Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Wildlife Watching Tip: Act Like A Detective

I love Teasel, but their bloom can herald a midsummer lull in wildlife sightings.

I spent the last week visiting my mom in Columbus, OH.  Although I had a cold the whole time, we did manage to get a couple hikes in, exploring nearby Highbanks Metro Park and Antrim Park.  Both times we didn’t get started until mid to late morning. Due to the time of day, the season, and a high number of other hikers, I had a hard time finding wildlife much larger than insects.  I had hoped we’d at least find some birds in the forest canopy, but they were few and far between. So I used Wildlife Watching Tip #2: Act Like A Detective. I looked for the signs left behind by wildlife to deduce their identity and activity.  I also like to use senses other than sight to reveal the presence of wildlife.

The first kind of clues I look for show that wildlife that was here recently, but has since moved elsewhere.  Animals that are nocturnal, for example, or who have crossed my path several hours or days ago, will still have left their sign behind.  We looked for tracks, scat, and partially-eaten plants. Nibbled leaves or stems can indicate the activity of rabbits, deer, and of course insects. Caterpillars were few and far between, but we did find tracks of raccoons and a tiny shorebird.

Raccoons patrol the shore of the Olentangy River.

A shorebird had been here too.

Other wildlife might still be nearby, just hiding very well.  Sometimes they’ve left the same kind of sign I mentioned above, other times I like to use senses other than sight to detect them.

A lot of wildlife will give its location away by sound: birdsongs, insect chirps, and frog or toad trills.  That might seem obvious but quite often there’s enough accumulated natural and human noise to blur it into mush.  You have to focus on one kind of sound against the background, or even one individual in particular, and tune out the rest. Some wildlife is less than stealthy in their movements too, and may betray their location by rustling through the leaves or grass. Whether you can identify an animal by sound or not, these clues all can lead you to the animal’s behavior and location. Squirrels or chipmunks are the most common cause of rustling sounds in my neck of the woods, but birds like towhees, ovenbirds, and robins also rummage in fallen leaves to find tasty food. I’ve also found skinks and snakes by sound as they scurry or slither through the forest.  

Chipmunk freezing in place so I won't notice him. It didn't work.

The sense of smell is one of my favorite detecting tools.  Of course skunks have the most infamous scent, but other animals have notable (and less painful) scents as well.  My favorite wildlife smell memory comes from a hike I took in suburban Reston, Virginia several years ago.  I found a deadfall across the trail that led gently upward toward the understory.  I decided to scramble up it for fun and check out the former treetop.  When I got there, there weren’t many branches left (the tree had been dead for a long time) but I discovered a small herd of deer browsing obliviously, and fragrantly, ten or fifteen feet below me.  It was so neat to perch there and watch them in secret! They smelled a lot like cows. I’ve also heard that deer smell musky in the rut season but haven’t experienced that yet. Sadly, in Ohio my nose was pretty much out of commission due to my cold so I can’t report on any scents we might have encountered.

I like to smell wildflowers too, but this bindweed was already occupied!

And of course since I was having so much difficulty finding, hearing, or smelling much wildlife, I made sure to use Wildlife Watching Tip #1, look out for the little guys. Hunting for clues meant I discovered some cool tiny bugs along the way. I also was able to find a big female praying mantis lurking in some Ironweed. I spotted her because I was searching for caterpillar frass (droppings) on the plants.  I never found frass or caterpillars, but she made up for it!

Adult hover flies pollinate flowers; larva feast on aphids. Don't swat this one!

Shelob? No, a funnel web spider lurking in a fencepost.

Praying Mantis waiting for a tasty butterfly.

Not all our insect discoveries were tiny or hidden either. At Antrim we happened upon a leaf-footed bug and a female Pelecinid wasp. I thought from the way the wasp kept lifting her long abdomen then touching its tip to the leaf that she might be laying eggs in leafminer larvae, but my insect book says they parasitize larvae in the soil, not in leaves. She was neat to watch anyway. 

Pelecinid wasp-- practicing her technique, perhaps?

A belligerent looking Leaf-footed Bug

I also want to give credit to my mom for spotting one of the few vertebrates we saw on our hikes: this young Northern Watersnake in the lake at Antrim Park.  It definitely helps to have more than one spotter when you’re out looking for wildlife!  I also found a tiny Map Turtle basking in the sun toward the end of our walk.  Its carapace couldn’t have been more than four or five inches long, which is about adult size for males. It was very shy, though-- I got only one picture before it plopped back in the water. I do think we saw both reptiles partly because we were already hunting for subtle clues, and partly just by looking in the right spot at the right time. Luck is always a big factor in wildlife watching, but you can certainly help it along by paying attention to your surroundings.

A very fast moving Northern Water Snake.

My first-ever Map Turtle. Yay!

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