Spring Birding for Conservation

Looking for something to keep you busy? Birding is the perfect activity to enjoy while social distancing and your observations can help scientists and conservation efforts across the world! While spring may not be the easiest time to become a birder, it certainly is the most exciting! New birds arrive daily from warmer southern locations, birds are singing loudly to find mates and defend territories, and they’re busy snatching up insects and gathering materials for their nests.  According to a survey by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 47 million Americans consider themselves “birders” whether it be in their own backyard or somewhere away from home. If you’re not already in that 47 million, consider joining us! Bird watching has many benefits. You spend more time outside (and there are tons of benefits from spending time in nature), it can keep you active, it can be a solitary activity or a community/family building activity, you’re constantly learning by observing, it leads to new experiences and the exploration of new places, it can give you “feel good” sensation, you can help scientists all around the world, and most importantly, it’s a fun hobby that can be done while social distancing! 

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I typically recommend that folks join the bird watching realm during winter, for a couple reasons. 1 – We have a LOT less birds. It’s easier to focus on a few to learn, rather than the greater summer variety. 2 – The birds that remain here in winter may have a hard time finding food and are all too happy to take a free meal at your feeder, giving you a nice observation spot! While you’ll certainly still have birds visit your feeder in the summer, the return of the insects has diverted many of our regular feeder birds. Most song birds, even ones who primarily eat seeds/fruits the rest of the year, need the high-protein food source insects provide during the breeding and nesting season. But don’t fret. Our bird population soars in the spring, as birds return to nest here for summer or pass through on their way to more northern locales. There are plenty of opportunities to find and identify birds, you just have more possibilities! So, where should you start?  Continue reading

HDT’s 2019 Top Ten

Who doesn’t love to occasionally look back and see from where they’ve come, and reflect on where they’re going? 2019 was a year we tackled new topics and connected with new partners, yet, we also wrote about things near and dear to our hearts. So, we thought it would be fun to look back at our most read posts written in 2019.

1) Get Your Trek On!

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Every summer we love to encourage kids to get outside. So, for the last few summers, we’ve hosted camping trips to local and state parks throughout Minnesota. Michelle writes about the fun had on these trips in the most read article of the year.

2) Holiday Gifts – Made from the Heart

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Just posted a few weeks ago, Nora’s article on using your skills and time to make gifts seemed to resonate. (Plus, it’s not too late for some last minute gifts before the holidays are over for this year). 🙂

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Minnesota Tree ID – Part 2

Now that we’ve covered how to identify some of the popular deciduous trees in Part 1 of this blog, we’ll move onto our coniferous tree ID. Personally, I think this is easier. We have less variety of conifers in Minnesota and they look the same all year long, which is tremendously helpful! As we mentioned before, there is a pretty simple, FREE online key to help you!

Before we begin there are a couple of terms we frequently misuse when it comes to these trees. The first term is needles, which we often think of as different than leaves. Needles ARE leaves! Furthermore, conifers can have two different types of leaves:  scale-like or needle-like.

 

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Minnesota Tree ID – Part 1

No one should go through the fall season without stepping outside to admire the colors of nature. Albert Camus, a French philosopher, once said, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” If you’re wondering what causes our trees to turn colors in the fall, check out our previous blog on Fall Foliage. Fall hikes are a great time to get out and admire the colors, to observe animals preparing for winter, and to squeeze in as much Vitamin N(ature) as you can in the mild temps of autumn. Make your fall hikes a learning opportunity for your family by practicing your tree ID skills along the way! In this blog, we’ll learn some basic tree identification skills and fun facts about some of the most common types of trees in our neck of the woods – central Minnesota. Continue reading

The Buzz on Citizen Science Bee Programs

Pollinators have been all the buzz in recent years as research has shown steady declines in populations. We’ve heard a lot about how pollinators are losing habitat and we need to plant more native species; or how pesticides like neonicotinoids are decimating bee populations across the country; or how our tendency for monocropping destroys the diversity of the ecosystem and the pollinators that depend on it. Overall, research regarding bees and other pollinators has come a LONG way over the past decade. Continue reading

Assessing Water Health by Looking at… Bugs?!

