6 Sep 2011

Seek Animal Signs Instead of Animals

Alone or with children, when it comes to enjoying nature, it’s natural to hope you might spot animals, especially big game. Depending where you live and how safe your surroundings are, you might hope to see a bear, moose, or deer. It’s always fun to catch a glimpse of wildlife but I challenge you to explore nature with a different plan in mind. Next time you walk a trail, make it your goal to look for animal signs instead of animals.
Use as many senses as you can. Close your eyes and listen. Can you hear birds, insects, or frogs? Sniff the air. You’re sure to notice if a skunk is nearby. You might also smell a stinkbug! These winged insects release a nasty smell when defending their homes. More pleasant nature smells to seek include wild mint, wild roses, or the scents that accompany fresh water. I’ve noticed wild cranberries waft a wonderful scent through the woods after an autumn frost.

Now look up into the trees! Can you see a bird nest or woodpecker hole? Perhaps you notice signs of insect life. You may spot leaves full of holes or eggs on vegetation. Look on willow trees for pale-green pine-cone willow galls. These odd growths form when midge larvae secrete a chemical that causes a part of the host tree to grow differently. The gall becomes a home for the midge which must chew its way out when it becomes an adult! Some insect galls look like small warts, spindles, or round growths on leaves. Others form bulbous growths along plant stems. Many different kinds exist.
If you come across spruce, pine, or other evergreens, check beneath the branches for signs of squirrels. Where I live in Alberta, red squirrels drop scales from cones as they feed from the branches above. They drop so many scales, great piles form into a midden. You may see tunnel entrances in a midden and even hear the chattering squirrel start to scold if you get too close! You will also know squirrels are nearby if you see small branches of needles on the ground. And if you glimpse a mushroom in a tree, you know a squirrel is saving a snack for later.
As you walk along, look into the underbrush to see if you can spot animal trails. Rabbits, deer, coyotes, and many other animals use these paths to travel through wooded areas. If you find a trail and look at the trees growing alongside, you may notice places where deer or moose have bitten shoots off tree branches. You may also see their scats on the ground.
In the fall, look for deer rubs and scrapes. Along trails, whitetail deer bucks rub their antlers on tree trunks, as well as break branches above the scrape. They paw at the ground until the soil is exposed and then leave their scent to mark their territory.
If your walk takes you along soft soil, sand, or a place where mud has dried or snow has fallen, look for animal tracks. But don’t just look for big prints from large animals! Look carefully for smaller prints from rabbits, squirrels, mice, and birds.
Other things to watch for on a nature walk:
·         acorns or other nuts with teeth marks
·         animal dens
·         anthills
·         antlers
·         bones
·         cocoons
·         egg shells
·         feathers
·         insect tunnels in fallen logs
·         porcupine quills
·         snail shells
·         tufts of fur
·         wasp nests

The better you get at searching for animal signs, the better you will become at spotting the animals themselves!

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