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Happy almost Halloween!  As I walk around my neighborhood admiring all of the scary decorations and thinking about what I should dress up with my son as, it’s hard not to notice how colorful everything is right now.  Some of the trees are so intensely orange and red that they look like they’re on fire.  Nature’s palette is on full display right now so get outside and enjoy it!  Here’s a little sample of some of the things I have discovered in the last few days.

Sumac is as red as ever

I have a love-hate relationship with smooth sumac.  It’s easy to see what makes it so pleasant this time of year.  The vibrant red color of the foliage is breathtaking and is very easy to spot from a distance out in nature.  While it is native to Wisconsin and provides food sources for many types of wildlife, it often gets very aggressive and can take over more sensitive habitat types like prairie and oak savanna.

Blue wood aster in full bloom

Despite the chilly nights and early morning frosts, there are still quite a few flower species that are blooming.  Asters are one of my favorite types of flowers because of how late in the season they hang on.  Their color seems to pop a little extra because most of the plants they are surrounded by have died back for the year and have turned brown.  These gorgeous whites, pinks, purples, and blues get to take center stage and I hope they stick around for just a little bit longer!

Goldenrod seed fluff

While the flowers of most species of goldenrod have come and gone, what’s arguably just as appealing to the eye is what comes after the flower.  If you were to go for a hike at just about any natural area this time of year, you would likely find many different species of plants that look like they’re covered in snow.

This fluff is is responsible for allowing certain types of plants to travel.  At the bottom of each piece of fluff is a tiny seed that gets carried off in the wind when the conditions are just right.  Most people probably picture themselves as a kid blowing dandelions into the wind, but there are actually a ton of different plants that use this method of reproduction (think of milkweed or cottonwood).

White snakeroot is in full bloom

Lastly, I’ll leave you with one more controversial plant (which seems fitting since it’s one of the last flowers to bloom depending on where you live).  It’s called white snakeroot and it got it’s name because of an old belief that the root of this plant cured snakebites.  It’s another plant that’s native to Wisconsin but can be very aggressive.  I have some growing in my own yard and as long as you don’t let it spread too much, it’s not that bad!

What is bad, is how toxic this plant is.  Back in colonial times, snakeroot was responsible for contaminating quite a bit of milk produced by cattle that consumed this plant while grazing.  I think I’ll just enjoy snakeroot for it’s beauty and will skip eating it as an afternoon snack.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my virtual tour of nature as it’s happening.  However you experience the outdoors or nature, be it physical, virtual, spiritual, or anything in between, I encourage you to do it!

*Did you miss an article?  Check out my collection of past monthly Nature Now articles on our website HERE.  Just click the dropdown menu ‘Any Type of News’ and change to ‘Nature Now’ to filter the articles.

See you next month!

Happy fall!  Is it me or does it seem like summer flew by faster than ever this year? I’ve been intentionally ignoring all of the early signs of fall in hopes that summer will last just a little bit longer. I casually ignored the few trees in my neighborhood that started changing colors.  I refused to acknowledge the occasional Halloween decoration set out in my neighborhood.  I even made the conscious decision to be uncomfortable by wearing shorts on a day where pants would have been much smarter.

This past weekend I gave up and decided to fully embrace fall, flannel and all!  To celebrate the changing of seasons I watched football, went apple picking, and even set out a few of my own Halloween decorations.  It was a fantastic weekend.  While we’re all settling into fall, let’s see what’s going on in nature right now!

Hail in my backyard from a recent storm.

While out on a neighborhood jog the other day, I was struck (literally) by hail falling from the sky.  When I started my roughly 20-minute jog it was 75F, blue skies, and not a cloud to be seen.  It ended with dark skies, pouring rain (which eventually turned to hail), and me sprinting from tree to tree all the way home in an attempt to avoid getting pelted by some fairly decent-sized hail.  What a great way to ring in the new season!

Black and yellow garden spider

While collecting prairie seed out at Patrick Marsh with my monthly outdoor volunteers, we discovered a large black and yellow garden spider with what appeared to be an angry face painted on its back.  It was startling to say the least.  I’ve seen several of these spiders throughout the years but have never looked into them.

