The following piece was written by OAS Communications Assistant Claire VanValkenburg for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.
Shifty colleagues, dishonest enemies and slimy adversaries are often referred to as “weasels,” but is this little mammal truly worthy of such a harsh reputation?
In truth, weasels are sprightly balls of energy and elusive hunters. The least weasel is both the smallest species of weasel in Wisconsin and the smallest carnivore in the world. It evades detection so well that they have been identified as a Species with Information Needs in the Wisconsin DNR’s Wildlife Action Plan.
According to Richard Staffen, Zoologist and Conservation Biologist at the Natural Heritage Conservation (NHC), we don’t know much about least weasels because they are not sought after as a furbearer. They are captured infrequently, and their small size exhibits low commercial fur value.
“There is little population data being collected, so not much is known on how they are doing,” Staffen says.
In an effort to bolster our understanding of the least weasel, Snapshot Wisconsin and the NHC have enlisted the help of a few University of Wisconsin-Madison students to tackle a collaborative classification project.
“You’d be surprised how well weasels can camouflage into their environment!” says Elizabeth Cleaveland, who recently completed a work-study position with the Wisconsin DNR as a graduate student with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.
Cleaveland worked with Staffen last year to classify roughly 400 Snapshot Wisconsin triggers categorized as weasels by citizen scientists. Cleaveland’s successor is Mace Drumright, who says that while differentiating between species can be challenging, the work is important to better understand rare species like the least weasel.
“Weasels, and mustelids in general to a degree, have a tendency to escape notice and live relatively secretive lives, so any further insight into their behaviors and habitats is useful,” says Drumright.
Of the ~400 triggers students have worked to classify, Staffen says roughly 300 triggers are identifiable enough to assign a species. The least weasel shows up most infrequently on Snapshot cameras. Cleaveland recounts feeling surprised to see a least weasel on the Snapshot Wisconsin database, noting her excitement to learn that the species was still in the state.
“There are a couple of goals tied to this project, the first one being identifying small mammals in the area and the habitats they are utilizing. This is helpful in determining if the species is still present in the area, what types of habitat(s) they are utilizing, and if any wildlife management decisions need to be addressed,” Cleaveland says.
Drumright suspects that, other than martens, the least weasel could be the least photographed Mustelid species on Snapshot Wisconsin cameras.
“Hopefully this project will give better insight into the population and how they’re interacting with their environment,” says Drumright.
Staffen and the NHC are still working on analyzing the data to determine what percentage of the population the least weasel represents compared to other Mustelidae. But he says the information gathered from Snapshot Wisconsin data can be used in conjunction with trap data from Wisconsin fur trappers and small mammal surveys to make informed decisions on the species’ status.
“I think it is one useful tool, of only a couple, to assess the current population status of these infrequently encountered or under-reported species,” Staffen says.
Staffen and the Snapshot Wisconsin team hope to expand the collaboration, moving to chipmunk and squirrels next, which is another group of triggers that are not classified to the species-level.
“I just think it is a win-win project. The students really enjoy working on the project, they learn more about identification of these animals and their biology, we get some information on status and distribution and the Snapshot project gets a more refined classification.”
Keep an eye out for our shy woodland friend. Rather than impish, consider him tactful yet discrete. However you choose to view him, here at Snapshot Wisconsin we believe that while he may be little, he is not least.
The following piece was written by OAS Communications Assistant Claire VanValkenburg for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.
Although white-tailed deer are common in Wisconsin woods, we never seem to grow tired of pointing them out along the highway, watching them traverse our backyards and observing them on hikes. But as temperatures drop and snow falls, certain members of our herd will become harder to spot.
Al, a Vilas County trail camera host, recounts seeing one of these alabaster animals in 1994: “As we were sitting on the deck, a white deer appeared in the bright sunshine on the far side of the lake. It appeared to not only be white but glowing with a light from within, surrounded by the light green spring vegetation,” Al says.
Although seeing one can be striking, white deer are just like normal deer except for their fair coats. DNR researchers sampled the entire Snapshot Wisconsin dataset to piece together this map of where white deer were flagged using comments on MySnapshot and tagged photos on Zooniverse. They found that sightings occurred in 12 counties across the state, but were most frequent in central and northern Wisconsin.
