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
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.
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
A 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).
So 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
Last Thursday, Michelle and Quinn traveled down to visit me in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, home of the new Happy Dancing Turtle – Driftless Region! They’ve heard me talking about the area for months and finally came down to check it out for themselves. Although, I must say I think I accidentally misled them. I’ve been talking about blue skies and 70s/80s temps for the last few weeks, but naturally, temps dropped to the 40s/50s and we received a lot of rain. Despite the rather unfortunate weather, there was still much to enjoy! When they arrived, I toured them through Perrot State Park on our way into Trempealeau. We enjoyed dinner at The Trempealeau Hotel, a quintessential restaurant of the Driftless Region located in a historic building from the 1880s. It is one of many restaurants featuring sustainably-sourced, locally grown ingredients on the menu. It also highlights the variety of live music events in the area, complete with an outdoor porch, beautiful gardens, and a bandstand overlooking the Mississippi and riverside bluffs.
I spent the first “spring heat wave” of March exploring the backwaters of the Mississippi River in the Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge. Down here in bluff country, the Mississippi flows between the breathtaking bluffs of Minnesota and Wisconsin. The marshland and backwaters provide critical habitat for many animals, especially migrating birds. Temps soared to 53 degrees on Sunday, March 4th (before crashing back down and bringing 6 inches of snow on Monday). The river was a welcome rest stop for weary travelers. Recently, I’ve been walking a lot on the wonderful trails through this park and I’ve found my own refuge in the silent, peaceful winter paths. I wasn’t long into my walk on Saturday before I realized it would be anything but silent… Continue reading
As May comes to end, we’ve seen a dramatic transformation of our landscape. I was out of town from May 12th-20th and was shocked by the changes upon my return! It’s a jungle out there! Everything has leafed-out, the grass is green, and the flowers are blooming. The woods are filled with birdsongs and are wetlands are alive with the chorus of the frogs. It’s a busy time in the animal kingdom; animals are finding mates, laying eggs, giving birth, and/or raising young. Our turtle species are also occupied with this survival need at the moment. Turtles lay their legs on land, so females must take on the dangerous journey of coming out of the safety of the water to dig a nest and deposit eggs into it. Males rarely travel far from the water, but a female may venture up to a mile away from water to find the perfect spot to lay her eggs. This journey usually requires her to face the hazards of cars on roads near our wetland habitats.
A study from a student at Clemson University found a frightening percentage of drivers actually swerve out of their way in order to run over turtles on the road, which is hard for me to even fathom! Why would anyone want to do this? The student, Nathan Weaver, put a very realistic rubber turtle in the road, hunkered down out of sight of the cars, and recorded their interactions. In one of his locations, one out of every 50 cars ran over the turtle and, shockingly, nearly 70% of the cars that hit the rubber turtle did so deliberately.
We’ll find turtles on the roads from now until about mid-summer, but mostly during the month of June. Up here in our neck of the woods, the two turtles that are seen mostly commonly are the beloved Painted Turtle and the more feared Common Snapping Turtle. Snapping Turtles are very large in size and can weigh up to 35 pounds. For some reason, (such as serious damage to your car), people seem to be able to avoid these behemoths, as I rarely see injured or dead Snapping Turtles on the road. Unfortunately, I do see a lot of injured/dead painted turtles on the road, so please be on the lookout for turtles while you are driving!
Why don’t turtles just lay their eggs closer to the water to avoid crossing the road? As it turns out, a female’s decision about where to make her nest can have a huge impact on her offspring! The sex of young turtles is determined by the nest temperature during a particular phase of egg incubation. In Painted Turtles, temperatures above about 83 will typically produce females while temperatures lower than that will typically produce males. Therefore, if the turtle picks a place that has relatively thick vegetation cover providing shade, the soil temperature will be lower and more likely produce males. If she picks a spot that is relatively uncovered, the sun will raise the soil temperature, likely producing female offspring. Snapping Turtles apply the same principle, but backwards; lower nest temperatures typically hatch females, while warmer spots hatch males.
