Natural events, January 2016

Our monthly birds/natural event post series began in January 2011, so this post begins our sixth year (archive to old posts on the Landscape page). We started the series because most of the topics we felt compelled to blog about oozed pessimism about the country’s bizarre and dysfunctional agricultural system. We felt we needed content with a positive tone, what Eric calls “fuzzy bunny” posts. Perky, feel-good posts aren’t quite our style, but we figured that even if we wouldn’t coo over their fuzziness, we could at least write about bunnies, and the hawks that eat them, and the ecosystem that otherwise surrounds us and into which our farm is integrated. And so began the natural event post series. The style has evolved over time, from short posts featuring a bird list to longer, photo-driven posts featuring observations that caught our attention and especially those caught on camera. We enjoy doing these, but we don’t get paid for them and they take a fair amount of time to prepare, so if you like these posts, please consider commenting and/or sharing with friends.

January 2016’s weather was moderate. Temperatures did drop below zero, but warm days were numerous, as well. The pond froze but never reached a thickness that we were comfortable venturing out on; will this be our first Missouri winter without outdoor ice skating? Precipitation totaled less than an inch, some in the form of light snow. The ground was free of snow for much of the month, but a snow on Tuesday January 19th that persisted to the weekend was great for capturing tracks.


In honor of bunnies, fuzzy or otherwise, we begin this post with rabbit tracks through the orchard, above. Our instinct is that the population is a bit lower than it has been at this time of year during the last couple of years, though we don’t have data to prove it.


Oh, deer. We never set eyes on a deer in January, but we didn’t need to to know they’re around. Post-Christmas rains and flooding cleaned out the old tracks along the stream and left a blank sand canvas, but deer tracks reappeared in no time; the upper two photos are from January 3. Snow fell during the day of Tuesday January 19, and by the time I brought the camera out on Saturday, there were well-trodden trails of tracks in the field, in the woods, and even very near the house. (They also nosed up against the fences of our growing areas.) One patch of ground (bottom left photo) had a high density of tracks and turned-up leaves, which we take to be a place they were foraging. We don’t have a quantitative deer-population density estimate, but qualitatively we feel there are way too many from our perspective as food-growing, bird-watching, native-plant loving, landscape managers. January fireside reading included Al Cambronne‘s book Deerland (available at our library), which introduced us to the concept of the “deer-industrial complex” and explained why our frustrations with deer aren’t likely to end anytime soon. It is a worthwhile read with humor interspersed as well. Check it out. There’s also Eric’s own take on the Value of Venison from last winter, which explores just how much money is spent on deer hunting compare to local foods.


Near the pond, we found an abundance of squirrel activity. The track pattern superficially resembles rabbit, but several clues suggest squirrel. One (not shown) is that squirrel tracks will often begin or end at a tree, fortunately not a characteristic shared by rabbits. Squirrels tracks are often concentrated along logs, and they’re often associated with small patches of dug-up ground. In the right conditions, squirrels leave prints with good definition of the toes and pad.


We saw an assortment of canine and feline tracks, too, though we don’t have photos to document all aspects. The feline was a domestic cat, probably a stray, that hung around for a week or two before disappearing again. It left a lot of tracks around the goat barn especially but roamed widely. Claw marks generally don’t show on cat tracks, while they are likely to for canines. Canine tracks that we think we identified over the month included fox, coyote, and domestic dog. Size is a clue, as is track pattern. Wild canines tend to be perfect walkers, putting their hind feet in almost exactly the same spot that their front feet fell. Domestic dogs, however, tend not be be disciplined hunters and leave messier tracks that wander about more, as explained in Track Finder (an excellent little ID guide by Dorcas Miller). Multiple sets of tracks on top of each other can make the patterns harder to decipher, though. For example, some of the canine tracks were intermingled in the deer superhighways.jan_track_medium_mammal

When we see stream-side tracks such as these, from January 3, we generally think raccoon, though we’re not sure we can definitively rule out the possibility of other medium-sized mammals.


Not all tracks are mammal tracks. Some areas had dense collections songbird tracks. The photo on the right shows a Wild Bergamot seedhead that appears to have been a focal point of foraging activity.


We watched Trumpeter Swans fly over at low altitude on a multitude of occasions throughout the month, generally heading north in the morning and south in the evening. We presume they’re spending the night on a lake somewhere, possibly one of the many associated with this area’s coal mining history, and commuting routinely to feeding grounds, possibly a corn field or wildlife food plot. This is the third consecutive winter that we’ve had the pleasure of watching these beautiful birds, and we always welcome a chance to take a break from tree work, look up, and listen to their call and wing beats as they pass low overhead. (Of course, they never went directly overhead when I had camera in hand.)


In other news, the pulses of warm weather had us worrying about when to tap maples almost as soon as the calendar year changed. Fortunately, a cold spell convinced us to wait a little while. We searched online about pros and cons of tapping early, then decided to tap one tree mid-month as a test when we saw above-freezing days and below-freezing nights in the forecast. We added two more during the last week of January. Sap flow has been so-so, maxing out at about 1.5 gallons of sap per tree per day, with most days lower than that. (40 gallons of sap makes ~1 gallon of syrup.)


And we’ll finish on a couple of random plant photos. Left: Blue Ash has distinctive square twigs and an opposite branching pattern; some sections of our woods have quite a few young saplings of this species. On the right, a tree that puts the “shag” in Shagbark Hickory.

4 thoughts on “Natural events, January 2016

  1. Another theory about dog vs coyote tracks from someone who has done a few decades of observation of movement in the domestic dog. An efficient canid of medium size (aka, coyote sized) will at the extended trot have what is called a single track; one foot print where all four paws fall, as at speed and on level ground the legs converge to a centerline under the dog and a well articulated shoulder and rear assembly give balance to the stride meaning each leg travels about the same distance forward in execution of the gait.

    Well bred and constructed domestic dogs also do this type of gait. However, with a very wide variety of sizes and shapes along with casual breeding come dogs that are physically incapable of single tracking; their stride is restricted either fore or aft, or both. Or their joint angles are not in balance and their rear travels farther than their front. Or, for some breeds, single tracking is not correct for the breed.

    I have a Doberman who is very close to 14 years old and can still single track, and 3 Min Pins who were not meant to be single trackers (different function) and who don’t. 🙂

    I love your natural events posts even though I realize the time and effort. I hope you keep them coming.

  2. Thanks, folks! Robin, it was really interesting to hear that informed perspective on dog behavior, something we have almost no direct experience with.

  3. Love the Natural Events posts. Thanks so much for putting the time and effort into it. You are so lucky to have seen swans flying over.