Bird Language, Feb 3

posted Feb 5, 2018, 9:51 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Feb 5, 2018, 9:51 AM ]

Bird Language, Feb. 3, MN River Wildlife Refuge. We sat in light snowfall on Saturday morning. The first period featured an agitated White-breasted Nuthatch in the southeast and a flock of Black-capped Chickadees moving north to south with an increase in agitation, such as more Ds in their calls. During this time a bird flew east to west along the south edge of the forest canopy very fast without flapping, perhaps a Sharp-shined Hawk. The Nuthatch and Chickadees may have been reacting to the hawk. During the third period a small group of Nuthatches moved from across the marsh into the sit area and made a continuous raucous for about five minutes. We wondered whether the hawk we saw earlier had made its way back into the area. During the third and fourth periods a number of people saw a Bald Eagle soaring in the north, probably far enough away to not disturb in the songbirds near us.

February 2018 Natural Mystery

posted Feb 2, 2018, 12:05 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Feb 2, 2018, 12:05 PM ]

January 2018 Natural Mystery

posted Jan 15, 2018, 9:40 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jan 15, 2018, 9:41 AM ]

Bird Language, Jan 6

posted Jan 15, 2018, 9:05 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jan 15, 2018, 9:05 AM ]

On Saturday, January 6, we had a cold weather bird sit. Based on scouting by participants in the Ring 2 activity before the group sit, there was no signs of birds in the sit area. But by 10:30 am when the sit started, activity was picking up. The first period started with a hawk flying through the northwest part of the sit area toward the Visitors Center. Birds were very quiet in that area. After the hawk flew through a Black-capped Chickadee called with what sounded like an "all clear" signal. Later we heard from feeder watchers in the Visitors Center that a Sharp-shinned hawk flew by the feeders at about that time. Throughout the sit we observed a feeding flock of Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches in the southwest part of the sit area. They started relatively high in the canopy, but during Period 4 the Chickadees dropped with a couple of them feeding near the ground. We also heard a Chickadee sing its song that we often hear in springtime, usually not during a cold day in the winter!

December 2017 Natural Mystery Answered!

posted Jan 15, 2018, 8:50 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jan 16, 2018, 6:47 AM ]

Congratulations to Kirsten Welge for correctly deciphering this extremely challenging Natural Mystery. Kirsten shows both good knowledge of tracks and animal movement, as well as good speculative reasoning in interpreting this pattern. Here is her well crafted answer, together with a few editorial notes [Ed]:

Who: Red fox

Reasoning process:
Based on animals we've tracked in Crex Meadows, the initial roster included raccoon, canids (red fox, coyote, wolf), bobcat, fisher, otter.

What I see:
  • Three major indentations, with plumes of snow thrown towards the steep bank (to the right) from the rightmost two tracks.
  • The right edge of each of the three indentations shows notching, which I'm reading as toes and claws.
  • So I'd propose the gait looks like a front left landed (left indentation), then both hind feet came under to propel the animal up the steep bank. I think we're seeing the full length of the animal's hocks imprinting to the left of the hind tracks.
  • (What I'm less clear on is where the right front landed - and I'm wondering if it may have landed between the back haunches but is obscured by thrown snow.)  [Ed: this is exactly correct. The right front registered under the hind tracks]

Track sizes look to be roughly
Front: L somewhere between 1.75"-2", W 1.5" (This may be waaaay off, as I'm seeing a couple possible edges of palm pad.)
Hind: L <2", W 1.5"
Trail width between hinds: 4.5"

I do not see clear toe or palm pads, so I'm thinking the owner's feet are furred on the bottom. This rules out raccoon, bobcat, otter, coyote, as well as wolf (whose tracks would be much larger).  [Ed: The lack of clear toe and palm pads here is more a function of loose snow caving in on the track than of the heavy fur on the bottom of the animal's foot. The pointed front of the compressions rule out bobcat, otter, raccoon and (as Kirsten notes below) fisher. The size rules out wolf and is a strike against coyote.]

Fisher would have furred pads, but I'd expect a more asymmetrical C-shape. These feel more like canid, given the measurements point to a more tall, boxy shape of the track, so I'd go with red fox. Track sizes and trail width are also in the right range for this species.

As a prize, Kirsten will receive her choice of any edition of the Animal Tracks Playing Cards from Adventure Publications.

