Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

So, as the progenitor of this digital collection of words and images, I have the unique opportunity to see how people get here. One thing I notice is that as I write about wolverines, folk keep finding this site by seeking photographs of wolverine tracks. Well, give the people what they want, I say (it seems like someone else might have said that first).

But not quite yet.

Instead, tonight let’s take a real good look at one picture.

Here’s a photo I took while standing on the seat of a Forest Service snowmobile in the vicinity of Hart’s Pass, WA. You wouldn’ think the tracking conditions were good. A week or more of sun and warm temperatures preceded this day. The snow was a concrete slab, with only hoar frost to provide softness to the surface… and the balm of the midday sun. But at night it would freeze again. So there was a chance at tracks, but only at the right time of day. Well, we got lucky.

Wait, you say, that’s two pictures! Well, not really. The first is a little closer on the wolverine track and the second gives you more of the bigger picture and scale.

Speaking of scale, let me apologize to the tracking community. I know, I know, when I’m taking photos of animal tracks, I’m supposed to put a tape measure in the picture so that everyone can compare it to the various charts that trackers have laboriously come up with to classify animal tracks. Well, sorry to buck tradition, but I think that a tape measure ruins an otherwise artistic masterpiece of a track in snow. And furthermore (sit down for this one), I suggest you throw away your tape measure altogether! Feel the ripples of indignation spreading from the audacity of that statement…

But seriously, there is a place for precise measurements. Maybe in telling a fisher from a marten. But in most cases, to concentrate on measuring track, stride, and straddle is to meticulously look at a tree when the forest could tell you what you want to know.

With that in mind, lets look at our picture. Here’s what I mean about throwing away the tape measure… compare the track and stride size to the snowmobile track next to it, and the result is … it’s big. Not a mouse, not a squirrel, not even a marten. Big, I tell you. We’re on the edge of the North Cascades in Washington… in winter. So big makes our job easy. It’s winter, so bears are out. Lynx, wolverine, wolf. That’s about it.

And so we take a close look.

Lynx falls out real quick. Cat’s have retractable claws that don’t show in the snow. And the individual tracks are asymmetric. Asymmetric? you say?… well, the direction that the pad seems to be pointing and the direction the toes point isn’t quite the same. It’s like they’re pigeon-toed, if that helps you imagine. Plus, they only have four toes.

Look at the photo. Counting individual tracks from the bottom–track 1 is the top of a group cut off by the photo, and then we get 2,3,4,5 with 3 and 4 almost superimposed, and so on.  There’s a hint of something in track number 2… and definitely noticeable in 6 and again in 10. A fifth toe. Of our choices, the weasel family is the only family that shows 5 toes in a track. But even if, for some reason, that toe never registered–theres’ another hint. Thank Rezendes for this one… a typical weasel footprint is 5-toed, but pay attention here) the middle three toes tend to group together.. giving a 1-3-1 pattern to the toes. If you look carefully, you can see this in the photo, even where the 5th toe doesn’t register (a -3-1 if you will). Out goes lynx and wolf. But to be fair, let’s pretend we couldn’t see toes.

We can tell even without toes? Hell yes!

But let me be careful here. On a good track, where you can see a definite pad and toes, you only need look at ten tracks or so before you are pretty certain of the animal you are looking at. When looking at track patterns, it takes a little more work. Most trackers will follow a pattern for at least a hundred yards before making a guess, and even then will be open to other opinions. But some guesses are better than others. And that’s the point… to make an educated guess.

Take another look at the photo. No matter what it is, it is a four-legged creature. So how do the four legs fall? Track 1 is the top of a grouping, so ignore it for now. 2,3,4, and 5 are the four feet landing. How do they land? Well, kind of slanted. And 3 and 4 nearly land on top of each other. Well, folks, what we are looking at here is a classic weasel track pattern. The slant can be right or left, but 4 tracks end up looking like 3 (especially in deeper snow, where the second and third almost direct-register). From an earlier post, here is the two patterns I have seen from a wolverine:

and therefore the track (the right pattern) is called a 3x track pattern (though it is 4 feet). The track pattern in our photo is slanted the other way, but you can still see it.

