How Do You Track Animals in Winter?

When the next soft snow falls, go tracking outside!  A mid-December 2019 skiff of snow delighted us. There was not enough of the white stuff to shovel but the thin white blanket that covered our yard revealed who visited the night before.

The dimples of deer tracks were clearly visible as we went out to get the newspaper, but one set of tracks was unusual and especially interesting. Four footprints, in a rough line, kept repeating with about three feet of untrod snow between them. Just what animal created them?

After a bit of sleuthing, we decided it was a coyote out seeking a mouse or rabbit dinner.  Coyotes aren’t rare around our home but they aren’t in the yard often. We wish we could have watched it lope across the yard.

A skiff of snow makes for a delightful walk in the woods, grasslands, or wetlands.   Often animals are easy to spot as their dark coats contrast with the white snow and tracking is superb. It’s usually not hard to figure out what animal made the tracks, and following them gives some idea of what the animal was doing and where it was going.

Many Websites and books help with track identification but we like www.naturetracking.com because it shows tracks of animals most likely to be in a backyard.

Happy tracking.

What is Aldo Leopold’s Legacy?

As dusk enveloped us, Sandhill Cranes winged over in groups of three or four, heading for their overnight roosting sites. We were at the Aldo Leopold Foundation near Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Conservation philosophers often cite three authors who framed the modern environmental movement. Perhaps Thoreau’s WALDEN is most famous. Somewhat later, John Muir penned the value of wilderness and national parks. More recently Aldo Leopold’s 1949 book, A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC, articulated society’s need to embrace a land ethic.

Extinction of Species

During Leopold’s life waterfowl, Passenger Pigeons, Sandhill Cranes, and many other birds declined in number under widespread habitat destruction and market hunting. The pigeon became extinct, and Leopold believed Sandhill Cranes would soon follow.

Happily, thanks to protection, education, and habitat improvement thousands of cranes now gather each fall near the Leopold Center on their way south. We had the good fortune to spot and hear many.

Foundation of Personal and Professional Life

In the winter of 1971 Rich worked as an elementary school custodian. “If I hustled and got the restrooms cleaned and the halls swept, I could take a short break in the janitor’s closet. There, surrounded by mops and brooms I read WALDEN and SAND COUNTY.  They framed my personal and professional life,” he said.

Leopold was one of the first scientists to encourage making degraded land healthier through ecological restoration. His words inspired us to devote 40 years restoring prairies in Kansas and Iowa. Our Winding Pathways yard of waving wildflowers and tall grasses are a living tribute to Aldo and Estella Leopold.

A Walk into the Past Connects Us to the Present

Recently, Leopold Foundation Fellow Eudora Miao led us down a narrow path between tall pines to a former chicken house. In the 1930s the Leopold Family converted it to  their weekend getaway cabin and called it simply, “The Shack.” Starting in 1935 they planted thousands of pines and acres of prairie on their eroded and barren land. It was here that Aldo penned words that have inspired people for the past 70 years.

The Foundation strives to inspire an ethical relationship between people and nature through Leopold’s legacy.  

 We were thrilled to visit the Foundation, tour their amazingly energy-efficient headquarters, visit The Shack, and interact with staff. Put SAND COUNTY ALMANAC on your reading list and visit the Foundation. It’s about ten miles from downtown Baraboo, Wisconsin, and about an hour’s drive north of Madison.

For information visit The Aldo Leopold Foundation

Photos (mn) by Mark Norlander.

How About These Animal Encounters!

We asked readers to send along some curious animal encounters.
Enjoy these guest blog entries as we wind down 2019.

From the East Coast to the Upper Midwest and ranging to Alaska and Hawaii people interact with or encounter wildlife in rural and urban areas.

Birds

SF: Lots to Raven About.  “I saw my first ever raven yesterday — sitting and cawing on the roof of a car in a parking lot in Milford! JEESH! Do you think it was a portent of anything?

“Crows, of course, are extremely common; nevertheless, I love to see them in the huge groups they tend to gather in. I don’t know who assigned the collective nouns for species, but “Murder of Crows” is a favorite.

“Every time I hear that “caw” I look up hoping to see a raven, but I’ve never seen one until yesterday. I heard a ruckus as I got out of my car in a parking lot in Milford, NH, and saw one — sitting on top of a car and making his presence known. It was huge and oddly majestic, but sadly, it was a single bird, not an ‘unkindness of ravens’.”

AS: Birding Resort. Happenings were just ducky at a Hawaiian resort. And, this cock had something to crow about following a skeptical tourist.  Who won? “The rooster lives near the food truck so it wins this match off.”

