By: Fil Tkaczyk
I wanted to invite all of you readers to join me for a moment on a little tracking experience from my day today. Just a short foray into everyday tracking and it's rewards.
Here you go, hope you enjoy!
A wet, cool day dawns in western Washington. The brief rain last night left everything fresh, and moist this morning. I decided to go for a short walk, before I start work for the day.
Looked around inside the house, I looked at the wildlife sign present, literally on every corner. Our house cat regularly rubs his facial scent glands against the corners of the spaces he frequents. If you look close, you will see they just about at his head height there is a thin line of discoloration. Since its oily, it is very hard to clean off.
This scent marking is important to his well-being, helping him to feel at home and to let others know he is here and frequents this spot. Perhaps not ideal for keeping clean walls, but endearing in that simple, animal way that all of us can relate to. What is more comforting than the smell of home? And part of what makes up the smell of home, for both cats and humans, is our own smell. The scent of our bodies in our own space.
Just outside, on the corner of our unpainted wooden fence is his scratching post. Just raw wood that he scratches on regularly before hopping on top of the fence and walking around the corner. The sun-aged wood and the 2 x 4 on the corner normal have a very consistent color to them. Where he scratches, however, the bright tan of raw wood stands out. The frazzled, shredded splinters that stick out give it a distinct texture too. Once you know to look for this, you can spot it in many neighborhoods.
From here I walked a few blocks down to a local pond in a small park. On a gray, wooden bench, I saw a yellow jacket working hard. Its mandibles grating hard against the wood, its saliva moistening the wood temporarily to a darker color. This kind of sign is actually incredibly common all around the cities, suburbs and rural areas.
Where the surface material has been scraped off, you can see the tan wood underneath forming a short little line as wide as the wasps mandibles. Look very close in the image and you will see much older sign of the same kind.
What is the wasp doing? Why?
It is working very hard to collect material to make paper. For writing bad poetry or trashy novels?
No, for building and adding to a nest. Next time you see a yellow jacket nest that you can safely approach close up, notice the many tiny bands of slightly different color paper that make up its structure. Every one of those bands required a trip to collect wood in just this way. On warm days, the sound of yellow jackets or paper wasp jaws grating and scraping at siding or an old deck can be quite audible.
Another sound drew my attention. The tap-tap of a beak on wood. My first thought was , "woodpecker." Then, I heard the material this bird is breaking off fall through the trees. I walked over to investigate and felt a pop under my foot. Looking down, I saw the shells of hazelnuts in various states of destruction littering the ground.
I sat there quitely pondering what was the likely cause, until a piece of hazelnut hit me in the head. I looked up to see a Steller's jay about 50 feet above, banging away on a hazelnut. Sometimes your answers come that fast when you are tracking. But, not usually!
As I sat watching it, and listening, I noticed there were about 6 of them in total all traveling the short flight and several hops between the filbert tree thicket and the tall, big-leaf maple next to it. They seemed to prefer the largest, flattest branches as anvils for shelling the nuts. Their black heads and shoulders faded seamlessly into the dark blue of their upper wings. They are mostly quite, focused, and not calling. One sang out a soft song of gurgles, clicks, chirps and whistles. I chuckled at the sweet sound coming from a bird who's voice is usually so harsh and loud.
My tracking discipline kicked in along with my curiosity. How would I know this was jay sign in the future? What is specific about it? Is it visible on the bits they leave behind?
So first I looked at the big picture. How the shells were being dropped. They were scattered pretty evenly and seemingly randomly all over the trail. Then, I noticed that the jays often seem to harvest the hazelnuts in small groups, often by breaking them off with a short part of the twig still attached. Not cut at a 45 degree as from a squirrel, but twisted off leaving a rather circular, blunted end.
The nuts have an outer husk that the birds had to remove. They usually peck at it a few times, then pull it off. This is what the husks looked like, or at least some of them.
Next, I investigated the way they entered the nuts. It seems they generally busted through the shell through the side, by laying the nuts on the anvil lengthwise between their grasping feet and pounding them open. They did not usually try to open them from the very top or very bottom (point) of the nut.
Many of the shells ended up splitting into 2 or 3 pieces. But many of those pieces still showed the tell-tale rounded entry marks made by a pounding beak.
The most interesting bits of feedings sign, however, where those nuts that contained remains of the nut meat inside them. Looking close at several, I could see that these birds were not always super thorough about getting every last bit. Which is unlike a tidy nut-eater like a deer mouse. In the nuts left behind by the Steller's jays, you could see that the nut meat was repeatedly hit with the tip of a beak.
This was so simple and yet satisfying to learn about! To push this just a little further, I grabbed a few whole hazelnuts the jays had dropped and smashed them between my heel and a rock. I looked at the way the broad, blunt force of my shoe created a very different effect on the shell. I then extract the nuts from inside and ate them with a smile.
This was tracking at its best. Not the grand adventure of trailing wolves or grizzly bears in far off wilderness, but the simple pleasure of following your curiosity and learning something about the wild neighbors you share space with everyday.
Tracking is our path to intimate relationships with the other-then-human beings that surround us and are part of us.