Later that day, I searched for the species online and discovered that females will often bounce the web up and down very quickly if people or other creatures get too close.  It’s a way of being seen so that the web doesn’t get destroyed.  I also learned that the females will eat their entire web at the end of each day and will construct a new one the next day!

Any guesses?

While at the same outdoor volunteer event, I stumbled upon this horrendous-looking thing sprouting up from the ground.  My initial response was laughter.  I’ve seen a lot of interesting things in nature, but this one had me simultaneously disgusted and cracking up.  I figured it was some sort of fungus, but had no idea which kind.  Without hesitation, I immediately did some research.

This unfortunate fungus is commonly referred to as elegant stinkhorn or devil’s dipstick.  While both names are hilarious, what’s not hilarious is the foul smell this fungus emits through the brown slime near the top.  The smell is often compared to rotting meat and is filled with spores.  The slime attracts insects which land on the spores and then carry them off.  Better them than me!

Check out this very photogenic praying mantis!

Finally, I’ll leave you with this wonderful praying mantis I found the other day.  If you’re anything like me, you may have gone most of your life without ever seeing one of these large insects.  This year has been different.  For some reason, I have found three of these over the last two weeks and all three have been exceptionally friendly as well as photogenic.  I also learned that a praying mantis will wobble back and forth to help blend in with surrounding vegetation blowing in the breeze.  Check out THIS video I took of the mantis in action!

Well, I hope you enjoyed my virtual tour of nature as it’s happening.  However you experience the outdoors or nature, be it physical, virtual, spiritual, or anything in between, I encourage you to do it!

*Did you miss an article?  Check out my collection of past monthly Nature Now articles on our website HERE.  Just click the dropdown menu ‘Any Type of News’ and change to ‘Nature Now’ to filter the articles.

See you next month!

With less than one full month left until summer ends, I find myself scrambling to get outside as much as possible and enjoy it while it lasts.  Late summer is a beautiful time of year when goldenrods and asters show their true colors.  This classic nature color palette of golden yellow and purple is always a gentle reminder that summer doesn’t last forever (at least in Wisconsin).

While I’m sure we’re all busy beginning to wrap up our own summer activities, let’s take a minute to see some of what’s going on in nature right now.

Jewelweed (spotted touch-me-not) in full bloom

Jewelweed, or ‘spotted touch-me-not’ is a very common flowering plant that is currently in bloom.  It seems you can find it in most shady areas including low woodlands, stream and river edges, and along ditches.

I was out fly fishing with my father-in-law recently and all of the banks along the creek had patches of jewelweed.  While the orange flowers are beautiful enough, what really stands out are the exploding seed pods.  Jewelweed has a unique method of seed dispersal where once the seed pods are ripe, they burst open and fling seeds everywhere.  Check out THIS short video to see them in action!

Silver-spotted skipper sipping on nectar from cylindrical blazing star

This time of year is also great for viewing butterflies and moths.  Without even actively searching for them, I’ve stumbled upon several of the more common butterflies including the monarch (although less common now than it once was), tiger swallowtail, painted lady, and plenty of silver-spotted skippers (pictured above).

I’m always trying to get photos of butterflies but without a telephoto lens, it can be tricky.  They seem to only let me get just close enough, and then they’re off!  To get around this, try going out on a somewhat breezy/windy day.  Many insects tend to hunker down in the wind rather than get swept away, which can help with those closer shots.

American goldfinch nestlings

Most people think of spring when they see a bird nest.  While a lot of birds do nest in spring or early summer, some birds like the American goldfinch, will nest in mid-late summer.  In fact, goldfinch nestlings can sometimes be spotted in nests as late as the end of September!

This is partly due to the diet of a goldfinch which is strictly vegetarian.  American goldfinches feed on the seeds of plants which becomes readily available later in the summer after plants have gone to seed.  This abundance of seed will help ensure the success of the hungry nestlings.

