Bird Langauge, Oct 6

posted Oct 15, 2018, 8:52 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Oct 15, 2018, 8:52 AM ]

On Saturday, October 6, we met for a cool and breezy Bird Language sit at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Visitor's Center. We sat along the forest edge near the open field just to the east of the Center. The breeze was coming out of the northwest and made it challenging to hear bird sounds. Jon sat behind the observation deck of out the wind where he observed quite a bit of bird activity being so close to the feeders by the Center. During the sit he saw Yellow-rumped Warblers and American Gold Finches near his spot. He also had a good view of the large dead tree in the middle of the open field which American Robins used as a perch, displayed sentinel activity, sounded mild alarms, and moved in small groups, behavior which could be related to fall flocking activity. In the middle of our sit area we heard several unidentified birds making sharp and short contact calls with each other that persisted throughout the sit. We didn't settle on an ID, but were wondering whether some migrants were stopping to feed. The corvids were active, with Blue Jay calls in the south during Period 1 and American Crows flying about at different times and locations during the sit.

October Natural Mystery

posted Oct 10, 2018, 11:55 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Oct 10, 2018, 11:55 AM ]

September 2018 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Oct 10, 2018, 11:10 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Oct 10, 2018, 11:11 AM ]

We really do have an amazing group of naturalists connected with the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project. Insects can be very difficult to identify, but many of you rose to the challenge. Everyone who wrote in correctly placed this local pollinator in the order Hymenoptera. Congratulations to Kirsten Welge, who correctly identified the genus, and to Dave J Crawford who both identified the species and shared some key characteristics to distinguish it from similar looking insects, including flower flies.

Kirsten's identification is all the more impressive as she started with little background in insects, describing her process as “a wander through online guidebooks.” Fortunately the “furry” body and black and yellow stripes drew her intuition and she focused her search on bees. From there, she began searching Wikipedia, then the Minnesota Bee Atlas, and iNaturlaist. As she explains:

"On the Wikipedia page for Anthopila, I found a picture of a solitary bee (Anthidium florentinum) that looked very similar to the mystery bee. Anthidium florentinum showed additional v-shaped yellow markings on the abdomen above the wings, but the similarities pointed me towards solitary bees (Megachilidae), where I found this picture, which looks like a match. I tried hunting for range maps for MN and found a brief pdf about native bees. And I finally turned to iNaturalist. It does look like Anthidium manicatum has been reported in the Midwest. I checked a few pictures there to see other angles, and it seems a strong match."

I'm inspired by Kirsten's process. Her combination of research and intuition correctly identified the genus of this animal (from about 4,000 genera of bees world wide). This is indeed an Anthidium sp., also known as a Woolcarder bee. I'll let Dave Crawford pick it up from here:

"We can tell this is a bee rather than flower fly because of the eye size and long antennae. This is a female, showing the pollen-collecting hairs on the underside of the abdomen, leaving no doubt that this bee is in Family Megachilidae. It is a member of the Anthidium genus because of the yellow abdominal stripes which don't meet in the middle. Forward stripes being shorter than rear stripes narrows it to two species: Oblong Woolcarder, Anthidium oblongatum, and European Woolcarder, Anthidium manicatum. The orange tegula (the root of the wing) distinguishes this as an Anthidium oblongatum. Resources used for ID: Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide by Heather Holm, and BugGuide."

Thanks so much, Dave! And thanks for the list of resources. Heather Holm's books look excellent and I'll probably be adding one to my own reference library soon.

Cedar Creek Fall 2018 Survey

posted Oct 10, 2018, 11:09 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Oct 10, 2018, 11:10 AM ]

It was a prefect early autumn weekend in Minnesota as trackers and naturalists gathered at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve on September 22 & 23 for our two-day long Fall Wildlife Survey. The stifling heat of the previous weekend and the thunderstorms of mid-week had given way to beautiful blue skies, pleasantly cool temperatures, and ideal tracking conditions on the sand roads and receding mud-puddles throughout the reserve. Over thirty people participated in the survey, bringing in scores of observations of at least 20 different species or genera of mammals, several species of birds, and a smattering of insects and other invertebrates. Here are a few stories from our weekend in the field.