In May, it is not uncommon to find tiny Painted Turtles making their way towards the water. As these turtles do not start laying eggs until May and it takes between 50-80 days for the turtles to develop in their eggs, this is too early for these tiny turtles to be from this year’s clutch. Instead, they are turtles that hatched at the end of last summer or early last fall but did not emerge from the nest. Sometimes, the young hatchlings overwinter in the nest and emerge to travel back to the water early the next spring. Years with cold temperatures and little snow cover for insulation can be devastating to these overwintering hatchlings.
Female Painted Turtles lay between 3 and 20 elliptical (oval) eggs in their underground nests. Female Snapping Turtles lay up to 100, but usually 25-50, spherical eggs in their nests. The difference in shape can be a useful identification clue if you find turtle eggs or eggshells. After laying the eggs, female turtles will not see or care for their young. Now, they are on their own. Unfortunately, most of the eggs will never hatch. Many of the nests will be dug up by a predator, such as a skunk, raccoon, or fox, within the first night or two. Of the eggs that do hatch, more turtles may be lost to freezing temperatures if they overwinter in the nest. When they make the journey back to water, even more will be lost to dehydration, predators, or cars on their pathway.
So what can you do? If you see a Painted Turtle in the middle of the road, “rushing” as quickly as it can to the other side, help a sister out! The best thing you can do for a turtle is to park in a safe spot on the roadside nearby, turn on your flashers, and alert oncoming traffic to the turtle in the road. Let her cross on her own. If you do move a turtle, make sure to put her on the side of the road in the direction she was heading, otherwise, she may try to cross the road again. Make sure to wash your hands if you handle a turtle. If you see a snapper in the road, it is better to leave her where she is, as they have a pretty fierce bite. Some people attempt to pick them up by their tails to steer clear of those snapping jaws, but please don’t do that! It can damage the turtle’s backbone and your well-intentioned rescue mission can end up causing more harm than good! Again, if there is a safe way to alert oncoming traffic to the turtle, it is best to let her cross on her own! If you find a turtle in or near your yard laying eggs, keep yourselves, children, and pets at least 20 feet away. Enjoy watching her from a distance in order to keep her stress level down! Lastly, the best way for you to help is to educate your family and friends about turtles, their awesomeness, and how to protect them, especially during nesting season!
Spring has sprung and we’re all antsy to get outside and enjoy the nice weather. But what to do? Find a bird nest? Observe the bees busily visiting flowers in your garden? Listen to the frogs? Watch your favorite pair of loons out on the lake? Did you know that you can do all these things while providing valuable information to scientists around the world?
Citizen Science Programs use ordinary people – like you and me – who volunteer their time to make observations and share their experiences and/or data. Programs collect this data, which provides way more data than any one scientist or a team of scientists could hope of collecting. This huge data collection can then be used by a variety of scientists, studying a variety of topics, in a variety of locations all over the world!
Let’s back up for a minute.
Phenology is the science of the seasons. It is the study of the biological timing of events in nature as they relate to climate and/or weather. It is something that you probably study quite frequently, and you don’t even realize it! Ever catch yourself thinking “I see open water, I wonder when the ducks will be back” or “Fall is in the air, I bet our maple tree will start to change color soon” or “Brrrr! It’s cold! I bet the pond will freeze over this week.” All of those observations are based in phenology. Continue reading
Last weekend I took a road trip to south-central Nebraska to try to catch a glimpse of the migrating Sandhill cranes, a task I thought would be much more challenging than it proved to be. Once you’re there, they’re extremely hard to miss! I’ve always been fascinated by migration events, and I could have died happy last year after taking a once in a lifetime trip to Africa and witnessing the wonders of the Wildebeest Migration. But I have good news! You don’t have to travel that far to see a spectacular migration event! The Sandhill crane migration was far more remarkable than I could have ever imagined. It’s often referred to as one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent. The sheer number of birds and the noise they produced were both astonishing. I had no idea we had anything like this left in our country. It was beautiful. (Click on an image to enlarge.)