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Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey, Winter 2019

posted Feb 1, 2019, 3:51 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Feb 1, 2019, 3:52 PM ]
On Saturday, January 26, Cedar Creek hosted its largest ever wildlife tracking survey, with 27 trackers and naturalists heading out in five teams to explore the landscape and share stories from the tracks and sign we found. Undaunted by the arctic cold, our teams recorded the tracks and sign of at least 18 different species of mammals across the reserve, and had some amazing adventures along the way. Here is our story of the day.

Cedar Creek received about two inches of fresh snow mid-week on top of a thin, hard base, which offered a great substrate to catch tracks. The new snow meant that only tracks from the past day-and-a-half were visible, allowing our teams to see clear gait patterns and follow individual trails. As we headed into the field on Saturday morning, a light dusting of snow added an extra challenge as it obscured fine details on all but the freshest tracks.

With such a large team, we were able to cover lots of ground. The five teams spread out across the length of the reserve with one team headed south to the bison enclosure, two teams sticking close to Lindeman Hall, and two teams headed up to the North Unit.

mink trail on top of a log
The team in the south focused their attention on tracking coyote. Over the past several surveys, we have noticed a lack of coyote activity in many parts of the reserve and wondered where they were concentrating their activity. It now seems clear that the answer is in the bison enclosure. With the favorable snow conditions, the team was able to not only identify, but also trail coyote for some distance. Along they way they found signs of foraging and bedding down. One thing the team notes was the overall shape of the coyotes' trails. Though the coyote moved in fairly straight lines, those lines followed the natural curves of the landscape. The influence of the landscape on the coyotes' movement and behavior was clearly written in the fresh snow.

In addition to coyote, the team identified mink, weasel, rabbit, vole (via a live sighting!) and squirrel, including some large tree squirrel tracks that may have been left by fox squirrel. They also found a mysterious trail that at first appeared to be a coyote, then took on more the appearance of a fisher before finally revealing itself to be a raccoon. The trickster strikes again.

The teams that stayed close to the main campus found large numbers of deer tracks, especially on Cedar Bog Lake. The concentration of deer near Cedar Bog Lake is interesting, as this is an area where we often find wolf tracks. But there were no wolf tracks evident on the lake that day. Besides the deer, the team identified mouse, vole, squirrel, red fox, coyote, weasel and fisher trails. Both teams were stuck by the large amount of weasel activity in the area. It seems we are finding more weasel trails this winter than we have in the past. Is this because there are more weasels in the areas we are tracking, or are we just getting better at spotting then and distinguishing their narrow trails from those of small rodent?

Our teams in the North Unit set off to find evidence of the resident wolves--and were not disappointed, despite an unexpected start to the day. One team tracked along the main road, while a second team (with special permission) ventured off trail to look for evidence of breeding among the wolves. Surprisingly, the first set of tracks these teams found were those of a coyote moving straight down the road inside of Gate 7. There were two sets of tracks. One leading in and another leading out—as though a single coyote had ventured in and returned. This is the first time any of our teams has verified coyote tracks following this road. We have gotten the impression from past surveys that coyote are largely excluded from this area by the wolves—or at least kept out of the open. But this trail was clear and unambiguous. The trail ended at the edge of the woods, near the first road junction. There, the carcass of a road killed deer was being scavenged by foxes as well as coyotes, and perhaps weasels as well. Could it be that the wolves have enough food at the moment that they are tolerant of a visiting coyote? One thing is certain, the wolves are near by. Although there were no fresh wolf tracks at the carcass, there was a fresh trail less than 50 yards down the road.

This fresh trail marked the starting point for the second North Unit team. Over our past two surveys, evidence has been growing that there are now at least two wolves at Cedar Creek. We have suspected for some time that the animal we have been tracking for the past two years is a now three and a half year old female. If the second animal is a male—and the size of the second set of tracks suggests this is the case—we wanted to look for evidence of breeding: raised leg urination marks with blood in them. The best way to find these would be to follow a fresh wolf trail. And that is what the team did.

