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December 2019 Natural Mystery

posted Dec 3, 2019, 5:40 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Dec 3, 2019, 5:40 PM ]


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November 2019 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Dec 3, 2019, 4:50 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Dec 4, 2019, 12:25 PM ]

Everyone who sent in an answer correctly identified these as woodpecker tracks. Congratulations to Mike Watling, Kim Cabrera, Terry Hunefeld, Kirsten Welge and one anonymous contributor who all identified these tracks to the species. A further congratulations to Kirsten Welge, René Nauta and our anonymous contributor who worked out what direction the bird was facing—a very difficult task with these nearly symmetrical zygodactyl tracks.

These are the tracks of a Northern Flicker, which was facing toward the bottom of the frame when it left these tracks. To break this down, I'll first turn things over to our anonymous contributor for a quick primer on zygodactyl feet:

"Zygodactyl feet only occur in some species of birds. Zygodactyly refers to the fact that the 1st ("thumb") and 4th toes are or can be reflexed rearward. In Minnesota, the species likely to display this trait are woodpeckers (including the Northern flicker), some swifts, ospreys, and owls. Roadrunners (and cuckoos), parrots (psitticines), and other birds also display this trait. There's another version of a reflexed toe (toe 2 pointed rearward) but it only occurs in species that reside in tropical forests. (Not that some swifts can move 1st and 4th toes either forward or rearward, which is a different type of foot structure.)"

Kirsten shared many of these points as well, while also noting that "the zygodactyl foot is the second most common toe arrangement in birds."

Our anonymous contributor continued with a few words about why this is a Flicker:

"It's not an owl because the straightest part of the track is on the outside of the foot. These feet belong to a bird probably just under crow-sized. You mentioned that this bird is seen here in both spring and fall. Northern flickers are common in MN year round, and a flicker seems to be the closest fit for size and pattern."

Mike echoed this, stating simply that “the size fits well with a Northern Flicker.” Terry noted that “Pileated woodpecker and other zygodactyls have much more robust toes and/or wider 'Ks' than Northern Flickers." Kim added some behavioral clues, pointing out that “Flickers usually hop when on the ground, so their tracks are usually paired like this. They are often seen on the ground, so this is a fairly common bird track to find.” Kirsten similarly reasoned that, in addition to the difference in size, "Downy, Hairy, Red-Bellied, and Pileated Woodpeckers regularly feed along trunks and branches, not on the ground like Flickers"

As for what direction the bird was facing, our anonymous contributor offered this very simple and accurate analysis:

"This bird seems to be facing downward, since the discrepancy in toe length is greater between 1 & 4 than 2 & 3, and the largest length discrepancy is in the two toes in each track oriented toward the top of the image."

Kirsten arrived at the same conclusion after taking a deep dive into woodpecker foot morphology. In her research, she found the terrific photo shown here (as well as this one and this one), and came up with these notes about woodpecker feet:

1) The hallux (Toe 1) is consistently the shortest toe. It’s also the most delicate looking of the toes.
2) Toe 4 consistently looks like the longest toe. Interesting, it also looks like the most robust of the toes.
3) The difference in length between hallux and toe 4 is greater than the difference between toes 2 & 3.
4) It also looks like the splay between toes 1 & 4 may be greater than that between toes 2 & 3.
Based on this, the hallux & toe 4 are pointing to the top of the photo: this bird is heading towards the bottom of the picture."

This is exactly correct. Toe 4 looks the longest and Toes 2 & 3 are closer in length than Toes 1 & 4. Several people noted in their answers that Toe 3 is the longest in Flickers. Which is true. Sort of. In woodpeckers, Toes 2 & 3 are partially fused at their bases, so only part of the shaft of Toe 3 is visible beyond where it joins Toe 2. This makes Toe 3 appear slightly shorter in the track than Toe 4. Check out the photos Kirsten turned up and this month's Featured Track Illustration for a close look at flicker track morphology.

Thanks again to everyone who submitted answers to this month's Natural Mystery, and congratulations again to Kirsten, Mike, Kim, Terry, René and our anonymous contributor.


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Scavenger Hunt: Two-by-Two

posted Dec 2, 2019, 1:03 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Dec 3, 2019, 4:49 PM ]

Buck rub
Thanks to everyone who participated in our first Scavenger Hunt. We received signs of deer during the rut from trackers in Minnesota, Tennessee, Texas and California. On the right is an antler rub documented by Mark Erickson, a member of our Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey team. Swing over to our iNaturalist project to see what else people found.

Our December Scavenger Hunt will be for track patterns. For many of us in northern climates, this is the beginning of the snow tracking season. Often in snow, track patterns are clearer than the prints themselves—and sometimes all we have to go on for identification.

