Spring 2022 Cedar Creek Story of the Day

It was a lovely late-spring day as our group of just over a dozen trackers gathered at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve for our wildlife survey on June 4. The sun was shining and the temperatures were ideal for a day in the field. Recent rains had helped spur the first big mosquito emergence of the year, which made the sunshine and any breezes especially welcome. By the end of the day, our teams had recorded the tracks of about a dozen species including three different canids. You can see many of our groups observations here on iNaturalist.

Our group splint into two tracking teams for the day. One team headed up to the North Unit while the other followed the South Road from Lindeman. In the North Unit, our tracking team began the day focusing on identifying bird tracks and interpreting track patterns. Some of the first prints the team found were these Ring-necked Pheasant tracks. The tracks resemble those of Wild Turkey, but are much smaller, with more delicate looking toes and narrower claws. The team found examples of the more robust Turkey tracks, as well as those of Sandhill Crane, a bit farther along the road. They also recorded the prints of American Crows, and some small thrush-like tracks that may have been from an Eastern Bluebird. The team only found the tracks of three species of mammals between Gate 7 and the edge of the woods--those of Whitetail Deer, Eastern Grey Squirrel, and Common racoon, including this obscure and challenging set. They took the opportunity to deepen their familiarity with these most common species--studying foot morphology and track patterns in detail. They analyzed the bounding gallop of this deer trail; and the features that distinguish left from right in these squirrel and raccoon tracks. On the edge of the woods, the team also found a set of duck tracks--near some soggy ground, but about a third of a mile from the nearest open water.

The road through the woods didn't hold many clear tracks, and the mosquitoes offered an additional incentive for the team to keep moving. The next stop for the team was a clearing near Junction 70 and Field A, where they found more raccoon tracks, and the trail of a coyote. Here again, the team took time to study the track pattern, working out where the coyote shifted back and forth between a direct register trot and an overstep walk. The team rounded out their day heading down to the southern end of the North Unit, west of Junction 71. Here they found a set of red fox tracks as well as a coyote scat that appeared to be made up of the fur of another mesopredator such as a raccoon, red fox, or perhaps a even domestic cat. The fur was fine, moderately long, and red in color. In past years, coyote sign was uncommon in the North Unit. But coyotes now appear to be quite comfortable using the roads throughout this area.

The team headed down the South Road from Lindeman had their sights set on s stretch of road just west of Old East Bethel, between Junctions 39 & 40. A Cedar Creek staffer had photographed a set of black bear tracks there the previous week, and the team was eager to follow up. As in the North Unit, the team lingered over raccoon and deer tracks as they made their way south, including the challenging track of a small raccoon pretending to be a house cat. Right next to these prints was this tiny fawn track, which measured less than 1" long.

The team did not find any bear tracks. Instead, they found several large canid tracks in about the same location. The substrate along that stretch of road is loose sand, so the tracks weren't holding much detail. The trail was too fragmented for the team to work out the track pattern or measure the strides. Our team leads, and a visiting Track & Sign Professional, believe there is enough evidence to identify these as wolf tracks. They are on the small side for wolf, but larger than the tracks of any of the dogs that are known to travel through this part of the reserve. They also show the mound in the center of the tracks characteristic of wolves. These tracks do not appear to belong to the wolf our team tracked in the North Unit for several years. Rather, they appear to match the size of the animal we identified during our Winter Survey in this same part of the property.

It was a rich day in the field for everyone. We all returned with stories, insights into the presence and behavior of local wildlife, as well as many more questions. Why are the coyotes changing their use of the roads in the North Unit? Has the wolf we tracked there for many seasons moved on? Are these changes affecting the foxes? Who is the new wolf we have been seeing signs of in the southeastern half of the property? Why does it's presence not appear to be shifting the coyotes behavior as much as the wolves in the North Unit did?

We will have small teams heading up to Cedar Creek throughout the summer and fall to try to answer some of these questions, and we look forward to inviting everyone to join us for our next public Wildlife Survey next winter.