The bright yellow underside of a wood turtleLastly, while out on a camping trip in the Porcupine Mountains last week, we came across a large wood turtle basking in the middle of the road. The turtle was found in an area where the speed limit was a little too fast for a basking turtle, so I decided to help it across so it didn’t get run over.   While moving it across the road we were amazed by the bright yellow underside and black spots.  Check out that beautiful pattern!

Well, I hope you enjoyed my virtual tour of nature as it’s happening.  However you experience the outdoors or nature, be it physical, virtual, spiritual, or anything in between, I encourage you to do it!

See you next month!

What an odd summer we’ve been having!  It’s either 90F and rainless for weeks, or it’s quarter-sized hail, tornado warnings, and massive trees falling down throughout neighborhoods.  Despite the crazy weather, I still find myself out and about exploring nature.

In fact, I may be exploring nature a little too much because as I write this I’m covered in dozens of mosquito bites, some of the worst chigger bites I’ve ever experienced, a poison ivy rash that won’t seem to go away, and wild parsnip burns on my wrist where my work glove and long-sleeved shirt meet.  With that in mind, today’s nature update will be provided courtesy of the pollinators in my backyard!

A firefly preparing for flight

We seem to be nearing the end of the gorgeous light shows put on by fireflies each night, so get out while you can and enjoy the performance!  The other night my son and I caught about a dozen in a mason jar so that we could put them on his nightstand for about 10-15 minutes while we read bedtime stories.  Not a single firefly lit up the entire time.

Of course as soon as I released them in the yard, they flew off lighting up the night sky.  I guess that’s what I get for trapping them in the first place.  Lesson learned.

A busy bee buzzing on beautiful bee balm

Wild bergamot, also known as bee balm (and for good reason), is in full bloom right now and it’s quite a sight!  Hand’s down it’s my favorite native plant in Wisconsin.  It might just even be my favorite plant.  Whenever I see it I’m reminded of prairies and all of the pollinators that you’ll find buzzing around them (like this bumble bee in my yard).

In winter, if you pull off the seed heads of bergamot and crush them in your fingers, it releases an intoxicating aroma that can bring you straight back to summer with just one sniff.  Gray-headed coneflower (or yellow coneflower) is another native prairie plant that does the same thing, but it smells of intense citrus.  I highly recommend trying it out!

A great black wasp feeding on nectar

Upon discovering this terrifying wasp in yard, I immediately wanted to take a photo of it.  My instincts must have kicked in because I wouldn’t allow myself to get within a few feet of this creature.  It was at least 1″ long, fast, and extremely twitchy.  My favorite kinds of insects to photograph are the slow, sleepy, boring ones.  This was different.

I worked up my courage to get close enough for a picture and snapped a couple.  I looked it up later that day, and the internet says it’s a great black wasp, which is a type of digger wasp.  Apparently they build nests underground and feed primarily on katydids, crickets, and grasshoppers.  I was happy to not see humans on that list.

 

Ambush bug on a black-eyed susan

Lastly, while admiring the black-eyed susans in my backyard, my son found this little critter hanging out on one of the petals.  Despite how noisy and close we got to it, it never moved once (I assure you it was alive).  I was surprised that he even found this insect because of how small and camouflaged it was.

Having never seen one before, we looked it up and it turned out to be an ambush bug (or assassin bug), which are known to hang out on the petals of black-eyed susans and sunflowers.  They wait motionless for an unsuspecting victim to land on the flower, and then they attack!  Apparently they can take down prey several times larger than themselves.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my virtual tour of nature as it’s happening.  However you experience the outdoors or nature, be it physical, virtual, spiritual, or anything in between, I encourage you to do it!

See you next month!

It’s officially summer!  I’m not sure about you, but it’s been feeling like summer for the last month and a half at least.  I’ve talked with quite a few people who have all mentioned that they feel like they missed out on spring, and not for lack of being outside.  I have to agree with them, especially on those 95F days when I’m longing for a nice cool spring morning.

Although it’s been very hot and occasionally buggy, it’s truly a wonderful time to be outside, so let’s take a minute or two to see what’s going on.