We first found the tracks where the animal turned off the road into the woods. And at that spot, the team found a raised leg urination. Based on the tracks, we believe that this was the trail of the female we have grown familiar with. The tracks were smaller than those we found last summer, and the position of the feet compared to the urine was consistent with a female.

The team followed the trail of this animal for about a mile-and-a-half. What likely took the wolf a few minutes to lay down took the team abut four hours to follow.

Possible Bear Den
Not long after entering the woods, the wolf emerged again into the open—in a spot we have found tracks and scat on past surveys. She ventured about 50 yards from the woods in a trot before making a sharp turn and returning to the tree line in a full gallop. When she reached the edge of the trees, she dropped back into a trot, then a walk as she turned parallel to the edge of the woods, walked about 20' with a perfect view out into the field, then angled deeper into the forest. Had something startled her? A car out on the highway, perhaps?

Once back in the woods, she traced a winding path south in the direction of Cedar Bog Lake. Usually moving in a trot, she moved though dense thickets, under fallen trees, and across frozen bogs with equal ease. Her trail passed by two possible bear hibernation dens. Was this just by chance? Or is there some reason a wolf would swing past a bear den during her rounds? Near Cedar Bog Lake, her trail turned west and headed in the direction of Cedar Creek. Shortly after her trail turned, it crossed another of her trails, also left within the past day-or-so. As the trail continued farther west, the team began to see signs of more wolf trails of various ages—but all still fairly fresh—in addition to an increasing number of fisher trails. Along the way, the team found two more urine marks. Both of these appeared to be squat urinations, rather than raised leg, and neither showed any sign of blood. There is no sign that she is breeding this year.

Deer carcass
Early in the afternoon, after more than three hours on the trail, the team found a large set of fisher tracks that had been made since the light snow of the morning had stopped—likely no more than an hour old. A short distance farther, the fisher tracks stopped at a chunk of deer hide sitting on top of the snow. Near by were more bits of hide and areas of trampled ground, which led to the remnants of a deer carcass.

Not much was left of the seven point buck. The head, neck and right-front leg were mostly intact, along with the spine and some of the ribs. But there was little else. The stomach and a few bits of other organs sat on the ground near by, and bits of hide were strewn across the landscape. A large hole in the deer's throat betrayed the cause of death. Which wolf had taken this deer was a mystery to us, but the tracks made it clear that both our female and a second wolf had come to feed. As the team headed back to the car, they came across the tracks of the second wolf. Its tracks were much larger than the female the team had trailed all day, and matched the prints some of our trackers had sketched during our Fall Survey. The trails of the two wolves crossed each other in several places. They are clearly interacting, but there was no evidence that the animals were traveling together.

It was a rich day for all of the teams and as usual it left us with more questions than answers.

One thing we are all curious about is the number of weasel trails we were seeing. Have we simply not noticed how common they were, or are they more abundant or more active this winter?

We are also curious about the larger weasels on the landscape--the fishers. We have never identified fisher tracks during our spring, summer or fall surveys. They tend to stay in the woods where the ground is covered with leaf litter. We have not been lucky enough to spot their tracks crossing one of the sand roads. In our winter surveys, however, we find their tracks all over the reserve. What we don't know is how this abundance of fisher tracks relates to abundance of fisher. Are there lots of fisher at Cedar Creek, or a small number that range across the reserve? What is the typical range for a fisher, and what are typical densities? And can we learn to detect these forest dwellers when there isn't snow on the ground?

And we have lots of questions about our wolves. On this survey, we verified what we began to suspect over the summer--there are at least two wolves making use of the reserve. How are these animals interacting? They do not appear to be traveling together. Do they regularly share food? Are they both killing deer? When one takes a deer, do they typically share the carcass?

With these and many more questions in mind, we look forward to our next Cedar Creek Wildlife Surveys. Here is our schedule for 2019:

Spring Survey: Saturday, April 13
Summer Survey: Saturday, July 13
Fall Survey: Saturday and Sunday, September 21-22

A warm thank you to everyone who took part in our winter survey and helped bring back the stories from the landscape. We look forward to getting out into the field with you again and building our understanding of the wildlife of Cedar Creek.