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grey birch tree

The bark of Grey, Paper and to some extent yellow birch are well known for their flamibility and rot resistance.  These birches have a high amount of oil in their bark that we can use the same way the birch tree does.

In researching this I found that betulin, the substance often distilled from birches for medicinal uses, which is the wintergreen compound also found in the plant known by that name, may not be the same thing as birch tar.   They are, though, both known as birch oil.  The more rot resistant birches that we will be using here are know for having a lack of this wintergreen oil in their bark, which is readily detected by smell.  Wikipedia tells me  birch tar, “… is compounded of phenols such as guaiacol, cresol, xylenol and creosol.”  My friend and colleague Jamie from White Memorial Conservation Center and I set out to make the latter, birch tar.

Birch tar has many uses.  It was once used in Russia to treat leather, making it water resistant and rot resistant, it can be used similarly to finish wood.  Neanderthals and early humans used it as glue for projectiles (when the oil is reduced further it becomes a thermo-plastic, epoxy like substance).

dead grey birch tree

To distill tar from the bark the bark must be heated without it burning, allowing the liquid oil to seperate from the solids in the bark.  The oil, which changes viscosity with heat, runs out.

Here’s how we did it;

I collected birch bark from dead grey birch trees, I have an abundance of them in my neighborhood.

birch oil, russian oil

I filled this tin Deneen got from goodwill with the bark.  There is a multitool on the edge for scale.  I had previously poked a hole in the center of the bottom of the tin to allow the tar to run out.  It also has a tight fitting lid to keep oxygen out so the bark doesn’t just burn.  Buried in the fire pit is another tin can to catch the oil as it drips out.

lighting the fire for birch tar distilation

After placing the tin full of bark directly over the can, we surrounded the container with firewood and lit it.  I didn’t get a picture of the fire as it burned which would have been cool.

cooling off

After about 2 hours we removed the remaining firewood and put out the fire.   I enjoyed the anticipation of what we might find.

birch oil, birch tar,

After carefully removing all components we found a significant amount of oil in the can!  Well over a cup.  It was similar in consistency and color to motor oil, had a strong, unique smell and felt tacky.

distilled birch oil

The bark was reduced to this almost glass like material that reminded me of “scale” found on steel after heating.  It would not burn.  When crushed it was brittle and easily reduced to powder.

waste produced from birch oil making

birch oil

We later put the oil in a jar.  It continued to thicken as it cooled.  I tried it on wood and some leather, it remained somewhat tacky even after some time, darkening the material significantly and adding its characteristic odor.  In the future I will reduce it further to make glue for hafting stone points.

It is very cool stuff, and not difficult to make.  I have spoken to another colleague who experimented with producing birch tar with only the materials available to neanderthals and early man.  I intend to try this myself.

birch oil final product

Water Snake

This Winter Deneen and I found a Northern Water Snake in the stream apparently dead.  We went back there about a month ago and within feet of where we found the first snake was this beautiful, living, Northern Water Snake.

 

Northern Water Snake

I do not think it was the same individual, though its presence speaks of the habitats ability to support these snakes.

Northern Water Snake

 

 

Deneen and I put our camera trap out trying for River Otter over a month ago.  I went out to check it today.  Here is a video I shot while out, it contains the results from the trap.

 

I asked my tracking mentors to look over the Turkey Tale post and tell me what they thought.  A couple of them commented on that post directly, adding some great information.  Another (also named Dan) sent me an email and I asked if I could share it here to show how the process of discussion among Naturalists works.

Great story, man…engaging, inspiring, great role modeling for mentoring, tracking, and follow-up research.

Technically – looks good with the exception of one line that stood out to me – the one about canid vs felid carnassials. It’s incorrect.

Check out this paper to learn why:

http://www.mun.ca/biology/scarr/4505_Felid_Teeth.htm

Thanks for asking, Andy.

dg

My reply

Thanks for the paper and the complements.

I got that info about the teeth from Elbroch. In Mammal Tracks pg 737-8 he says “Bobcats, which have less developed carnassail teeth than canines do, leave much more ragged sign… The appearance is one of chewing through feathers rather than cleanly shearing them.”

Do you think the observation of “more ragged sign” etc is incorrect or could something else account for that appearance. I agree after now looking closely at some pictures of bobcat skulls that the carnassials look pretty well developed. Have you encountered any large bird eaten by a bobcat in the field? How were the feathers dealt with?

