June 2018 Natural Mystery

posted Jun 12, 2018, 8:38 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jun 12, 2018, 8:39 AM ]

May 2018 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Jun 12, 2018, 6:47 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jun 12, 2018, 6:48 AM ]

Our May Natural Mystery was a trickster indeed. Guesses included bobcat, grey fox and domestic cat. In fact, this print was left by our nemesis, the common raccoon.

The most deceptive feature of the print may be the apparent double lobe on the leading edge of the palm pad. This cat-like shape is an artifact of soil movement combined with the way the shadow falls on the track. The lack of an obvious toe one is also confusing.

Despite it's trickery, the raccoon did still leave a few of its telltale traits in this print. The toes are long and narrow, rather than bulbous, and connect nearly all the way to the palm. Although they are obscured by irregularities on the surface of the ground, there are small claw marks visible in front of each toe. Finally, we can look at the shape of the palm pad. The leading edge of the pad is almost as wide as the trailing edge, and the trailing edge is unlobed and indistinct.

Thanks to everyone who submitted guesses for this trickster-transformer track. This time it really was a raccoon, and couldn't be proven otherwise!

Track & Sign Evaluation with Nate Harvey

posted May 22, 2018, 9:21 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated May 22, 2018, 9:27 AM ]

We said we were taking May off of tracking club for "Staff Development." Here is what we were up to: Nate Harvey returned to Minnesota to offer a CyberTrcker Track & Sign Evaluation on May 19-20. Nine members of the tracking club participated, with eight earning certificates in Track & Sign identification. You can download the full-size photo of our smiling group with their certificates here.

The evaluation covered a wide range of track and sign. Saturday was an intensive day in the field. Nate put us through the paces with 40 questions, most of them difficult "level 3" questions. Questions covered insect sign, bird tracks, mammal scat, gait patterns, and foot morphology. Sunday was a more relaxed day with just 16 questions that skewed toward easy topics such as the ubiquitous deer trails and browse sign, and familiar woodpecker feeding sign. You can see most of the tracks and sign we were asked about on the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project iNaturalist project page. We finished up the evaluation before noon on Sunday and, after lunch, decompressed from an intensive weekend of ID by, what else, going tracking.

At the end of the day, eight of our members earned certificates in track & sign identification. Two members earned their first certificates, while another two moved up a level in their certifications. A warm congratulations goes out to the following members:

    Blake Southard handily earned a Level I certificate
    Kirsten Welge sailed to a Level II certification
    Brian Clough and Rob Grunewald each moved up to Level III certification

We are now looking forward to our next Track & Sign Evaluation, coming up at the end of the summer. Spots are filling fast for Michelle Peziol's evaluation on September 1-2. Please be in touch right away if you are interested in a spot in that event.

Bear Track & Sign Weekend with Sue Mansfield

posted May 22, 2018, 8:28 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated May 22, 2018, 8:28 AM ]

Over the weekend of May 4-6, renowned black bear researcher Sue Mansfield led a group from the tracking club on a deep dive into identifying and interpreting bear sign at her old study sites around Bear Head Lake State Park near Ely. We studied bite marks and scat, examined sun bleached hairs, and even crawled into an old den to further our understanding of one of the largest mammals in Minnesota. Here is some of what we learned...


Black bear den sites include underground burrows bears excavate or find, inside large hollow trees, under root wads, in caves, under porches, or even in above ground pits they dig. Sue showed us a den site where a mother and her cubs used an old campground's concrete latrine as a den. Black bears may line the den with branches of coniferous trees, grasses, and other vegetation. Female bears generally select more secure sites than males. Also, as bears age they select more secure sites, whereas inexperienced bears might select sites that are more exposed to weather.

After bears put on fat from voracious eating during warmer months, their metabolism slows and they enter the den. In northern Minnesota males males typically enter their dens in September, but even as early as late August, while mother-and-cub families enter in later October to give cubs more time to feed. A female carrying fertilized eggs will give birth in the den. The eggs remain in suspended animation until mid-November or December when the embryos implant in the wall of the uterus. Cubs are born in January or February in the den and nurse.

During hibernation black bears decrease their body temperature by 7 to 8 degrees and their metabolism by 50 to 60 percent. They lose about 20 percent of their weight.

Here is the den site used by Aster during her second and third year. The den was excavated under a mound of tree roots. The entrance angles downward and then flattens. A mother bear and newly born cubs would be cozy. Several of us climbed into the den and found we could curl up at the bottom and be more than 5 feet from the opening.