Ebony jewelwing

I went on a camping trip last weekend with my family to hang out with a good friend who was stopping by from out of state.  We visited Roche-A-Cri State Park in Friendship, Wisconsin.  Seemed like an appropriate town name given the purpose of the trip.

While there, we were struck (not literally) by these iridescent damselflies with dark black wings.  The contrast between bright/shiny and black was mesmerizing!  I was so excited to try and get some photos so that I could identify them later.  Then, my wife Carolyn pops up seemingly out of nowhere and says “Oh, nice! Jewelwings!”  She’s good at that.  Regardless, I looked up ‘Ebony Jewelwing’ when I got home and found THIS cool video describing their mating display.  The video is slowed down so you can see them better.

Hairy puccoon

While walking through a prairie at Roche-A-Cri State Park, I came across a type of puccoon that I had never seen before.  It’s called hairy puccoon and it’s native to very dry and sandy habitats.  The burst of yellow caught our attention immediately.  We were able to scan the entire prairie and see where all of the pockets of hairy puccoon were hiding, even from quite a distance away.

American toad with some nice camouflage

Within minutes of arriving at our campsite, we found several toads hopping around in the dried pine needles and oak leaves.  They are surprisingly noisy when hopping around if you find yourself in a quiet enough place.  The tricky part is finding them if they are still because of how well they camouflage into their surroundings (see photo above).

One of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was catching all sorts of frogs and toads wherever I went.  I was happy to see my 5 year old do the same throughout the camp trip (no toads were harmed during this camp trip and all were released very quickly).

 

Baby snapping turtle that was crossing the road

If you find yourself travelling to a new green space like I did last weekend (or really anywhere), this is just a friendly reminder that many critters out there this time of year have young and to be careful when driving.  Just in the last week or two I’ve seen baby raccoons, opossums, sandhill cranes, and turtles (like the baby snapping turtle seen in the photo above) crossing the road.

If you see a turtle crossing the road, I encourage you to slow down and help out if you can, but only if the area is safe.  When helping a turtle, always put it on the side of the road in the direction it was heading (even if the pond is on the other side).  They’re determined little things and will turn right back around.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my virtual tour of nature as it’s happening.  However you experience the outdoors or nature, be it physical, virtual, spiritual, or anything in between, I encourage you to do it!

See you next month!

I’m not sure how much time you’ve been spending outside lately, but I’m fortunate enough this time of year to be outside almost more than I am inside.  It’s that beautiful time of year when the mornings are cool, the daily high temperatures are still very comfortable, and the mosquitos seem to be minding their own business (at least in my neck of the woods).

As I look through my cameral roll in search of photos to share with you, I find it increasingly difficult to choose because so much is going on!  We’re past the part where nature slowly wakes up from a long winter.  We’re in full swing!  So let’s get outside and see what’s happening.

Wild Columbine is flowering

Right now, the woodlands are absolutely covered in flowering plants.  Around every corner of a trail you could run into flowering wild columbine, mayapple, white trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, and wild geranium just to name a few.

Wild columbine is one of my favorites.  Both the flowers and leaves are beautiful, but what I like most is the odd places I find this wonderful plant.  I went hiking at Governor Dodge this weekend with my family and we saw wild columbine growing on the sides of rock faces and even near the waterfall that’s out there.

Devil’s urn…

If fungi are more your thing, then say no more!  Look around the base of trees or close to the leaf litter and you’ll find all sorts of fungi growing in almost every color.  While out with my family, I stumbled upon one of the most ominous-looking mushrooms I’ve ever seen.

At first, I didn’t know what it was.  It honestly looked like a piece of rubber from a tire but when I touched it, it had that classic fragile mushroom texture that’s hard to describe.  I looked it up later and it’s called ‘Devil’s Urn’.  A very fitting name for this scary-looking mushroom!

Wild lupine flowering

If you find yourself out near a dry prairie or an oak savanna, now is the time of year to be on the lookout for blooming wild lupine.  This beautifully blueish-purple plant serves as a host for the endangered Karner blue butterfly.  The caterpillars feed exclusively on the leaves of wild lupine and the species simply would not survive without the plant.

