved to the point where the woods became my brain. Animals come to this realization much more quickly since their survival depends on it. Plus the brain of any tree climbing animal like the porcupine must evolve beyond our flat screen thinking cap.

Of course, I can't illustrate all that with photos but toward the edge of the woods I stumbled upon the works of a smaller porcupine. Its gnawing on a pine tree seemed large enough

But the den was just a few feet away

Note the smaller trough and the bark stripping at the base of the smaller tree. This porcupine didn't have the brain yet to command the woods with the elegant curves and angles of it deep troughs (deep thoughts). It climbed the nearest trees and stripped what may.

Now brainy as I make myself out to be, did I make any scientific observations to prove this not uninteresting distinction between the foraging of mature and immature porcupines, for example, try to eyeball this less venturesome one and prove that it was indeed smaller?

No way. Too damn cold for unpaid work. The golf course between me and home was a few feet away. Once again I had the cold wind blowing my brain back to its puny size. No wind chill in the woods. How my brain can stretch there, 

though if you saw me you'd think I was just looking dumb up into the trees and not see the man looking for his god.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Ice Paintings Pond Sculptures: January Abstracts 2014

Just before the snow squall the snow already on the ice picks up and flies blurring the islands and obscuring the eagles picking at the deer carcass out on the ice.

Because of the cold wind in my face, I can only look up and stare into that distance a few seconds at a time.

I prefer the beaver ponds and the trunks of the dead trees on the ice.

The snow adds blue shadows.

Death warmed over abstracted into a blue line.

There, I always thought, was art unmade. Then I went out today and saw a woodpecker’s signature.

There are paintings on the ice surfaces of the beaver ponds

But this year the snows covered those masterpieces. The flash freeze of the near reaches of the river that had remained unfrozen

invited us to shuffle head down and imagine we were walking on gallery walls.

The cracks convinced us that we were on something

Less dangerous

And trust that slippery masterpieces

Don’t become too seductive

It will take a thaw before we can take a piece home and hang it on the wall behind our stove.

Compared to such cold abstractions, the winter sky can seem too mannered

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Forget the Fox Trot. Do the Fisher: Winter Tracking

We had an early snow cover this year, but then the prospect of three or four months of good tracking conditions was dashed by an ice storm. The beauty of ice encrusted trees almost made up for the inability to see impressions on the ice covered snow

But then the wind and sun brought all the ice crashing down littering the forest floor with what seemed like broken glass.

In the photo below, the path deer made in the icy snow disappears where the animals continued through the ice shards.

Five days after the ice storm enough of the ice had fallen off the trees to allow walking in the woods. We heard some cracks but determined it was not from ice shards falling down but sheets of ice cracking down as we walked over them. I walked in the middle of the meadow at our land where there were no ice shards and an inch of soft snow lay lightly on the ice. 

I saw a fisher’s fresh tracks.

I followed the trail to the iced top of a pine sapling just peaking up out of the snow. The fisher left its prints in the snow around it and a small scat.

I always assume that what brings animals out after a grip of cold, ice, and snow is their need for food. In this case it seemed the fisher’s priority was marking territory.

That said, I have been taught by fishers not to presume too much when I track them. On Wellesley Island there is a strip of trees that I call the Fisher Woods

because I often pick up fisher trails there. I usually follow them if they head west toward South Bay where I keep track of other animals. Fishers have scant interest in South Bay, summer or winter. Despite their name they don't forage for fish and shy away from water, though they will go from island to island on the ice.

Fishers tend to stay in the woods where they find the squirrels that generally make their meals on Wellesley Island,

and twice a trail I followed led to a dead porcupine.

Fishers know how to avoid the porcupine's quills and attack its bare belly.

After a few years of tracking fishers (it took me about two years to identify their prints in the snow) I thought I figured out the fisher’s game (and this was before I even saw a fisher). Fishers just make a great circle through the woods, often always going in the same direction, and I was so bold to think I could describe two neighboring territories, two huge circles, parallel fisher universes that didn’t quite meet, one generally clockwise and the other generally counter-clockwise. Nothing makes you seem so superior than such understanding of an animal’s territory.

Then one day in Fisher Woods I found a fresh trail going to the east and I decided to follow it up a ridge at least until it crossed the state park boundary line about a half mile away. But first I had to relieve myself of a load, "number 2" as we used to say. 

When I got to the crest of the ridge, I got excited when the trail began bending back to the west. Could the eastern extremity of the circular territory end so abruptly? Then the trail went abruptly back down the ridge and at the foot of the ridge turned back to the east and led me back to that load I left, though that seemed so underwhelming to the fisher that it didn't get close enough to it for me to take a photo. The fisher turned around and headed to the west through Fisher Woods. I went home. I had a lot of thinking to do. Who was tracking who?

I stopped worrying about an animal’s territory or home range, especially a fisher's. Believing you've discovered the limits of an animal is fool's work (unless you are a scientist and get paid for it.) Animals are unlimited in their use of land. We excel them only in our ability to change the land, usually for the worse. 

They don’t make circles in the woods, they vibrate through it in three dimensions, maybe more. 

Now I track fishers not to confirm any theories but to delight in the brief record of their lives left by their paws in the snow. I can stand and admire their tracks for several minutes. In the photo below a fisher circled back on itself.

 But let's not harp on circles. I often them seeing making square 90 degree turn.

This hardly seems something to get excited about but what gets me is seeing the repeated cuts and turns by a fisher like it was running a pass route yet there is no quarterback in sight.

And if it is the nose leading the animal on, well, do smells make sharp turns? And if it is the memory of buried food, is a fisher so forgetful that it frequently stops short and turns because it almost forgot that the hole with the food was right over there?

Once I found fisher tracks, probably made by two fishers that at once looked completely confused and precisely executed, and this was in December well before mating season.

Fishers climb and dance in the crowns of trees, too. I got a video of one in October going after berries.

Fishers climb trees in the winter too as shown by the impression it makes in the snow when it jumps out of a tree.

When I see that I expect to see tracks heading straight off, but fishers don't seem to operate that way. They can hit the snow and spring and twist to the left.

Fishers always tend toward trees, and that distinguishes its trails from a porcupine's or raccoon's, animals that head to or from one tree in particular. There doesn't seem to be a tree in the woods that fishers don't know intimately. Perhaps it is their compulsion to go from tree to tree that prompts the fishers' strange slalom in the snow. In the photo below two fishers turn left at the same tree.

Fishers seemed obsessed with running on fallen logs. Foxes do that too but not with such zeal.

In the photo below a fisher jumps from one log to the next

Fishers enjoy leaping up on and over stumps too fishstump11mar8

I know I am giving the impression that fishers simply run helter skelter through the wood but that is more a commentary on my mentality than theirs. They are getting food and surviving while I spend a few hours walking around in the snow strumming my mind with their complexities. Rarely I see some sensible fisher tracks like the one below showing a fisher's trail coming to and following a porcupine's trail fishtks5

I've only seen a fisher running in the snow once and it was out of sight before I could get my camcorder running. But I don't think I learn much when I see a fisher that knows I am there. I got a good video of a fisher running in the woods in the fall but other than checking a mound of moss where it usually peed, it hurried away without exhibiting patterns I see when I track them in the winter.

Well, this blog has digressed into a recap of years of winter tracking. What twists and turns did I see when I tracked a fisher in the meadow on our land in December 2013? It went into the woods and left no impression on the ice shards. No hurry. Fishers will have me going in circles, doing the box step, cutting this way and that. I should invent a new dance called the fisher, but no one would believe it.