By N.F. Ambery
LITCHFIELD — The tour may have been entitled “Winter Wildlife Tracking with Andy Dobos: The Forest Wolf,” but it was the gray wolf’s wily cousin — the coyote — who took a star turn for the day.
Tour guide Andy Dobos, whose artistic/educator name is “The Forest Wolf,” took 19 visitors on a under-one-mile, wildlife-tracking walk in 32-degree overcast, windy weather through the Trail of the Senses section of the White Memorial Conservation Center at 80 Whitehall Road on Saturday morning. Dobos led the group in finding traces in the forms of footprints and scat of various mammals on wooded trails and fresh snow.
Following a brief discussion in front of the museum asking participants what they were grateful for that morning, the group headed along the road into the Conservation Center’s lands. The wonder and spirit of coyotes and other predators (and prey) were discussed and illustrated for two hours.
First off, Dobos displayed for the snow-booted, young- and old-visitors along the side of the road, near an old stone wall, among bicycle-tire tracks and human footprints in the road, the discernible small, compact paw prints of an unknown mammal.
“Can anyone tell me what animals these tracks belong to?” asked Dobos.
Dobos gave hints, explaining that paw prints are related to the gait of the animal making them. For example, a deer not being chased has a trotting-like quality; bobcats typically walk very slowly in a stalking manner; a squirrel, if its hands are extended, will typically be ready to climb a tree to possibly escape a predator.
The paw prints in question were broken, meaning that the animal that made them doubled back on itself. They also indicated a heavy heel and several digits. The prints were also beside a stone wall with crevices of various sizes containing insects and chipmunks.
After some guessing, mostly from the younger members of the group, Dobos confessed it was highly likely that the paw prints belonged to a male long-tailed weasel or a mink. “The tracks showed a slow bounding,” he added. “Weasels go to the nearby wetland. In the weasel population, females are 50 percent smaller the males. Weasels go for chipmunks for food.”
“Judging from the tracks, the animal in question climbed out of the nearby ditch, with its tube-like body similar to a cardboard tube of a roll of paper towels,” Dobos said, noting some nearby tracks a few feet away in the snow possibly belonged to a rabbit, so the predator may have been on the hunt.
Later, upon the Center’s walking bridge, animal scat was discovered along the bridge’s wooden planks. “You can tell what they have eaten by its placement and the shape of the scat,” he said. “In this case, there is hair in the scat, indicating an eaten animal.” The scat or the pellets, or indigestible portions of the animal’s meal (which it was remained up in the air), was surmised by Dobos and the group to have once been a rabbit.
“This could have been left by a coyote,” he said. “Or it could have been a fox or even an owl or eagle.”
“There are no wolves in Connecticut,” said Dobos at one point during a discussion of a misinterpretation of the nature walk’s title. “They have all been extirpated.” The term means the species was systematically exterminated in regions.
Historically, the gray wolf was hunted toward extinction in Connecticut (as well as nationwide) in the 19th century by early settlers’ hatred of the Canis lupus as well as the settlers’ deforestation of their natural habitat. Wolves’ diminishing food supply (deer) also contributed to its species’ near-demise. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, conservation efforts in the 1970s through the 1990s helped restore the U.S. wolf population.
Meanwhile, the nature walk’s star predator, the coyote (also known as Canis latrans) is typically found in wilderness areas in North and Central America, though Dobos pointed out that they have been making their ways to people’s backyards and to urban areas (one was spotted a few years ago trotting along a highway median in Manhattan).
Larger than the average domesticated dog, coyote males weigh between 18 to 44 pounds while females weigh 15 to 40 pounds. Their fur is light gray and red mixed with black and white. The animal typically feeds on deer, rabbits, birds, and reptiles. Coyotes have been thought to make Connecticut their home since the wolf population was forced out the area.
Dobos said coyotes were first spotted in northwestern Connecticut in the mid-1940s and have since spread significantly. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection estimates that 2,000 to 4,000 coyotes existed in the state by 2007. Dobos said, “It has to do with empty farm land reverting back to forest.”
Dobos said that most Connecticut coyotes are part wolf and dog, as well as hybrids that have mated with all the preceding species (some being called a separate species called “coywolves”). This is seconded by wildlife biologists and conservations recently quoted in The News Times.
“It’s a complicated subject,” said Dobos. “They are related to the eastern wolf and red wolf, and there is interbreeding.”
“Coyotes are thought of as little wolves,” said Dobos, adding in a joking manner: “Don’t tell sheep farmers that or they will panic.”
He added, “Coyotes are a lot like wolves. They will hunt together as a pack. They also have wolf-like qualities.” He added later, “They also have a keen hunting sense, and a great sense of smell.”
Dobos is the co-founder with his wife Deneen of Three Red Trees School of Natural Living in Northfield. He and Ms. Dobos (as well as their daughter Gabby) present to schools workshops on surviving in the wild; wildlife tracking; and wild edible plants. Dobos also works for the Two Coyotes Wilderness School, a non-profit organization in Granby, Newton, and Killingworth, as a mentor teaching who teaches nature to children.
A walk participant, Barbara Putnam of Litchfield, commented later, “I think it is really good on how Andy explains things and makes you look at the tracks and nature in general. It really gets you to see what is in the fresh snow.”
Participant Stephanie Wloch, who brought her husband and two children, Chase, 1 (in a papoose), and Jack, 3, said of her family: “They love the forest, and they love the walks.”