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August 2021 Natural Mystery

posted Aug 10, 2021, 2:31 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Aug 10, 2021, 2:32 PM ]


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July 2021 Natural Mystery Anwered

posted Aug 10, 2021, 2:29 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Aug 10, 2021, 2:33 PM ]

Last month's Natural Mystery proved to be a tricky one. Though these tracks are fairly common, they can be surprisingly tricky to recognize out of context. It doesn't look much like the illustration in the field guide, because it's not a single track. That didn't slip past Bren White--the one person to send in a correct answer. Congratulations Bren!

These are the paired front tracks of an Eastern Cottontail. The animal was moving toward the top of the frame in this photo.

When bounding, cottontails often place their front feet side-by-side as shown here. The resulting impression can resemble a deer track, but is rimmed with small indents from the rabbits toes. Typically, we develop "search images" for individual tracks and for complete track patterns. But there are a few cases where getting familiar with the typical presentation of a close or overlapping pair of tracks will serve us well. The "hot mess" of an opossum's indirect register is one of those. This is another.

Rabbits have five toes on each front foot--though Toe 1 often registers lightly or not at all. The remaining four toes are arranged asymmetrically and form an upside-down J. Toe 3 leads and Toe 5 is set far back on the outside of the foot. This arcing arrangement of toes is visible in both the left and right tracks in this photo.

The dense fur on the bottoms of rabbit's feet tends to obscure track details, even in good substrate. Unlike most mammals, this fur isn't just between the pads, but covers both the metapodial (palm) and degital (toe) pads. The result is that the palm pads are usually quite obscure, and the toe imprints can seem soft or poorly defined.


Thanks to everyone who sent in an answer. And congratulations again to Bren White who correctly identified these as the two front tracks of a cottontail!



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July 2021 Natural Mystery

posted Jul 12, 2021, 1:08 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jul 12, 2021, 1:08 PM ]


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June 2021 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Jul 12, 2021, 10:51 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jul 12, 2021, 3:29 PM ]

Last month’s Natural Mystery turned out to be a little trickier than intended as the feather is a close match for two different species found in the area. Congratulations to Mike Holtz who correctly identified the species. And an honorable mention to Alan Holzer who offered an excellent analysis and pointed out that the best way to distinguish this feather from its closest look alike is by looking at the back.

This is a turkey vulture feather. Specifically, it is a secondary feather from the left wing.

I’ll let Mike get us started with our analysis:

“This is from a pretty good sized bird. Either Barred or Great Horned Owl feathers would have barring on the feather. A mature Bald Eagle feather would be a similar size, but I would expect more consistent dark coloring, or more mottled coloring if not a mature bird. Crow feathers would be darker. Turkey Vultures are definitely in the area, and the size and coloring look good for a secondary feather.”

Alan offers these additional details for how he narrowed down the possibilities:

"In this area, there are only a few birds that have plain wing feathers of this size:  eagles, geese, vultures, herons.  Heron feathers are more of a powdery blue gray.  A goose feather would show a shiny area on either side of the shaft called a tegmen, which provides extra strength for the feather."

That leaves bald eagle and turkey vulture. Now it turns out there is an easy way to distinguish them. As Alan explains:

“With the feather in hand, the difference between bald eagle and turkey vulture is easy to see on the back: the feather shaft on a vulture feather is bright white all the way up on the back, and the underside of the feather is silvery. For bald eagles, the backs and the fronts are similar.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t know that. So it didn’t occur to me to include a photo of the back of the feather. From the front, differences between turkey vulture and bald eagle secondary feathers are more subtle. But there are still some differences. The middle secondaries on turkey vultures show a pale trailing edge and a pale, slightly fringed trailing tip. Bald eagle secondaries have a more uniform color (as Mike noted) and smoothly rounded tips. Have a look at the USFWS Feather Atlas scans for bald eagle secondaries and turkey vulture secondaries. To my eye, the closest match for our feather looks like the fifth secondary on the turkey vulture.

By the way, the second day of our upcoming Track & Sign Evaluation with Marcus Reynerson is International Vulture Awareness Day. No kidding. I'll be celebrating by taking a tracking eval. I hope you can join me.

Congratulations again Mike for sending in a correct answer. And thanks again to Alan for pointing out a key feature for ID when you have a feather in hand.


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June 2021 Natural Mystery

posted Jun 14, 2021, 3:16 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jun 14, 2021, 3:16 PM ]


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May 2021 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Jun 14, 2021, 2:54 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jun 14, 2021, 2:54 PM ]

The photo I shared for last month’s natural mystery was the first picture I ever took of this species tracks. From the answers I received, it sounds like many of you were seeing these tracks for the first time as well. As uncommon as it may be for us to see these tracks, Mike Holtz, Bill Kass and Kirsten Welge all successfully identified the track maker to species, and shared their analysis with the rest of us.

