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Common Winter Animal Tracks

This week’s blog was written by Sierra R., a Bass alumni. She attended the Wildlife Leadership Academy this summer because it looked like a good opportunity to further her education and to give her a deeper look into different career fields. Sierra’s hobbies include hiking, nature journaling, Girl Scouts, and theater.

Although winter is not everyone’s favorite season, it can be an exciting time. With winter snow comes activities such as sledding and snowman building. My favorite part about winter is the abundance of animal tracks I can find in the freshly fallen snow. When it’s not too cold, I like to go outside and practice my print identification. Here are some prints that are commonly found in the winter.

Squirrel tracks are one of my favorites. Small and in a set of four, squirrel prints are surprisingly cute. Their unique print pattern is made by them leaping and galloping from place to place. On freshly fallen snow, squirrel prints can be very detailed with tiny fingers, nails, and paw pads. Squirrel tracks are often found on driveways, logs, and near the bases of trees. Because squirrels are very widespread, people living in the city can also enjoy identifying these tiny tracks.

Fresh squirrel prints I found in my driveway.

Another favorite is the raccoon. Chances are, you will find these prints in your driveway on garbage night. Although, you can also find them in the woods. Raccoon prints are mainly characterized by their hand-like appearance with five nimble fingers, or digits, on each paw. Their back foot also has five digits. One unusual thing about these tracks is that their back paw print is usually ahead or right next to their front paw print; This is because of the raccoon’s unique walking gait.

Old raccoon tracks about 2 inches big. Front paw on the left back paw on the right.

If you live in the U.S, you have probably seen your fair share of deer prints. Deer have become practically part of the landscape in much of the country. But just because these tracks are common doesn’t mean they are boring. Following deer tracks is an excellent practice for basic animal-tracking skills and can give you a quick look into a deer’s daily routine. For example, you can find patches of land where deer have mulled through for food or places where deer once bedded down to rest.

Top picture: Overlapping domestic cat tracks about an inch long.
Bottom picture: Body impression from a deer nestling down in the snow.

If you or your neighbors have an outdoor cat, you have most likely seen these before. These prints are often seen on sidewalks, roads, and porches. Unlike canine tracks, feline tracks are relatively easy to distinguish from their wild variants. For example, bobcats have larger prints and are not commonly found in urban areas.

Crow prints can be found in many areas, as crows live in a variety of habitats. In deep snow, their footprints can be hard to identify due to how thin their foot is. In light snow, crow footprints can be easily seen with three toes and a long back claw. In light but thick snow, you can also spot wing impressions. The ones I have seen usually look like light streaks in the snow. Although, I have seen pictures of more defined wing prints.

Top photo: Crow tracks about 2 inches long found under a hemlock tree.
Bottom photo: Light wing marks from a crow.

Animal print identification is a great hobby and can be done any time of the year, but winter and late fall can be prime seasons for finding non-hibernating animal tracks. If you go out in the snow to ID animal prints be sure to bundle up and dress warm!

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

What is the Importance Regarding Soil?

This week’s blog was written by Abbey T., a Bucktails alumni. Abbey enjoys studying animals in their natural habitats as well as how their presence is able to impact the environment they live in. She isn’t sure what career she would like to pursue, but she is interested in possibly being a biologist, environmentalist, or doing something in Nature Conservation. Abbey wanted to attend the Academy because she really wanted more experience in conservation and ways that she could apply that knowledge.

You might not think twice about the ground you walk on every day. Whether it is primarily concrete or grass, there is soil present beneath your feet. And there is incredible value in maintaining the health of soil…

One example of humans maintaining soil health is the concept of crop rotation, which provides a seasonal approach of planting different crops that use and return different nutrients to the soil in order to sustain humans with the best possible crop outcome. The healthiest crops provide us with nutrients in turn, when we consume them.

However, soils in a more abstract regard are usually self-sustaining. Each natural environment depends on its soil in order to maintain the plants of an ecosystem, which provides support to the animal species living there. This “self-sustaining” act looks different depending on the biome as well. For example, in a mostly deciduous forest, the soil would be incredibly nutritional. That is because every time the trees go into hibernation and lose their leaves, the process of decomposition occurs which returns nutrition from the leaves to the soil, allowing more plants to grow and further supporting the growth of the trees.

This just reinforces my point made about leaves; it is quite obvious that the usage of decomposition returns nutrients to the Earth, and its soils, so locations that have leaf coverage in the autumn season are bound to be healthy and have more nutrients in their soils.

If a soil’s pH is unbalanced, it is reflective of its environment. Crops will be unable to grow, or weaker, smaller, and less nutritious crops will be the only ones produced. Natural environments may sustain fewer species that depend on plants, which will then affect the predators that depend on preying upon those that feed on plants.

This is a picture of my great-grandparent’s lawn, they live on an old, inactive farm, and it is quite obvious that there is a lack of trees on their property. That being said, there was no added nutritional value to the fields, so during its active farming days, the only initiation of “nutrients” was found through fertilizers. The one they used most commonly was horse manure.