And there’s more. Take a look at the scratch marks in the snow between tracks. Not only can we see the tracks and track pattern, but we can almost match individual tracks by the toe drag between them! (Please don’t discourage me by rolling your eyes, I’m having fun here). My hero, Rezendes, was kind enough to point out that you can tell hind tracks from front tracks in the weasel family–the hind tracks register toes and a pad, while the front tracks register toes, pad, and an elongated impression of the leg coming into the pad. Look at the picture… you can see this. Two tracks have an elongated pad while the other two are concise tracks. And then look at the toe drag… you see where the rear feet land and where the front feet land. So… the track pattern, as i see it,  is front-(rear-front)-rear. Though the toe drag in the middle tracks is a little muddled, you can see that the lone rear track and the lone front track connect… so the lead foot remains the same throughout the travel! You may think me a dork for being impressed by this insight, but suddenly I can imagine the animal moving… the strange, hunch-backed lope of a weasel… and it all makes sense. And suddenly we connect, the wolverine and I. As if I saw it loping along with my own eyes.

And so maybe you begin to see my celebration of one paltry photograph. But I’m not quite done yet.

What is that above and left of our wolverine track? In the snow there is an old, melted-out track pattern. The quick look is one that would have the sane person saying “not a good enough track, you can’t tell what that is.” And they would be right. Except if we were asked to make an educated guess.

Back to basics. No toes showing. Measurements near to useless. It’s melted out and old. But then again…

It’s a big track, even if melting has exaggerated it. And the lower half of the picture shows a slanted 2x pattern… classic weasel. And the upper part of the picture goes into a slanted 3x pattern… again a weasel pattern. Not definitive, i suppose, but all fingers are pointing away from lynx and wolf and toward marten or wolverine. And… I’ll put my own experience on the line a little here… the wolverine tracks I’ve seen freely switch from 2x to 3x without warning, whereas marten tracks tend to stick to 2x patterns unless they slow down to look at something. This one switches back and forth while traveling a road grade. And it is probably a big track. I f a PhD were to ask me if this (the old track) was a wolverine track, I’d say “probably.” (it doesn’t really matter, they wouldn’t believe me anyway). But if someone were to ask me where to put a camera station or wolverine trap, I would, with confidence, put my finger down on the map… even with just seeing the old track. And you could, too.

Drop the measuring tape. Take a look at the big picture.


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For the next few months, I’m maintaining wolverine traps and baited camera stations in the North Cascades of Washington. It sounds glorious… news of my duties prompted a friend to write “I hate you Dan.” And it is. And it is also tiring and hard work. I spend my days shoveling the traps out, and pulling and tugging on stuck snowmobiles. Still, on nice days, i sometimes feel guilty for being paid to be out there.

But to get to the point… i wrote a bit ago about the difference between weasel and marten tracks, and to close a circle–in the last two days i have laid eyes on both creatures. Yesterday a beautiful weasel–white save for a black-tipped tail, was started by our passing snowmobiles, and after scrambling across the snow surface for twenty feet or so, decided to duck his body below the snow to hide. His head popped out for a peek a few seconds later. His motion seemed slow, but at the same time was much faster than any of us could have managed in the foot or so of powder he was skipping over.

And today the phone rang at 7 am (the horror!) with the message that our boss had traps giving the “closed” signal on radio telemetry and he needed people to go check them. Admittedly, i don’t have much of a social life, so i had no other plans for a saturday and soon found myself on a snowmobile headed to check two traps. We’re trying to catch wolverines, but they are rare to catch. More often, it is martens (American pine marten?) that trigger the trap. They sit in there and chew away contentedly on the provided deer or beaver and patiently wait for a biologist to come and open the door for them. Sure enough, that’s what we got. Good picture, though. Cute critter.

So from paired tracks to paired animals. Life is good.

A few days later we found the same marten in the trap again. This short video is a bit amusing:

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Some more to share. Been some pretty skies around here lately.

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More Icy Photos

Still no snow, but plenty of ice:

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Ice Studies

It’s gotten cold around here lately, and i’ve become fascinated with the shapes and textures of ice… here are some samples:Window

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