This month we’re celebrating one of Minnesota’s most prominent natural resources – our lakes! We love them for swimming, boating, fishing, sunset gazing, and so much more. In order to keep enjoying these things, we need to be ensuring that our lakes are clean and healthy. But how can we tell? One way to tell is to look at the bugs in the water! One of my favorite classes to teach with Happy Dancing Turtle is our Wacky Water Bugs class – here’s a short summary of what we learn. Continue reading

Canoeing & Mindfulness

Introduction

Hello there! My name is Tatiana. I began working for Happy Dancing Turtle just three weeks ago. I am the new summer activities assistant in the Driftless Region, so I get to spend time planning and facilitating our Eco Camps with Nora! I am very excited about this new position and am learning new things every day. I am also grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts about one of my favorite experiences in nature: canoeing.

Tatiana & her mom, 2006

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Time in Nature Important for Kids’ Mental Health

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Happy Dancing Turtle has long been an advocate of all people, especially children, getting outside. The mental, physical, and emotional health benefits of time spent outdoors are particularly important to children as they develop, as the impacts are long-lasting and far-reaching. With May being Mental Health Awareness month, it made sense to write about the many benefits to be found by spending time in nature. Then we realized, we’ve already done that. More than once! So, we have compiled links to our past blogs as well as those to other organizations that have written on the topic to make it a one stop shop for all things related to the benefits of the outdoors! Continue reading

Outdoor Adventures: Tracking Animals in Winter

Siggy walk .jpgA large majority of my free time is spent wandering through the woods and fields with my dog in tow (alright, normally I’m the one in tow as he impatiently waits for me to keep up). Although I am occasionally rewarded with a neat critter sighting, most of the time, my pup does a pretty good job scaring off any wildlife within the vicinity. Instead, I’m left to look for signs that animals have been there: tracks, scat (the very scientific word for poo), feathers, bones, nests or other homes, rubs, scrapes, chewing marks, etc. Of course, this is assuming my dog hasn’t destroyed and/or eaten any of the artifacts before I can find them. During the summer, when our landscapes are bursting with vegetation, birds, insects, and more, these signs can be hard to notice! Unless you’re traversing a mud pit, tracks largely disappear in the carpet of last year’s leaves, grasses, and under story plants. But in winter, if it’s snowy,  it’s like a veil has been lifted and animals are no longer capable of sneaking about undetected. Suddenly our yards, forests, and fields come alive with activity, all documented by footprints left behind. Following animal tracks in the snow is one of my all time favorite winter activities (… okay, I love everything about winter).

Deer and Turkey TracksSo how do you begin to know what kind of tracks you’re looking at? We’re going to break it down for you. Chances are, if the track is in the snow, it belongs to a bird or a mammal. Our reptiles and amphibians are hibernating for winter and our fish obviously don’t leave tracks in the snow. Bird tracks, as a group, are pretty easy to identify and we’re not going to delve into identifying bird tracks by species. I’m not sure that anybody delves into that! So the first thing you need, is a field guide to mammals in you area (see resources at the bottom). Once you identify a few characteristics, the list of potential mammalian suspects narrows pretty quickly. First, there are two major things a beginner tracker needs to observe.

  1. Clear, Individual Print –  Yes, it must be clear! Not all snow is going to provide you with a crisp print. Super dry, light, fluffy snow isn’t the best for tracks. Neither is super deep snow, as the actual track is so far down you can’t see it. If you don’t have a clear print with distinct details, skip ahead to number 2. If you do find a high quality print, there are 4 aspects you want to observe: toes, shape, claws, and size.  

A. Number of toes – groups of mammals can be identified by how many toes are in the print. Some mammals may have different numbers of front and back toes, so be careful!

