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Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Turning tracks into stories: Virtual Field Trip

“Nature’s storybook is everywhere and always open…. such happy experiences based on interest truly enriches life.” – Adventures of a Nature Guide, by Enos Mills, 1920 .

The ecosystem is a web designed to hold all of us together, whether we are as small as an ant or as large as a black bear. Tracking gives us clues to understand more about the ecosystem that we are part of. How can you follow the clues of tracks to find the hidden story?

Join us on the virtual field trip this Friday January 29th at 10:30 to learn how to turn tracks into a story!

If you’ve registered for virtual field trips since the fall, your same registration link will continue to work.

Or, practice solving tracking clues with these activities:

Go on a tracking challenge. What clues do you when you visit wildlife habitat? What questions do you ask?

Read tracking stories. Our friends shared their stories of reading tracks. Use your own thinking skills as you read to see if you agree with them!

Two creatures’ tracks met here. How do you think they interacted? Photo: Joe Brehm, Rural Action.

Tracking is like being a detective and looking for clues of life! So much happens in nature when people are not around to see it. Tracking wildlife signs like footprints or scat gives us a look into the recent past.  

Mini Tracking Challenge: Explore a wildlife habitat

You might have heard the saying “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?” We may never know the answer to that age-old question. But we do know that our freshly fallen tree will provide a new home for several native Ohio species.

This week, Rural Action invites all young naturalists to look for tracks around an old fallen log. The best places to go tracking are good wildlife habitat, which means places where animals find food, shelter, or other needs.

If you don’t find an old log, what other wildlife habitat could you explore?

Once you have found your wildlife observation spot, time to look for signs of animal activity.

  1. Start a list of what signs of wildlife you have found. Here are some signs you might encounter:
    • Animal tracks
    • Animal fur or bones
    • Plants/mushrooms that are eaten or disturbed
    • Animal scat (scat is another word for animal waste/poop)
    • Disturbed ground or leaf litter
    • Marks on trees or logs
    • Wildlife sightings
    • Wildlife calls (Sometimes you might hear an animal but not see it)
  2. Make sure to note where you found the signs.
  3. Write down any questions you might have or curiosities.
  4. You might wonder what type of animal you are finding signs of. That is okay! Bring your questions to the virtual field trip this week and we will go over them. Or try some of the field guides below.

Need help identifying your finds? There are free field guides available from ODNR, or check out one of these books from the Athens County Public Libraries.

True stories of tracking!

Here are some personal stories from locals in Southeast Ohio about how tracking gave them a deeper understanding of our natural world! Turning your nature discoveries into stories can make your exploration deeper.

Note: These tracking stories mention animals that have died. Death is an essential part of our local ecosystem, and doesn’t have to be scary or gross. These animals provide new life for the ecosystem in more ways than one.
Bite marks on the raccoon’s skull made Sarah curious. Photo: Sarah Haney.

Sarah’s story: The skull

“While exploring a piece of land in Southeast Ohio I noticed an animal skull on the ground. As I approached the skull and examined it closer, I noticed tiny teeth marks near the base of the molars.

After research and measuring the skull, I determined that it was a raccoon. The tiny teeth marks, they were most likely from a mouse or other small mammal. The grooves left in the skull from the small mammal teeth show the many uses that each animal provides. That one raccoon provided a meal for coyote, and nutrients and minerals for small mammals.

This one single skull tells a story, evidence of multiple wildlife that live in the wood. This delicate story would not have shown itself if I had not looked at the signs around the forest floor. When I started following the well-traveled animal path, then I found the skull. Through this tracking experience I found beautiful evidence of life in Appalachia.”

– Sarah H, Millfield, Ohio.

Another view of the raccoon skull. The penny helps Sarah remember the size. Photo: Sarah Haney.

Joe Letches’s story: What did the fox drag?

About 15 years ago, I came upon a red fox trail in the snow that appeared to be dragging a leash. The only two scenarios I could come up with was that it was dragging a leash, or it was dragging a really big snake. A fox with a leash does not make sense, and a snake in the middle of winter also does not make sense.

I backtracked the fox for at least 2 miles and found that it had dug a big hole in the side of a bank, and that is where the drag mark started. At that point I suspected the fox had dug a big snake out of its hibernaculum. So, I got back on the trail and fore tracked.

Sure enough, I came up on a big black rat snake cached in the snow. I looked up and saw the red fox coming towards me, apparently coming back for its snake. As soon as it saw me, it did a literal backflip in the air and took off in the other direction. That was an interesting track!

 – Tracker Joe Letsche, Chillicothe Ohio

Photo description: Mountain lion scat photographed by Joe Brehm in Montana

Joe Brehm’s story: A Hunt

Hiking with a friend in Montana many years ago, we walked up a well-traveled path only a few miles from the nearby city. The ground was covered in snow, and the path was packed down because of all the hikers and cross-country skis from the past few days.

