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Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey, Fall 2019

posted Oct 15, 2019, 7:56 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Oct 16, 2019, 11:42 AM ]
Over the weekend of September 21-22, fifteen members of the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project took part in our annual Fall Wildlife Survey at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. This was our fourth fall survey and the third time that we have run a two-day survey. Despite fickle weather, which saw rain off and on all day Saturday, our teams had a rich and productive weekend in the field logging the presence of nearly 40 species of wildlife—including the first observation of wolf sign since January. These are stories from the weekend.

First, a little background on the wolves. Last January, one of our tracking teams trailed a wolf for a couple miles across the snow covered landscape of Cedar Creek. At the time, the team guessed the trail belonged to a small female, based on the placement of urine marks in the snow. We have since learned that these urine marks were more consistent with a male than a female. The trail led the team to a deer kill, where the wolf's tracks intersected those of a second, larger wolf. The two animals had both feed on the kill, but did not appear to be traveling together.

In February, a few weeks after our winter survey, a wolf was struck and killed by a car near Cedar Creek. This wolf's feet appear to match the tracks of the smaller animal our team trailed in January, and had been tracking for the past year-and-a-half. As we prepared for our Fall Survey at Cedar Creek, it had been over 7 months since there had been any sign of a wolf on the property. Our best guess is that one of the two wolves we had been tracking was killed and the other left.

Our group arrived at Cedar Creek on Saturday after overnight rains had wiped most of the sand roads clear of tracks. Ever optimistic, we divided into three groups and headed out onto the landscape to see what we could find. Inside Gate 7 in the North Unit, along Old East Bethel Blvd and up the Cedar Bog Lake Trail, our teams found mostly fresh deer and turkey tracks made in the morning after the rain had ended, including a set of turkey tracks so fresh, they still had feet in them.

Each team also spotted some fox sign. Along the Cedar Bog Lake Trail, one team found the slightly washed out tracks of a fox galloping along the road. We often find foxes moving in a gallop along roads throughout the property, and just as often are left wondering “what's the rush?” Are they running after something? Away from something? In a hurry to get out of the rain? Or just enjoy running? Our other two teams didn't spot any fox tracks on the recently rain-washed roads, but did find fox scat. One of these scat was along the edge of the bison enclosure, posted on top of a white-tail deer antler. Fox are well known for posting on raised surfaces, but this particular sight was a first for our team.

Mid way through Saturday morning, one last band of showers moved through. Starting as a light sprinkle, the rain quickly intensified and culminated in a 5-10 minute downpour. Along the sand roads, the few tracks that had been left that morning were completely washed away and we once again had a blank canvas ready to capture prints. Following the rain, our teams headed back toward Lineman Lab for lunch, recording a couple of frogs & toads, some chipmunk feeding sign, and flicker scat along the way.

In the afternoon, two teams wet back out to Old East Bethel Blvd and the Cedar Bog Lake Trail, while a third team headed to the far southwest corner of the property. This section of the reserve, on the west side of Cedar Creek, has no maintained trails, and no active experiments except for a single trail camera for the Eyes on the Wild project. In the rain-soaked woods, the team found a number of remarkable and beautiful mushrooms, a deer humerus, a deer scapula perched on a fallen log, and made the first-ever record in Anoka county of the common White Micrathena orbweaver spider.

Over on Old East Bethel Blvd, our team startled a group of three deer off their day beds as they arrived. It seems the deer, however, hadn't identified where the human sounds or scents were coming from. After moving off their beds, they circled out to the road and began walking toward the trackers, looking back over their shoulders. When the deer caught sight of our team in front of them, they turned and fled, giving the trackers a great opportunity to study their fresh trails. The group explored the track patterns left by deer as they walked, then turned and galloped away, and studied the distinguishing features of different feet, such as the narrow dewclaws set far back on this hind track of a galloping deer. Following their study of the deer trails, the team picked up a very faint set of tracks which they followed for several hundred yards before concluding that it was the trial of a striped skunk.

Up on the Cedar Bog Lake Trail, our trackers found a mink scat, a fox scat that included the remains of grasshoppers, a wood frog, and the smoking-fresh tracks of a crow.

On Sunday morning, our teams gathered again to head back onto the landscape—with the promise of fresh tracks on the recently rain-washed roads. The day did not disappoint. Focusing our survey on the sand roads of the North Unit and Old East Bethel Blvd, we recorded the tracks of over twenty species including fox, jumping mouse, frog, salamander, woodcock, blue jay, and opossum. Our teams also found some interesting sign, such as a fresh ant mound that looked like it had been molded by a small cup; a black bear stomp-trail; and what we believe to be blue jay scat filled with wild grapes—so a blue blue jay scat.

The biggest story of the day, and indeed of the weekend, came from our team in the North Unit. Unlike our summer survey, our trackers in the north unit did not spot any coyote sign. During our summer survey, it appeared that coyotes were growing more confident in this part of the property—moving comfortably in the open and marking along the roads. On this survey, there were only fox tracks to be found along the road inside of Gate 7.

Toward the end of their day, deep into the North Unit and very close to a travel route that had been used by the wolves in the past, our team came across a wolf scat in the middle of the road. This is the first sign we have had of a wolf on the property since January. The team did not find any tracks, so we don't have any idea if this is one of the animals we were tracking last winter, but it is a clear indication that at least one wolf is at least occasionally traveling through Cedar Creek.

As always, our survey left us with a great many questions. We are, of course, very curious about the status of the wolf who appears to be back on the property. Is this the second animal that we tracked last winter? If so, where has he been? Has he returned to Cedar Creek, just passing through, or has he simply expanded his range?

We are also curious about the mesopredators. During our summer survey, we did not see any sign of domestic cat, skunk or opossum, and only a single raccoon track. This survey, we again found tracks and sign of skunks, opossums and raccoons. Was the lack of sign of these mesopredators during our summer survey just a fluke? Or is there something about their habits and behavior that drove the lack of sign in the summer? And what about the cats? In past years, we have seen regularly seen domestic cat tracks during our summer and fall surveys. Where are they now?

We look forward to a full year of surveys in 2020 to help us answer these and other questions. Go ahead and mark your calendars for these dates and plan to come join us for our upcoming Cedar Creek Wildlife Surveys.

Winter Survey: Saturday, January 13
Spring Survey: Saturday, April 4
Summer Survey: Saturday, June 13
Fall Survey: Full weekend, October 3 & 4