We kicked off our survey weekend on Saturday morning with 17 trackers organized into three teams. The teams spent a few hours in the field in the morning, then gathered at Lindeman to eat lunch and share stories before heading back out into the field for the afternoon. The split day allowed more people to explore a broader range of the diverse ecosystems that make up Cedar Creek. In addition to our regular survey areas, we had a new landscape opened to us this weekend. Cedar Creek's rented bison herd left the Reserve a week before our survey began. For the first time, the enclosure was open for us to explore—giving us a view of how these keystone animals shape the landscape.

On Sunday, we were joined by students from the University of Minnesota Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology Club. With the group now numbering 26, we sent four teams out onto the landscape. Once again, we had teams in the North Unit, on the trails around Lindeman, and near the west end of the bison enclosure, in addition to a team out on the public trails around Fish Lake. Tracking conditions were once again superb, and the weather was even more luxurious—warming into the low 70s under clear blue skies.

On both days, teams found a number of coyote trails in the southeastern corner of the reserve. Though we know that coyote are common in the area, we had seen few tracks we could identify with certainty in our past two surveys. Most of the tracks we found were out in the open on roadways near the bison enclosure. There appeared to be fewer tracks on the wooded roads. Since our own surveys are mostly confided to the roads, we don't know how the coyotes might be traveling off the roads, but the do seem to prefer the open landscape when they are on the roads. The red fox in the same areas, by contrast, seemed to be more active on the roads where there was tree cover. Is this a real division, or just an artifact of our modest sample? If it is a real division, what is the reason for it? And why might coyote activity be concentrated near the bison enclosure? The area is rich in both pocket gopher and deer, and is far from where we usually find wolf sign. But is there more to it than that?

In the North Unit, our teams once again found fresh wolf tracks, perhaps helping to explain the concentration of coyote activity in the southern parts of the property. The tracks we found appeared to all be from a single animal. While we suspect this is the same individual we have been tracking here for the past year-and-a-half, we are not certain. We have photographs of wolf tracks from previous surveys, but the variations in lighting and substrate make it difficult to compare photos alone. Technical drawings of tracks can be more helpful for identifying individual animals. To help determine if this is the same individual we have been seeing in past surveys, identify this individual in the future, and recognize if a different wolf shows up on the Reserve, one team took Saturday afternoon to make detailed sketches of wolf tracks. The technique is time-consuming process, taking well over an hour to draw a single track, but it payed off with a clear outline of the right hind foot of our resident wolf.

Tracking apex predators is always exhilarating, but most of the wildlife at Cedar Creek is smaller and leaves more subtle and delicate tracks. Fortunately, tracking conditions were near perfect on our survey weekend. Most areas had seen little vehicle or foot traffic since the rain, there were a number of mud puddles creating prefect track traps, and overnight dew helped hold the sand on many of the roads together allowing for some very detailed prints. Some of the tracks we saw over the weekend were field guide quality. In addition to our cast of “usual suspects,” our teams found the tracks of meadow jumping mouse and gray fox for the first time. Both are species we believed to be on the reserve, but had never identified on one of our surveys. They gray fox was a particular treat. Two different groups located tracks in two different areas of the reserve. The tracks were very clear, and easy to distinguish from red fox.

Over the course of the weekend, we not only recorded a diversity of species and got a growing sense of distribution, we also deepened our own tracking knowledge. Though our focus has always been on mammals, team members have a growing interest in bird tracks. Over the two days, our teams recorded a large number of bird tracks, identifying many to species with growing confidence. From the narrow, bulbous tracks of blue jays and the slender toed prints of snipe and woodcock to the large and ubiquitous prints of turkey and sandhill crane, our trackers are beginning to distinguish more of the diversity of bird life at Cedar Creek from their footprints. One distinction that we are all learning to make more clearly is that between turkey and sandhill crane. In addition to the differences listed in the tracking literature, we are noting that sandhill crane usually splay their toes wider, and that their claws are much narrower than those of turkeys. These traits have helped us sort out some tricky cases.

