Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Chelsea Translates Tank Tracks

This post was written and illustrated by Chelsea Forehead, one of our Hubbard Fellows. Chelsea and Mary will be completing their Fellowship later this month and our new Fellows start on February 3. Chelsea is the midst of job searching, so if you are looking for a bright, analytical, creative, bilingual conservation scientist, I know of a good option for you…

One of the more somber symbols of winter on the preserve has been the absence of cows in the parcels around our house. Despite the ghost-town vibes of prairies sans cattle, I was reminded of the ever-present life among the golden dried grass one day last month. Snow was coming and I headed out to the stock tanks to make sure that the wells were turned off and the floats removed. Floats, I learned, are mechanisms that ensure that the water shuts off once the tank is filled to a certain height. With the cows gone, there was no longer a need for the water to be on, nor for the floats to regulate tanks that wouldn’t be refilling.

Muddy ground around a stock tank is a great place to find animal tracks. Photo by Chelsea Forehead.
A mixture of raccoon tracks (center) and coyote tracks (bottom right) around the tank. Photo by Chelsea Forehead.

While I had noted the amount of biomass in the little prairie oases before, seeing castles of bright green algae in the context of cold winter wind was especially striking. The rowing water bugs seemed unbothered by the frigidness of their steel-walled world. Frequent cow traffic around the tank had left the ground around it bare. In the mud I saw what appeared to be fresh tracks of larger fauna. A raccoon and a coyote, it seemed, had passed through the muddy perimeter. Despite there being no certain way to know what had transpired during their respective- or coinciding? -visits, I couldn’t help but wonder what story their prints could be telling. In order to make a more educated guess, or potentially conjure a more exciting narrative, I did a little digging to learn about the native mammals’ biology.

Algae castles in the tank. Photo by Chelsea Forehead.

Coyotes, sometimes called prairie wolves, usually search for food alone or in pairs. The auditory clues to their presence on the preserve are a testament to their more social side. The yips and howls that always make me smile mean that a prairie wolf has found itself separated from the group, or that a reunion between friends is taking place. In warmer months coyotes may even partner with badgers in a cooperative hunting effort. What the badger lacks in speed above ground he provides in burrowing power. Even without the help of badgers, though, the coyote has proven itself surprisingly capable of adapting to human-altered environments. Did this particular coyote capitalize on the water available in this man-made pond? Or was she familiar enough with its presence to know that thirsty prey (a raccoon perhaps?) could be found there?

Close-up of a coyote track. Photo by Chelsea Forehead.

The similar adaptability of the other mammalian passerby is more certain than the story I sought to read in those prints. The word raccoon comes from an Algonquin word that means “one that scratches with his hands.” The handsy creatures have always seemed to me as though they sport oversized sweaters that needed rolling up at the sleeves. It turns out that their rinsing behavior is not for sanitary reasons. The major sensory input for the raccoon is tactile, and their paws have specially adapted pads for literally feeling things out. These pads are softened by water. By rubbing food between wet paws the raccoon can get a better sense of the morsel. Did this particular raccoon climb the spigot of the water tank in order to dunk a bit of food, or perhaps to search for one there?

If the raccoon and coyote had crossed paths at the stock tank, my hunch was that they were at odds with one another. It turns out that raccoons and coyotes have more in common than I had assumed. I’ve always thought of coyotes as predatory and prone to attack. In truth the omnivorous mammals both scavenge for sustenance. While a coyote could kill a raccoon, the masked wash-bears are not usually a part of the prairie wolf’s diet. Both coyotes and raccoons are often cast as tricksters in Native American storytelling. The story of two scavenging mammals at the water tank likely was no more dynamic than it seemed. Knowing that both are out among the senesced flora, however, makes winter on the prairie feel a bit warmer.

Photos of the Week – January 17, 2020

First things first – I really appreciate all the positive attention for the goofball post I wrote on Monday that included the parody field guide for roadside wildflowers. I write a lot of posts on topics I feel are important, and that I hope will be useful and shared widely. Some of those posts have done pretty well, but none have blown up as quickly as this week’s dumb collection of blurry photos. It’s a weird world we live in. Still, I’m still glad people enjoyed the field guide – especially after I spent a stupid amount of time working on it over the recent holiday break.

Now back to my normal boring posts… : )

Last Saturday, the day started frigidly cold. It was near zero degrees Fahrenheit and there was just enough breeze to cut through all but the thickest head coverings. All in all, it was a great day to stay in bed. So, obviously, I threw on my insulated coveralls and headed out to a nearby wetland to slide around on the ice with my camera.

Frost covered much of the ice and the lower parts of emergent plants. As I walked across the ice, it was clear which areas had been frozen for a while (mostly opaque ice) versus what had very recently been frozen (clear and dark). There was even a little bit of open water in one part of the large wetland. At one point, a put my foot down and a single long crack zipped out from beneath my boot and extended 40 yards or more. That seemed like a good indication that I’d gone far enough in that particular direction – even though the water below me was only a few feet deep.

The sunrise came with very little color in the sky because there were no clouds. Still, it created interesting patterns of light and shadow because of the low angle of the light.

Only one vehicle drove past the wetland while I was there. I heard it coming and quickly stood up to avoid any chance of them wanting to stop and ask why I had been lying down on the ice. I tried to look nonchalant as they drove by, but I’m pretty sure they noticed the white glaze up and down the front of my coveralls. While I’m sure they were curious, they apparently decided that unfulfilled curiosity was preferable to the risk of stopping to talk to someone who was clearly not in his right mind.

Older cracks in the ice had refrozen, but still created interesting patterns across the wetland’s surface.
How many times must these leaves have had to drag back and forth in the wind to create those markings in the ice?
Umbrella? Skirt? Regardless, it was an attractive little accessory on this wetland rush.

Several inches of snow fell here last night. I’m hoping I can clear enough work off my plate today to get out this evening and walk around (assuming the forecast holds and the clouds open up a little before sunset). I may or may not come back with photos I like, but I’m never disappointed with the overall results of deciding to venture out in the cold.