Overall, the most important concept in retaining soil health is making sure the pH of the soil is healthy, at 7.0 (neutral), so that the biogeochemical processes can occur properly. And this healthy pH is what allows ecosystems to thrive in nature, and the maintenance of farmland using crop rotation and fertilizer allows a better production of crops.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

The Snakehead Mission

This week’s blog was written by Joseph S., a Brookies alumni. He is mainly interested in reptiles – especially snakes, amphibians, and fish. Joseph has many reptile species and both fresh and saltwater fish at home and in the pond in his backyard. Joseph enjoys hiking and kayaking in national parks, state parks, and wildlife refuges. He would like to become a herpetologist or toxicologist.

Imagine a vicious mythological sea serpent covered by brown and tan scales with dark blotches, an enormous mouth full of razor-sharp teeth, intelligent eyes placed on top of its head, and a powerful tail for speedy swimming. Now, just downsize the creature to a couple of feet in length and move it from depths of the ocean to freshwater, and you get the northern snakehead (Channa Argus), the Northeast’s fiercest invasive freshwater fish.

Our first caught snakehead, Mallows Bay, Maryland

Even though this hardy predator native in China and Russia, is no mysterious ancient species, its swift expansion through many US states is alarming. The first established population was discovered in Maryland in 2002 when the northern snakehead was released without authorization into a pond. Soon, many thriving populations have been established in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The first sightings in Pennsylvania were reported in 2004 and since then, snakeheads have been caught in the Susquehanna, Schuylkill, and many other rivers.

A parent guarding its snakehead fry (circled), Mattawoman Creek, Maryland

You might hear many wild stories about snakeheads and this species is also known for some really unique adaptations. A special organ allows them to get oxygen directly out of the air, so they can survive without water for up to four days. On top of that, snakeheads can move on land. Even though they are ferocious eaters and their diet includes other fish, amphibians, birds, and even small mammals, they really don’t hunt people (men were only on the sea serpent’s menu). Still, attacks from snakeheads guarding their nests (very unusual for a fish) on people have been described. Being more aggressive than native fish, snakeheads can easily outcompete (and eventually displace) local predators like largemouth and smallmouth bass, and their spread in Maryland indicates the possibility of snakeheads even taking over trout waters.

Snakehead’s huge mouth with dagger-like teeth.

Although the idea that such an aggressive fish is in our waterways can be grim, there are some positive aspects. They can spread exceptionally fast, but still, no permanent destruction of local ecosystems by these apex predators has been documented. Snakeheads are an interesting game fish for anglers. They fight much harder than bass and their meat is very tasty. Since they prefer shallow waters, they are an easy target for bow fishermen. There are no limits on snakeheads and anglers are urged to kill all caught snakeheads immediately.

Snakehead, Tidal Basin, Washington DC

After observing multiple whirling snakeheads in the C&O canal, my brother and I decided to finally face this invasive monster. Equipped with topwater lures and the knowledge that snakehead females release as many as 100,000 eggs every year, we did not expect any difficulties. However, during our first outings, we failed completely even in well-known snakehead creeks. We decided to try our luck from a canoe on Mallows Bay off the Potomac. After hours of paddling through thick vegetation, the fierce creature finally attacked. It was already growing dusk when we spotted a movement in water lilies with less than a couple of inches of water. Within a second, my brother casted, our weedless frog suddenly disappeared in a huge swirl. Our heavy line and stiff rod could barely handle the fighting fish. After a lot of chaos on our deck and powerful wriggling all over our canoe, the serpent-like fish, at last, ended under my seat. All sweaty and muddy, we started to understand why some anglers call the snakehead “frankenfish”. Even though we have caught many more snakeheads at various locations this spring and summer, we give them a lot of credit for being very challenging opponents. For sure, we do not call our mission accomplished. There are tens of thousands of invasive snakeheads aggressively hunting in our local creeks and their numbers need to be at least reduced if not eliminated. Also, we have never gotten even close to the record 19.9-pound catch.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

Exploring Nature Through Art

This week’s blog was written by Lorelei M-B., Bucktails, Brookies, Gobblers, and Ursids alumni. Lorelei is the Founder/CEO of Heart Hugs, a global organization that provides tangible support and advocacy for congenital heart defect awareness, detection, and treatment. Her work includes several educational publications explaining the Total Artificial Heart, 3-Stage Palliative Reconstruction, and the effects of trauma on patients. She has been instrumental in funding various medical response programs, advocating for transplantation approval for children with intellectual disabilities as well as better cardiac care for Wounded Warriors, providing compression heart pillows to over 36,000 open heart patients around the world, and advocating for informed and culturally responsive health programs to help detect congenital heart defects. She was recognized as the 2016 Military Child of the Year for the Army, a National Prudential Spirit of Community Award Recipient, an Everyday Health Hero by Dr. Mehmet Oz, and is an official Marvel superhero as part of Marvel’s Hero Project, as well as numerous other distinctions. Her Cherokee heritage greatly influences her approaches to Resiliency and Healing as she faces her own complicated diagnosis of Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, an incurable severe congenital heart defect. Lorelei’s ability to make extremely complicated diagnoses understandable to the public creates hope and understanding in each community she serves.