Kersey Lawrence once describe black bears to us as "hungry little tanks." Sue Mansfield helped bring that lesson home when she shared her wealth of knowledge and bear scat samples with us. The sheer variety of items in her 20+ samples was astonishing - different seeds, nutshells, vegetation, insects, small chips of bone. Likewise, the videos Sue shared of June and other research bears showed gentle but persistent feeding across a wide variety of foods. They consumed vast quantities of calla lilies, delicately stripped leaves off of stems, nipped catkins and berries from branches broken off the tree, and vacuumed up ant pupae from rotten logs and under stones in an abandoned railroad bed. The sole mammalian casualty was a fawn that could not yet walk.

Sunday morning, we were delighted to find fresh examples in the field. The first scat we found was remarkable for its volume alone: large blunt-tipped ropes of stool exceeding the usual output from a large canid. As we kneeled down and leaned in for a closer look at contents, the fragrance was musky and earthy, not unpleasant. As we picked it apart we discovered lots of plant matter, mostly grasses, and also a few deer hair. Sue remarked the deer hair was unusual - perhaps this bear had scavenged an old deer carcass. And, she encouraged us to take a sample home to sieve it, to see what else might be there. Results of that stool test are still pending! The second scat we found was comprised almost entirely of sunflower seed hulls. That bear was clearly returning from someone's backyard feeder!

Key features for identifying bear scat:
  • Large volume with blunt-tipped segments 1+ inch in diameter. May be loose if bear has consumed fruit.
  • Composition and cohesion varies strongly depending on season and available foods.
  • May contain grasses, nuts and shells, fruits & seeds, insects, and small chips of bone. Less likely to contain deer hair.
  • Fragrance is musky and earthy, not unpleasant or sharp


It is normal to see wooden signs and telephone posts in Northern Minnesota with gouges in them. It is so common, that many of us had come to think of such damage as simply the way old signs look in the woods. But as Sue sowed us, much of this damage is in fact the marking behavior of black bears. Bears select trees, poles and other suitable objects along travel routes and near feeding areas to mark their presence. Black bears commonly mark trees by standing on their hind legs and rubbing their backs against the trunk. They will also bite the trees--often by reaching over their shoulder while standing against the trunk. The bite marks are particularly distinctive. For some reason, bears are particularly drawn to cedar posts and signs (used so often in the back country because of their resistance to rot) and poles treated with creoseal.

Black bear bites show up as a dot-dash pattern on the trunk of a tree--commonly close to eye level (though they sometimes are much lower, especially on cedar posts and creoseal treated poles). The "dot and dash" are formed by the canine teeth coming together. The lower canine acts as an anchor forming the "dot" and the upper canine drags across the wood forming the "dash." The bite is typically at a shallow angle across the trunk--about 15-30* from horizontal.

After a day-and-a-half in the field, our group ventured into Ely to visit the North American Bear Center--which features a great many videos, exhibits and displays put together by our host, Sue Mansfield. The center also has four resident bears, who we got to see up close during one of the regularly scheduled tours. Seeing the exhibits and watching the bears after a weekend of studying their sign was a real treat, and a great way to cap off a rich weekend in the field. We all extend a warm thank you to Sue Mansfield for sharing her deep knowledge, understanding and love for these animals with us. We are all looking forward to our next opportunity to venture into bear country and see the signs of these amazing animals.

May 2018 Natural Mystery

posted May 22, 2018, 7:37 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated May 22, 2018, 7:37 AM ]

April 2018 Natural Mystery Answered

posted May 18, 2018, 11:47 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated May 18, 2018, 11:48 AM ]

We received a number of correct answers to our April Natural Mystery. As Kim Cabrera, Rob Grunewald, Brendan White, and Charlie Perakis all suggested, these are the tracks of a jumping mouse--a member of the family Dipodidae. Congratulations to all four of you. Kim and Rob also offered clear explanations of their process, pointing out identifying features and distinguishing characteristics of these prints. Kim starts us off with this break-down:

I identified these as the tracks of a jumping mouse, either Zapus or Napaeozapus, based on the following characteristics. The hind tracks are the two to the outsides in this photo, and the fronts are the two in the middle. The hind tracks have five toes, with a narrow “neck” where the three middle toes converge. (Toes 2-4) They have long, skinny toes. The orientation of the hind foot’s toes is also typical of jumping mice. There are two pointing to the sides, toes 1 and 5. Then, three pointing mostly forward, and grouped together. The three middle toes have a sort of fan-shaped orientation when looked at in isolation from the other toes. The front tracks show four toes, with long skinny toes. The toes are not oriented in typical rodent fashion, which would show two pointing outward and two forward. In jumping mice, the toes are more asymmetrically oriented so that 2 and 5 are not right across from each other if you draw an imaginary line across. The toes are not bulbous at the end, like in Peromyscus. Size is consistent with mouse tracks. Very small. Claws are not seen here due to substrate.