A white deer’s coloring is caused by a lack of melanin in the deer’s skin, but they aren’t necessarily always albino. True albinism is extremely rare, and an albino deer would have pink eyes, ears, hooves, all-white fur and poor eyesight. It’s more likely that Wisconsin’s white deer population is mostly leucistic, which is caused by a recessive genetic trait found in about 1% of all white-tails.
Leucistic deer (commonly referred to as “piebald deer”) can have a variety of white, brown or black markings. Some leucistic deer are akin to pinto horses, while others may have a completely bleached coat with black hooves and noses. The trick to identifying a leucistic deer from an albino is in the eyes. Deer with pink eyes are most likely true albinos, whereas piebalds have gray, blue or black eyes because albinism affects eyes whereas leucism does not.
While differentiating the two may be tricky, the law is clear. According to page 21 of the 2019 Wisconsin DNR Deer Hunting Regulations, it is illegal to “possess albino or all-white deer which are entirely white except for the hooves, tarsal glands, head and parts of the head unless special written authorization is obtained from the department.” Currently, this is true in all areas of Wisconsin.
Nature photographer Jeff Richter came eye-to-eye with a white deer nearly two decades ago, and he’s been dedicated to capturing their beauty on camera ever since. Richter is the photographer of the book “White Deer: Ghosts of the Forests” by John Bates and told In Wisconsin Reporter Jo Garrett that despite the photographs, some people still believe they’re made up.
“We’ve actually had a couple of stores where clerks overheard people that’ve picked up the book and were looking at it and said, ‘Boy this is really neat, if only they were real,’” Richter said.
They’re real, alright. The one Al spotted all those years ago left a palpable impression on Al and his wife who, at the time, were looking to buy a house. They spotted the white deer across the lake when they were considering the purchase of what is now their current home.
“It actually may have had a small influence on the purchase of our home!” Al says.
Whether they’re common in your neck of the woods or not, white deer are striking animals. The stark contrast of their coats against Wisconsin woodlands makes them a pearly find among the herd. Keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready now, before they blend into a blanket of snow, perfectly hidden throughout the winter months.
As long-term Snapshot Wisconsin team member, Vivek Malleshappa, transitions to his new role in California with Esri, we wanted to share a newsletter article that he wrote for the Lakeshore Nature Preserve where he hosted his own Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera. Thank you, Vivek!
The Lakeshore Nature Preserve has been a sanctuary for me since I started my master’s degree in Environmental Science at UW-Madison. Living ‘next door’ in Eagle Heights Apartments, whenever I needed a break from schoolwork, I hopped out to the Preserve with my binoculars. Watching a downy woodpecker chip away at a tree was enough to unwind. I still live here with my wife and we are grateful for the easy access to a natural area as beautiful as the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. I wanted to volunteer for the Preserve and decided to host a trail camera with Snapshot Wisconsin, where I work. Before I talk about all the cool wildlife we are seeing from the trail camera, I want to introduce you to Snapshot Wisconsin.
Snapshot Wisconsin is a volunteer-based trail camera project managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Volunteers across the state of Wisconsin participate in the project by hosting a trail camera on their private land or public lands to collect data, which is used in wildlife management decision support.
I have been operating the camera at the Lakeshore Nature Preserve since December 2018 and it has already captured some amazing pictures. From commonly seen raccoons and opossums, to the somewhat secretive red fox and the less common deer, there is a variety of wildlife passing by the camera.
While deriving wildlife population insights from this one camera is difficult, at a minimum it tells us about what species occupy this landscape. And, all the cameras across the state of Wisconsin together are helping us paint a picture of wildlife presence and populations. To find out more about the statewide project and possibly get involved, at the Snapshot Wisconsin website.
I look forward to seeing many more interesting pictures from the camera at the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Here are some of my favorites so far and I hope you like them as much as I do.
On Friday, April 12th, Snapshot Wisconsin volunteer John came across something extraordinary. After making routine checks of his elk cameras in Black River Falls, he headed home to upload his photos. During the standard process of review and classification, one photo in particular stood out amongst the sea of deer and turkeys. John recognized it immediately. “That’s a big white crane with a red head!” he exclaimed. “Woah, this is a whooping crane!”
