My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Drunken raccoon says Hi, watch for the signs!

The pictures I have taken of the drunken raccoon are a bit of a hit on my Facebook page, and a number of people have commented that I was lucky to have spotted it. I don’t want to sound less than modest, but luck had nothing to do with it. I’ll get to why there was no luck involved in a second, but first, the raccoon wants to tell every one hello.

Drunken raccoon waving to his fans

Here’s why there was no luck involved in spotting the raccoon the first time.

Wood shavings in the crotch of a tree

In the crotch of the tree just below the raccoon, you can see a pile of light-colored wood shavings that on some days, stick out like a sore thumb. It was late spring or early summer when I first noticed the pile of shavings, signs like that are often clues about the types of wildlife in the area, their numbers, and of course, the places they call home. I walked over to investigate, I didn’t see the raccoon, but I took notice of the hollow tree, and the pile of shavings told me that something was enlarging the opening in the hollow tree, probably to live there. I made a mental note of the spot, then continued to check it out over time to see if I could catch whatever was making the pile of shavings in action.

Later in the summer when it was really hot out, I would sometimes see the raccoon as it would slide back into the hollow tree as I approached. It was probably pretty hot inside the tree, and the raccoon would sleep in the opening to catch any breeze to keep cool. That told me what had made the pile of shavings, and now that it is fall and the raccoon spends at least part of the night feeding on fermented berries, it isn’t as camera-shy as it was this summer. 😉

In an earlier post, “Doing it the hard way“, I wrote that I take notice of any splash of color, no matter how small when I am in the woods and looking for wildlife. Sometimes the splash of color isn’t the wildlife itself, but signs that lead to wildlife. In the case of the raccoon, it was the light-colored shavings that lead me to discover where the raccoon lives, then it was just a matter of time before I was able to get a photograph of it.

When you’re outdoors, there are many clues there for you to use to be able to tell you what’s going on in the area while you’re not there, if you pay attention to the clues. The old timers I used to hunt with called it reading sign. When most people hear that phrase, they think of tracks and tracking, but that’s just a small part of reading sign. It is like one of those popular crime shows on TV, there are clues everywhere, you just have to look for them, and understand what the clues mean.

Since I started with the pile of wood shavings that led me to the raccoon pictures, let’s start with wood shavings, or maybe I should say woody debris. Take a close look at trees and fallen logs, and you may well see tiny piles of sawdust left behind from insects burrowing into the wood. You may not be interested in the insects, but there are birds and animals that are, because the insects are food for them, and maybe you are interested in them. In order to eat the insects, the birds and animals have to get to them, that means they either peck or rip their way through the wood to get to the insects. That in turn leaves wood shavings scattered about on the ground near where they feeding.

If you live far enough north that your area receives snow, go out into the woods after a snowfall and you will probably find areas where the snow is covered with bits of bark and wood shavings from birds hunting for insects. Small birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice pry up the edges of the bark on trees to get to the insects hiding underneath, and flakes of the bark break off and land on the snow below. If you see wood shavings in with the flakes of bark, you can be pretty sure there were woodpeckers there too. Even if the birds are feeding on seeds, parts of the seeds will land on the snow and are easy for you to spot as well. Once you learn how to read the sign when there is snow on the ground, then you will be able to see it the rest of the year as well.

Piles of wood shavings at the base of a tree in late winter or early spring can often be your first clue that a bird or animal is making or enlarging nesting or living quarters, as in the case of the raccoon above. On one early spring hike with my ex, I noticed a pile of shavings at the base of a tree right next to the trail. As I got closer to the tree, I thought that I could hear the woodpecker working away inside the tree, making the cavity larger. I stopped, pressed my ear to the tree, and sure enough, the woodpecker was in there. Of course my ex asked me what the heck I was doing, and I told her that I was listening to the woodpecker inside the tree. She had that very dubious look on her face as I suggested that she give a listen, we were both good at pulling each other’s leg, but after a second or two with her ear pressed against the tree, her eyes lit up as she heard the bird in action, and then I had a hard time separating her from the tree. Hey, it was funny at the time, I guess you had to be there.

I’m not one to stake out a nesting site, that is to sit there for hours in order to take pictures, but if I find a nest in an area I walk frequently, I do slow down as I approach the nests so as to not disturb the birds any more than I have to, and once in a while, I’ll get a good photo that way. That tree would have been added to the mental list of nests I keep if it had been on a trail that I hike frequently.

Squirrels leave trails of bark and wood shavings behind as they work their way through trees looking for food just as birds do. Skunks, raccoon, and bear will tear rotting logs apart to feed on the grubs and salamanders that live in the rotten wood.

Another habit of squirrels is to gather nuts in their cheeks and then go to one of their favored spots to eat the nuts, it could be a stump, a fallen tree, or a branch. You’ll often find piles of the debris left over from where they ate, and squirrels are messy eaters, they leave bits of the meat from the nuts in the debris. Birds aren’t as dumb as we like to think they are, they know that the squirrels leave tidbits behind and search out the piles the squirrels leave behind for an easy meal of their own. Bluejays in particular seem to have figured this out, they will perch nearby while the squirrel is eating, then as soon as the squirrel scampers off to gather more nuts, the bluejays will swoop in to gobble up any bits of the nut meat the squirrel has dropped.

