Nov 08 2008

Scat! Who’s Passed This Way?

 
One of the biggest attractions of spending time in wild areas is wildlife, of course. The chance to spot a browsing moose, eagle parents feeding their chicks, a pack of wolves on the hunt across a frozen lake, or a grizzly fishing for salmon draws us along to see what’s around the next bend. More often than not, though, we don’t see the large charismatic megafauna, but the smaller creatures. Take the shrew in the photo below, for instance:

 

Busy hungry shrew

 
I was lucky to catch the thumb-sized mammal with my camera as he shot from the ground in lightning-quick darts to scarf up sunflower seeds that I’d put out for the birds. Shrews are elusive and swift, and I was delighted to get a chance to see him.

More often than not, animal sign is easier to spot than the animals themselves. On an early October bike trip on a remote highway in the northern Adirondack Mountains, it was clear that bears lived in the bordering woods, but they don’t defecate there. Not all the time anyway:

 

Do bears do doo-doo in the woods?

 
This fresh scat—about the size of a salad plate—was left on the road shoulder. Apparently the local bears prefer a latrine with a view:

 

A latrine with a view

 
Bear scat had been left all along the highway margins, almost always where there was a clear view up and down the road, and with pretty scenery to enjoy when doing nature’s business.

Scat isn’t the only sign of animals. On a rainy day hike a week ago, I discovered this den alongside the trail:

 

High and dry den

 
A single paw print in the sand suggested a fox was in residence, and had been since the night before, when the wind had rushed through the river valley and threw oak leaves into the den’s entrance. Later, further down the trail, I found what might be his scat (my cap brim peeks into the picture for scale):

 

Br'er passed this way

 
You don’t have to go far from home to see evidence of wildlife. Here’s skunk scat on the concrete walkway near where the shrew had been eating:

 

What's on the menu?

 
Looks like beetles, ants, and sunflower seeds had been on this guy’s menu.

Water dwellers leave sign of their passage, too. Otter scat is often left on prominent landmarks like exposed river rocks, logs, and tussocks. Frequently their scat sparkles because of the high fish scale content. I don’t have a photo of otter scat, but here are two muskrat scats left on what seems a territorial marking post on a boulder:

 

This is my rock, pilgram

 
By far it’s hardest to find the scat of beavers. Their roundish golf ball-sized scat is always deposited in water, and because it’s largely composed of sawdust, it breaks down easily. On a trip to my favorite wetland last week, I found a mother lode of beaver scat in the shallows:

 

Happy dining

 
Note the characteristic brown Adirondack water. The beaver scat is in the upper right quadrant. If you have trouble seeing it, here’s the same photo with the scat highlighted:

 

A better view

 
I’ll leave it to the beaver to have the last gnaw, er, word, on the subject.

 

Gnaw gnaw