August 4 Bird Language Sit

posted Aug 12, 2019, 10:30 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Aug 12, 2019, 10:33 AM ]

On August 4, we had a delightful Bird Language sit at the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge. The sun was out and the temperature was comfortable. As we settled in we may have triggered a couple of alarms from house wrens. Early in the sit a couple northern cardinals made their way through the area from east to west with some song and contact calls. During the second period, there was a cascade of sounds and alarms that started in the west and traveled northeast across the sit area. A red-tailed hawk was chasing a blackbird from the west during the third period which evoked some mild agitation in the woods by a couple birds. During the final period the northern part of the sit area got quiet and tense, something we observed in other sits during the summer. We have hypothesized that there could be fledging sharp-shinned hawks in the area that are putting songbirds on edge. However, on this sit we didn't see one.

August 2019 Natural Mystery

posted Aug 12, 2019, 10:01 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Aug 12, 2019, 10:04 AM ]

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July 2019 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Aug 10, 2019, 4:10 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Aug 10, 2019, 4:23 PM ]

Our July Natural Mystery came from Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, where we held our Summer Survey on July 13. You can read about the summer survey and what our teams found (which included more members of this species) here. Congratulations go out to regular contributors Jim Carretta, Kim Cabrera and Kirsten Welge who each identified both the species and which foot left this track.

As Jim Carretta succinctly notes, this track comes from a Sandhill crane, left foot.

Kim Cabrera adds a little more detail, noting that the only other track that is really close in appearance is that of a wild turkey. She then explains:

"Turkeys have tracks that approach this size, but their toes are shorter, particularly toes 2 and 4. The inner toe is shorter on both species, making this a left foot. The toes of the sandhill crane are more straight, without the sort of bulbous appearance of turkey toes. They look straight and slim compared to turkeys. The turkey's toes are sort of bumpy due to the musculature."

Kirsten Welge also notes the straighter toes of this track compared with turkey and adds a few additional details:

"What I see:
  • Game bird track form
  • Webbing visible between upper two toes (toes 3&4)
  • Length of 4.25”
  • Matches game bird morphology and size range (3 ¾”-5”). However:
  • Turkey tracks tend to show bulbous, segmented toes. This track has smooth toes.
  • Elbroch notes that turkeys have webbing between toes 2&3 and 3&4. This track only shows webbing between toes 3&4.
Sandhill Crane:
  • Matches game bird morphology and size range (3 ¾” -4 ¾”).
  • Tracks show smoother edges to the toes than turkey tracks.
  • Cranes only have webbing between toes 3&4 – which makes this a match for this track.

These are all good tips for distinguishing turkey from sandhill crane tracks. I'll add a just a little more to what these trackers shared.

First, several people wrote in their answers that the track does not show a hallux, but this is not correct. The claw of the hallux is visible in the photograph as a dot about ¾” behind and just to the outside of the metatarsal pad. Look very, very closely at the full resolution photo and you may see a hint of the tip of the toe registering as well. The narrow impression of the claw on toe 1, together with the narrow claw marks on each of the other toes, offers another clue that this is a crane track and not a turkey track. Turkey nails are broad and blunt, like "Lee Press On Nail," and are designed for scratching. The base of the nails are nearly as wide as the tips of the toes. Sandhill crane nails are much narrower. When the nails register clearly, there is a distinct narrowing between the tip of the toe to the shaft of the nail.

Finally, sandhill crane tend to spay their toes much wider than turkeys. Turkey tracks typically show a splay of a little over 90° between toes 2 & 4. Sandhill crane tracks sometimes splay nearly 180°, and almost always splay wider than turkey. In soft substrate such as loose sand, where we often find both turkey and sandhill crane tracks at Cedar Creek, I find the splay of the track to be one of the most useful traits for distinguishing these two species.

Thanks again to Jim, Kim & Kirsten for sharing your answers and insights. And thanks to everyone who wrote in and took a stab at this mystery.

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Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey, Summer 2019

posted Aug 10, 2019, 4:09 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Aug 12, 2019, 10:14 AM ]

On July 13, our team of 15 trackers and naturalists spread out along the roads of Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve for our fourth Summer Survey. We have come a long way since our first survey on August 7, 2016. In the past three years, over 100 people have participated in one or more of the thirteen surveys we have done at Cedar Creek. Our core group has grown and developed--both in numbers and in skill. Some of our earliest volunteers, such as Kari Skoog and Mark Erikson, have taken part in nearly every survey and are now helping to lead our teams in the field.

