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Minnesota Master Naturalist Class in the Sax-Zim Bog!

January 30, 2019 Category: , ,

Master Naturalist?

Education is an important part of what we, the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, do to help our visitors get a greater understanding of the ecosystem that is the Sax-Zim Bog. Sometimes, these education programs are directed to the general public and nature enthusiasts. However, this year, we are happy to have programming specific to one group of nature enthusiasts: Minnesota Master Naturalists!

Master Naturalist programs are not something that all states have, and if your state does have a Master Naturalist program, it might be different than we have in Minnesota. The Minnesota Master Naturalist program started in 2005 with grant funding from the National Science Foundation. Since then, it has grown to include education in each of Minnesota’s 3 major biomes and does so through partnerships between the Minnesota Master Naturalists Program, University of Minnesota Extension Office, National Science Foundation, Bell Museum of Natural History, and the Florida, Missouri, and Texas Master Naturalist programs.

Minnesota’s Master Naturalist program consists of an initial 40 hour training at the Biome Level and then volunteering (at least 40 hours per year) and continuing education throughout your time as a Master Naturalist! Each year, Master Naturalist Volunteers give hundreds and thousands of hours of time to State and Local Parks, Non-profit organizations, and to their communities to help teach education programs, participate in Citizen Science Projects, clear trails or pull invasive plant species, and so much more. Last fall, I (Head Naturalist Clinton) was trained as a Minnesota Master Naturalist Instructor and now can teach classes to support the continued learning and volunteering efforts of Minnesota’s Master Naturalists, as well as teach the next group of Minnesota Master Naturalists. My first goal as a newly minted instructor was to offer and teach a few Advanced Training Courses. These, typically 8 hour, courses are offered as way for Master Naturalists to continue education and build up volunteer hours.

American River Otter tracks from the Whiteface River at Arkola Road.

This winter season, I will be teaching two Advanced Training Courses in the Sax-Zim Bog: Interpreting Tracks and Animal Sign and Winter Bog Ecology. The former was completed last Saturday, January 26th. Below is recap of that day and some notes on what to expect in the future for Minnesota Master Naturalist Courses in the Sax-Zim Bog!

Interpreting Tracks and Animal Sign

Ten hearty souls braved the colds of the Sax-Zim Bog for the first Master Naturalist Advanced Training of the winter season. The high temperature for our time in the field was a beautiful, clear, and calm 1F (a contrast to the start of the morning at -19F in Duluth!). The course had two parts: introduction to tracks and tracking, which took place indoors, and then we ventured outside to find some tracks and animal sign, hoping to practice our newfound interpretation skills when looking at said tracks and sign. Even though the day included an indoor portion (held at the Duluth Folk School), much of our learning took place in the field.

Our group explored the trails behind the Welcome Center, the roadsides of Owl Avenue, and the Warren Woessner Bog Boardwalk in the Warren Nelson Memorial Bog! We were able to find some really neat tracks and were able to observe some interesting behaviors by a number of species!

Snowshoe hare tracks were far and away the most frequently observed sign during our workshop. We saw tracks in nearly every direction behind the Welcome Center! Snowshoe hare tracks are great and we excited to also observe some awesome examples of gnawed aspen limbs and low shrubs, as well as scat from these hard to see hares.

Snowshoe hare foraging marks on a fallen aspen branch, with some scat in the background. We got to observe lots of great foraging sign from snowshoe hares on this hike!

We were not able to find any other sign of interest behind the Welcome Center, until we went to investigate our deer carcass storage area. Each year, we are donated a dozen or more deer carcass which are great sources of winter time food for a number of critters from woodpeckers and chickadees to gray foxes and ermine. We did not have any luck with with any ermine sign, but were able to find not only gray fox tracks, but also bobcat tracks!

Following our excursion around the Welcome Center grounds, we ventured south, toward the Warren Nelson Memorial Bog. On our trip to the Warren Nelson Memorial Bog, we did encounter some tracks of interest along Owl Avenue. We got an awesome opportunity to observe and interpret both coyote and red fox tracks. The coyote tracks we observed showed a really neat set of track groupings, including galloping tracks, slowing down to a stop. We were also able to follow the tracks to an area where the coyote marked. Further down the road from these tracks, we found a pair of red fox tracks working their way along Overton Road, from Owl Avenue. We were actually able to track this pair of foxes from the south end of Owl Avenue, all the way to Overton Road!

Really neat white-tailed deer tracks. The drag marks you see between tracks are good indication that these deer were slowly running along Owl Avenue.

After nearly an hour along Owl Avenue, we made it to our final stop of the day: Warren Nelson Memorial Bog. We traveled to this bog to observe some interesting animal sign. Along the Warren Woessner Bog Boardwalk there is impressive sign from black-backed woodpeckers. If you take a close look at these trees, you will see other interesting sign. Those woodpeckers are working dead black spruce to find beetle larva that are overwintering under the bark or even within the tree. These larva leave trails underneath the bark, as well as exit holes when they emerge!

Close up of a black spruce recently worked on by a black-backed woodpecker. Can you see the beetle larva tracks and exit holes in the wood?

On our way down the boardwalk we were treated to brief views of a nice adult male black-backed woodpecker, flaking bark from one of the many dead black spruces in the bog. Next to the boardwalk, however, was a real gem: a beautiful trail made by a bobcat! I had gotten a tip from a friend, who let me know she had seen a bobcat eating off of the deer carcass we had placed at the end of the boardwalk. Little did I know that we would be able to observe so many nice tracks or its trail! We did not find any ermine tracks, but were able to end the day with a wonderful tour among the black spruce of the Warren Nelson Memorial Bog.

All told, we were able to observe sign or tracks from snowshoe hare (tracks and sign), red squirrel (tracks and sign), white-tailed deer (tracks), red fox (tracks), gray fox (tracks), coyote (tracks and sign), a species of mouse (tracks), bobcat (tracks), pine grosbeak wing prints, American crow footprints, black-backed woodpecker sign, wood boring beetle tunnels, and the characteristically rectangular holes in trees made by pileated woodpeckers. Not a bad day out in the Bog!!

What is next for Master Nats in the Bog?

February will see the next Master Naturalist Advanced Training in the Sax-Zim Bog, but this class has already filled up! My hope is to have at least one advanced training a month during the summer. I will also be working with Ryan Hueffmeier of Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center on teaching the 40 hour North Woods and Great Lakes Minnesota Master Naturalist course! Stay tuned for further developments and education expansion in the Sax-Zim Bog!

If you would like to learn more about the Minnesota Master Naturalists, please check out their website here.

— Head Naturalist Clinton

One of many bobcat tracks along the Warren Woessner Bog Boardwalk. Cats have unique tracks that are very round and do not show claw marks in the snow.