Only a few minutes into the hike, my friend noticed a “drag” in the snow–it looked like someone had taken a sled down a steep and forested hillside. We followed the drag mark to the right of the trail, through young douglas fir and ponderosa pine trees.

It led us to a set of mountain lion tracks, and we were able to see where the lion had waited and then ambushed a whitetail deer. The lion killed the deer instantly with a bite to the back of the neck and then dragged it back towards the path and across the well-traveled trail.

We followed the drag trail up the steep hillside–we had to climb on hands and knees–through thicker forest, and came to the deer carcass. It had mountain lion tracks all around it, including the smaller tracks of baby mountain lions. It is likely the mother lion and her kits were watching us from a safe distance while we quickly examined the scene and then slid back down to the trail.

The reason I love tracking so much is that it helps you read stories like this in the snow, mud, sand, and dust that you would otherwise miss completely.”

–Tracker Joe Brehm, Millfield, Ohio.

Largest mountain lion track Joe has ever seen in Montana. Photo: Joe Brehm

What did you think about while reading the tracking stories? Do they remind you of any time you’ve been in nature? What is one animal you would like to find evidence of in the forest?

Just like the Joe Brehm said in his story, tracking is like reading a book. You can learn to look at the woods and read a story about life. Go outside, explore, be curious, follow the signs that you see. You will be amazed at the story’s nature will tell you.

See y’all on the virtual field trip!

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Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

Virtual Field Trip: Tracking Canines and Felines

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-1.png

Tracking may have been the first practice of science. Many tracking methods used today are the same ones used by hunter and gathers since the evolution of modern humans! Most mammals are nocturnal or active at dawn or dusk, so it is hard to observe them. But we can learn a lot from the tracks and other evidence animals leave behind.

Want to get started tracking? Join our virtual field trip on Friday, Dec. 11 at 10:30 am to learn some basics. Or try one of the activities below.

CHOOSE HOW YOU WANT TO PRACTICE TRACKING:

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, Dec. 11 at 10:30. We’ll introduce you to how to tell canine and feline tracks apart.

Go tracking, paying special attention to feline and canine tracks. Can you tell them apart?

Make a tracking flip book to practice recognizing different tracks.

Observe our trail cam videos. What clues can you put together from what you see? Make some hypotheses about animal behavior.

Tracking 101: Virtual Field Trip

Friday, Dec. 11, 10:30am

Joe, our tracker and educator, found this bear scat while hiking in West Virginia. Compare it to his foot to see how big it is!

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods. This week, we’ll look for animal tracks. We’ll take a special look at the difference between canine (cat family) and feline (dog family) tracks.

If you try any of the other activities in this post, share them with us at the field trip!

You’ll receive the link for the Zoom call in your email. The same link works each Friday.

~~We’ll post the recording of the field trip here the following Monday~~

Tracking challenge: dog or cat?

To go tracking, first choose a good spot. Tracks show up well in soft mud, like on the shores of ponds, lakes, rivers, and ditches. Look in fresh snow, too!

When you find an animal track, start by looking at:

  • the size of the print
  • the shape of the print
  • How many toes are there? How big are they?
  • Can you see any claw marks?

Today, we’ll focus on one tracking challenge that many people wonder about: how do you tell the difference between canine and feline tracks?

Feline means cats and related animals, like cougars or bobcats.
Canine means dogs and related animals, like wolves or coyotes.

Here’s a feline track on the left, and canine on the right:

Left: cat family. Right: dog family.

What differences do you notice between them? Here are some that we look for:

Feline tracks

  • Shaped more like a circle
  • Usually no claw marks
  • Heel pad has 3 lobes (bumps) at the bottom
  • Heel pad has 2 lobes at the top
  • You can find a “C” shape in the empty space between the toes and heel pad.

Canine tracks

  • Shaped more like an oval
  • Can see claw marks
  • Heel pad has two lobes at the bottom
  • Heel pad has 1 lobe at the top
  • You can find a “X” shape in the empty space between the toes and heel pad.

We often find domestic dog and cat tracks around your neighborhood from people’s pets. Here are some of their wild cousins here in Ohio.

Ohio Canines

Coyote

Also called “the prairie wolf.”

Coyote
Photo: ODNR

Track info:

  • Size: 2 5/8 – 3 1/2 inches long
  • Number of toes: 4
  • Empty space between the heel and toes looks like an “X”
  • Front tracks are larger than the back tracks
  • Claw marks stand out most on the two inner toes

Habitat: Coyotes typically live in brushy areas, along the edge of forests and in open farmlands.

A coyotes like to sleep in dens, like under a hollow tree, or a rock cavity. They will sometime dig their own den as well. Many canines are very good at digging.