JH: Eagle Encounter: Several years ago on my way to the Y swim class, I saw, to my total delight, a wondrous sight. As I approached my turn, I saw a huge bird just sitting on a fence post.  I made the turn and slowly stopped my car,  I recognized this critter as the American Bald Eagle.  We each sat on our own perch eyeing one another.  After carefully retrieving my camera, I snapped a couple of pictures.

The eagle kept an eye on me. Then, he spread his wings and laboriously lifted off, swinging to his left towards a telephone pole out in the pasture.  As he landed, he tucked his wings into his sides and continued his watch.  I suppose he was wondering what I was doing just as I was wondering what he had been doing as he sat on the fence post.

He had been just a couple of arm’s lengths from me. To be so close to him was awesome. I could only imagine what it would be like to stroke his beautiful feathers.

Bald Eagle sitting on fence post

The eagle continued to eye me.

Mammals

JA: Albino deer. I caught some photos of albino deer in Wisconsin.

DP: Surprise Dolphins. “While reporting from Charleston, South Carolina, during the 2012 presidential campaign my colleagues and I stopped to look at the ocean. The city is surrounded on three sides by water and we expected to see lots of boats and people enjoying the water. We didn’t expect to encounter a school of dolphins! They swam around us for a few minutes and seemed to be having a lot more fun than we were.”

NP&BO: Moose & Wolverines & Cats! Oh, my! Baby moose roaming an Anchorage neighborhood, munching on raspberry patches.  Then, along comes mama and they stroll down the street. A lot of urban moose in Anchorage.  Other parts of the city boast moose and black bears!

News from the North. Latest Anchorage crime as reported by the Anchorage Daily News: Yet Another Urban Wildlife encounter as cat survives wolverine attack near the Campbell Science Center.

 

North Woods Near Encounter

MN: Wolf Encounter. “My friend and I were camping in the BWCA in January, several years ago.  At the end of a long day of cutting/splitting wood, fishing, snowshoeing and cutting more wood, we sat next to a blazing fire as the early sunset arrived and we were soon enveloped in darkness.  The stillness of the forest in winter is amazing because there are no insects or other nocturnal creatures that make noise.  On this windless night, there was no sound besides the crackling fire.  Suddenly and without warning, we both had the feeling that someone or something was watching us from not far away.  I slowly turned, and the fire was just bright enough to illuminate the face of a large wolf, 10 feet away.  We froze, not knowing what to do.  Had it been a black bear in summer, we would have started shouting and waving our arms to scare it away.  But we weren’t prepared for this and had no idea what to do.  So we just sat and watched.  The wolf didn’t seem aggressive, and it slowly moved directly toward me.  I remained motionless.  It came right up next to me and sniffed my arm.  I wondered, what I should do?  I was a little too unnerved to do anything.  The wolf seemed satisfied with my scent and moved on to my friend and smelled his boot.  And then, just as quietly as he arrived, he slowly walked off into the woods.  We sat there motionless, except for our eyes, all four of which were now the size of half dollars.  We threw some more wood on the fire and waited, but the wolf did not return.

Mystery Solved

Winter Camping in the North Woods

Comfortable digs on a winter campout.

“The next morning we got up and went out to fish.  In the distance, on the other side of the lake, we saw someone doing the same.  We decided to take a walk and share our wolf experience with this person.  We greeted him and explained what happened and asked if perchance he had encountered the same wolf.  He had indeed!  And suddenly the wolf was bounding across the ice, coming straight for us.  “Max, come on boy!  Over here!”  We were astounded that this guy was actually naming and calling wolves.  “Do you know this wolf?”, we asked.  He knew him all right.  He owned this “wolf”, which was actually a mix – half-wolf, half-dog!  We petted him and he licked our bare hands just as any dog would, especially since he was familiar with our scent after his visit to our campsite the previous night.”

 

Erma Herman Visits During a Cold Canadian Night

LF: Erma Herman. Though not snuggly, ermine are quite lovely little critters. Their Winter coat seems more purely white because of their black tails, bright black eyes and button nose. For several Winters I’ve enjoyed watching one that has visited our platform feeder to gnaw on the chunk of suet I put out for the birds. I marvel at the rapid movement, dashing back and forth, here one second, gone in a flash.

I’m guessing it’s one, as I’ve never seen two at the same time.

Last Winter, during a freeze/thaw period, after we had some plumbing issues that involved the plumber working in the crawl space under the house, we were visited by ‘Erma Herman’ in the middle of the night. I awoke to an alarmingly loud, squeaking/squealing sound coming from the kitchen and the cat “tharumping” across the floor, coming to a halt in front of the dryer, where I could see a tiny black nose poking out from underneath.

It had found its way in through the smallest of openings left by the plumber, making its way up the hoses for the washing machine and into the kitchen where the scent of cat food was calling. It took several nights, a mousetrap, which is still somewhere in the understructure of the house, several packages of steel wool and a roll of duct tape (Red Green would be proud) before it stopped coming in.

