Signs of wildlife are all around us, you just have to look
Many years ago when I first wet a line in pursuit of stream trout on the Straight River near Park Rapids, I felt doubtful that a fish could be caught, much less live, in such a small little stream. After all, the stream I stood before was scarcely a dozen feet across and shallow enough that I could clearly see its pebbly bottom.
My mentor, friend, and an already a seasoned trout angler in his own right, was about to teach me the fine art of drowning worms -- a technique that would appall any fly-tossing purist. Indeed, nothing but a fat nightcrawler gobbed onto a size 6 long-shank hook and cast into a swirling cut bank, log jam, or some deep hole was all the finesse
Still, I wasn't so sure, and I told him so. But as my unabashed fishing partner began his quest while leaving me behind and watching his every cast, he glanced over his shoulder and said, "You just gotta believe they're there!"
In the world of wildlife viewing, believing "they're there" is, in the first place, what usually draws us to a particular location. Whether that place is a favorite woodland, prairie, or wetland, most of us, upon visiting such wildlife haunts, probably arrived at such locales with preconceived notions that some critter or critters will probably reveal themselves for us to see and enjoy.
Sometimes, however, we can do our level best at searching for a particular species of organism -- floral or faunal -- but end up coming "empty handed". This, despite all our research, knowledge, or credible hot tips from others who supposedly know that "they're there." So, what to do? Well, if you can't find and catch trout, fish for sunnies.
Huh? Putting it another way, if you can't catch sight of your favorite critter, why not look for the signs they leave behind? Catch something else, I say.
For example, Minnesota's black bears are perhaps one of the most elusive animals of the forest. Yet as abundant as they are, few people actually ever observe a black bear in the wild. But believe me, they leave plenty of signs behind.
Right now black bears everywhere are earnestly scrounging for food in preparation for their long winter naps. Bears are eating machines this time of the year while seeking and eating the most nutritious natural foods available: nuts, berries and cherries, grass, tubers, insects, and so on. Signs of their activity are all about the forest. Where hazel occurs, for instance, it's not unusual to find areas within hazel thickets trampled to the ground from feeding bears.
Impatient and hungry bears not wanting to wait for acorns to fall to the ground will often climb into the canopies of suitable oak trees in order to strip acorns from branches. One can regularly observe curiously broken branches hanging unnaturally downward in the treetops. Additionally, overturned rotting logs and stumps, frequently ripped open with bits of wood, soil, and vegetation strewn about the forest floor, serve as other signs of feeding bears searching for insects and insect larvae.
Another sign to be on the lookout for, especially if you happen to have a yard full of oak trees or know of a park or other oak woodland, you may have noticed from time to time that lawns beneath oak trees are frequently littered with very short, fully leafed branches. Upon examining the branches, which are not any larger than twigs, it almost appears as though they've been cleanly cut from the tree by a pruning tool.
Oddly enough, the dropped branches accumulate on the ground even on the calmest of days, so blaming the wind would be wrong. The fact is, squirrels are the culprits. The little rascals, usually gray squirrels, are simply cutting suitable branches and leaves from the oak trees for making their nests and dens. Many of their cuttings inevitably fall to the ground and are never collected, except, of course, by our rakes and labor.
Tracks, scat and other materials are obvious signs of wildlife that we can also use to interpret everything from what species left them to where they've been or are going to, how long ago they've been there, what they've eaten, and even how large or small they may be. Owls, for example, regurgitate portions of their prey that cannot be digested, most notably hair and bones. Many a science student and gung-ho birder have picked apart an owl pellet while trying to determine what species of critter became the owls' lunch.
Other signs of wildlife in the woods, fields, and backyards also involve animal appetites. Sad as it can be, that newly planted shrub or tree is sometimes a prime target for a hungry critter just trying to live another day. Have you ever wondered if a deer or rabbit consumed the freshly cropped ornamental shrub or garden plant that you've just discovered?
It's easy to tell if you carefully examine the clipped branch or stem. If the cut is clean and angled at about 45-degrees, then it was from the incisors of a rabbit. On the other hand, if the cut is jagged, then it was probably a deer. Unlike rabbits and hares, deer do not have a top row of incisors and other similar teeth (except for molars).
Without a doubt, actually observing all those living and breathing birds, bugs, and beasts is what we endeavor to do when we have the binoculars strapped on or are looking through our windows. Yet, in between time, by believing that "they're there" while searching for signs of their activities, I'll guarantee that our nature adventures will be enhanced as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)