The Joys of Scat Identification

The Joys of Scat Identification

It would not be unusual to find me outside, taking photos of poop. Maybe poking through it with a stick. Whether you think it’s a disgusting practice or not, one can glean a lot of information from crap. Firstly, and most interestingly, it can tell you what kind of animal has passed by. Hunters, for example, get super pumped when they happen across certain types of dung (generally when it belongs to the species of animal they are hunting). Secondly, it can give you some clues as to what the animal was eating. The shape, color, and size of the droppings can change with the animal’s diet.  Sometimes it may be obvious what the animal was eating; you may be able to find seeds that you can identify, hairs, or bones. You may be able to tell if the animal has been eating a good deal of fruit. This is helpful if you’re trying to find that species of animal because you can look for the types of food it has been eating in an attempt to find it. Scat may also be able to give you clues about which direction the animal was traveling in. Sometimes animals may walk and poo at the same time, leaving a trail of “breadcrumbs” for us to follow, if you will. Or, if all the turds are in one pile, just bend down and touch your tongue to it to determine the direction of travel. … You didn’t really fall for that one, did you? You may be able to tell if the droppings are fresh. If it’s cold out, they could be steaming and indicate that the animal had passed by frequently. Or, they could be starting to deteriorate, indicating that the poop is not fresh, or perhaps that it has rained since the scat was deposited. Scat Identification Were you able to identify what kind of animal left the pile of scat in the photo above? Let me give you a hint – it was found in the Minnesota woods, in a mix of young growth and older growth forest. Here’s another hint. Take a look at the whitish tint a lot of the turds have on them. This may remind you of other animals that make whitish poop…birds! If you can’t tell the size of the droppings, they are about an inch in length. This indicates a larger bird. Ok, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’ll let you off the hook. It’s Ruffed Grouse...

From Bear to Tiger – Banded Woolly Bear Caterpillar to Isabella Tiger Moth

From Bear to Tiger – Banded Woolly Bear Caterpillar to Isabella Tiger Moth

Banded Woolly Bear Caterpillars Similar to many children, I’m sure, this was the first caterpillar I was able to identify by name. I can recall my delight at finding one on the sidewalk on my way home from school, and carrying them home with me so they could live on a stick in a jar. Banded woolly bear caterpillars can be identified by their fuzzy appearance and large coppery brown stripe in the center of their bodies. These caterpillars overwinter in their caterpillar form and pupate in the spring, emerging as the Isabella tiger moth, Pyrrharctia isabella. The adult moths probably do not catch one’s attention the way the caterpillars do – they are a dull yellow with a sprinkling of small black spots. Their thorax is quite fluffy, but generally I think the reality of the appearance of the Isabella tiger moth falls somewhat short of it’s majestic name! The banded woolly bear caterpillars are not picky eaters, and will feed on most types of plants that they come across – this is known as being a generalist feeder. If disturbed, (say by a young child, picking it up) the caterpillar will curl up and play dead. Some claim that the hairs on the body of the caterpillar will irritate your skin if you pick one up, but I have never experienced this. The name “woolly bear” is also given to other caterpillars in the Arctiinae family that have dense coats of...

Woodchuck Facts – Did You Know that Woodchucks can Climb Trees?

Woodchuck Facts – Did You Know that Woodchucks can Climb Trees?

If you look closely at the photo above, you can see a woodchuck perched up in this tree! Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs,  are actually a member of the squirrel family.  With that in mind, it’s not as much of a surprise that they would spend some time in trees. They are the largest sciurid in their range (which covers all of Minnesota, most of the eastern half of the United States, and much of Canada). Their bodies are actually well suited for digging, so many people often find them in their yards – often wrecking havoc on their gardens. For this reason, groundhogs are often considered pests. They are generally herbivorous, eating vegetables, grasses, and berries, but will also munch on insects and grubs. Woodchucks dig burrows, and use them for sleeping, raising young, as an escape when threatened, and for hibernating. I often see groundhogs near my own garden, but this photo (taken in 2007) was the first time I had seen one in a tree. This was certainly one of the more unique encounters I have had with Marmota monax. Random Woodchuck Facts Woodchucks are also called groundhogs, whistle-pigs, and land-beavers Their weight ranges from 5 – 10 pounds Their ears fold down to keep dirt and debris out out of their ear openings while underground. Woodchucks emit a shrill whistle when they are alarmed (giving credence to their common name of whistle-pig!) Woodchucks usually don’t go farther than a few hundred yards from their burrows, and escape there for protection. Groundhogs hibernate through the cold winter months (they are a true hibernator!) In addition to being able to climb and dig, woodchucks can also...