Striped Skunk
The weekend also offered an education in skunk and red fox tracks. Teams began finding skunk trails on the roads around the bison enclosure on Saturday, and recorded several more on Sunday. Though skunks are common at Cedar Creek, we have only identified their tracks a few times on surveys. This weekend, we found long stretches of skunk trails, some showing near-prefect tracks and others showing little more than claw marks.

Lots of activity, plus excellent and constantly changing substrates offered nearly every team a master class in red fox track identification. Some tracks were tight and compact showing all the pads and almost no claw marks, while others were showing little besides claws. Pads sometimes looked small, and sometimes large. Some splayed tracks looked at first glance to be twice the size of tightly registering tracks—but when measured with care proved to be identical in length. And a few tracks registering in fine mud showed incredible detail of the fur on the bottom of the foot.

Everyone who participated in the survey learned a great deal over the two beautiful, joyful days of tracking together on this amazing landscape. As one participant put it, the weekend highlighted for her “the importance of humans’ connection to Nature. We are happy when we get to play outside.” A warm thank you to everyone who participated in the survey. Thank you for sharing your time, your curiosity, and your stories. It helped all of us learn more about the wildlife of Cedar Creek, and experience our own deepening connection to this beautiful landscape.

We will be back at Cedar Creek for our Winter Survey on Saturday, January 26. Mark your calendars and plan to come join us.

September 2018 Natural Mystery

posted Sep 12, 2018, 7:27 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Sep 12, 2018, 7:28 AM ]

Cloquet Wildlife Survey, Summer 2018

posted Sep 12, 2018, 7:22 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Sep 12, 2018, 7:25 AM ]

Turkey feather
On Sunday, August 19, Amy Manning, Brian Clough, and I went tracking with the University of Minnesota’s Fisheries and Wildlife students at the U of M’s Cloquet Forestry Center. The group had just finished their first of three weeks as part of a field research class. We covered three different sand roads ranging from just under a mile to just over a mile long. Here are some highlights.

There were a number of Wild Turkey track sightings, including many juvenile tracks and droppings, which is expected this time of year. Other bird tracks include American Crow and Raven, also a number of small sparrow or junco tracks.

Amy’s group found a pile of Black Bear scat with berry seeds on the road running south from the main campus. Bears are active in the area. They also saw a Dung Beetle pushing a piece of scat with a lot of insect parts. Near the rendezvous site where our three routes came together, a Striped Skunk left a clear trail of prints in a thin layer of dirt and sand.

old wolf scat
We didn’t find a lot of canid tracks, but we did see a lot of old disintegrating Wolf scat. At the March survey we saw a lot of scat on snow covered trails; perhaps some of these were the same piles months later. Among canid tracks we found, one was a Coyote trail that traveled on the road for awhile, and another was likely a short Red Fox trail.

On the survey last March we found a grove of young pine trees that had a fair amount of porcupine feeding sign. Near this spot last weekend we found what we think was a Fisher scat which contained what appeared to be the bottom inch or so of several porcupine quills and some fur.

We thoroughly enjoyed our tracking session with the Fisheries and Wildlife students who brought a lot of naturalist knowledge and enthusiasm.

-Rob Grunewald

Bruce Vento Small Mammal Survey

posted Sep 12, 2018, 6:50 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Sep 12, 2018, 7:08 AM ]

On Sunday, August 5, 11 members of the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project tagged along on a small mammal survey of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. They survey was led by Dakota Rowsey, a mammalogist from the Bell Museum of Natural History. We were invited by Mary Heneke-Haney of St. Paul Parks and Recreation, who has been organizing the surveys for the past several years.

