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Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey, Spring 2019

posted Apr 30, 2019, 12:53 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Apr 30, 2019, 12:53 PM ]
The 2019 Spring Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey took place on April 13, just after a late season snow storm passed through the area. Though the ground was covered with a few inches of wet, heavy snow, signs of spring abounded. Our teams reported budding trees, close sightings of warblers and other migrant songbirds, grouse drumming in the woods, and the courtship display flights of a pair of harriers. It was a beautiful spring day in the woods, made all the richer by the wonderful tracking conditions. Here are some highlights from the day.

Twenty trackers and naturalists gathered for the survey and divided divided into four teams to spread out across the snow covered reserve in search of tracks and sign of resident wildlife. One team headed up to the very north end of the property, to a roadless area of the reserve where we have never surveyed before. A second team walked the roads of the North Unit inside Gate 7 and two teams headed to the southeast corner of the property—one exploring the bison enclosure, and the other following the trails around Fish Lake.

Both teams on the north end of the property recorded a large number of fisher tracks and trails. This is the first time that we have recorded fisher in any of our spring surveys. But then, this is the first time we have had snow on the ground for our spring survey. To date, our teams have found fisher tracks on every survey when there has been snow on the ground, but have never spotted fisher tracks when the snow is absent. This late season snowfall gave us the chance to get a glimpse of spring time fisher behavior. Both teams found trails where fishers of different size appeared to be moving together on the landscape. Breeding pairs, perhaps? Mid-April is mating season for fisher.

The number of fisher trails the teams found piqued our curiosity once again about fisher range and population density. Are there just a few very active fisher on the reserve? Or are there fisher peering down at us from nearly every tree? A quick literature search1 turned up estimates of fisher density in suitable habitat range from one per 2.6 km2 to one per 10 km2. That would suggest somewhere between 2 and 9 fishers across the 23 km2 of Cedar Creek. Would it be possible for us to distinguish individuals based on track and trail measurements? If so, is it possible for us to get an accurate count of the number of fisher at Cedar Creek? Given estimates for home range size, most of the animals we see likely venture well beyond the bounds of the reserve. And given our dependence so far on snow for locating fisher tracks, such a project might need to wait until next winter--or require the use of baited track plates.

The team at the northern end of the property also found a high density of both deer and turkey sign, but no canine tracks. The team scouting the roads of the North Unit found two sets of fox tracks near the edge of the woods. In both cases, the animal was moving in a gallop. In past surveys, we have sometimes found large numbers of fox tracks on the road inside Gate 7, and at other times found few to none. Were the foxes avoiding the roads? Or did their day-to-day movements just have them elsewhere in the days leading up to the survey? One thing the team did not spot was any wolf tracks. This was the first time in any of our surveys that none of our teams found any wolf sign. A Cedar Creek staffer spotted fresh tracks in the North Unit the following Monday, so we know they are still around. But they hadn't passed along the routes we surveyed for at least a few days.

The team exploring the bison enclosure took advantage of the fresh snow to follow coyote trails across the landscape. One trail they followed ran nearly parallel to the sand road, about 50 feet off to the side—just far enough to avoid being seen from the road. Following in the coyote's footsteps, the team found the tacks and trails of pheasant, grouse, raccoon and fisher. A side-trip down the fisher trail led to a mostly-eaten gray squirrel, which had been investigated and perhaps scavenged by a raccoon.

Black Bear track
The area around Fish Lake offered the greatest diversity of tracks and sign on this survey. The team exploring around the lake found coyote tracks along nearly every part of their trail, mink tracks near the water's edge, beaver tracks and sign, and the tracks of several birds. Both this team and the team exploring the bison enclosure found turkey and sandhill crane tracks close together, and got some practice at distinguishing the rather similar tracks of these two large birds. The Fish Lake team also identified turkey tracks with wing drag marks left by a male in display, and the wing marks of a pheasant taking flight. The team also made the most surprising find of the day, picking up the trail of a black bear as it traveled along the edge of the bison enclosure. Bears frequent the northern half of the reserve, but sightings are quite rare on the south side of Fish Lake. It appears that this particular bear was likely foraging in the back yards across the road, because the scat our team found along the trial was filled with sunflower seed husks!

The juxtaposition of spring animal behavior and a snow covered landscape made for a wonderful day in the woods—and as usual brought about as many questions as it did answers. One big question on our minds is where are the wolves? It is not rare that we see only a little bit of sign, but this is the first time we haven't seen any. And apparently there were fresh tracks just a few days later. Have we just been lucky on our past surveys to cross paths with the wolves? The fresh snow limited what we could see to only sign from the past couple of days. Typically we get a longer window of track and sign ages to look for. But this raises the question, how much time do these wolves spend at Cedar Creek? And how wide to they range?

We are also curious about the fox activity. Some days our trackers have walked in from Gate 7 and seen multiple sets of fox tracks running up and down both sides of the road. On one survey a tracker joked that the foxes were running laps. Other days, there are no fox tracks to be seen along this stretch. What has the foxes sometimes use this road heavily and other times avoid it? Does this just reflect their movement about their territory? Or is something pushing or pulling them on the landscape?

Just how many fisher are there at Cedar Creek? Studies of fisher density suggest somewhere between 2 and 9. Can we narrow those numbers down a bit? Can we learn to identify individual fisher from their tracks?

Finally, what brought one of the bears down to the southeast corner of the property? Do the neighbors backyards offer good foraging for a hungry bear coming out of hibernation? And why didn't we see any bear sign on the North Unit?

We are looking forward to getting back out on the landscape to learn more about the wildlife at Cedar Creek. Please mark your calendars and plan to join us for our upcoming surveys.

Saturday, July 13
September 21-22

Powell, R. (1981). Martes pennanti. Mammalian Species, (156), 1–6.
Powell, R.A., Buskirk, S.W., & Zielinski, W.J. (2003). Fisher and Marten. In Feldhamer, G.A., Thompson, B.C., & Chapman, J.A. (Eds.). Wild mammals of North America: biology, management, and conservation (2nd ed). Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press.