John knew how rare they are, having only seen them at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo. That was 30 years ago, when his kids were young. John wanted to verify his discovery before sharing his excitement with the Snapshot team. “I went to my smartphone to verify that I was seeing the correct animal, and I said, ‘Yup, that’s a whooping crane!’” Sure enough, not only had John captured a rare species, but he had photographed the first whooping crane in the history of Snapshot Wisconsin.
He couldn’t believe how spectacular the image was. “It was a beautiful photo! It was at 8 in the morning, and it must have just landed. It had its wings up – it looked like it was dancing in front of the camera! I thought wow, what a perfect picture.”
John has been involved in the project for one and a half years, and currently maintains five cameras in the Black River Falls elk reintroduction area. John’s passion for the outdoors and interest in Wisconsin elk motivated him to become a Snapshot Wisconsin volunteer after retirement. “I like to get out into new locations and explore. It’s kind of a spiritual experience for me to be in the outdoors.” He also appreciates the opportunity to stay active. “I get a little exercise. I don’t like to be on a treadmill, I would rather be walking in the woods and seeing things. [Snapshot Wisconsin] is a good fit for me.”
When asked about his favorite part of participating in Snapshot Wisconsin, John shared that he enjoys being in the woods, seeing the wildlife and exploring new areas. He also welcomes the challenge of finding his camera sites. “Navigation is challenging,” he explained, “finding a camera based on a certain grid coordinate is kind of exciting.”
Capturing the memorable photo of the whooping crane has only added to John’s experience as a volunteer. “I’m glad I got an animal that was interesting. I have gotten bear, wolves, and bobcats [and] of course a lot of deer and turkey. But the whooping crane was kind of the icing on the cake. I am looking forward to getting other interesting animals.”
John also recognizes how this whooping crane sighting is significant in terms of the conservation of this endangered species. When asked what it means to him to be a part of this crane’s story, John said, “It’s kind of interesting. I think my job is kind of small but sometimes it ends up being a big production. It shows how small the world is and how everybody can make a difference no matter what they do.”
June’s Volunteer of the Month is
Ralph from Sauk County!
June’s Volunteer of the Month is Ralph from Sauk County! Ralph has been a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera host for over two years. Growing up on a farm Ralph enjoyed rambling around the fields and forests, and although he spent his career as a machinist, his love for the forest endured. His motivation for joining Snapshot Wisconsin and hosting a trail camera was to examine several questions he had about his woods, including what predator-prey relationships existed and how many deer were on the landscape.
In addition to volunteering with Snapshot Wisconsin, Ralph is also the chair of the Chippewa Valley Chapter of the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association (WWOA). As an active member of WWOA, Ralph enjoys helping other woodland owners learn how to sustainably manage and preserve their woodlands for present and future generations.
Thank you, Ralph! Thank you to all of our trail camera hosts and Zooniverse volunteers for helping us discover our wildlife together.
May’s Volunteer of the Month is
Chris from Portage County!
May’s Volunteer of the Month goes to Chris from Portage County! Chris is a Professor of Biology at UW-Stevens Point. Chris was first introduced to citizen science around 10 years ago through the Wisconsin Bat Program. In collaboration with the Urban Ecology Center and Milwaukee area high school teachers, Chris has since developed a bat curriculum that incorporates citizen science, or as it is known in Milwaukee, community science.
Chris first discovered the Zooniverse platform about two years ago, which led him to learn about Snapshot Wisconsin. After he began hosting his own trail camera, Chris stated that he was initially annoyed by a fawn that rested in front of his camera resulting in hundreds of photos (which we are sure many volunteer have experienced!) Chris’s “aha moment” was then realizing how interesting the data collected about that fawn was – time alert, sleeping, stretching, foraging.
When asked about his advice for potential volunteers, Chris shared, “There are lots of citizen science projects, but Snapshot Wisconsin does a great job of motivating its volunteers. Start with Zooniverse. Snapshot Wisconsin was a pioneer project on this global platform and will connect you immediately to Wisconsin wildlife. If you are hooked by Snapshot like I was, you can consider hosting your own camera and become a small part of a big thing.”