Rob Grunewald takes his analysis a step farther, bringing in habitat and range to offer an identification to species. While the tracks themselves to not allow us to distinguish between genera of jumping mice, Rob's analysis is likely correct:

Meadow jumping mouse. The size of the feet and trail width are on the smaller side for a jumping mouse. The palm pads are not registering much; jumping mice have relatively narrow palm pads. The toes in the left front track (the most visible of the smaller front feet) are irregularly spaced and the outer toe is set further back, characteristic of a jumping mouse. Toe 2 on the right hind track is long, slender, and bends out toward the left, also characteristic of a jumping mouse. Toe 1 on the right hind track is set further back. Toes 2 to 4 on the hind left track are not as irregular as they can be on jumping mice, but the tips of the toes on both hind tracks don’t make a straight line across the tips like they do for many other mice. Also, for bounding mice, such as harvest mice and white-footed mice, the front feet are often next to each other instead of one in front of the other. For jumping mice the feet position vary, including this one-foot-in-front-of-the-other position as we see here. Other possibilities to cross of the list: The tracks are too large for a shrew, particularly the hind feet. Front feet in this picture seem to have 4 toes, shrews have 5. Voles tend to trot, not bound or lope, across open spaces. Woodland jumping mice also live in Minnesota, but orient more to forests in the northeastern part of the state.

Big thanks to Kim & Rob for sharing their knowledge with us!

Cedar Creek Spring 2018 Survey

posted May 3, 2018, 2:31 PM by The Center for Mind-Body Oneness   [ updated May 3, 2018, 2:39 PM ]

blue-spotted salamander
Saturday, April 28, was the Spring Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey. It was also the weekend of the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge--a friendly competition between 60 cities around the world do document biodiversity near urban centers. Our crew of 21 trackers conducted our regular surveys, while also logging a few dozen observations for the City Nature Challenge.

The day started off with a treat for trackers and iNaturalist buff alike. A blue-spotted salamander graced our group with its presence, crawling somewhat inexplicably across the sunny parking lot, and leaving a clear tail drag. After studying its tracks, taking a few photos, and relocating the poor amphibian to a damper and more shaded location, our teams headed out into the field.

bobcat scat
We divided into three teams for the survey, with one team staying close to Lindeman Lab, a second team heading over to the public trails around Fish Lake, and a third team venturing up to the North Unit.

The team near Lindeman Lab turned up many of the "usual suspects," documenting mourning dove, tree squirrel and red fox, along with what appeared to be more salamander tracks. But later in the day, the team also found a bobcat scat. The scat was segmented and had a grey color, characteristic of bobcat. It was also placed on top of the leaf litter, and not buried as would be normal for domestic cat feces. Bobcat have been recorded in Cedar Creek, but sightings are rare. There has been only a single trail-cam photo of a bobcat since the camera network was put in place last fall, and we have never recorded bobcat tracks or sign on a survey before. We hope this animal will also show up on a trail-cam and we can learn a bit more about it.

northern pocket gopher incisors
Our team over near Fish Lake also encountered a familiar scene. Pocket gopher mounds abound, with tracks of red fox and coyote often found nearby. In case the link between these animals wasn't completely clear, the group found a fox scat that contained incisors from a northern pocket gopher. Pocket gophers have distinctive groves on the front of their incisors that makes it possible to identify them to species. We have always suspected that the resident pocket gophers at Cedar Creek were northern pocket gophers--and the double-grooved incisors found in the fox scat confirmed that.