Killdeer chick!

Lastly, I’ll leave you with this photo of a baby Killdeer that I moved off of a trail that I was mowing at Westport Prairie. It was reunited with its mother in a safer spot nearby.  If you have ever accidentally gotten close to a Killdeer nest or chicks, you may have seen the adult trying to lure you away.  Check out THIS video of their ‘broken wing display’.

Holding this bird, even for just a few seconds, reminded me of a job I had years ago at a National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey.  I was a wildlife technician where I got to band Piping Plovers on beaches.  While not the same species, this was a nice reminder of my time working with plovers.  Well, I hope you enjoyed my virtual tour of nature as it’s happening.  However you experience the outdoors or nature, be it physical, virtual, spiritual, or anything in between, I encourage you to do it!

See you next month!

What an odd spring we’ve been having lately!  While the snow appears to be in our rearview mirror, the cold seems to be sticking around. Mix that with all of the rain and high winds, it almost seems like Mother Nature is toying with us and tossing in a 70-80F day every once in a while just to keep us interested.

What I’ve learned is that you need to make the best of what you have.  My son for example was playing in our backyard sprinkler last week and if that’s not a glass half full, I’m not sure what is.  While it may not exactly be sprinkler weather, there’s plenty of exciting things to see outside this month.

The pelicans are back!  This cold wet spring hasn’t stopped migratory birds from making their journey back to Wisconsin.  Head out to just about any natural area and you’ll hear and see tons of birds that weren’t here a month ago.  I was out at Patrick Marsh a couple of days ago to see if the pelicans had arrived and while they were in small numbers, I was happy to see they were back.

Not only that, my son and I were able to watch them hunt for fish.  If you’ve never seen pelicans do this, it’s quite a sight!  They all swim alongside one another and then form a quick circle and dunk their heads under water to scoop up fish.  It reminds me of synchronized swimmers!  Check out this short VIDEO to see what I mean.

Prairie willow

It’s not just the birds that are back.  Plants are starting to show signs of life as well!  Just walking through my neighborhood I’m beginning to see some of the earlier spring flowers popping up like crocuses, daffodils, tulips, and peonies.

While out at Westport Prairie last week, I noticed that prairie willows are even starting to show off their fuzzy catkins.  I’m sure you have seen willow catkins in this stage before, but have you noticed what they look like up close when flowering?  Take a look at the photo below to see a much further along pussy willow beginning to flower.

Pussy willow flowering

Here you can see the process unfolding all on one stem.  At the bottom of the plant are the recognizable fuzzy catkins, and as you move up the stem, it’s much easier to see how it changes its form.  The yellow you see is pollen and this pollen doesn’t spread via the wind.  Instead, willows rely on insects for pollination.  Yet another reason to save the bees!

Pasque flowers looking their best

We’re nearing the end of the pasque flower season, but since spring has been pushed further back this year, it’s still possible to get out there and see them before they’re gone for the year.  The petals open and close depending on the amount of sunlight available.  If you head out on a cloudy day, there’s a good chance that most of the flowers will be closed, but head out on a sunny day and they should look like the photo above.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my virtual tour of nature as it’s happening.  However you experience the outdoors or nature, be it physical, virtual, spiritual, or anything in between, I encourage you to do it!

See you next month!

Happy spring!  At least I think it’s spring… For the last week or two I’ve been slowly opening my curtains in the morning with my fingers crossed, hoping the ground isn’t covered in snow.  While I love a snow-filled winter, I’m ready for it to start feeling like spring.

The days are still cold and cloudy, but if you have been outside lately, you’ll know that nature is beginning to wake up.  Let’s take this opportunity to see what sort of changes are going on outside!

This is the home of some boisterous chorus frogs!

The bugling of sandhill cranes can be heard overhead as many of them have begun their migration north.  If you visit a local wetland, you may notice Canada geese by the hundreds (even thousands in some places) honking to their heart’s content.