Dakota and his assistant set out Sherman traps and tracking plates the night before. We collected sprung traps and handed them over to the researchers to open. Dakota would shake the critter out into a plastic bag to identify and record before releasing it. He also took measurements on a sample of the animals. As trackers, we rarely get to identify small mammals to species, and often see only sparse evidence of their presence. On this survey, we got to see three different species of tiny mammals up close and learn some identification tips from a pro.

deer mouse
As expected, the most common animals caught in the traps were deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus). Members of this genus are very similar to one another, and probably cannot be identified to species by tracks or sign. In hand, however, the bi-colored tail distinguishes deer mice from white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus). Although there are likely other species of mouse in the park, only deer mice showed up in our traps. But we got to see a diverse representation of this common species including juveniles, a pregnant female, and a host of a botfly larva (a member of the genus Cuterebra).

The traps also captured a few meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus). As feeding sign (and owl pellets) from Ft. Snelling have suggested to us, meadow voles are quite common in the metro area river valley. Southern Minnesota is home to both meadow voles and prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster), with the meadow vole being more abundant and wide-spread. Dakota shared with us that, unlike most voles, prairie voles are monogamous. As a result, males have much smaller testes than the otherwise similar looking meadow vole who are, as we got to see, remarkably well endowed.

The last set of traps we opened revealed a masked shrew (Sorex cinereus). And a pregnant female at that. The name "masked shrew" is a bit misleading, as this tiny insect hunter is almost entirely uniform in color. Like many of the animals we saw that day, she came out of the trap wet from tip to tail. Dakota told us that these small mammals will often urinate on themselves when trapped to help keep cool as the temperature rises.

Besides the close look at a few resident mammals, our group also got a chance to play sleuth looking at a tracking plate. One of the plates that Dakota had set out was covered with prints that initially looked a bit like mushrooms. A close look revealed that they were the hindquarters of frogs. Typically frog tracks only show the claw marks from the hind feet and, sometimes, the front prints. Here, the frogs rump and thighs had picked up enough graphite to leave clear prints on the contact paper.

Our group had a wonderful time in the field seeing these little critters up close and, from all we heard, our hosts truly enjoyed getting out in the field and sharing with a group of curious nature geeks. We expect to make this an annual event and look forward to taking part next year.

August 2018 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Sep 9, 2018, 4:01 PM by The Center for Mind-Body Oneness   [ updated Sep 11, 2018, 12:07 PM by Jonathan Poppele ]

We had a terrific response to last month's Natural Mystery. It looks like skulls are a popular subject, and one that many of you know quite well. Nearly everyone who submitted an answer correctly identified this as a vesper (evening) bat skull. Most people narrowed it down to a bat based on the teeth. Among mammals with tiny skulls, rodents have distinctive incisors and lack canines, while shrews teeth are more uniform in size and stained. Within the vesper bats, guesses included little brown bat (aka little brown myotis), silver-haired bat, and big brown bat. Some of the differences between these species are subtle, but five of you teased it out correctly.

People used a variety of resources to narrow down the options further, including Animal Skulls by Mark Elbroch; Mammals of Mississippi by Alisha A. Workman; the Smithsonian's Mammals of North America website; and skull keys for bats of Minnesota.

The size of the skull was perhaps the biggest clue. Karen Kaehler and Emily Culhane both used dentition to narrow their choices, but found that a key difference between little brown bats (Lasiurus myotis) and big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) isn't visible in this photo. Little brown bats have a single upper incisor on each side, while big brown bats have two. While there are a few other differences between these two species that are visible in the photo, such as the profile of the forehead and the height of the coronoid process of the lower jaw (sorry for the jargon), those differences are fairly subtle. The easiest way to distinguish the two species is by size. As Kirsten Welge notes, little brown bat skulls range  from 13.7-15.6mm long, while big brown bat skulls can measure from 15.1-23 mm. 