Both teams in the southern half of the property found abundant sign from mesopredators, but no signs of our apex predators. We suspected we would find indicators of our resident wolf, and perhaps our local black bears, in the North Unit and we were not disappointed. The first indications that we still had a resident wolf came just a few meters inside of Gate 7. Deer tracks crossed the road, but did not appear to travel along it in the open. Meanwhile, a large red fox trotted confidently down the center of the road, fully exposed in exactly the way foxes seem unlikely to do when coyotes are the top dog. It wasn't much farther down the road before the team found its first wolf sign--a set of old tracks on top of a gopher mound, and an aged scat in the middle of the road. The scat was densely packed deer hair and contained a white-tailed deer dewclaw and fragments of a leg bone. Near by, the team also found the first of several sets of black bear tracks. Over the course of an hour or so, the team was able to piece together some of the wolves movement patters. The animal appears to have a fairly regular route through one of the fields, coming out of the woods, crossing the field, and heading back into the woods in specific areas--with scat marking some of the habitual road crossings. This animal appears to be well settled in to a routine.

black bear, overstep walk
When the team ventured into the woods, they found additional bear and wolf tracks, including a long, beautiful string of back bear tracks in mud. From the size, the tracks appeared to be those of a male. His trail measured about 10" wide and his full stride measured 43". As he walked, he was picking up a thin layer of mud on his feet, leaving behind the negative imprint of his feet. His pigeon-toed overstep walking gait was clear in the tracks. Interestingly, claw marks were not pronounced in most of the tracks.

At the end of the day, our team documented the sign of over a dozen species of mammals, including our first bobcat sighting. As we look ahead to our summer and fall surveys, we are giving thought to how we can gather more information about the small mammals of Cedar Creek. While we have identified a few small mammals to species from pieces of skulls fond in owl pellets and fox scat, we would like to improve our detection. We are planning to start setting up tracking plates to record the prints of small mammals to supplement our "wild caught" tracks.

Our Summer Survey will be on Sunday, July 15. Mark your calendars. We hope you can join us as we continue to explore the wildlife of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.

April 2018 Natural Mystery

posted Apr 3, 2018, 1:16 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Apr 3, 2018, 1:16 PM ]

March 2018 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Apr 3, 2018, 12:38 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Apr 3, 2018, 12:39 PM ]

For our March Natural Mystery, we had one common, familiar species leaving tracks that resembled another common, familiar species. Donnie Phyilliare worked out the puzzle and offers this clear breakdown for us:

At first glance the temptation is to assume largomorpha or rabbit because of the "T" shaped bound also known as a 1/2 bound. Another bounding animal we must consider are tree squirrels so let's take a look at our three best candidates the eastern cottontail, eastern gray squirrel, and red squirrel.

Although a 1/2 bound is not common with tree squirrels they are very capable of this gate and will from time to time do just that. So what are some of the features we want to notice when trying to identify this set of tracks? First in snow, rabbit tracks appear to be thumb or bullet shaped [ed: except when they splay their toes wide, in which case the tracks can appear more circular] where on squirrels you get more of an ice cream cone shape that oftentimes has a flat top. Since the foot structure of a rabbit is very ridged the two hind feet are parallel to each other to allow for quick turns and rapid acceleration. Squirrels have the option of climbing trees to escape danger so a foot that can rotate 180 degrees is more advantageous for an animal that spends much of its time in trees and allows the animal too descend head first down a tree. If you look at the photos you will notice tracks that look like ice cream cones and hind feet are turned slightly outward so we can eliminate rabbit.

Looking at the trail width of the two hind feet the width falls in line with that of a red squirrel, but there's one more thing we need to take into account. This bound is stretched out meaning the animal is moving at a fast pace and as speed increases the trail width will narrow so taking that into account we can probably rule out red squirrel. This leaves us with eastern gray squirrel as the track maker.

Exactly correct. This is the trail of a gray squirrel, dashing between oak trees in Phalen Park. The photo below, from a little farther along the trail, shows the rear foot morphology more clearly. In this set, the rear feet are offset as well--showing a pattern more characteristic of a ground squirrel than a tree squirrel--but this trail was made in December, when all our self-respecting "golden gophers" are hibernating!

Honorable mention goes out to Brendan White, who also correctly identified these as squirrel tracks. Brendan's answer includes the following points, which helped him narrow down to squirrel:

The 3 inner toes make an even "shelf." What I mean by that is that the inner part of the top two tracks show a straight line where a rabbit's foot would be pointed because of one toes being higher than the others. The two outer toes are splayed in the rear feet, separate from the inner 3 toes, which is most obvious in the top left track (the rear left foot). Over all, the rear feet (top two tracks) have symmetry unlike rabbit.

Thanks to everyone who submitted answers for our March Natural Mystery!

