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mouse nest materials

Deneen found this in the wood pile.  A mouse, or possible vole’s nest made almost entirely of snake skins.  I have never seen this before.  Certain birds will use a snake skin or two in their nests and I would not have been surprised to see a few snake skins in a mouse nest, this many is something else.  The wood piles here do tend to be full of snake sheds in the summer so even though the wood pile was surrounded by a field full of other materials, these must have been the most convenient.

Please let me know if you have ever seen this before.  Pictures are welcome.

 

 

 

Mole Hill

On a very wet trail heading into one of my workplaces (the woods) I noticed one of these fresh mounds of dirt. On the way out about 7 hours later the other mound was there. Now that I had the time to investigate I did.

Mole hill uncovered, Star-nosed mole

I dug into the piles and found this little hole a little less than an inch across. Something had pushed that dirt up from underneath. But who, might you ask?

Star-nosed mole hole

So I did some digging (sorry for the pun) and found out a few things about moles. We have three species in New England, Star-nosed (Condylura cristata), Hairy-tailed (Parascalops breweri) and Eastern (Scalopus aquaticus).

I wanted to know which of these was more likely the culprit here. The size of the hole did not help me much, no tracks to be seen or scat.  Not sure any of that would help either. What I did have to go on was habitat. Each of the three mole species has a favored terrain.

Hairy-tailed prefer drier open areas with loose soil. Eastern moles can handle somewhat denser soil and enjoy meadows, your lawn, open woods and similar places. Star-nosed go for low wet places where they can find crustaceans and even small fish and amphibians as well as the worms and inverts the other moles eat.

The path I found the hills on is continuously wet, one can tell by the look of the soil and the mossy ground. It looks like Star-nosed country to me.

Coyote Tracks in mud

Coyote tracks are very common where I live.  So are dog tracks, red and grey fox, bobcat and others that could be confused with coyote.  Learning the difference between them is an important basic distinction of wildlife tracking.

Above are both the front and hind track of a coyote in soft mud.  The depth and softness of the substrate will demand close scrutiny.  Here are some things to look for.

Four toes- Raccoons and fisher have 5.  Look hard because one of them is smaller and sometimes does not show clearly in the fisher.  All canines and felines have 4.  Some domestic animals may have extras which usually look weird and stand out.

Symmetry- Obvious symmetry in both front and hind tracks.  Felines have asymmetrical feet, most evident in the fronts. Domestic dogs breeding has led to crooked toes and claws in most individuals.

Negative space- I went to art school and was trained to view negative space as just as important as the “subject”.  If the subject is the pads, pay equal attention to the space in between them.  In canines, coyotes in particular, one can draw an X with its center in the middle of the track and it will not encounter any pads.  The asymmetry of feline tracks means this is not possible.  This phenomenon will also sometimes create a pyramid of material in the center of the track.  That is present here in these pictures.

Claws- on any but the thinnest substrate the coyote’s claws will leave marks.  They are small, narrow, strait, pointed and face strait ahead.  The claws of the outer toes often are so close to the inner toes they are barely visible and the inner toes claws are close together and parallel.  In these images the depth of the mud caused them to look larger and stick out more than usual especially on the front foot.  This can be tricky and takes looking at many tracks to be comfortable with.

“Heel Pad”-  It isn’t actually the heel, its the metacarpal pad on the front and metatarsal pad on the hind but, who’s counting. On coyotes the front heel pad is a wedge shaped trapezoid narrower to the front.  The hind feet often show just a round dimple in the earth.  Again in this example the depth of mud distorts some portions and shows more detail in others.  The outer 2 toes of the front foot for example have pinched the mud up around the front edge of the heel pad.

Clarity- Red fox have very furry feet, the inside edges of the toe and heel pad are often indistinct.  Coyote, bobcat and grey fox have very distinct pads so if the substrate is capable of capturing distinct edges and they are not visible consider red fox.

Size- Coyotes front feet are always larger than their hinds.  Domestic dogs are not always so, they may be the same or the rears could be larger.  There are parameters for coyote track size, several good books list these things.  I find measuring to be misleading because of the considerable overlap with other animals and the effect of mud and snow on the size of the track.  If one looks hard and often, the need for a ruler should disappear.  I did use one here to give you some idea of scale and so I can try to keep track of individual animals in my area.  Sharing photos does create a need for a scale such as a ruler.

Below are close ups of the individual tracks.

There are still more details to identifying coyote tracks which I will omit here for the sake of sanity.  Looking at tracks, drawing them, looking at animal’s feet, learning their habits and way of life are what it takes to go deeper into wildlife tracking.  The animal who made these tracks is my neighbor, I have known its family for generations, seen its parents in the woods, my family has listened to its family howl at night.  Getting to know the wildlife around you is another way to go deeper.

Coyote Front track

Coyote Hind track

Bow Drill Basics Video

Fire by friction is a defining skill of wilderness survival and primitive living.  Here is the first in a series of videos to help people  learning the bow drill method.  Future videos and articles will cover the construction, from scratch, of a friction fire set and the ultimate skill of harvesting all materials from the landscape using stone tools also gathered on the spot.  Thanks for watching.

 

Making Birch Tar

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

Warm Snake

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.

 

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