These are the tracks of a swan, most likely a trumpeter swan.

As one of our contributors summed put it “It's a huge honkin' waterfowl.” Or, as another notes "It's a Big Bird (but probably not THE Big Bird."

Kirsten points out that the curved toes point to this being a webbed track, which narrows our options down considerably. Mike notes that “Trumpeter Swan tracks range from 5 3/4 to 7 inches, and are webbed tracks. Other swans have similar tracks, but playing the odds in Minnesota, I would vote for Trumpeter Swan.”

Indeed, we regularly see trumpeter swans throughout the Metro, including all winter long on Snelling Lake. Tundra Swans migrate through in spring and fall, and Mute Swans are occasionally spotted in the park, but trumpeters are much more common.

Most other webbed bird tracks are all much smaller. Kirsten notes that “Canada Geese are often seen on Eagle's Landing. However, their tracks top out around 4 3/4” in length.” Turkey and crane tracks also top out at under 5” long, and show straight toes.

Kirsten and Bill note that eagles and our largest herons can leave tracks that measure over 6” long, but that these tracks have straight toes and include a long hallux.

Bill notes that there is one other webbed bird track in this size range that shows curved toes and that is the totipalmate track of the pelican. But he points out that the “pelican’s hallux is usually about half the length of other 3 toes. Toe 1 (hallux) on this track is not close to that size. The hallux on a swan is very short and sometimes it does not even show the track.”

But in this case, the hallux does show. This also helps us identify the side. As Mike notes, “the slight angling of toe 1 towards the right indicates this is the left foot.”

We can also identify this as a left track by looking at the length and curvature of the two outer toes. Like other birds, waterfowls have two toe bones in toe 2, three toe bones in toe 3, and 4 in toe 4. Toe In the curved tracks of ducks, geese and swans, toe 2 is not only shorter, but also bends in only a single spot. Toe 4 is longer and often appears more smoothly curved. The sharp bend at the single joint in toe 2 is clearly visible in this track, contrasting with the gentle curve of toe 4.

Congratulations again to Bill, Kirsten and Mike for identifying these swan tracks. And thanks to everyone who submitted an answer--and to everyone who simply enjoyed looking at the mystery and reading what our friends had to say about it :)

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May 2021 Natural Mystery

posted May 9, 2021, 10:10 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated May 9, 2021, 10:11 AM ]


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April 2021 Natural Mystery Answered

posted May 7, 2021, 10:12 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated May 11, 2021, 9:05 AM ]

Last month’s natural mystery was an unusual presentation—unusual enough that both I and at least one certified Track & Sign specialist misidentified it at first glance. Several of you were a quicker on the uptake than we were. Congratulations to Bren White, Kirsten Welge and Mike Holtz for correctly identifying the maker of this track.

We often joke that “all tracks are raccoon until proven otherwise.” In this case, we can’t prove otherwise. This is the right hind track of a raccoon. Though the presentation is a bit unusual, it simply isn’t a match for any other animal this size.

Kirsten starts off our analysis by outlining some of the key features of this track for us:
  • A relatively flat track floor, showing a large wide palm.
  • Imprints of four smooth, cigar-shaped fingers extend forward smoothly from a gentle arc of the palm.
  • A fifth toe set much further back on the right edge of the track.
  • Pinpricks of claw imprints are set about 1/8” ahead of the edge of each toe.
  • Size is 2.5” wide x 2.5” wide, not counting claws.

So we have five long, narrow toes connecting to a large, smooth palm. That’s a perfect description of a raccoon track. But just to be sure, let’s look at some other possibilities. Let’s try to prove otherwise.

Striped Skunk: This track looks surprisingly similar to a skunk track but, as Mike and Kirsten point out, is much too large. Striped skunk tracks are typically just over 1” wide. These prints measure more than two times that. Skunk toes are short and narrow, but don't register at an even depth or connect so clearly to the palm in the track. Mike also notes that the claws are registering too close to the toes for skunk.

Opossum: The Midwest's only resident marsupial also has five long toes on each foot, connecting to a large palm. But opossum splay their front toes widely, have a large opposable thumb on their hind foot, and show several distinct lobes in their palm pads.

Woodchuck: Ground hogs have five long, slender toes on their hind feet, and the arrangement of toes in this track resembles the 1-3-1 arrangement of a rodent hind foot. Woodchuck tracks are a little smaller than this, topping out at 2” when the toes are fully splayed. Like other squirrels, woodchucks usually show four distinct palm pads that form a broad, C-shaped arc behind the toes.