For our Summer survey, our group divided into three teams and explored the North Unit, the area around Lindeman Lab, and Old East Bethel Blvd along the western edge of the bison enclosure. The largest surprise of the survey was the modest diversity of mammal tracks our teams found. Unlike some past surveys where we have recorded the presence of as many as thirty species of mammals, our teams verified the activity of just nine this time around: coyote, red fox, raccoon, white-tailed deer, eastern grey squirrel, eastern chipmunk, plains pocket gopher, mole, and shrew. We saw no signs of bears, skunks, weasels, cats, other squirrels, large rodents, rabbits or mice. Significantly, for the second survey in a row, we also did not see any signs of wolves.

It's good to remember that while our surveys can verify the presence of a particular species on the landscape, it is more challenging to interpret what the absence of sign means. We can only record what we find, and what we find depends not only on where we choose to explore, but also the weather, seasonal variation in animal behavior, and the substrates available to us. Our teams regularly find fisher tracks in our winter surveys, but have yet to verify any during the summer. But it seems unlikely that the fisher leave the reserve in the summer months--they just don't use the roads much. There are about as many bears, skunks, weasels, cats and so forth on the property now as in previous seasons. We just didn't happen to see their tracks or sign this time out. But in the case of the wolves, we may be able to read a bit more into our observations. Wolves make heavy use of the roads, and frequently mark road/trail junctions. They also affect the behavior of other animals in dramatic ways. Up until this spring, our teams had found wolf tracks or scat on every single one of our surveys. We have now had two surveys in a row where we haven't seen any. Together with this, the behavior of the coyotes seems to be shifting in the North Unit in a way that suggests there are no wolves in the area. At least for now, it appears that the wolves have left Cedar Creek.

Arabesque Orbweaver
Our team in the North Unit followed the main road in from Gate 7 and up past Field A. From right inside the gate, the team found the tracks deer, red fox, and coyote using the road. The deer and red fox were a familiar sight, but the coyote have been scarce along this roadway in the past. Only recently have we seen coyote tracks along the road. And in each of our past three surveys, they have become more numerous, moved more comfortably in the open, and extended farther from the edge of the property into the area where we had seen the most wolf sign in the past. Interestingly, though the coyotes were clearly making their presence much more known, the red fox did not appear to be shying away from the open--at least not yet. The boldness of the coyotes along the teams entire survey route strongly suggests that the wolves have moved on.

Besides the deer, fox, coyote, and ubiquitous pocket gopher mounds, the only other mammal sign the team found was a lovely set of grey squirrel tracks in mud, just past the edge of the woods. But there was plenty of other diversity in the North Unit to pique our naturalists's interest including toad tracks, a tiny wood frog, a beautiful Arabesque Orbweaver, and Summer Azure butterflies feeding on an old coyote scat.

In the area around Lindeman Labs, fox and deer were the order of the day. On the trail between Lindeman Lab and Cedar Bog Lake, our team found the tracks, scat, digs, and scratches of several red fox. The tracks included a range of sizes, suggesting a mom and kit hunting along the road together. South of Lindeman, the team found more fox tracks along with larger canine tracks which were likely coyote, but not clear enough do distinguish from domestic dog with certainty. Dogs are not permitted in the reserve, but our tracking surveys and the Eyes on the Wild trail camera network have both shown that they do come onto the property.

Our third team spent their time on Old East Bethel Blvd, along the western edge of the bison enclosure, with a focus on following coyote trails and exploring how the enclosure might affect their movement. The team followed the trail of a large coyote north along the road, and spotted the tracks of others in the bison wallows just inside the enclosure. The trails they spotted in the wallows mostly paralleled the road. They also found some coyote trails crossing East Bethel at points where it was easy to pass under the fence. It is clear that the coyote are very comfortable and established in this part of the reserve--and seem perfectly home among the bison.