My neighbour, who no longer tries to keep chickens, is not a big fan of ermine, Winter or Summer.

 

What do birds do in Autumn?

As autumn progresses in the upper Midwest, birds appear and disappear, group and spread out. Pileated woodpeckers have returned to the suet feeders. Chickens help grind up the garden residue and eat the bugs. White-throated sparrows sing a different tune on their way south.  Juncos suddenly appear.  Bluebirds sit on branches surveying the yards.  Hawks send everyone scurrying.  Vultures wing one more time overhead before catching the north winds and head to warmer climes.

Watch these robins enjoying a sunny day bath.

What Does an American Thanksgiving Dinner Look Like?

A New World Thanksgiving

Almost every meal Americans enjoy comes from animals and plants that trace their origin to many continents.

Cattle, sheep, chickens, and pigs, for example, are all natives of the Old World brought to America soon after it was settled by Europeans. Wheat, rice, and many other plant foods are also newcomers that were unknown to Native Americans.

One annual feast mostly made from original American foods is Thanksgiving. This year why not create this traditional feast from entirely plants and animals that were found here before Columbus?

Turkeys

Turkey highlights the Thanksgiving dinner.  See our previous blog on this amazing and tasty bird. Here are plants native to North and South America to complement roast turkey:

Fruits and Vegetables

Corn: Corn has been grown in Central America for thousands of years. It’s cultivation gradually spread north and east and became a staple food for Native Americans.   When hungry Pilgrims landed in what became Massachusetts they found and stole caches of corn stored by local tribes, no doubt causing bad feelings.

Cranberries: Most commonly eaten fruits originated in Europe or Asia, but the cranberry is an American native.

Squash and Pumpkins:  Dozens of varieties of winter squash come in many shapes, colors and sizes, and the pumpkin is actually a squash. Butternut, Hubbard, acorn, or any other squash is delicious on the Thanksgiving dinner table, and dessert of pumpkin pie rounds out a tasty meal.

Potatoes: Common potatoes also originated in South or Central America and have been an important food for thousands of years. Mashed or baked, they go well with turkey, squash, and cranberries.

Sweet Potatoes: Originally from South America, these are among the most nutritious of foods. Similar yams have an African origin, so for a local dinner stick with sweet potatoes.

The sweetness from the Maples

Maple Syrup: While honey is made by bees that came from the Old World, maple syrup is America’s sweetener. It’s delicious on squash or sweet potatoes.

Beans: Native American gardens usually featured three plants: beans, squash, and corn. Commonly called The Three Sisters combined they create a balanced diet.

A diet of many foods that originally came from the Americas makes a delicious an interesting Holiday meal. We tend to thank modern geneticists for creating abundant food, but beans, corn, squash, sweet potatoes, maple syrup, cranberries, and turkey were all domesticated and enjoyed by Native Americans long before Columbus set sail.

When do Birds Fly South?

Swapping Birds

All summer we’ve watched and listened to wren couples who built nests and raised young in our yard.  An Indigo Bunting welcomed each summer morning with his song and serenaded the evening until dark.  Early this spring, we marveled at the brilliantly colored orioles and grosbeaks who visited. During warm months, hummingbirds flitted up and down and all around outside our windows.

When a long-absent bird suddenly makes its springtime appearance in full breeding color, it’s exciting and easy to spot. We greet spring’s migrants after their long journey north with a hearty, “Welcome Home!” and some seed.

With fall now in the air, our vivacious summer bird friends are drifting away, pushed southward by vigorous north winds. Departure is different from arrival. When they appear in spring, birds are in their glorious mating colors and sing with gusto. They’ve been absent for months until one morning we look out the window – and there they are!  It’s magical.

Indigo Buntings and Wrens Leave…

Arrivals are easy to mark. No so departures. By fall many birds have molted into their more subtle nonbreeding colors and just seem to evaporate. No singing marks their departure and figuring out just when they leave is challenging. More often we just say, “Gee, I haven’t heard the indigo buntings for a few days. I bet they’ve gone.”

…and Juncos Arrive

We wish we could help migrants on their departure evening by saying, “Have a safe trip and pleasant winter. See you next spring!” Since we don’t know exactly when they’ll be winging south, they depart without our good wishes. The parting is sad, but we know we’ll soon look out the window and almost miraculously spot the fall’s first juncos nosing around on the ground looking for a few seeds to enjoy for breakfast.

Orioles and grosbeaks drift south starting in late summer and our bunting was gone by August 20. Hummingbirds and wrens disappear by late September. Juncos usually appear from northern breeding grounds in October and stick around until April. Then they seem to vanish overnight. But, that’s just before spring’s colorful songsters arrive