I enjoy the back and forth of question and discovery. If anyone has experience with mammalian predation of birds please add your two cents in the comments section.

 

Below is what I felt was the most pertinent part of the paper Dan mentioned.  There is more in this interesting paper on the evolution of felid teeth, see the link above.

If we examine the cheek teeth of a typical cat, whether it be a lion or a domestic tabby, we see that by far the most important feature is the scissorslike arrangement of the upper and lower carnassials, the meat-slicers. This arrangement is enhanced by the fact that the articulation for the mandible or lower jaw, the hinge, is in line with the intersection between the carnassials, just as in a pair of scissors. The other premolar teeth, although by no means unimportant to the animal, are relatively less significant. When we examine the cheek teeth of a saber-tooth such as Homotherium latidens, a species fairly common in Europe around 1.0 Ma ago, we see an even greater specialization in slicing, with the anterior check teeth much reduced in size.

The dogs have carnassials too, but they are only part of a dental armory that is augmented by many more premolars in front of the carnassials and by the crushing molars behind them. The dog is therefore a generalist when it comes to food-processing ability. In the hyenas the specialization is in almost entirely the opposite direction to the cats, with the development of huge, conical, bone-cracking teeth. Spotted hyenas in Africa today are capable of eating the entire carcass of a zebra, bones and all, but even they retain the carnassials to permit them to slice meat and other softer tissues.

Copied from M. Anton and A. Turner (1997). The Big Cats and their fossil relatives. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. I present it here in good faith to add to this discussion and educate my students and followers of this blog.  If the university or the authors wish I will gladly remove the quote in favor of a link to the information.

I came across a fantastic tracking scene while at work mentoring kids in Nature connection last week.  I would like to lay this whole thing out for you, really “geek out” on it and share what the kids observed.  I was lucky enough to be able to share this mystery with two groups, the one I found it with on Thursday and my advanced teen skills group on Friday.  The pictures and more in depth analysis took place Friday morning which is what I will share with you here.

Below is an area we walk through often, an access road on the edge of a small field with Red Cedars and Goldenrod overgrown with Mile a Minute Vine.  It’s in Newtown, CT.  We walk this every friday on the way to our camp.   If you look closely you may be able to see some feathers in the trail.  There was nothing the Friday prior.

 

Kill sight area.  Access road between cedar meadow and wooded hillside.

Kill sight area. Access road between cedar meadow and wooded hillside.

In the middle of the road we found these flight and body feathers of a Wild Turkey (below).  I did not let on what kind of bird it was.  Many in the younger Thursday group said the feathers were from a hawk, probably because of their size.  Some of the teenagers were very familiar with turkeys and ID’ed them immediately.  I challenged the teen-aged group to work together and then tell me individually the answer to the questions “who, what, where, when, why and how”.  Some of these kids have been mentored in Nature connection for many years.  All of them, including the newer students,  are sharp inquisitive people and I knew I was in for a fun time.

I will share our observations and conclusions and add some research I did later.  Put you nerd hats on ’cause we are going deep.

First scene of kill site, primary flight feathers and body feathers of Wild Turkey.

First scene of kill site, primary flight feathers and body feathers of Wild Turkey.

In the end we found three distinct scenes of sign, mostly feathers.   The first was on the road on the North end of the field, the next about 15 feet to the Southeast into the field and the third, 15 feet or so Northeast from the second, just on the North edge of the road.  This first scene included the above grouping of feathers in a radius of about 5 feet or so (being with the kids I was not able to get the best pictures or documentation).  This group contained a number of flight feathers (wing) and body feathers (above).  I have not yet determined which part of the body the smaller feathers are from.  The two pictures below show details of some of the sign.  This was obviously the site of predation, especially clear after finding that most of the feathers were “sheared.”  Many of the larger ones in two or more pieces.  The differing anatomy of predatory species lead to a difference in how they remove feathers to get at the meat.

Shorn primaries from first scene.  Note they are clipped in two places.

Shorn primaries from first scene. Note they are clipped in two places.

Body feather from first scene.

Body feather from first scene.

The second scene (below) still had some snow in it.  However the only tracks were melted out deer.

Second scene.

Second scene.

Secondary flights shorn and tail feathers plucked from second scene.

Secondary flights shorn and tail feathers plucked from second scene.