In addition to the coyote trails, the team also found the trail of a bullsnake, some chipmunk, squirrel and raccoon tracks, and a variety of bird tracks including mourning dove, American robin, ring-necked pheasant, and turkey and sandhill crane, which our trackers are now distinguishing with confidence.

As always, our survey left us with more questions than answers. Primary among these, of course, is where are the wolves? The last time we saw evidence of them was during our winter survey when one team trailed a wolf for a couple of miles, found a kill site, and verified the presence of two different individuals. Where are they now?

Also, while it is not unusual to have a survey where we don't see any sigh of bear or skunk or weasel or cat, it is unusual to not see any of these carnivores. Was this just by chance? Or are there patterns to these animals movements that had them away from the roads we traveled at this time of year?

Many of our trackers are becoming increasingly interested in and aware of bird tracks. But there is little information available about how to distinguish the tracks of most of the birds we find at Cedar Creek. How can we build our knowledge of these small bird tracks? And given that birds, unlike many mammals, can often be seen and heard, is there scientific value in our learning to identify small bird tracks with confidence? There is no question that it is fun and enriching!

We will have a chance to explore these and other questions at our special two-day fall survey on September 21-22. I hope you can join us for one or both days. Full details coming soon.

July 2019 Natural Mystery

posted Jul 6, 2019, 11:45 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jul 6, 2019, 11:46 AM ]

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June 2019 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Jul 5, 2019, 2:07 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jul 6, 2019, 11:50 AM ]

Our June Natural Mystery was really a three-part question—identify the plant, identify the bulge at the end of it, and explain how it ended up on the ground looking the way it did. It is clear that we have some experienced foresters in the group, in addition to a great many excellent trackers. Congratulations to Rachael Olesiak identified every organism involved here to the species. Honorable mentions go to Deb Sweeney, who correctly identified the plant and the cause of the bulge on the twig, and to Jim Carretta who identified the animal involved and it's behavior.

Let's begin with Rachael Olesiak's succinct answer to the question:

A red squirrel chewed on the gall of a jack pine from pine-pine gall rust.

Deb Sweeney offers some additional details about the plant and the gall:

Step one is identifying the twig. It's a pine because it has needles in bundles of two. Jack pine because the needles are under 1" and are widely spread. Then let's look at the blob. It looks weird and it is on a plant, therefore it is a gall (my personal rule of thumb). Galls are specific to plants. Googling "jack pine gall" we get Pine-Pine Gall Rust which has an oblong shape and has a similar appearance.

Rachael and Deb are exactly correct. This is a Jack Pine twig with a gall on the tip caused by the oddly named Pine-Pine Gall Rust. Pine-Pine Gall Rust, also known as Western Gall Rust, is a disease caused by the fungus Endocronartium harknessii which grows in the vascular cambium of it's host. The fungus uses pine trees as hosts for both parts of its life cycle. Hence the “Pine-Pine.” A related disease, Pine-Oak Gall Rust, is caused by a fungus that requires pine trees for one part of its life cycle and oaks for another.

Jim Carretta recognized the bulb as some kind of gall, and correctly added:

The branch was one among many clipped by a squirrel while high in the tree. The photo shows some teeth marks on the gall / bulb.

Thanks again to everyone who submitted answers, and to Kirsten Welge for providing this mystery for us. I learned a lot researching this and reading the responses and hope you all did as well.

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June 2019 Natural Mystery

posted Jun 11, 2019, 8:18 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jun 11, 2019, 8:18 PM ]

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Bemidji Track & Sign Evaluation with David Moskowitz

posted Jun 11, 2019, 8:17 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jun 11, 2019, 8:18 PM ]

Over the weekend of May 11-12, the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project's new Bemidji Chapter hosted David Moskowitz for a CyberTracker Track & Sign evaluation in the north woods.

Over the two-day evaluation, Moskowitz asked us a wide range of questions covering the tracks and sign of fourteen different species of wild mammals and seven species of birds. Some of the highlights included flicker scat, jumping mouse tracks, bear bites, wolf scat, an otter feeding station, and pocket gopher eskers.