Common behavior: Coyotes travel on ridges or old trails. They may live by themselves, a male and female pair, or as a family. Coyotes are great hunters because there are very stealthy. They eat a variety of smaller mammals, mostly rabbits.

Red fox

American red fox - Wikidata
Photo: Wikidata

Track info:

  • Size:1 7/8 – 2 7/8 inches long
  • Number of toes: 4
  • Often, you can see light fur marks in the tracks, because they have fur on the bottom of their feet!
  • Claw marks are very small, like a little point.

Habitat: The red fox lives mostly on the borders of forest and open fields. They avoid dense and deep woods.

Red fox typically sleep on the ground. But when they have young pups (baby foxes), they sleep in dens. Fox dens are underground and they make grass beds for the young. It is common for the fox to have two dens and travel between the two.

Common behavior: Fox like to live in families. Female foxes typically have 4-7 pups a litter. They are nocturnal animals but are active at dawn and dusk. Red fox like to travel the same paths, which eventually over time become a worn animal trail.

Gray fox

Foxes of Cuyahoga Valley National Park | Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley  National Park
https://www.conservancyforcvnp.org/foxes-of-cuyahoga-valley-national-park/

Track info:

  • Size: 1 3/8 – 1 7/8 inches long (smaller than red fox or coyote),
  • Number of toes: 4
  • Empty space between the heel and toes looks like more like an “H” than an “X.”
  • Unlike other canines, you may not see claw marks because their nails are are very thin.

Habitat: The gray fox lives in the woods. They stay in older forests at night, and young, denser forests during the day. Unlike red foxes, they avoid farms and humans. So humans do not see gray foxes as often as red ones.

They will often climb and sleep in trees! This is pretty unusual for a canine.

Common behavior: The gray fox is typically nocturnal. They are omnivores and forage on fruits and small predators like mice and rabbits.

Ohio Felines

Bobcat

Popescu Lab Takes on 4-Year Study of Bobcats Returning 'Home' to Ohio - Ohio  University | College of Arts & Sciences
https://www.ohio-forum.com/2018/02/popescu-lab-takes-4-year-study-bobcats-returning-home-ohio/

Today, the bobcat is the only wild cat in Ohio! There used to also be cougars (mountain lions), but the last cougars in Ohio disappeared about 100 years ago.

Around then, bobcats were almost extinct as well. But scientists and wildlife agencies worked bring them back. Six years ago, they declared that bobcats are no longer threatened or endangered in Ohio.

Track info

  • Size: 15/8 – 21/2 inches
  • Number of toes: 4
  • Note 3 lobes (bumps) at the bottom on the track. This is an important clue that it is cat!
  • This track is also very round. If you drew a line all around it, it would be close to a circle.
  • The empty spaces between the heel pad and toes curve like “C.”

Habitat: The bobcat often sticks to dense forest. But bobcats are also habitat generalists. That means they will live in almost any kind of habitat: rocky areas, timbered swamps or old fields.

Most of the time, bobcats rest in standing or fallen hollow trees. But when bobcats are breeding, they have very, very hidden dens. In the den, they make nests out of dried leaves and soft moss.

Common behavior: The bobcats are solitary and socially distance from each other more than canines. Bobcats are known to be very curious and investigate many objects across their very large home ranges. They can also leap up to 10 feet high! Exploring rocky cliff areas would be no problem for a bobcat.

Interested in learning more about mammals in Ohio?

Check out the ODNR mammal field guide (PDF) for more information!

Make your own flip book

This video shows you an easy way to make your own mini book.

Making your own guide to tracks will help you remember them much better than reading about them!

The video above shows an easy way to make a flip book. Create a page or two for each animal you are interested in. You can use some of the animal information above to start (as well as some of the deer signs we wrote about last week).

For example, on a page about coyotes, you might:

  • Draw a picture of a coyote track
  • Note the size of the track (how many inches wide and tall is it?)
  • Write about the habitat where coyotes live
  • Write down a place or time when you found a coyote track
  • Anything else you can think of!

Many naturalists keep personal nature guides like this to help them learn and reflect on what they find outside. Be creative and enjoy making a personal key to help you practice tracking in the woods!

Observe wildlife on our trail cams

Watch some videos that interest you. Try notice everything you can about the animal’s behavior.

  • What do you think the animal was doing?
  • How is the animal acting ?
  • What else do you notice about the trail cam?
  • If you would set up your own trail cam outside, where would you set it up and why?

Think about what you saw. Can you use what you saw to make any hypotheses about that animal or its behavior?

A hypothesis is an idea or explanation based on evidence or observations. It usually needs more testing before you are sure it is true.

For example, I found bobcat scat (poop) with mouse bones on a nearby beaver dam.

My hypothesis is that the bobcat was drawn to the beaver dam because it is good place to hunt mice.