Then there are tracks. Most, if not all of the field guides that I have seen for mammals include a drawing of each animal’s tracks. I can identify the tracks of Michigan animals, but to tell you the truth, I don’t find tracks to be a big help in finding animals. I do take note of the tracks I do see to tell me what species of animals live in the area, but I don’t go looking for tracks. Instead, I look for trails. Most animals travel established trail systems that they use to move around on. Even animals as small as cottontail rabbits have small trails through the grass that you can see, if you know what to look for, and pay attention to what you see. Understandably, the bigger the animal, the bigger their trails are.

The trail of a cottontail rabbit is only three or four inches wide, and they often form “tunnels” through taller grass. The trails of whitetail deer are 12 to 18 inches wide, and if it is used a lot, the ground will be dug up from the hooves of the deer. The trails of elk are even larger and more worn, they often look like a hiking path that we humans would use, but not maintained very well. My favorite way of finding deer and elk to photograph is to still hunt my way along one of their trails that gets a lot of usage.

The reason I look for trails more than individual tracks is because of where I live, which is Michigan. There are only two species heavy enough to leave reliable tracks in the leaf litter in Michigan’s forests, or in the grasslands, and those two are moose and elk. Moose are limited to a few areas in the upper peninsula of Michigan, and elk only range the area around the Pigeon River Country in northeast lower Michigan. In other parts of the country where there is more open ground, tracking would be more important to me. I can track a whitetail deer through the forest, but it is a tough thing to do.

Luckily, animals do leave many other signs behind them that are as good or better than tracks anyway. I have mentioned a couple before, like birds dropping the hulls of seed on the snow and squirrels leaving piles of the shells of nuts in places. Often times you can see signs that animals were feeding in an area, sometimes by what they leave behind, the inedible parts of their food, sometimes by what is missing. You can often find places where it is obvious from the plants that something has been eating away at them.

And there is one thing that all species of animals leave behind, and that is their feces, or droppings to be a little more polite. It is a rather indelicate subject, but an important one, for often times, the animal’s droppings is the best way to identify the species that left them.

Even the lowly earthworm leaves droppings behind, tiny pellets of dirt called casts that are often seen piled up at the entrance to the earthworm’s burrow. OK, so you don’t want to photograph earthworms, how about robins or woodcock? Both feed heavily on earthworms, so the best places to find them is where there are many earthworms.

I will confess that unless the tracks are very clear, I have a hard time telling if a track was left by a small dog or, a fox or coyote. However, if I see the scat left behind, I know for sure whether it was a domestic dog or a wild canine. The scat of the wild canines usually includes the parts of their prey that their digestive system couldn’t digest, like fur and bones, which you don’t normally find in the droppings of dogs. The difference between the dainty tracks of a fox and the larger, more dog-like tracks of a coyote then allows me to make a positive identification of which species had been there.

Sometimes seeing the droppings can’t help you identify which species left them, but the fact that they are there, and the quantity of them can tell you many things. Paying attention to droppings will give you an idea which species make the area their home, and how many of them there are in the area. I have been told that people frequently find the nests of eagles when they come across the large and large number of droppings the eagles deposit while building and tending their nests. I have found the spots favored by male birds in the spring where they perch to sing their mating calls, which has lead me to get some terrific photos of the birds.

Male cardinal

I found the large pile of droppings this cardinal had made when he perched in the same tree day after day to sing his mating call. I made the area a routine stop on my daily hikes until I caught him in action on that day.

Droppings aren’t the only signs animals leave behind them, deer beds are a sign that the deer live in the area, and the number of beds is a good indication of the number of deer. In the fall as the rut, the mating season for deer, approaches, the bucks rub off the velvet that covers their antlers during the time the antlers are growing by rubbing their antlers against small trees. They rub to the point that they take the bark off from the trees, and rubs as they are called, are a sure sign that bucks live in the area. Bucks also use their hooves to scrape up patches of ground, then urinate on the spot as a calling card to all the females in the area. Bull elk do the same things, but on a larger scale.

What I have written here just scratches the surface of the number of clues, or signs, that there are to be found in nature if you take the time to look for them, and understand what the clues are trying to tell you. Most people don’t take the time to look, let alone try to understand the clues nature leaves behind, and they miss out on so many things that way. Taking the time will lead you to many more opportunities for good photographs, and there is an even more important reason as well. That is, you learn how interconnected everything is in nature in a way that I am not sure you can learn otherwise. Nature is one huge puzzle, waiting for us to search out the clues of how it all fits together, and I think that learning to read sign is one of the best ways to find those clues. And, if I get a cute picture of a drunken raccoon, or a photo of a brilliantly red cardinal during my search, so much the better.

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2 responses

  1. That raccoon is so cute, great photos

    November 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm

  2. Great post, but I still love that drunk raccoon. 🙂

    November 2, 2011 at 3:59 pm