Our December Scavenger Hunt includes three track patterns which can look quite similar, but are produced by completely different gaits. Over the coming weeks, I invite you to look for examples of each of the following track patterns:
  1. 2x2 Walk (aka “raccoon walk”)
  2. 2x2 Bound (aka “weasel bound”)
  3. Side Trot (aka “canine trot”)

For an extra challenge, try to find and document any of the following. Note that some of these are exceptionally rare.
  1. A 2x2 Walk pattern left by an animal other than a raccoon
  2. A 2x2 Bound pattern left by an animal other than a weasel
  3. A Side Trot pattern left by an animal other than a canine

Share What You Find

Please share what you find to our iNaturalist project: Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project: Scavenger Hunt. This is an open project, and anyone with an iNaturalist account can join and add observations.

You can set up an iNaturalist account here.
And join the project here.


Some notes on terminology

“Track pattern” refers to an arrangement of footprints on the ground. “Gait” refers to the way an animal moved its body to travel. Track patterns are generally named for the gaits we presume are used to create them. We infer information about the gait an animal was using by studying the track pattern – but when we are looking at the ground, we are always looking at a track pattern, never a gait.

Some authors refer to the “2x2” Bound” track pattern as a “2x2 Lope.”

November 2019 Natural Mystery

posted Nov 7, 2019, 10:34 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Nov 7, 2019, 10:35 AM ]


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October 2019 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Nov 7, 2019, 8:06 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Nov 7, 2019, 8:11 AM ]

Our October Natural Mystery was an obscure, partial track found on the banks of the Connecticut River near Northfield, Massachusetts. Guesses for who made this print ranged from birds and reptiles to marsupials and rodents. Congratulations to Kim Cabrera, who was the only person to successfully identify the animal that left this print. Kim also identified which foot make this mark. This is the left-hind track of an American Beaver.


I'll let Kim take it from here:

"The toes of this animal are wide and rounded at the ends, with a hint of a claw. My first impression was a turkey track, but I ruled that out due to the wider toe marks and blunt claw marks hinted at here. This lead me to think it was a beaver track.

The track has been heavily rained on and is very aged by this weathering. A beaver's tail drag will often obliterate most of the track. When this happens, the outer toes are sometimes all that are seen from the hind tracks. I think that might be the case here. The beaver's tail drag made most of this track disappear before it got rained on. The rain took care of the rest of the micro details. All we are left with for evidence here is the vague toe tracks and some vague impressions from the metatarsals. The marks in the photo that are most prominent are the outer two toes, toes 4 and 5, making this a left-hind foot."


I would add to this two other points. First, we can see a hint of the right-hind foot in the upper right-hand corner of the photo, which helps us confirm that this is the left-side track we are looking at. Second, beavers walk with their weight set well to the outside of their hind feet. The outside toes usually register more deeply and clearly than the inside toes, whether or not the tail further obscures the track. It is fairly common to see only toes 3, 4 & 5 showing in a beaver hind track—even clear, fresh tracks in good substrate.

Kim goes on to make one final note about beaver tracks:

"Beavers also leave some odd-looking tracks when they are swimming in ponds. These tracks in bottom sediments show up when the pond water evaporates. I don't think this is one of those tracks because the toes are relatively clear and don't appear to have been made by a swimming animal."


We saw some of these tracks near by where this photo was taken. Just as Kim suggests, the details in the prints were less crisp. In addition, the track pattern was narrower with a longer “stride,” as if the animal was trotting. You can see an image of that print (though unfortunately not the trott-like track pattern) here on iNaturalist.


Congratulations again to Kim Cabrera for her successful IDs of this very obscure track!


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Scavenger Hunt: In A Rut

posted Oct 30, 2019, 1:07 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Nov 19, 2019, 11:52 AM ]

Welcome to the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project's newest challenge, the Scavenger Hunt. The purpose of the Scavenger Hunt is to get us out in the field searching for specific tracks & sign. It's one thing to identify a track or sign we encounter, but we need a deeper understanding of animal behavior to know where to look for them in the first place. The Scavenger Hunt is designed to help us build this deeper understanding, deepen our connection with our local landscapes, and give us an opportunity to share the journey.

Each month, I will post a short list of tracks and sign to seek out and document on our club's iNaturalist project. In keeping with the season, this month's scavenger hunt focuses on deer sign during the rut.

For the coming month, I invite you to seek out and document as many of the following as you can:
  1. Deer Scat
  2. Buck Rub
  3. Deer Scrape

For an additional challenge, look for fresh sign:
  1. a deer scat that is still damp with mucous
  2. a buck rub with curls of bark that have not dried out
  3. a deer scrape with a patch of soil still damp with urine

For each sign, take a photo and post it to the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project: Scavenger Hunt iNaturalist project. I will share a selection of the photos when I post next month's Scavenger Hunt.