B. Overall shape – Is the track mostly round? Oval? Does it look human-like, but tiny? Is it heart-shaped? Are the toes very long and skinny? Noticing the overall shape can help identify the correct group of mammals. Many animals have differently shaped front and hind tracks – do you see two different shapes?

C. Claws – are there claw marks present? These can be very difficult to see at times, but they can also be really helpful, especially when identifying between dog and cat groups (cats have retractable claws, so they typically don’t show in their prints).

D. Size – It can be very useful to bring a small measuring tool with you on your walks to determine the front and hind track size.  Make sure if you see two different prints, as in a front and hind track, to measure both if you can. If you don’t have a measuring tool with you, try to get a picture with something in it for scale so you have an idea later how big or small the print was.

Mammal Track Summary Chart

This is a helpful summary chart & quick reference for individual mammal tracks.

2. The Track Pattern – Even if you have deep snow or unclear prints, you can usually still study the track pattern, or the gait of the animal. There are four basic track patterns: walking, galloping, bounding, or waddling.

A. Diagonal Walking – Created when an animal moves its right hand and left foot at the same time, then its left hand and right foot at the same time. Tracks are fairly equally spaced and appear as “double” prints. Diagonal walkers include: cats, dogs, hoofed animals, opossums, and badgers. You’ll also want to note the stride, or the distance between two hind tracks. Strides of diagonal walkers are typically about the shoulder to hip distance of an animal, so this can help you quickly identify the relative size of the animal that left the print.

Diagonal Walker

Direct Register: When the hind track lands directly on top of the front track. Includes cats and fox.

Indirect Register: When the hind track overlaps a little behind the front track. Includes all other diagonal walkers.

B. Galloping –  Created when the larger hind feet land in front of the smaller hind feet. Gallopers include: rabbits/hares, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, voles, & shrews.

gallop walkers

C. Bounding – Created when the front feed land together at the same time, and then the back feet land where the front feet were. Bounders include: weasels, otter, mink, marten, & fishers.

Bounder

D. Waddling (aka Pace Walking) – Created when the weight of an animal shifts from side to side – both the right hand and foot move forward, then both the left hand and foot move forward. Waddlers tend to be heavy-set mammals, including: bears, porcupine, muskrat, raccoons, beavers, & skunks.

Gait patterns

Keep in mind, these are general rules for walking animals and there are always exceptions to rules! In addition, the speed of the animal and the terrain can affect the track pattern created. These general rules should be used for walking animals on relatively flat ground. Once you’ve mastered this, you can dig deeper into tracks made at various speeds and so on.

Here are some of the tracks I’ve come across in my wanderings.

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So head out there and enjoy! Take a small ruler or measuring device, a notebook, and a small camera on your wanderings. Then you can always ID them later, hopefully by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate!

Resources That May Help! 

Books:

Mammals of Minnesota Field Guide – Stan Tekiela

Mammals of the North Woods (Naturalist Series) – Roger Powell

The Tracker’s Field Guide: A Comprehensive Manual for Animal Tracking – James Lowery ** Would highly recommend if you’re ready to move beyond the basics!

Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs – Paul Rezendes

 

Websites:

Outdoor Action – Princeton University

The Wilderness Arena

And, surprisingly, The United States Search and Rescue Task Force 

If you’re having trouble with an ID, have a good picture, and are in Minnesota – try posting it on this KAXE Season Watch Facebook group – there are a lot of eager & knowledgeable people who will help you out!

Take Time To Recharge (In The Great Outdoors!)

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During the first week of June, I left for a 10 day adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). This was the third annual trip I’ve taken with a friend of mine, Bry. Although traveling is one of my favorite pastimes and I am always careful to carve time out of my busy schedule for trips, the annual Boundary Waters Trip holds a special place in my heart. From the moment my paddle hits the water, I’m enchanted by the mesmerizing colors and reflections in the endless waters. The dark water against the bright blue sky, with the light green of the new leaves of the deciduous trees blending with the dark greens of the conifers, and the sunlight making it all sparkle just so – it captivates my attention, letting all my worries from the “real world” slip away.

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