Winter 2022 Cedar Creek Story of the Day

On February 19, a group of 27 trackers gathered at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve for our Winter Wildlife Survey. On that crisp, sunny day, our teams read the tracks and trails in the windswept snow, peering into the lives of the animals navigating the winter landscape. Here is the story of our day.

The temperature was just climbing past 0° under sunny skies as our group gathered at Lindeman Hall. Light snow and high winds the previous evening had created a blank canvass to capture the night’s activity, while the back end of the weather front brought in the clear, crisp air. Our group organized into four tracking teams to spread out across the property. One team headed up the tail to Cedar Bog Lake, then down the South Road near Lindeman. Another shuttled up to the North Unit to follow the main road into the woods. A third team headed to Old East Bethel Road next to the Bison Enclosure. The final team walked up the east side of Cedar Creek to survey the wetlands north of Fawn Lake Drive.

On the trail to Cedar Bog Lake, our trackers found the trails of deer, gray squirrels, and several tiny mammals, including this one. Small mammal trails can be quite difficult to interpret a times. Voles and short-tailed shrews leave a variety of similar looking track patterns. Mice often lay down easily identifiable trails with long, distinctive tail impressions (tell-tail marks?), but occasionally leave trails that resemble those of a bounding vole or shrew. Context and behavior are helpful clues, but we still have much to learn about how to reliably identify the snow-trails of our smallest mammals.

The team also found this beautiful set of fisher tracks winding through the cedar swamp and crossing the boardwalk. Fisher displayed a mixture of track patters, including 2x2 bounds, rotary lopes, and direct register walking trails. Their trails are a common sight on our winter surveys, and three of the four groups identified fisher tracks this day. Given the low population densities of fishers, there are probably only a few individuals who make Cedar Creek part of their home—few enough that it might be possible to identify individual animals.

For now, the only animal that our tracking teams have identified as an individual is our resident wolf. This was on our trackers’ minds when the team on Old East Bethel found these large canine tracks. The tracks and trails appear to those of a wolf, but not the individual our team has tracked at Cedar Creek for the past several years. These tracks are slightly smaller, show a different shaped palm pad, and slightly different proportions. They are also different from the still-mysterious canine tracks our team found very close to this spot during our Fall 2021 survey, which were smaller still.

The team spent nearly the entire day on this wolf’s trail, with detours to study the unusual three-legged track pattern ( of this gray squirrel; and follow a vexing carnivore trial which eventually led to this sleeping raccoon. They turned back when the wolf’s trail turned off of the property onto private land.

Trail showed every indication of belonging to a wolf. The individual tracks, track patterns and trail measurements, and behavior on the landscape were all those of a wild rather than domestic canine. Still, it is always important to be cautious when interpreting tracks, particularly of rare animals. Cedar Creek staff have informed us that there are two unusually large domestic dogs that occasionally go on the lam in this part of the property—and may have done so the day before our survey. The tracks the team found appeared fresh and unaffected by the 30 mph winds that had swept through the previous evening. Still, we want to consider every possibility, however remote. Shortly after the survey, one of our team members arranged a follow-up visit with these dogs to photograph their feet (the tracker’s equivalent of fingerprinting a suspect). Even the larger of these neighboring pups, though weighing in at over 90 lbs, has feet that are only three-quarters the length of the tracks we found along Old East Bethel, definitively ruling him out as a suspect. So who is this individual? It might be a younger wolf that was caught on a trail camera last July in the southern part of the property. Perhaps future surveys will reveal more.

Another feature of this wolf trail that stood out to our team was that it overlapped a portion of a coyote trail. When our teams have found wolf tracks in the North Unit in previous surveys, the coyotes have mostly kept off the roads. In fact, finding coyote tracks traveling down the middle of the North Unit road has become a pretty reliable predictor that we would not find wolf tracks there. The dynamic on Old East Bethel appears different. Is this because of differences in the habitat and terrain? Do the coyotes relate to this wolf differently than the one we have tracked in the North Unit? Based on track size, that appears to be a larger animal.

Whatever the reason, the pattern in the North Unit held. There, our team there found coyote tracks moving along the main road, and saw no signs of a wolf. What they were treated to instead was a perfect side-by-side comparison of fisher and raccoon tracks. Fisher and raccoon are not especially closely related, and their typical tracks and track patterns are quite different. But raccoons have their reputation as tricksters for a reason. At times their tracks and trails closely resemble those of other animals, particularly bobcats, otters, and fisher. This can be especially true in snow, when raccoons may shift to a direct-register walking pattern. It’s not for nothing that the unofficial slogan of the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project is “all tracks are raccoon until proven otherwise.”

Fisher trails were a theme for our team surveying the wetland and uplands along the creek as well. That team found a trail they initially guessed was from an otter—but after following it for some distance revealed itself to be a semi-arboreal, rather than semi-aquatic weasel. The trail included these beautiful prints in a direct register walk. Some older tracking literature suggests that fisher rarely walk, but many experienced trackers in the Northeast as well as here in Minnesota report seeing fisher walking trails quite frequently. The snow conditions allowed the team to follow the fisher’s trail for a considerable distance as it explored the woods and crossed the tracks of red squirrels, gray squirrels, mice, and a grouse. It also led them to the most unexpected sighting of the day—a bald eagle carcass. The eagle had no obvious injuries, and the cause of death was a mystery to our team. We have reported it to the Cedar Creek staff, who may be able to investigate further.

In total, our teams made nearly 50 observations of just over a dozen species of mammals and birds. We learned a lot about the landscape and the animals that call it home and, as always, left with even more mysteries and questions than answers. You can check out the rest of the team’s observations from the day here on iNaturalist.

Our next Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey is scheduled for Saturday, June 4. Mark your calendars and make your plans to join us.