Like all the CyberTracker evaluators, Moskowitz is a masterful teacher and has a tremendous wealth of knowledge. He shared with us tiny details of foot morphology, principles for interpreting sign, behavioral characteristics, and points of his philosophy on tracking. He also welcomed and drew out the knowledge from our diverse group. As a result, our debrief conversations were tremendously rich and everyone, including David, learned a great deal over the weekend. A couple highlights from Moskowitz teaching included:

Pocket Gopher Eskers
Approaching animal sign by asking three questions. First, if I had a toolbox, what tools would I need to produce the sign I am looking at? A chisel? An awl? A pair of sheers? Second, what animals come “equipped” with that kind of tool in the right size for making this sign? Finally, what behavior from these animals makes a coherent story to explain the sign I am seeing? Using this approach, some of us were able to decipher sign we had never seen before during the evaluation.

Keep in mind the differences between front and hind track morphology when thinking about key features that distinguish particular species. The narrow profile and “dot with wings” heel pad of a coyote, for example, are features of the hind track, not the front. Sometimes we remember key features of a particular species tracks, but apply them without distinguishing front from hind feet.

In addition to the questions on the evaluation, our group of trackers and naturalists found time to share knowledge and experiences and even add a few of our own conversations beyond those for the evaluation. Mark Fulton shared his keen eye for porcupine sign, regularly pointing it in the woods during our two days in the field. Sue Mansfield helped us understand some of the details and nuances of the bear trail and bear bites we found (you can tap into some of Sue's expertise about black bears here and here). Kim Shelton found the bounding trail of a small animal along the side of the road which looked at first glance to be the tracks of a small rabbit. After a bit of discussion in the group, we concluded they were the tracks of a thirteen-lined ground squirrel—an analysis that Moskowitz confirmed.

At the end of the day, eight trackers received certification in Track & Sign interpretation. The highlight was our host Kim Shelton receiving her Level IV Track & Sign certification--an impressive achievement and a well deserved acknowledgment for one of the most knowledgeable and experienced wildlife trackers and naturalists in the state.

We are looking forward to many more projects with the new Bemidji chapter of the club. Keep an eye out for a wildlife survey in that part of the state, as well as Minnesota's first Track & Sign Specialist evaluation!

Until then, there is still one spot remaining for our final Track & Sign Evaluation of the year with Casey McFarland over Labor Day Weekend. For more information, Contact Us.

May 2019 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Jun 4, 2019, 6:17 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jun 4, 2019, 6:22 PM ]

Our May Natural Mystery was an unusual trail--wet footprints on asphalt. Though little detail is visible, a number of you puzzled this one out and correctly interpreted what happened here. Congratulations to Leah, Kim Cabrera, Brendan White, Amy Jacobs and Sandy Reed who correctly identified the sign and the species that left it. And a special congratulations to Shelly Montana who not only identified the species, but also deduced the exact circumstances of the tracks being made! I'll let Shelly take it from here:

I see the wet tracks starting at bottom of the photo, the animals stops when first entering the road as I see 2 drip marks behind the 2 round side by side tracks. I believe these to be front tracks. They seem too round to be coyote.The animals then walks as it takes a few steps, stops and shakes off the water. This produces a good bit of water left behind. The animal also seems to wander in the style of a drunk. Maybe sniffing the road as it’s crossing. This is not the sign of a wild animal as they usually move in straight line from point A to Point B. I believe this to be a Domestic Dog. Also the area is a rural, and a residential area. This is also good sign for domestic dog. I believe the person that took the photo had to see the animal make this sign to be able to take a photo of such fresh wet tracks and sign, as he must have been out walking with the dog while looking for wildlife tracks and sign.

That is exactly right. Three of us who were in Bemidji to take a Track & Sign Evaluation with David Moskowitz rented an Air BnB just outside of town. We were out for a walk the evening before the evaluation, exploring the neighborhood and looking for tracks and sign, accompanied by the property's resident yellow lab, Olaf. Shelly's interpretation of Olaf's behavior is uncanny, and a prefect description of what we saw that evening.

Incidentally, Olaf also had quite a nose for finding dead things. Earlier in the walk he brought us the rotting, partially degloved head of a woodchuck. We got some photos of that as well, but chose to use this sing for the natural mystery! Here is a photo of us with Olaf a just a little later in our walk.

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May 2019 Natural Mystery

posted May 13, 2019, 8:43 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated May 13, 2019, 8:45 AM ]

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