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October 2019 Natural Mystery

posted Oct 15, 2019, 7:59 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Oct 15, 2019, 8:00 PM ]


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September 2019 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Oct 15, 2019, 7:58 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Oct 16, 2019, 7:15 AM ]

Our September Natural Mystery came from Cedar Creek, where we recently held our Fall Wildlife Survey. You can read all about that survey here. This proved to be a challenging track to interpret, and guesses ranged across several orders and two different classes of animals. Congratulations to Kate Rosok, Jamie X and Mike Watling who correctly identified the family. And further congratulations to Kim Cabrera, Martyn Lenoble and Kirsten Welge for correctly identifying the species. These are the tracks of a red fox.

As several people noted, these tracks resemble those of a rabbit or hare. Seeing claws without a clear palm pad is more common in lagomorph tracks than in canine tracks, but we have a few other features that help us distinguish these as the tracks of a red fox.

First, we can look at the size. Kim notes that these tracks appear too large for eastern cottontail, and on the small side for white-tailed jackrabbit and snowshoe hare. Eastern cottontail tracks are usually well under the 1 3/4" width we see here. Snowshoe hare and white-tailed jackrabbit hind tracks are typically wider than this, but 1 3/4" is within the range for both. I would add, however, that we have never seen snowshoe hare or white-tailed jackrabbit sign at Cedar Creek--though both species have been recorded there in decades past and both been recently spotted within 50 miles of the property.

Kim and Martyn both commented on the symmetry of these tracks. As Kim explains:
"Lagomorph hind tracks, when paired like this, often show an asymmetrical arrangement of the nail marks, rather than being perfectly symmetrical like these."

Kim continues by explaining the orientation of the toes, which Mike also pointed out:
"The leading two claws point in toward each other, which is seen most often in canid tracks and not in lagomorph tracks... and there is a large amount of negative space, also consistent with red fox."

Though both lagomorphs and red fox have dense fur on the bottom of their feet, rabbits and hares have entirely furred soles with no calloused pads. Red fox have small calloused pads poking through the fur, which are visible here. As Kirsten writes:
"Looking closely, I can see small toe pad edges registering under each claw mark. The rest of the toes are obscured - which points to a very furry foot with edges of toes peeping out."

While Kim add that she sees:
"Very faint, shallow marks where the toe pads are, consistent with an animal that has a lot of fur on its feet, which obscures the toe pads."

Congratulations again to Kim, Kirsten and Martyn for their successful IDs of this very tricky set of tracks!


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Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey, Fall 2019

posted Oct 15, 2019, 7:56 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Oct 16, 2019, 11:42 AM ]

Over the weekend of September 21-22, fifteen members of the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project took part in our annual Fall Wildlife Survey at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. This was our fourth fall survey and the third time that we have run a two-day survey. Despite fickle weather, which saw rain off and on all day Saturday, our teams had a rich and productive weekend in the field logging the presence of nearly 40 species of wildlife—including the first observation of wolf sign since January. These are stories from the weekend.

First, a little background on the wolves. Last January, one of our tracking teams trailed a wolf for a couple miles across the snow covered landscape of Cedar Creek. At the time, the team guessed the trail belonged to a small female, based on the placement of urine marks in the snow. We have since learned that these urine marks were more consistent with a male than a female. The trail led the team to a deer kill, where the wolf's tracks intersected those of a second, larger wolf. The two animals had both feed on the kill, but did not appear to be traveling together.

In February, a few weeks after our winter survey, a wolf was struck and killed by a car near Cedar Creek. This wolf's feet appear to match the tracks of the smaller animal our team trailed in January, and had been tracking for the past year-and-a-half. As we prepared for our Fall Survey at Cedar Creek, it had been over 7 months since there had been any sign of a wolf on the property. Our best guess is that one of the two wolves we had been tracking was killed and the other left.

Our group arrived at Cedar Creek on Saturday after overnight rains had wiped most of the sand roads clear of tracks. Ever optimistic, we divided into three groups and headed out onto the landscape to see what we could find. Inside Gate 7 in the North Unit, along Old East Bethel Blvd and up the Cedar Bog Lake Trail, our teams found mostly fresh deer and turkey tracks made in the morning after the rain had ended, including a set of turkey tracks so fresh, they still had feet in them.