But this might or might not be true! Can you think of other hypotheses that might explain the scat on the dam? How could we test my hypothesis to see if it is true?

Good luck with the activities & look forward to seeing all of you young naturalists on Friday!

Categories
Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

Virtual Field Trip: Halloween Special on Fear in Nature

What is fear?

Fear is a part of our everyday life. It may even have evolved because it is useful: fear helps us recognize danger, so that we can survive!

But sometimes, we are afraid even where there is not danger. Many people are afraid of spiders, the dark, or snakes. But you weren’t born with these fears. You learned them.

The best way to get over your fears? Learn about them! On this week’s virtual field trip, we’ll talk about spiders and other crawly creatures. Face your fears with us, and see if it changes your mind!

CHOOSE HOW YOU WILL FACE YOUR FEARS:

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, October 30th at 10:30. Meet spiders and other crawly creatures.

Play the Spider Memory game! It will help you learn which Ohio spiders are harmless or venomous.

Interview a spider: Find a spider to observe. You may find it is more cool than scary.

Virtual Field Trip on Zoom: Friday, October 30 at 10:30am

I think this jumping spider is actually pretty cute.

Join us Halloween zoom special as we discuss many common outdoor fears! Learn what you should be careful of in the woods, and what is actually harmless.

We’ll meet a not-so-scary animal with no legs! And a few other animals with lots of legs. Spider expert Sarah Rose will visit to teach us about ways spiders hunt.

You are welcome to share what you are afraid of in nature, big or small.

Register for fall field trips!

~~We’ll post the recording of the event here by the following Monday.~~

Can’t make it? Read on to try some fear-conquering activities on your own!

Get to Know Ohio’s Spiders

a white-banded crab spider sitting in the center of a passionflower
Can you spot the white-banded crab spider in this picture? Darcy found it camouflaged on the passionflowers in her garden.

What role do spiders play in the ecosystem?

Spiders are predators, which means they eat other insects and even each other.  Predators are an important part of the food web. They help control insect populations:

  • They can help control indoor pest infestations (so your house isn’t overwhelmed with bugs)
  • They help control pest infestations in agricultural fields (so that insects don’t eat everything in farmers’ fields or gardens).

Humans and Spiders:  Do we need to be scared of spiders?

Are you scared of spiders? Many people have a fear of spiders. This is known as arachnophobia. But here are some reasons you don’t need to be afraid!

  • Most spiders do have venom.  But this venom is not harmful to humans! It is for hunting their small prey.
  • Spiders rarely bite humans. We think spiders bite more often than they actually do. This is because doctors have misdiagnosed bites and people have misidentified spiders.

Want to learn more?

Check out the Ohio Department of Natural Resource Spiders of Ohio Guide (pdf) to learn about 54 more spiders found in Ohio: 

Play the spider memory game

Go through this presentation to learn about 10 spiders found in Ohio.  At the end of the presentation, play 3 rounds of memory to become an expert identifier of these 10 spiders!

Here’s a video with instructions on playing the game:

You might have noticed that there are only two spiders in Ohio whose bites could be serious: the recluse and the black widow. They are rare spiders! Learn more about the rare biting spiders in Ohio here.

Try this: Interview a Spider

Our friend met a yellow garden spider!

Conduct an interview with a spider! You will need a paper & writing utensil to take notes during your interview.

First, go outside and try to find a spider. Here are some tips for finding your 8-legged friend:

  • Flip over some old logs or stones.
  • Look in webs between trees or on the outside of buildings.
  • Use a stick to look through leaf litter on the ground or in tall grass

Like we said above, there are only two spiders in Ohio that are a concern for human health:

  • Brown recluses are all brown with darker “violin shape” on their abdomen. Ohio is at the far edge of their home range, so they are rare.
  • Black widows are a shiny black, with a bright red hourglass or triangles on their belly.

    You can safely ask any other spider for an interview. That means most of the spiders you meet!

Once you find a spider, do not pick it up or trap it in anything. Just observe politely!

During the interview, pretend you are following the spider around like a news reporter, documenting the daily life of the spider.

I met this fishing spider on a tree. After a nice interview, it told me it was on its way to go fishing for insects at the creek.

You can also try asking your spider its name. But if it doesn’t answer, check out the ODNR Spiders of Ohio guide to see if you can identify it.

Here are some activities you can do during your interview:

  • Draw a picture or take a picture of the spider
  • Once you identify the spider, note 3 facts from the field guide about the spider.
  • Observe the spider’s actions during your interview. Is the spider fast or slow? Is it hiding or hunting bugs? Can the spider jump or swim?
  • What is interesting to you about the spider? Is there any bright colors on the spider? Is there anything unique about the spider?

After your interview is over, share your interview with a friend or family member. Or tell us about it in the comments below!