Skull shape also proved to be a key. As Allison Holzer explained:

"I went Mark Elbroch's book Animal Skulls--at the back there is a table of measurements for North American species, so I looked for a bat species where the measurements we were given overlapped with the measurements in the book (which are based on a large-ish sample size). Hoary bats and Big Brown bats both overlap, but after looking at the illustrations, I saw that the shape of a hoary bat's skull is much more squat looking. Therefore I conclude Big Brown bat."

And, indeed, this is the skull of a big brown bat, Eptesicus fuscus. Congratulations to Karen, Emily, Kirsten, Allison, and everyone else who keyed this out correctly. 

August 2018 Natural Mystery

posted Aug 10, 2018, 1:21 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Aug 10, 2018, 1:23 PM ]

Cedar Creek Summer 2018 Survey

posted Aug 8, 2018, 11:57 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Aug 8, 2018, 2:46 PM ]

On Sunday, July 15, our group of 15 trackers and naturalists headed out onto the sand roads of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve to look for signs of mammals and other wildlife on the property.

We divided o
Blue Jay tracks on East Bethel Blvd
urselves into three teams for the survey. One team headed to the area just west of the new bison enclosure—a part of the reserve that we have explored very little in our past surveys. Another team began in the North Unit, following the spur south of junction 69, then returned to the area around Lindeman. The third team also ventured into the North Unit, continuing north at junction 69 and heading up toward Field A.

Our southwestern team began its survey along East Bethel Boulevard, just outside the bison enclosure. East Bethel proved to be an excellent track trap, and was filled with bird tracks. The team got some good practice identifying bird tracks, and was able to distinguish the prints of sandhill crane, blue jay, American robin, and mourning dove. Heading into the woods west of the Bison enclosure, the team found surprisingly few tracks. They identified prints from domestic cats and domestic dogs--both distressingly common on the reserve--along with raccoon, deer and a few small mammals. Conspicuously absent were wild canine tracks. In addition to the house dog tracks, the team found one other canine trail, but could not say with certainty whether it was a fox or coyote trail--or even the trail of another domestic dog. The absence of coyote sign, in particular, came as a surprise.

The teams that headed to the North Unit found a great many more canine tracks--though again, no prints they could positively identify as coyote. At the beginning of the survey, just outside of Gate 7, the second team found a large set of canine prints. The tracks had a number of wolf-like characteristics, but did not look like the prints of the wolf our group has been tracking in the North Unit for the past year. Could these be the tracks of a different wolf? Or are they simply the tracks of a large domestic dog? Opinions were split within the group. Inside the gate, the team found a great many fox tracks. Red fox appeared to be moving comfortably in the open and along the roads. Meanwhile, the deer seemed to keep off the roads in the open--only following along the roads in the cover of the forest--and there were no signs of coyote in the area. This pattern of abundant fox tracks, no coyote, and wary deer is consistent with what we have seen when wolves are active in the area. And the third team did, indeed, turn up fresh wolf tracks.

Past j
unction 69, toward Field A, the third team identified a set of fresh wolf tracks. Like the tracks spotted outside of Gate 7, these prints appeared to be larger than the wolf tracks we had been seeing in our surveys for the past year. Some members of the team also thought they were seeing two sets of tracks, one slightly smaller than the other--but the tracking conditions made it difficult to determine this with certainty. The team also brought back sightings of skunk, raccoon and fox tracks, together with several small mammals. Like the other teams, they did not see any coyote tracks on their survey.

As always, our entire group enjoyed a rich day in the field. We answered a few questions, and generated many more. Has a new wolf arrived at Cedar Creek? If so, has it displaced or joined the wolf we have been following for the past year? Where are the coyote? While we were not surprised to find them scarce in the North Unit, given the apparent wolf activity there, we did expect to see them in the southern part of the property, near East Bethel Boulevard. Have they moved in with the bison? Headed across the road into the surrounding neighborhoods? Or just staying off the roads?

Our next survey will take place over the weekend of September 22-23. Come join us as we explore these and many other questions and deepen our connection with this special landscape.

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