Badger: These stocky weasels show a clear negative space between the toes and the palm, their toes are proportionally wider, and the nails are longer. Badgers were once present at Cedar Creek, but have not been verified on the property in quite some time.

Otter: Kirsten points out that “Otter are in this size range, but they would show more bulbous toe tips, more negative space between palm and toe pads, a “wavy” edge to the palm/finger interface, and a more varied track floor showing lobing of the metapodial pad.

Having ruled out other possibilities, how did we determine which foot? Let’s start with the side of the body. Everyone who sent in an answer—even those who guessed a different species—identified this as a right foot. As Kirsten notes, this is “a right foot, as toe 1 is set furthest back and the shared metapodial pad for toes 3-4 is evident.

There are two features that help us distinguish this as a hind track. The first is the trailing edge of the palm pad. As Kirsten and Mike both note, raccoon front tracks typically show small mound or “notch” at the center of the trailing edge of the palm. Raccoon hind tracks have a smoother trailing edge, as we see here. The second is the arrangement of the toes. Raccoon hind tracks tend to splay less and are less symmetrical than fronts, with toe 1 set farther back on the foot.

So there we have it. The right hind track of a raccoon. Congratulations again to Bren, Kirsten and Mike for identifying this unusual print. And thanks to everyone who submitted an answer to this mystery.

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April 2021 Natural Mystery

posted Apr 9, 2021, 11:53 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Apr 14, 2021, 11:48 AM ]


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March 2021 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Apr 9, 2021, 11:28 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Apr 14, 2021, 11:49 AM ]

Thanks to everyone who sent in an answer to our March Natural Mystery. We received a range of guesses, including two very detailed answers from regular contributors (and newsletter patrons) Kirsten Welge and Bill Kass. Congratulations to Bill & Kirsten for picking out the fine details in these tracks and offering such clear analysis.

These are muskrat tracks.

Kirsten and Bill did such a great job of breaking this down, I will let them take it from here—beginning with Kirsten’s observations and basic analysis:

“The leftmost track shows 4 clear, spindly, horizontally ribbed toes, with wide blunt claws, connected to metapodial [palm] pads arranged in a triangle. Toe structure is rodent-like in grouping (1-2-1).

The rightmost track shows 3 clear finger-like toe pads with wide blunt claws, with another clear claw impression below and left of the toes (about even with the 3” mark). There is also a very faint toe & claw impression visible halfway between the clear toes & ruler, about the 2 5/8” mark. Although not as much of this foot registers, the toe widths are clearly larger than the toes of the other track.

Deductions: This is an animal with a rodent-like 4-toe/5-toe arrangement, spindly ribbed toes, with one foot larger than the other.

The leftmost track is very vole-like, showing ribbed toes – and our local semiaquatic vole is the muskrat.”


Bill then offers us these comparisons to other species. It is, after all, a raccoon until proven otherwise.

“Focusing on the track on the left, I see 4 obvious toes that stretch to the pad; not what we would see in a feline, mustelid, or canine. The toes are splayed in somewhat of a star pattern which is not typical of a raccoon. Plus where is the 5th toe? Ah.. there it is; on the lower part of the track; a small nail print. But this 5th toe is very short, which we would not expect to see with a raccoon.

Given the star-like shape, could this be an opossum? Here again, all five toes of the opossum are very similar in length, which this is not.

This track looks to be about 1 ¼” or 1 ½” in length; too big for most rodents and too small for a front beaver track (2”-3 ½”) and not quite the correct shape.”


For the bonus, Kirsten offers us a few things to look at to distinguish right from left:

"The angle of the hind, positioning of the front foot compared to hind, and length of the third toe of the front foot all confirm these are left-sided tracks."

Bill dives a little deeper with this breakdown:

"Looking at the front track, the lower “nail” print of a toe seems more likely to be the 5th toe because it is closest to the carpal pads. The other nail print seems too far away. If it were, this track looks like the pictures for a front left print in both Jon’s book and Elbroch.

Let’s look at the rear print to confirm this. At first glance there appears to be 3 clear toes, but if we follow toe 3 of the front track out, there is a nail mark right where toe 1 of the rear track should be! Also, the most leading toe of a rear track tends to be toe 4, which seems true assuming this nail mark is toe 1. Finally, if you look close above toe 4 you can see a light impression of where toe 5 should be!

In conclusion. This is front left track of a muskrat with an overstepping rear left track."


Congratulations again to Bill & Kirsten, and a big thank you to everyone who sent in an answer to this Natural Mystery.


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