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Cedar Creek Fall 2017 Survey

posted Oct 27, 2017, 1:02 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Jan 15, 2018, 9:52 AM ]
A warm thank you once again for everyone who came out to take part in our Fall Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey last Saturday, October 21. Despite challenging tracking conditions, our teams brought back rich stories from the landscape, including a trove of information about the reserve's largest carnivores. Here is our story from the day:

After postponing two out of three surveys earlier this year due to weather, Caitlin and I made the call to run our Fall survey as scheduled despite a possibility of scattered showers. At the start of the day, it looked like our gamble had failed. The scattered showers included some heavy rains, and over a half-liter of rain fell on every square meter of the reserve in the hours before our survey began. The soft sand roads were wiped clean by the downpour. The tracks that had built up over the previous week of beautiful “Indian Summer” weather were nowhere to be seen.

Our teams headed out with little hope of bringing home much useful information, but still looking forward to a day in the field. But even with no clear tracks available, the landscape told a story of shifting patterns of animal behavior.

Our largest team spent the day in the North Unit. A black bear (Ursus americanus) had shown up on a trail cam in the reserve, while a neighbors trial cam had captured the image of a large, but as yet unidentified canine. We were hoping to find some evidence about these large predators. As soon as our team entered through Gate 7, it was clear there had been a change since our Summer survey one month ago. Although all the tracks were rained out, the deep impressions of deer hoofs were still evident moving down the middle of the access road. Unlike during our Summer survey, and all our surveys last year, the deer were using the open areas of the road as a major travel route. Previously, the deer had been sticking close to the edge of the woods and only crossing the road in the open. Part way down the road, our team found a coyote scat in the middle of the road. This scat is the strongest evidence we have yet had for coyote establishing territory in this part of the reserve and strongly suggests that they are now the “top dog” in the North Unit. Between the deer behavior and the coyote sign, it seems clear that whatever was affecting the behavior of these animals during our Summer Survey is not currently a force on this part of the landscape.

After our team moved into the woods, we made our way south to the area where the black bear had been spotted on the trail cam. As we moved into the area where the camera was set, we began to see signs of bear activity. We recorded several wide trails through tall grass; a dug-up gopher mound; and a pine sapling that had been bitten off at about chest-height—a tell-tale territorial mark typically found near well-used feeding locations. It appears that not only is there a black bear in this part of the reserve, but it is using this as a major feeding area as it builds up fat stores for winter.

Farther down the trail, we crossed paths with a pair of deer and were able to examine some fresh sign and compare it to behavior we had witnessed just moments before. For this, the rain-washed roads proved to be the perfect backdrop as the substrate was free from older tracks. We were able to identify the buck we had just seen, and peer just a few minutes back in time to discover how he had been rooting for acorns in the road before he caught wind of our approach and moved off into the forest.

Our team also came across the nest of a reptile that had been raided by a scavenger—likely a striped skunk. We found a hole on the side of the road, measuring about 4” in every dimension, with fragments of papery-thin eggshells scattered around it. After a bit of research on nesting behavior and egg sizes, we came to the conclusion that the nest had belonged to an eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos). The excavation was clearly old. Hognose nest in mid-June and the eggs hatch in mid-July. Interestingly, Caitlin tells us that she has not seen hognose in this part of the reserve before.

In the end we had an amazing, and surprisingly productive day out on the landscape. Without the promise of many clear prints, we all found ourselves looking more closely at small things we may have otherwise overlooked. This helped us see how subtle clues can point to large scale patterns of animal behavior and give us information about shifting dynamics of top predators. We also were able to take advantage of the “clean slate” the rain provided to watch animals make tracks, then go examine the prints just minutes later.

Thanks again to everyone who came out for our Fall Survey. As always, your curiosity and insight is what makes our time on the landscape so rich.

We have a bit of a break before our next group survey. Our Winter survey is scheduled for Saturday, February 10. Mark your calendars!