In this grouping where more sheared primaries and secondaries (wing feathers) and some plucked tail feathers (top of above photo).  Below you can see some damage from the plucking or an attempt to shear a nearby group of feathers.

Evidence of teeth being used to pluck this tail feather.

Evidence of teeth being used to pluck this tail feather.

Flight feathers shorn and plucked from second scene.

Flight feathers and one tail feather shorn and plucked from second scene.

Again there were many wing feathers and larger body feathers in this area of about 5 or 6 ft dia.  It also included tail feathers which the first scene only had one or two of.  Below we found the turkey’s beard. Occasionally females will have a beard, as far as I know adult males always do.

Turkey's beard at second scene.

Turkey’s beard at second scene.

Scat found in center of second scene.

Scat found in center of second scene.

There were no tracks on the snow, there was however this scat about half an inch in diameter full of fur.

Third scene.  Students observing feathers and bones from Wild Turkey likely killed and eaten by a Red Fox.

Third scene. Students observing feathers and bones from Wild Turkey.

The third and final scene seemed to be the dinner table.  The remaining wing feathers, just a few body feathers, and the larger bones picked clean.

Feathers and bones.

Feathers and bones.

Leg bones and pelvis cleaned of meat.

Leg bones and pelvis cleaned of meat.

Above is what is left of the upper leg bones attached to the pelvic girdle.  The femurs where both broken in the middle.   Other broken bones were scattered nearby.

Whats left of a talon.

Whats left of a talon.

Little was left of the feet.  Above is one of several talons we found at the third scene.  (Above)

(Below) Some scaly skin from a “shin” or lower leg.  I placed it on the stick for the photo.

Scales from foot of turkey. I put it on the stick to take the photo

Scales from foot of turkey. I put it on the stick to take the photo.

Interpretation:

Who?

The carcass was Wild Turkey.  Several of us are very familiar with their feathers and anatomy and I double checked with a feather ID guide.  Who was the culprit?  We suspect it was a Red Fox.  This ID is much more complicated.  I will break it down.

Could it have been an arial predator?  The sheared feathers indicate a mammalian predator, birds do not have the carnassial teeth required to cut and therefor must pluck.   Which mammal?  Bobcats have less developed carnassails than canine and would not have left such nicely cut quills.  Elbroch reports Red Fox and house cats often both shear and pluck, Red Fox often pluck the tail rather than cut them which is what we observed here.

The scat we found is consistent with Red, Grey Fox and Eastern Coyote.  It is close to the small end for Coyote and we do know there is a resident Red Fox.  Grey are rare in the area.  It is of course possible that the scat was placed later merely to mark the carcass as foxes will do.  However  it was the only scat in the area besides a green, hairy, mushy one I did not get a picture of, that was even smaller in diameter than the one pictured.  If a Coyote had killed and eaten the turkey I would have expected it to poop.  After all, everybody poops.

Where?

Where did the turkey come from? Where was it when it was attacked?  Where was the fox before the attack?  Where did the fox go after?

Not being an arial predator that attacked, the turkey could not have been flying at the time.  Could it have been in a tree roosting?  Some of the younger kids thought a bobcat could have climbed a tree to get it.  The older kids and I felt any turkey smart enough to make it to adulthood would wake up and fly off if something climbed up a tree it was in.  So the turkey must have been on the ground.   The fox may have been hidden nearby, possibly lying in wait as Wild Turkeys are notoriously hard to sneak up close to.

We found no tracks so could not determine much of the before and after.

When?

When did the attack occur?  I asked the kids when turkeys and fox are active.  Turkey roost at night, fox tend to lay low during the day.  They had noticed that there were no tracks in the snow yet the animal must have stepped there to leave the scat.   The snow had been soft enough for a portion of each day over the last week to allow for footprints.  So we postulate that the attack took place early in the day when the snow was still hard, less likely later when the snow might be softer from the day’s sun.   It couldn’t have been at night ’cause the bird would have been in a tree.

When did the scat arrive?  At some point a fox poops at the second scene.  It felt to me this would have happened after the food was gone.  Red Fox often leave a message to themselves not to bother with an empty food source.  Why no scat on the bones at the third scene?

Why?