I have been working on my art ever since I was little, but never really realized how much I enjoy creating nature scenes until the Wildlife Leadership Academy opened my mind to its opportunities.

It began when Miss Bree and Miss Freya introduced us to nature journaling. I was inspired by their art and painted a desert scene. It looked kind of cartoony, but I didn’t mind because I need to start somewhere. The whole reason they encouraged us to draw was to try something new and find other ways to learn about and enjoy nature.

Lorelei using colored pencils to sketch an Eastern bluebird.

After my first few sketches, I drew a picture of a seagull caught in plastic soda rings. I was using art to explore the problems pollution creates for nature. As I drew, I felt the fear of the seagull not understanding what was happening as the plastic became more and more intertwined with her wings, her throat, and consumed her ability to move. Still not a wonderful drawing, it stands as a reminder that I need to do better about not creating waste that can hurt the plants and animals I love so much.

Lorelei with final version of Eastern bluebird.

Since then, I’ve drawn trees, water droplets, an Eastern bluebird, and so many other nature-inspired pieces. The bird is one of my favorites, but each serves a purpose. When I create, I think about the space my subjects take in this world, their purpose, how they exist, and what threatens their safety. I take the time to learn about each theme I tackle. I write about what I learned on my organization’s social media pages so I can teach others through my art.

The lessons we learn through the Wildlife Leadership Academy create a platform for us to continue our work as conservation ambassadors with all sorts of interests. Citizen scientists don’t just wear lab coats. They write, read, engage, and draw, too. The sky isn’t the limit when it comes to nature. It’s part of the story- a story I enjoy exploring through art.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

Hiking Discoveries

This week’s Bonus Blitz Blog was written by Sierra R., a Bass alumni. She attended the Wildlife Leadership Academy this summer because it looked like a good opportunity to further her education and to give her a deeper look into different career fields. Sierra’s hobbies include hiking, nature journaling, Girl Scouts, and theater.

Hiking is one of my favorite activities. Not only do you get to enjoy the outdoors, but if you’re curious like me, it becomes a time to explore and discover. No matter what time of the year I go on a nature walk, I always come back with new knowledge. I am very fortunate to have a hiking trail and an abundance of woods right next to my house, and I wanted to share some of the neat things I found on a hike in September. (Additional info about hiking is also included at the end of this blog).

At the beginning of my path are two shale mounds, which are perfect sites for fossil scavenging. On many occasions, I have found small fragments of fern fossils; My largest fossil being around 2 inches long. On this particular hike, I came across another small but rather nicely preserved part of a fern fossil. When I don’t find fossils, I usually find spiders, and I have yet to find a snake sunbathing on the shale mounds.

The fossil fragment I found is approximately 1.5 cm long and 1 cm wide.

Later on my trek, I noticed a very bright pink plant with green leaves. Known by the name of Doll’s Eye, or White Baneberry, this plant is native to the US. In the early fall, it sprouts an eye-catching pink top with white seeds, thus the name Doll’s Eye. I hope that everyone already knows not to eat random berries they find in the woods, but I feel that this disclaimer is especially relevant. Doll’s Eye is not edible and is known to be fatally poisonous to most mammals, often inducing stomach problems and heart failure within 12 to 24 hours of consumption. Birds, however, are immune to these fatal effects and enjoy the Doll’s Eye seeds as they please. For this reason, the plant’s seeds are mainly spread by bird droppings.

Notice the unique top with white berries on this Doll’s Eye plant.

On my way back home, I found one last surprise. Laying on the ground with the leaves was an empty snail shell a little bit smaller than a quarter. Despite it being a little old, I tried to see if I could distinguish what type of snail it once belonged to after I got home. Although I could not identify its former owner, I did learn that PA has around 100 species of land snails!

The mysterious snail shell I found on my way home.

I’d say that my favorite part of hiking is a three-way tie between discovering, researching, and sharing. During my week at the virtual bass camp this year, I was introduced to the app INaturalist, it’s a very useful app to share and track your nature findings, of course, the old fashion way of sharing your findings with your friends family and teachers is always encouraged too!

Now that I’m done sharing my findings, here is the extra hiking info I mentioned at the beginning. If you’d like to go nature walking, but are in an area where nature is sparse, try looking up public hiking trails or state parks online. Now it’s important to note that if hiking in a state park, it is often against the rules to take home things like plants and rocks (including fossils), so it’s best to just take pictures of your findings. If you are curious about PA’s state park rules, the link to the newest DCNR PDF can be found here.

Also, no matter where you are, be safe and always try to bring a buddy. I never leave my house for a walk without a bright drawstring bag with supplies like my phone, a power bank, a pocket knife, a mini first aid box, and water; other good items are gloves and a trash bag for any trash you may find along your way.

I think it’s important that people get the chance to let their curiosity thrive. For me, the woods is the best place to discover and grow a connection with nature, but I don’t want to confine that idea to just one activity. There are several different activities that you can enjoy that foster learning and connecting with nature. For Example, joining a club in school or getting involved in a nearby bird tagging group. Whatever floats your boat. And never be afraid to share what you love with those around you!

The photos used in this blog belong to the author. The sources that the author used can be found here, here, and here.