Cloquet Wildlife Survey, March 2018

posted Mar 30, 2018, 12:02 PM by The Center for Mind-Body Oneness   [ updated Apr 2, 2018, 9:09 AM by Jonathan Poppele ]

On Sunday, March 25, a dozen trackers and two young apprentices set out to survey the snow covered roads of the University of Minnesota's Cloquet Forestry Center. Though tracking conditions were poor, our team found evidence of bobcat, fisher and wolves in these woods. You can see some of what we observed on the Cloquet Forestry Center Wildlife Survey project on iNaturalist. It was clear from what we found that we have only scratched the surface of the diversity at the Cloquet Forestry Center, and we are looking forward to returning for a deeper dive into understanding this rich landscape and its inhabitants.

We began the day gathering in the Library of the main administration building on campus. Here our host, Rachael Olesiak, gave us an orientation to the Cloquet Forestry Center and shared her hopes for our surveys. Our intention for these surveys is to identify medium and large mammals present on the property, particularly carnivores, and get a general sense of their prevalence and habits. With that in mind, we organized ourselves into two team and made our plan for the day. We would survey three sections of forest road, each around a mile-and-a-half long. We would walk the first route together as a large group, break for lunch in the field, then split into our teams to walk the other two. It was a great plan, but it failed to account for how slowly trackers move in the field when they find something interesting. And it's hard not to find something interesting when you are in the woods!

As we gathered at the trailhead to start our first survey route, members of our group wandered into the woods nearby. Within about 15 feet of the starting point, we found the old, melted out tracks of a gray wolf. Nearby we found tracks of grouse, snowshoe hare, and many unidentifiable trails from medium sized mammals. These findings set the tone for the entire day. As did our experiences investigating them. Rachael had come out on a snowmobile the previous day to pack the road for our survey. The surface was firm and, while a little uneven, stable and easy to walk on. Off the packed track, however, the snow was deep with a crust too thin to support a person. Walking away from the road often meant postholing through knee-deep snow. So posthole we did--slogging through the crusty spring snow to get a look at the tantalizing, but mostly amorphous tracks.

At the trailhead, a wolf had approached the intersection through the woods, then turned away from the paved road where we had parked before emerging onto the packed snow covering the forest road. Its tracks on the forest road were barely visible. In the woods, its tracks were easy to spot, but tricky to identify in the deep, transformed snow. As we followed the road, we quickly found that the wolves made heavy use of this area. We found several scat and numerous places where their trails crossed the road. Deer sign, on the other hand, was not so common along the exposed roadway.

bobcat track
As we followed the road north, the landscape naturally splintered our large group into smaller, constantly shifting teams. Some trackers would linger over a particular sign while others would venture off into the deep snow in the woods or wander farther up the road to get the first look at what was to come. Part way through our survey, we began to see 
heavy feeding sign form porcupine. Apparently, porcupine are a bit of a problem in the forest, doing considerable damage to a variety of tree species. Fisher are one of the few animals that frequently prey on porcupine. As we moved into an older section of forest, we did eventually identify a fisher trail. With few prints in the transformed snow showing any detail, it took some time for us to positively identify a fisher trail. The first candidate we found remained inconclusive, even after considerable study and following the trail for a few dozen yards. Our group came to the consensus that the trail was that of either a fisher or a raccoon. At the end of the day, it was the only raccoon candidate we found. A little farther along, however, we found a trail we were able to identify as fisher with a high degree of confidence. We also found two trails left by bobcat, one of which sported the clearest individual print we found all day.

As we got closer to the end of our route, the wolf sign became increasingly sparse and began to intermix with the sign of domestic dogs. We found a couple of domestic dog scat in the road. They were placed much like the wolf scat and were similar in size and shape--but their uniform, granular consistency betrayed their origins. They looked a lot like they were made of Alpo.

As the wolf tracks gave way more and more to dog tracks, we made our way to the rendezvous site for lunch. Our plan had been to break for lunch at noon. The last tracking group arrived at 1:30. We had covered about 1.8 miles in a little over three hours, for a pace just a little less than 1kph. Seems just about right. 

Rachael had gone ahead to get a campfire going. We roasted brats over the open flames as we shared stories from the morning. Given our pace on the first survey route, we decided to skip our second survey routes and head back to the Library to wrap up our rich day in the field. Despite the difficult conditions, we were very happy with what we found and happy with the promise this landscape offered. The Cloquet Forestry Center clearly has rich and dynamic populations of medium and large mammals and offers great opportunities for tracking. We are delighted to have this opportunity to partner with the Center, and are planning to schedule two surveys each year going forward. We are also looking forward to coordinating with the students form the 
College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, many of whom do programs at the Center. We are tentatively looking at the weekend of August 18-19 for our next survey. I hope you can join us.

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