December 2017 Natural Mystery

posted Dec 12, 2017, 10:56 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Dec 12, 2017, 11:20 AM ]

Bird Language, Dec 2

posted Dec 8, 2017, 10:06 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Dec 8, 2017, 10:07 AM ]

At Saturday's Bird Language sit we observed feeding flocks of Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Brown Creepers. Their baseline feeding behavior was interrupted by two groups of hikers, one with three adults and a child moving through during Period 1 and Period 2, and another with two adults and a dog through Period 4. Both of these groups elicited some alarms from Chickadees and Nuthatches ahead of their approach. Behind them the trail was silent for a couple minutes or so. Meanwhile, a couple who walked through in between these groups didn't trigger alarms. In fact, during the second period a buck and doe tromping through the icy marsh seemed startled by the couple who were standing quietly on the observation deck. The deer abruptly turned back the direction from which they came. Many of us heard the deer breaking through the ice from a distance, but couldn't see the action. Good thing we have many observing eyes and ears to piece it all together!
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Cedar Creek Fall 2017 Survey

posted Oct 27, 2017, 1:02 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jan 15, 2018, 9:52 AM ]

A warm thank you once again for everyone who came out to take part in our Fall Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey last Saturday, October 21. Despite challenging tracking conditions, our teams brought back rich stories from the landscape, including a trove of information about the reserve's largest carnivores. Here is our story from the day:

After postponing two out of three surveys earlier this year due to weather, Caitlin and I made the call to run our Fall survey as scheduled despite a possibility of scattered showers. At the start of the day, it looked like our gamble had failed. The scattered showers included some heavy rains, and over a half-liter of rain fell on every square meter of the reserve in the hours before our survey began. The soft sand roads were wiped clean by the downpour. The tracks that had built up over the previous week of beautiful “Indian Summer” weather were nowhere to be seen.

Our teams headed out with little hope of bringing home much useful information, but still looking forward to a day in the field. But even with no clear tracks available, the landscape told a story of shifting patterns of animal behavior.

Our largest team spent the day in the North Unit. A black bear (Ursus americanus) had shown up on a trail cam in the reserve, while a neighbors trial cam had captured the image of a large, but as yet unidentified canine. We were hoping to find some evidence about these large predators. As soon as our team entered through Gate 7, it was clear there had been a change since our Summer survey one month ago. Although all the tracks were rained out, the deep impressions of deer hoofs were still evident moving down the middle of the access road. Unlike during our Summer survey, and all our surveys last year, the deer were using the open areas of the road as a major travel route. Previously, the deer had been sticking close to the edge of the woods and only crossing the road in the open. Part way down the road, our team found a coyote scat in the middle of the road. This scat is the strongest evidence we have yet had for coyote establishing territory in this part of the reserve and strongly suggests that they are now the “top dog” in the North Unit. Between the deer behavior and the coyote sign, it seems clear that whatever was affecting the behavior of these animals during our Summer Survey is not currently a force on this part of the landscape.

After our team moved into the woods, we made our way south to the area where the black bear had been spotted on the trail cam. As we moved into the area where the camera was set, we began to see signs of bear activity. We recorded several wide trails through tall grass; a dug-up gopher mound; and a pine sapling that had been bitten off at about chest-height—a tell-tale territorial mark typically found near well-used feeding locations. It appears that not only is there a black bear in this part of the reserve, but it is using this as a major feeding area as it builds up fat stores for winter.

Farther down the trail, we crossed paths with a pair of deer and were able to examine some fresh sign and compare it to behavior we had witnessed just moments before. For this, the rain-washed roads proved to be the perfect backdrop as the substrate was free from older tracks. We were able to identify the buck we had just seen, and peer just a few minutes back in time to discover how he had been rooting for acorns in the road before he caught wind of our approach and moved off into the forest.

Our team also came across the nest of a reptile that had been raided by a scavenger—likely a striped skunk. We found a hole on the side of the road, measuring about 4” in every dimension, with fragments of papery-thin eggshells scattered around it. After a bit of research on nesting behavior and egg sizes, we came to the conclusion that the nest had belonged to an eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos). The excavation was clearly old. Hognose nest in mid-June and the eggs hatch in mid-July. Interestingly, Caitlin tells us that she has not seen hognose in this part of the reserve before.

In the end we had an amazing, and surprisingly productive day out on the landscape. Without the promise of many clear prints, we all found ourselves looking more closely at small things we may have otherwise overlooked. This helped us see how subtle clues can point to large scale patterns of animal behavior and give us information about shifting dynamics of top predators. We also were able to take advantage of the “clean slate” the rain provided to watch animals make tracks, then go examine the prints just minutes later.

Thanks again to everyone who came out for our Fall Survey. As always, your curiosity and insight is what makes our time on the landscape so rich.

We have a bit of a break before our next group survey. Our Winter survey is scheduled for Saturday, February 10. Mark your calendars!

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