December Natural Mystery

posted Dec 4, 2018, 2:31 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Dec 4, 2018, 2:31 PM ]

November 2018 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Dec 4, 2018, 2:27 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Dec 4, 2018, 2:28 PM ]

Our November Natural Mystery was a two-part question. We were looking for both for what this is and the tree that it grew on. Though these appear at first glance to be the seed-bearing cones of a conifer, they actually come from one of our local deciduous trees. Several of you recognized both the tree and the cause of this distinct pinecone-like growth. Here is an excellent explanation that came in from one naturalist, who wished to remain anonymous:

"This is a willow pinecone gall caused by a gall midge (Rabdophaga spp.) infecting a willow tree (Salix spp.)

Galls are growths on plant species resulting from, among other things, certain insect larvae.  An adult gall-making insect such as a wasp, midge, or moth, has evolved to lay its eggs on or in plant tissue.  The larvae that hatch from these eggs burrow or chew, which stimulates the plant to create an abnormal growth in that area, inside which the insect larvae take shelter and feed.  Each gall-making insect species is specific to a plant species or genus.

These look a lot like hemlock cones, given their size and the shape of their scales, but eastern hemlock cones are a little longer for the width and don't have the taper at the end.  Also, the more 'open' gall on the right is not how any cone from a conifer looks, with the scales giving way to the more narrow, open structures at the end.

To answer this question, I used some general knowledge of galls in general and willow galls in particular from a college entomology class.  I confirmed my ID and description using Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates by Noah Charney and Charley Eiseman."

Congratulations to Joe Plantenberg, Kirsten Welge, and two anonymous naturalists who correctly identified this sign.

November Natural Mystery

posted Nov 13, 2018, 8:01 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Nov 13, 2018, 8:01 PM ]

October 2018 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Nov 13, 2018, 7:27 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Nov 13, 2018, 7:28 PM ]

Our October Natural Mystery was an extremely challenging track, but several of you rose to the occasion and offered good guesses. The most common response was a hare. Though surprisingly similar looking, this is not the track of a hare. The details of the barely visible palm pad; exact arrangement of toes; lack of fur; and the long, sharp claws set high on the toes all point us in a different direction. Kirsten Welge puzzled through all the clues and came up with the correct identification. This is a domestic cat track. Kirsten offered the following points in her detailed answer:

"Claws are registering - which is unlikely, but possible with cats. Claws look like they’re set high on the toe, judging from the clear “bridge” of sand between deep toe pad impression and the claw indentations.

Track is asymmetrical. The two toes on the left are set further back than the corresponding two on the right. Plus, the palm pad is closer to the toes nearer the ruler.

The palm pad registers faintly behind the toe pads. That pad looks like the classic feline “m” shape (or so I’ve convinced myself!) and is roughly the area of 3+ toe pads.

The track looks slightly wider than it is tall, when accounting for the additional claw drag.

Negative space is felid-like, with toes wrapping around the palm pad.

Thanks to everyone who submitted answers to this extremely difficult Natural Mystery.

Story of the Trailing Eval & Workshop

posted Nov 13, 2018, 7:23 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Nov 13, 2018, 7:27 PM ]

Since our inception, the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project has had a strong focus on track & sign interpretation. Our tracking club and tracking surveys emphasize building an understanding of the landscape primarily through spoor identification. But until now, we have done relatively little to explore the art of trailing. This past October, Blake Southard of North Winds Wilderness School partnered with the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project to host our first CyberTracker Trailing Evaluation, followed by a four-day long intensive workshop in following deer trails.

The Trailing Evaluation was conducted by Senior Tracker Kersey Lawrence. The Evaluation presented us all with extremely difficult conditions. Day one began with a light snow--the first flurries of the season--then developed into an unseasonably cold day with high winds. The 40mph gusts literally knocked some of us off our feet while we were on trail. Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, all four participants surprised themselves by passing the basic level and earning a Level 1 in trailing. Since all four are certified in Track and Sign, they also all earned full Tracker 1 certification. Congratulations to Minnesota's first four certified Trackers, Blake Southard, Donnie Phyillaire, Jonathan Poppele and Kirsten Welge.

Kersey is an amazing asset to the tracking community world wide, and we were very fortunate to have her come to Minnesota to support us in our development. As an added bonus, we were joined over the weekend by Senior Trackers and certified evaluators Brian McConnell and Lee Guttridge.
Brian was on hand to evaluate Kersey's evaluating. At the end of the weekend he signed off on her work, officially certifying her as the first female trailing evaluator in the world!

Following the evaluation, Kersey and Lee stayed on to lead deer trailing workshop hosted at North Winds Wilderness School campus in Siren, Wisconsin. We spend the next four days walking through the woods on the trails of deer. Kersey and Lee guided us in the process, helping us all stay close to our edge for the entire workshop--constantly challenged, but not overwhelmed.

When the workshop began, many of us never expected to be able to follow a deer's trail until we saw the animal--and during the workshop we didn't catch up to any of the deer we trailed.
We saw a few bound away in the distance, and heard the scolding "sneak" alarm of some blue jays as another likely stalked away from us. But Kersey and Lee kept reminding us that seeing the animal is the point of trailing. "You should expect to see your animal," Kersey told us. "And you should expect to see animals, because you are walking quietly in the woods." Meanwhile, Lee invited us to “Move through the woods like you belong there not like it belongs to you.”

Slowly, the messages started to sink in. With each passing day, everyone in our group grew more comfortable and confident following the subtle clues left by whitetails. Following Kersey and Lee's instructions and model, our minds slowed down, our senses opened up, and our inspiration and passion grew. It started to sink in that there were deer moving at the end of these trails--and that if we continued to practice it would not be long before we could see a set of tracks with feet still in them.

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 ]

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