Why was the turkey killed?  Easy, someone was hungry.  Why this turkey?  It was a male and may have been alone making an easier target.  A male is more likely to be alone and it would be extremely difficult for a ground predator to get the jump on a flock (or rafter as it turns out a group of turkeys is called).  Maybe the fox knew the routine or where it had roosted the night before and was waiting.  There was nothing indicating that the turkey was compromised by injury or disease though there was little left to examine.  If it was sick or injured, it would have been an easier target.

What and How?

We had many hypotheses.  One way we think it could have gone down is like this:  The fox gets lucky and jumps the turkey at scene one.  Fox pins turkey and starts chomping feathers.  Some pressure forces fox to move East to second scene and again to the third.  Either the turkey is not dead and runs or an outside disturbance is involved.  The fox eats the turkey down to the bones at the third scene leaving not a scrap.

What outside force?  We surmised that possibly the fox’s mate showed up.  This time of year fox are paired up either mating or preparing for kits to be born.  This may have caused the original fox to move around while dealing with the feathers, not wanting to share in its kill right away.    Also, it seems like a lot of meat to be consumed on the spot (it must have been since the bones were left at the third scene), which would also indicate the possible presence of a second animal because foxes will cache what they cannot eat and would have moved any leftovers to a more hidden location. If it were a mated pair, they may have eventually shared in the feast.

Conclusion.

Way too much fun!  Theories, guesses, conjecture, critical questioning.  One of the students found the second group of feathers and said “wait, why are there more over here?”  He was incredulous.  Good for him.  It was good for all of us.

Northern Water Snake in stream in Winter

Sometimes one is surprised by what can be found out in the woods.  While stepping over this stream I spotted something out of place in a winter world.  It had been warm enough on the previous days for the streams fast moving water to melt.  In the water was this snake, its beautiful pattern jumping out at me.

Nerodia sipedon

Turned out to be a Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon.  As the name implies they live in the water, sometimes getting quite large, one I saw in the past basking in the middle of the road looked similar to a Timber Rattler in size, shape and pattern.  This similarity to rattlesnakes and its presence in the water similar to water moccasins (also called cottonmouth) leads to people killing them after misidentification.  Personally if I came across a rattlesnake or cottonmouth that was not in or very close to my home I would not kill them anyway.

How and why this one died is a mystery to me.  There was not a mark on it, it looked unblemished by death and was even flexible.  The water we found it in was probably 35 degrees or less (the air temp was 25 or so).  I have read that they hibernate in rock crevices and such the way most snaked do.  Is is possible it was hibernating close to the water level and when it rose due to snow melt on some of the warmer days was washed out?

I thought about taking it home and eating it.  Deneen talked me out of it in case it could somehow survive such an ordeal and come to in the spring.  Amphibians are known to be able to freeze and thaw with no ill effects.  I have not heard of reptiles being capable of that.  People don’t know everything and I was not in any great need of food so I put it back in the water.  Wonder what will become of it.

Northern Water Snake

Mantis Egg Case

Deneen and I were out on a snowshoe in the amazing deep snow we have here in southern New England and came upon this little titmouse in a blueberry bush. Titmice usually are shy around us.  This one, on contrast, stayed put even though we were pretty close when we noticed it.  The titmouse was intent on getting into an enlarged part of the stem of a blueberry plant.  It went at the spot with a great physicality bordering on violence, not something I think of when I see a titmouse. We watched it for more than ten minutes, my shutter clicking away (that usually scares off animals when that close).  It finally dropped to the ground after tearing apart whatever was attached to the stem, and pecked at something we could not see in the snow, then flew off.

Foamy insect egg case

After it left we took a look at what it was so determined to get into.  Below you can see the hole it made.  We had to look it up in Eiseman and Charney’s Tracks and Sign of Insects.  According to them this is the egg casing (called a ootheca) of a Chinese Mantis.  We have a few different kinds of mantis in the eastern US.  Each has a ootheca different enough to tell the species apart.  Mantis eggs overwinter in the ootheca, their parents having died when the weather gets cold.  They will emerge and instantly look for food in the spring.

The little bird got a good meal out of the hundreds of mantis eggs inside.  It was a hungry creature, calories are hard to come by this time of year and it takes a lot of them to get an animal weighing less than an ounce through a 2 degree night.

frothy insect sign

Often having a camera with me can disconnect me with the natural world a little.  And sometime, like this time, as I took pictures of the bird it slowed me down long enough to become determined to stay and see what the titmouse was doing and why.  Doing so gave us a cool mystery to solve when we got home.  Thanks Tufted Titmouse.

 

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