I was recently drawn in to a small vernal pool when on a hike with my family.  The sound of chorus frogs filled the air and reminded me that even though it may not feel like it, spring is here!  Click HERE to see (and hear) the video I took.  The best way to identify a chorus frog by its call is to imagine running your thumb down the teeth of a comb.  They sound oddly similar!

Pasque flowers: a true sign of (early) spring!

If you’re like me, you may be eagerly waiting for plants to emerge from the soil.  Some of my favorite plants are spring ephemerals which are some of the first plants to bloom.  They have adapted to the cold and low light conditions.  Think of bloodroot, trout lily, and Dutchman’s breeches.  These are the early plants that bloom before the trees start to leaf out.

While not a spring ephemeral by definition, the plant pictured above is a true harbinger of spring.  They are pasque flowers in a very early stage (roughly 1″ tall).  Pasque flowers are covered with fine silky hairs to help insulate the plant from cold conditions.  In just a week or two, these low-growing purple flowered plants will be in full bloom!

Skunk cabbage is back!

Another less known sign of spring is the emergence of skunk cabbage.  It usually pops up in the late winter or early spring while snow is still on the ground.  As its name implies, it’s called skunk cabbage because it emits a very unpleasant smell (maybe not unpleasant to everyone).  The plant uses its smell to attract pollinators. While skunk cabbage loses its leaves annually, the plant is able to live up to 20 years!

Searching for woodcock at sunset.

Lastly, if you need a little more proof that spring is actually here (I’m still not entirely convinced), head outside at dusk and if you’re in the right spot, you may hear woodcock peenting.  I did this with my family last week and it was amazing!

Male woodcock (also known as ‘timberdoodle’, ‘Labrador twister’, ‘night partridge’, and bog sucker’) can be seen doing their evening spring flights to attract mates.  They start by making ‘peent’ sounds from their display area and then shoot upward into the sky (roughly 200-350′) in a wide spiral while making a twittering noise.  After about 30 seconds of this, they zigzag back down to the same spot they left from and begin peenting again.  Check out THIS video of one calling.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my virtual tour of nature as it’s happening.  However you experience the outdoors or nature, be it physical, virtual, spiritual, or anything in between, I encourage you to do it!

See you next month!

It’s been an odd winter to say the least.  One day it’s -10F outside with 20mph winds and the next it’s 51F and sunny.  To follow that, we experienced a ‘snow squall’ this week which lead to some pretty intense ice.  I don’t know about you, but when the weather behaves so unpredictably, it often leaves me feeling a bit uninspired to go outside.  It’s harder to plan outdoor adventures and leaves me in a bit of a nature slump.

It happens!  These slumps provide a great opportunity to reset and start daydreaming about what’s around the corner.  While I probably stayed inside more this month than any other month in the last year, I did manage to sneak away on a few nice days to spend some quality time outside.  So with that, let’s see what’s happening out there!

The fish are still biting!

When it’s the middle of winter and there’s a nice sunny day without a lot of wind in the forecast, I like to try and get out on a frozen lake.  This time of year, many of the lakes are still frozen over, but always be cautious while out on the ice and look up ice reports before going out.

Recently, I went out ice fishing with my family and caught some of the smallest bluegill I have ever seen in my life.  While they were tiny, they were plentiful, and that makes for a great evening on the ice. My son likes to kiss the bluegill he catches on the lips before returning them to the water.  It’s something he’s always done and it cracks me up every time.

Any ideas?

While out at Patrick Marsh, I came across some very tiny tracks in the snow (pictured above).  It appeared that whatever made the tracks were jumping like a kangaroo with both feet planted before leaping.  You can also see a very thin line in the snow behind these footprints.  That thin line is the critter’s tail hitting the snow as it lands.

If you haven’t guessed it yet, the tracks definitely belong to some sort of rodent.  Wisconsin has a few rodents that leave similar tracks so it’s very hard to identify them down to a species (at least for me).  My guess is that it’s likely a meadow vole.  I’ve seen loads of meadow voles out at Patrick Marsh and have even caught a couple while doing restoration work in the summer.