Red Squirrel: a Curious Boundary Waters Nuisance

Red Squirrel: a Curious Boundary Waters Nuisance

If you have been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, you surely recognize this little guy. There seems to be at least one present at every campsite, if not several.  They tend to make themselves known to you – red squirrels often voice their irritation with me for invading their space by perching in a conifer at about my eye level and chattering loudly in protest. When they are not engaged in this activity, I often see them chasing each other through camp or munching on cones, leaving the shredded remains piled below them.  However, speaking of shredded remains… Red squirrels are intelligent creatures, and are not shy about checking out your gear (as seen in the photo above). If your equipment is piled on the ground, expect that they will hop over and check it out. I’m sure that they are able to either pilfer food from many campers, or that they are given handouts by well-meaning visitors (a practice that is not recommended). Either way, red squirrels in the BWCA are generally not afraid of people and curious about what you have brought them. One year, for example, we had our bag of food hanging in a tree while we went out for a canoe ride. Yes, it was hung properly – at least 10-15 feet off the ground, at least 5-8 feet away from the tree, and hanging at least 4-6 feet down (I’ve heard many different opinions on exactly how many feet off the ground and away from the tree and branch you are supposed to hang food, but we follow these rough estimates. Sometimes the area trees don’t offer you a perfect scenario). Anyway, we thought we had outsmarted the critters by hanging our bag while we were out. You can imagine our surprise when we came back to find a pile of shredded blue chunks of plastic material!  It turns out that some enterprising squirrel had made an impressive leap to our bag, or scaled down the rope, and was perched on it slowly chewing his way to our food! Lucky for us he had only gotten some nuts, but we had to come up with another bag to store our food in the rest of the trip. Red squirrels are about half the size of gray squirrels and are found in nearly all of Minnesota, but are most common in coniferous areas. Natural food they eat includes acorns, seeds of conifers (in the cones), mushrooms, maple seeds, and more. They often cache food for use in the winter. Red squirrels are predated on by cats, coyotes, foxes, hawks, weasels, marten, and more (Here is a great video of a pine marten going after a snowshoe hare in the BWCA!). As demonstrated by their loud chattering, tail flicking, and foot stomping, red squirrels are very territorial and will let you know when you have invaded their space. Related articles: Packing Food for a Trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness A Squirrel Tale, in Which I Also Shoot a Deer Planning a Trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness...

Interesting Facts about the Luna Moth (Actias luna)

Interesting Facts about the Luna Moth (Actias luna)

The luna moth, a member of the Saturniidae family, is one of the largest moths in North America, with a wingspan of up to 4.5 inches. The pale green wings have a purple margin alone the front edges, with four eyespots on the wings that serve to confuse potential predators. If attacked, the moth will flutter its wings wildly. Male and female adults look similar, but the males have more heavily feathered antennae. Prior to its adult stage, the luna moth is a green caterpillar with a yellow stripe on each side, hair, and spiny tubercles (wart-like projections). This species can only be found in North America. Luna moths prefer deciduous woods; the caterpillars feed on the leaves of deciduous species such as hickory, sumacs, birch, alder, and walnut. Adult luna moths neither eat, nor have mouths. Their adult lifespan is only approximately one week, and their sole purpose during this time is to mate. Saturniids exhibit a pheromone mating system. The males are able to find the females by following their scent trail. Since luna moths are nocturnal, mating generally occurs at night.  If the pair remains undisturbed, they may remain coupled until the following night.  Female luna moths produce 100 – 300 eggs, and lay them 4-7 at a time on the undersides of leaves over several nights....

Barred Owl (Strix varia)

Barred Owl (Strix varia)

This photo was taken March 30 at 7:30AM.  Barred Owls remain in Minnesota year-round, but the weeklong time period surrounding this photo is really the only time I’ve gotten a good look at this owl.  I hear them from time to time (their call sounds like “Who cooks for you, who cooks for youuuu?”), but once the trees leaf out I simply no longer see them. The photo above was taken from my living room window while I was drinking my morning coffee – I actually held my little camera up to my binoculars (which are on the windowsill at all times) and took several photos through one of the eyepieces. Barred Owls are actually quite common and can be seen during the day; they perch on branches as they wait for prey to scurry or flit past.  They are, however, primarily nocturnal predators.  Barred Owls are adapted for night hunting with their excellent hearing and ability to see well in low light. Barred Owls cannot, of course, turn their heads completely around, but as you can see from this photo they make a sporting attempt.  They can actually turn it about 3/4 of the way around, which is still quite impressive! Barred Owls are up to 20 inches tall and can have a wing span of 4 feet!  Their preferred habitat is dense woods near water.  Fortunately, my backyard happens to back up to a nice span of woods, and the Mississippi River follows shortly after that.  They nest in cavities in deciduous trees, but they will also use nest...