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.

Cedar Creek Winter 2018 Survey

posted Mar 13, 2018, 3:08 PM by The Center for Mind-Body Oneness   [ updated Mar 29, 2018, 10:18 AM by Jonathan Poppele ]

Our Winter Survey on February 10, 2018, was our largest tracking event yet at Cedar Creek. In total, 28 naturalists and trackers fanned out across the reserve and brought back a wealth of information about the wildlife of Cedar Creek. Our group included six members of the University of Minnesota's Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology student club; a few Cedar Creek staff members; and a nature connection mentor visiting from Bangalore, India. About half of the team were participating in the Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey for the first time.

It was a beautiful winter day to be in the field. Temperatures were just below zero when we gathered, and warmed up to the low teens by mid day under sunny skies. The bright sun and light breeze—which was almost completely blocked when we were in the trees—made the day feel comfortably warm despite the low temperatures. Tracking conditions were excellent, with good snow cover and a fresh dusting a couple days before the survey.

We divided into four groups for the day. One group traveled to the south shore of Fish Lake, a second group walked up the Cedar Bog Lake Trail, and the final two groups headed up to Gate 7 to survey the roads of the North Unit.

Around Fish Lake, our “southeastern” team spent some time examining the diversity of small mammal tracks. Cedar Creek has four species of tree-dwelling squirrels, and we found tracks covering the size ranges of all four. The smallest of these track belong to southern flying squirrel, pictured right, while the largest belong to eastern fox squirrel. American red squirrels and eastern gray squirrels fill out the quartet. The group also found a number of weasel trails, including one that was mixed in with the back-and-forth tracks of the mouse it was likely hunting.

Up at Cedar Bog Lake, our team found the tracks of one of our larger mustelids. Fisher appear to be quite common at Cedar Creek now, showing up on most of our surveys. The team also found the tracks of a single gray wolf. We have been finding the tracks of a single wolf on each of our surveys (as well as during some between-survey tracking outings) since last summer. Here, the animal left clear trails, and some urine marks, across the fresh snow on Cedar Bog Lake.

Up on the North Unit, our teams found strings prominent deer trails just inside Gate 7. Before last summer, when there were at least two wolves traveling together in the northern half of Cedar Creek, deer tended to stay closer to cover in the North Unit—but here they were traveling down the road in the open. Our groups there questioned whether they would see any wolf sign, given the deer behavior they were observing. But as they approached the edge of the forest, the deer cut off the road to follow higher ground and avoid a low-lying area with limited visibility.

Once in the woods the groups got some glimpses of bird language and wildlife behavior that pointed to something moving on the landscape. Near trail junction 69, some of the naturalists noted a raven begin circling near by, calling. At about the same time, another group farther up the trail watched three deer bolt across the road in front of them. As the group pondered what had spooked the deer and disturbed the raven, the turned south at junction 69 and discovered fresh wolf tracks—perhaps only minutes old. The wolf had approached junction 69 from the south, then slowed before doubling back on itself. It moved away from the junction, then turned off the road and followed a deer trail. Later, the group discovered that the wolf had circled around the place they had been standing while listening to the raven's calls, emerging back onto the road again out of sight of the group. Given how fresh the trail was, it seems likely that the wolf heard the group approaching and made a detour to avoid being seen. Were the deer spooked by the approaching wolf? Had the raven reacted to the deer being spooked, or to the wolf changing course? Or was the raven “telling” the wolf where our group was on the landscape? We may never know.

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

Our Spring Survey is coming up on Saturday, April 28. I hope you can all join us for another day in the field learning about the wildlife of Cedar Creek.

March 2018 Natural Mystery

posted Mar 12, 2018, 10:44 AM by The Center for Mind-Body Oneness   [ updated Mar 12, 2018, 10:44 AM ]

February 2018 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Mar 12, 2018, 10:41 AM by The Center for Mind-Body Oneness   [ updated Mar 12, 2018, 10:44 AM ]

Our February Natural Mystery was a challenging track indeed. We received many excellent guesses, some with detailed explanations of the reasoning behind them. A few people got very close, but no one sent in a correct ID for both the species and the foot. What made this so tricky? Although the print was clear, it has a slightly uncommon form for the species and a very unusual size! The beast that made these tracks has been frequenting my yard lately and is by far the largest of this species I have ever seen. While identifying the single print in isolation was an extremely challenging task, I suspect that most of you will instantly recognize the track pattern.

I would like to offer a shout-out to Shankar Shivappa and Brendan White who both correctly guessed that the track was from a rabbit--but misidentified the foot. Oh so close!

Bird Language, Mar 3

posted Mar 11, 2018, 2:50 PM by The Center for Mind-Body Oneness   [ updated Mar 11, 2018, 2:50 PM ]

MN River Wildlife Refuge. The icy path kept us from descending to the lower parts of the hillside trail last Saturday. Instead we sat closer to the Visitors Center. This gave us a chance to take in a different part of the trail and see interaction between the edge of the sit area and the feeders by the Visitors Center. Before the first period started a Cooper's Hawk flew in from the west and headed toward the eastern side of the sit area. Over the past few years we have seen Cooper's Hawks nest in the east area, either at a nest fairly close to the trail or up the hill and to the west of the trail. Songbird activity was subdued in this area during the sit. We will keep our eyes and ears open to see if Cooper's Hawk nesting happens again this year. During the sit Bald Eagles were active, once flying over the sit area from the northeast and also soaring high in the southwest. We observed feeding flocks of White-breasted Nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadees as we have during the winter. There was also a sighting of an Eastern Bluebird.

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 ]

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