Ice crystals around a hole in the snow.

I ended up following the tracks to a tiny hole in the snow (pictured above).  It was about the size of a quarter and I noticed that there were little ice crystals around the edge.  These ice crystals are referred to as ‘hoarfrost’.  This is a type of frost created by air that is brought to its frost point by cooling.

So why was it around this hole in the snow with animal tracks leading to it?  Animals that live under the snow in winter stay warm because the snow actually insulates them.  As they breathe, the air rises and starts exiting the hole.  Once the warm air hits the freezing temperatures outside, it makes this beautiful frost pattern around the entrance.  This is an easy way to tell that a critter is actively using their home under the snow!

Hmm.. I’ve never seen this kind of bird before.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with this photo that I pulled from the trail camera in my backyard.  My wife Carolyn let our dog out late one night about a week ago and noticed movement from our bird feeder out of the corner of her eye.  I immediately reached for my trail camera to see what it was and the next morning we discovered that we have flying squirrels that visit our yard!  In case you’re wondering, their late night snack was sunflower seeds.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my virtual tour of nature as it’s happening.  However you experience the outdoors or nature, be it physical, virtual, spiritual, or anything in between, I encourage you to do it!

See you next month!

It’s a new year which means new adventures await.  For many of us, winter isn’t just a time of hibernating and planning for the spring, it’s a time to get outside and enjoy nature.  Whether it’s cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, birdwatching, or having evening bonfires, there’s plenty to do this winter!

One of my favorite things to do is search for signs of wildlife in fresh snow.  If I’m lucky, I can even snap a picture of the animal tracks before my son stomps through them or makes a snow angel on top of them (he apparently thinks this is hilarious).  So with that, let’s get outside and see what we can identify in the snow!

Whose toes are these?

I don’t know about you, but whenever I find tracks in the snow that I cannot immediately recognize, I always jump to the rarest creature.  For example, I recently found the tracks pictured above and while I felt like I had seen them before, I just couldn’t place them.  Naturally, I figured they simply had to be the tracks of a wolverine, fisher, porcupine, or even baby Sasquatch.

There’s something exciting about not being able to identify a set a tracks because they could have come from anything!  Well, not quite but it’s still exciting.  So I went home and pulled out my animal tracks and sign book and sure enough, the elusive and rare creature that made the tracks was from an opossum.  I confirmed this by posting on the Wisconsin Naturalists Facebook page.  This is a great resource that I encourage you to check out if you have nature questions.

Delicate tracks in the snow

When I found the tracks pictured above, what struck me most of all was how jealous I was that whoever made the tracks didn’t sink into the snow like I was.  These tracks just looked effortless, like the creature was simply gliding across the snow.  Meanwhile, I was huffing and puffing through the snow while sinking in around mid-shin.

Having a dog of my own, I’m pretty familiar with canid tracks.  These tracks were a lot smaller than Tucker’s (my black lab), but they have a similar classic dog-like shape.  I narrowed it down to fox or coyote and snapped a picture so I could identify it later.  I followed the tracks which led me to taking the picture below.

These look a little different than the tracks above…

Note how the tracks are no longer gliding across the snow.  They actually go quite deep and lead to some sort of hole.  If you haven’t guessed it yet, these are the tracks of a hunting coyote.  Coyotes have incredible ears and can hear rodents like mice and voles beneath the snow.  They tiptoe across the snow with ears pointed down and once they’ve narrowed down the approximate location of the critter below, they pounce!  Watch a video HERE of a coyote hunting.

In the photo above, you can see the four feet in the snow (bottom half of the photo) with the two at the very bottom being the coyote’s back feet.  Note how much deeper they are than the front feet.  These deep impressions are created from the jumping motion and the hole at the top of the photo was where the coyote landed.  So cool!

Well, I hope you enjoyed my virtual tour of nature as it’s happening.  However you experience the outdoors or nature, be it physical, virtual, spiritual, or anything in between, I encourage you to do it!

See you next month!