Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Hall's Lake Hike Highlights (23 January 2016)

On Saturday (23 Jan), I led a walk for the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy (CWC) at their Neely and Kabana Preserves in western Isabella County.  The Neely Preserve is part of a larger parcel known as the Hall's Lake Natural Area.

Our walk focused on animal sign.  When most people think of animal sign they think about tracks, but tracks are only a small part of the picture.  We looked at tracks, but we also searched for other things such as animal homes, signs of feeding, food caches, and scat. 

Looking for animal sign at Hall's Lake Natural Area

I have been to the Hall's Lake Natural Area several times in the past, but never to areas that we visited on Saturday.  Because I had never visited these sites, I had not expectations about what to expect.  Much of the two preserves are covered by a mature mixed conifer-hardwood forest.  Several inches of snow covered the ground, including a dusting about 36-48 hours prior to our walk.

I was actually surprised, by the lack of sign from several species.  There were very few tracks from White-tailed Deer, no deer scat, and no evidence of recent feeding.  Rabbit tracks were only found in the the area immediately adjacent to the lake in any area of swamp.  We also did not see or hear a single bird during our almost two hour walk.  In fact, I didn't see a single live animal of any species while I was there.

So what did we find?

There was lots of evidence to indicate that squirrels live in the preserve.  We saw squirrel tracks heading from tree to tree in most of the preserve.  There were also places where the squirrels had dug through the snow to search for cached (hidden) acorns.  Most squirrels do a really poor job of remembering where they have cached acorns and other nuts.  Instead they rely on their sense of smell to locate food hidden under the snow.  This means that they do not recover all of the things that they have buried.  Many of those nuts (and other seeds) will germinate during the following year.  So even though the squirrel may not benefit from everything that they have hidden, they are helping to reseed the forest.

Unfortunately, squirrel tracks are not all that exciting.  Neither were the hundred of mouse tracks that we saw throughout the forest.  While these tracks are interesting and give an insight into the small prey species found throughout the forest, they are not something that gets my heart pumping.

This, however, does.

That is a pile of coyote scat.  It was full of hair and seeds, indicating that the coyote that left this in the middle of the trail was eating a diverse omnivorous diet.

Why was the pile of scat in the middle of the trail?  Like all canines, coyotes frequently mark their territory.  There was evidence that someone had recently walked down that trail with a domestic dog.  The coyote left that scat in the trail to cover over the dog's scent and assert its dominance.

Scat was not the only coyote sign that we found.  We found several sets of tracks including this set on the ice covering the outlet to the lake.

Coyote tracks on the ice

The coyote skirted around several area of thin ice

Following tracks onto the ice - make sure the ice is solid before proceeding

For me the other highlight of the walk was a visit to an active porcupine den tree.  CWC Executive Director Stan Lilley led the group to this site.  Unfortunately, the porcupine crawled up inside its den as the group approached so we did not get to see it, but it left lots of evidence of its presence.  (This is not the not the first den tree that I have seen on a CWC property - in 2015, I found one at the Quigley Creek Natural Area.)

Examining porcupine scat under the den tree

The porcupine left a prominent trail from its den to its feeding area in some nearby pines

The porcupine den is in the hole in the left trunk

A pile of scat under the den tree

Even though I did not see a porcupine, it is always worth the time to take a walk in the woods.  It was especially enjoyable to share my knowledge of animal tracks and sign with other nature lovers.  One participant commented that it was going to make her walk to the end of the driveway to get the daily newspaper a lot more interesting.

For more photos from the walk please check out the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's website.

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