Each team also spotted some fox sign. Along the Cedar Bog Lake Trail, one team found the slightly washed out tracks of a fox galloping along the road. We often find foxes moving in a gallop along roads throughout the property, and just as often are left wondering “what's the rush?” Are they running after something? Away from something? In a hurry to get out of the rain? Or just enjoy running? Our other two teams didn't spot any fox tracks on the recently rain-washed roads, but did find fox scat. One of these scat was along the edge of the bison enclosure, posted on top of a white-tail deer antler. Fox are well known for posting on raised surfaces, but this particular sight was a first for our team.

Mid way through Saturday morning, one last band of showers moved through. Starting as a light sprinkle, the rain quickly intensified and culminated in a 5-10 minute downpour. Along the sand roads, the few tracks that had been left that morning were completely washed away and we once again had a blank canvas ready to capture prints. Following the rain, our teams headed back toward Lineman Lab for lunch, recording a couple of frogs & toads, some chipmunk feeding sign, and flicker scat along the way.

In the afternoon, two teams wet back out to Old East Bethel Blvd and the Cedar Bog Lake Trail, while a third team headed to the far southwest corner of the property. This section of the reserve, on the west side of Cedar Creek, has no maintained trails, and no active experiments except for a single trail camera for the Eyes on the Wild project. In the rain-soaked woods, the team found a number of remarkable and beautiful mushrooms, a deer humerus, a deer scapula perched on a fallen log, and made the first-ever record in Anoka county of the common White Micrathena orbweaver spider.

Over on Old East Bethel Blvd, our team startled a group of three deer off their day beds as they arrived. It seems the deer, however, hadn't identified where the human sounds or scents were coming from. After moving off their beds, they circled out to the road and began walking toward the trackers, looking back over their shoulders. When the deer caught sight of our team in front of them, they turned and fled, giving the trackers a great opportunity to study their fresh trails. The group explored the track patterns left by deer as they walked, then turned and galloped away, and studied the distinguishing features of different feet, such as the narrow dewclaws set far back on this hind track of a galloping deer. Following their study of the deer trails, the team picked up a very faint set of tracks which they followed for several hundred yards before concluding that it was the trial of a striped skunk.

Up on the Cedar Bog Lake Trail, our trackers found a mink scat, a fox scat that included the remains of grasshoppers, a wood frog, and the smoking-fresh tracks of a crow.

On Sunday morning, our teams gathered again to head back onto the landscape—with the promise of fresh tracks on the recently rain-washed roads. The day did not disappoint. Focusing our survey on the sand roads of the North Unit and Old East Bethel Blvd, we recorded the tracks of over twenty species including fox, jumping mouse, frog, salamander, woodcock, blue jay, and opossum. Our teams also found some interesting sign, such as a fresh ant mound that looked like it had been molded by a small cup; a black bear stomp-trail; and what we believe to be blue jay scat filled with wild grapes—so a blue blue jay scat.

The biggest story of the day, and indeed of the weekend, came from our team in the North Unit. Unlike our summer survey, our trackers in the north unit did not spot any coyote sign. During our summer survey, it appeared that coyotes were growing more confident in this part of the property—moving comfortably in the open and marking along the roads. On this survey, there were only fox tracks to be found along the road inside of Gate 7.

Toward the end of their day, deep into the North Unit and very close to a travel route that had been used by the wolves in the past, our team came across a wolf scat in the middle of the road. This is the first sign we have had of a wolf on the property since January. The team did not find any tracks, so we don't have any idea if this is one of the animals we were tracking last winter, but it is a clear indication that at least one wolf is at least occasionally traveling through Cedar Creek.

As always, our survey left us with a great many questions. We are, of course, very curious about the status of the wolf who appears to be back on the property. Is this the second animal that we tracked last winter? If so, where has he been? Has he returned to Cedar Creek, just passing through, or has he simply expanded his range?

We are also curious about the mesopredators. During our summer survey, we did not see any sign of domestic cat, skunk or opossum, and only a single raccoon track. This survey, we again found tracks and sign of skunks, opossums and raccoons. Was the lack of sign of these mesopredators during our summer survey just a fluke? Or is there something about their habits and behavior that drove the lack of sign in the summer? And what about the cats? In past years, we have seen regularly seen domestic cat tracks during our summer and fall surveys. Where are they now?

We look forward to a full year of surveys in 2020 to help us answer these and other questions. Go ahead and mark your calendars for these dates and plan to come join us for our upcoming Cedar Creek Wildlife Surveys.

Winter Survey: Saturday, January 13
Spring Survey: Saturday, April 4
Summer Survey: Saturday, June 13
Fall Survey: Full weekend, October 3 & 4

September 2019 Natural Mystery

posted Sep 12, 2019, 1:49 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Sep 12, 2019, 1:50 PM ]


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