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Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey, Winter 2020

posted Feb 12, 2020, 9:54 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Feb 12, 2020, 10:16 AM ]
The Winter Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey took place on January 11. Three teams ventured out onto the snowy landscape of the Reserve and returned with observations of 15 different species, along with stories of a booming deer population, song birds scavenging on a wolf kill, and a raccoon leaving a track pattern across the landscape that none of us have ever seen before. Here is the story of our day.

The survey brought together 27 trackers and naturalists to explore Cedar Creek in search of tracks and sign. The group split into three large teams in the field, with one team heading up to the North Unit, a second team exploring Cedar Bog Lake and the trails near Lindeman, and a third team heading over to the Crane House—an area of the property where we have never surveyed before.

Our team in the North Unit was guided by Mark Erikson, who has spent time this winter scouting Cedar Creek for possible raptor nest locations. In his scouting, he had come across a wolf kill and fresh tracks, which became the groups objective for the day. It had been nearly a year since any of our teams had recorded wolf tracks on the property and we were eager to see fresh sign again.

Entering the North Unit, patterns of behavior we see when wolves are active on the property were immediately evident. Deer were moving along the forest edge, but staying off the road in the open; fox were traveling down the center of the road; and a single coyote trail hugged the edge of the woods just inside the gate. As the team entered the woods, however, the familiar patterns gave way to a foison of deer trails. In a typical winter, we will find one or two heavily worn deer trails crossing the road in the woods between Field E and Junction 69. This winter, our team crossed a deer trail almost every 10 meters. The level of deer activity was far beyond anything we have seen in the past four years, and it appears to be the result of a bumper crop of acorns. The Red Oaks at Cedar Creek had a large mast last fall, and it looks like deer throughout the area have descended on Cedar Creek this winter to feed on the bounty.

By early afternoon, the team made its way to the wolf kill, and investigated who had been scavenging the carcass. The team found tracks or sign of fox, fisher, and a variety of birds on and around the carcass. Last January, our team found a deer carcass in the same area of the reserve. That carcass was heavily scavenged by fisher, and there were fisher trails radiating every direction from the kill site. This year, our team was only able to find the tracks of a single fisher—likely a female—around the carcass. Trail camera images confirmed two visits by a female fisher a few days before our survey, along with a single visit by a male several days before that. Most of the tracks and trails leading to and from the carcass were those of foxes rather than fisher. Why was there so little fisher activity around this carcass? Are there more carcasses in the woods this year? Do fisher range more widely than foxes?

Heading away from the deer carcass, the team found the trail of the wolf that had likely taken it down. Following the trail a short distance, the team was treated to impressions in the snow where the wolf had sat to rest. The wolf's fore paws, flank and tail were all visible in the snow, showing just how large this animal is.

The team that headed to Cedar Bog Lake also found some unusual patterns of wildlife movement, and also found the tracks of the wolf. Typically, the sand-road that leads to the Cedar Bog Lake trailhead is a through-way for deer and foxes. This day, there was little traffic on the road, and no deer sign. Instead, there was a surprising amount of canine activity in the field beside the road. Trails of foxes and coyote crisscrossed the field, likely hunting for voles. While fox tracks are common along this road, coyote tracks are unusual. What was bringing the coyote in to this area? And don't they seem to be displacing the foxes at all?

As in the North Unit, the team found abundant deer sign once they entered to woods. Also as in the North Unit, the deer seemed to be avoiding the open landscape—both the road and the frozen shores of Cedar Bog Lake. What the team found along the shores instead were wolf tracks. The tracks encircled the lake, and headed off into the woods at several places along the shore. The wolf explored this area pretty thoroughly some time in the days before our survey. Members of the team commented on how large the tracks were—much larger than the tracks of the wolf one of our teams trailed last January. The prints appear to match the larger of the two wolves we have been tracking for the past couple of years.

The area around Crane House offered a different landscape, and a different suite of wildlife for our trackers. This area, along Old East Bethel Blvd. just north of the Big Bio experimental fields, is an open landscape of oldfields with a small creek running through. The team found tracks of several animals we would expect in this habitat—pheasant, meadow voles, coyote (hunting said voles), and mink. But they also found several fisher trails, including one that passed through the fence and lopped out onto the wide open fields of Big Bio. Why are we finding so much fisher activity here in the open grasslands, and so little in the woods around a carcass?

There was also a lot of coyote activity in the fields along Old East Bethel. In addition to the abundant tracks, the team found a scat which they brought back to Lindeman to dissect. Although the area is clearly thick with voles, the scat contained the fur and bones of a cottontail. We don't see much cottontail sign on our surveys. Some surveys we don't see any, and these remains were the only sign we saw this day.

The team also found a mysterious trail that required a return visit to identify. A raccoon had moved from the creek across an oldfield leaving a track pattern that none of us have ever seen before. After considerable study, and consulting with trackers from across the world, we are still at a loss to interpret the gait the raccoon was using. Our best guess is that it is a side trot—a gait common in canines and virtually unknown in other taxa. Whatever gait the raccoon was using, it was not a brief transition—it was a sustained pattern for about 100 meters that persisted through direction changes and pauses. Once again the raccoon proved itself the trickster—humbling our most experienced trackers yet again.

As always, we wrapped up the day with more questions than answers. The abundance of deer on the landscape this winter is certainly affecting the other wildlife. Is this why the wolf has returned and appears so settled in? Is there more food on the landscape for scavengers as a result? Is this affecting the movements of the foxes, coyote and fisher? Will it have an impact on the black bear's behavior as they come out of hibernation? Furthermore, will the deer that seem to have gathered at Cedar Creek for the winter disperse once spring arrives and food is more plentiful again? How might such a dispersal affect the wolf? And the scavengers?

We hope to get insights into some of these questions at our upcoming surveys. Please mark your calendars and plan to join us:

Spring Survey: April 4
Summer Survey: June 13
Fall Survey: October 3-4