Thank you, Chris! Thank you to all our trail camera hosts and Zooniverse volunteers for helping us discover our wildlife together.
Are you ready to celebrate Citizen Science Day?
Before we dive into the details, let’s start with what is citizen science? There are many definitions for citizen science, which may also be referred to as community science, crowd-sourced science or volunteer monitoring. The Oxford English Dictionary defines citizen science as,
“Scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.”
Citizen scientists partaking in Snapshot Wisconsin monitor trail cameras across to state to gather year-round data about wildlife. Data collected from the project help inform wildlife management decisions at the WDNR, and also engage the public in learning about the state’s natural resources. Snapshot Wisconsin has over one thousand volunteers hosting trail cameras across the state, and hundreds more from around the globe helping to identify the wildlife caught on camera on Zooniverse.
Citizen Science Day is hosted annually to celebrate and recognize the projects, researchers, and dedicated volunteers that contribute to citizen science all over the world. Mark your calendars for April 13th, this year’s Citizen Science Day kick-off! The Citizen Science Association and SciStarter have teamed up to promote events in celebration of citizen science. Are you interested in celebrating Citizen Science Day this year? Check out SciStarter’s project finder to find Citizen Science Day events near you!
You can celebrate citizen science any day of the year by participating in Snapshot Wisconsin, whether you are interested in hosting a trail camera or identifying the exciting critters captured on camera (which can be done from anywhere!)
April’s Volunteer of the Month is
Mark and Sue from Columbia County!
April’s Volunteer of the Month goes to Mark and Sue from Columbia County! Before retirement, Mark and Sue spent their careers as Conservation Biologists for the DNR Natural Heritage Conservation Program. For the past 40 years they have served as resident managers at the Madison Audubon Society’s Goose Pond Sanctuary. Goose Pond Sanctuary, located near Arlington, is comprised of 660 acres including restored tallgrass prairie, wetlands, some cropland and a one-acre oak savannah. In addition to hosting two Snapshot Wisconsin cameras, Mark and Sue are also involved in trapping and releasing black-footed ferrets in South Dakota to vaccinate them against Sylvatic plague.
Mark and Sue were motivated to join Snapshot Wisconsin because they enjoyed viewing and surveying wildlife and wanted to use the project to help Madison Audubon members to learn about the wildlife at the Goose Pond Sanctuary. The project provides them a way to view the wildlife responses to habitat restorations on the property, and to see how populations change over time. A few previously absent species they were intrigued to find in their photos were coyote and red fox. Mark and Sue also capture a great diversity of avian life including Cooper’s hawk, snowy owl, ring-necked pheasants, northern harrier and more. Check out a glimpse of what Mark and Sue are finding below!
Thank you, Mark and Sue! Thank you to all our trail camera hosts and Zooniverse volunteers for helping us discover our wildlife together.
March’s Volunteer of the Month is
Melanie and Trees For Tomorrow from Vilas County!
March’s Volunteer of the Month goes to Melanie and the Trees For Tomorrow staff in Vilas County! Trees For Tomorrow (TFT) is a nonprofit natural resources specialty school in Eagle River, WI whose mission is to promote sustainable management of our natural resources through transformative educational experiences. TFT’s field-based programs place students in direct contact with nature, providing the knowledge and skills to prepare today’s youth to be tomorrow’s stewards of our natural world. Founded in 1944, Trees For Tomorrow is proud to be celebrating 75 years of conservation education in Wisconsin. Melanie and TFT have been hosting a Snapshot Wisconsin camera since July of 2017.
Melanie, the Environmental Science Educator for TFT, shared, “Participating in Snapshot Wisconsin has allowed us to learn more about the wildlife that lives at Trees For Tomorrow as well as engage our students and guests in exciting, hands-on learning!” Trees For Tomorrow keeps their visitors updated on what critters are making appearances at the property on their phenology board, which you can see below. Additionally, their education team created a trail camera class where students can learn about cameras, how to scout for good sites, and analyze trail camera data to investigate life histories of local species.
Thank you, Melanie and Trees For Tomorrow! Thank you to all our trail camera hosts and Zooniverse volunteers for helping us discover our wildlife together.
Find out more about Trees For Tomorrow by visiting their website here.
February’s Volunteer of the Month is
Mike from Iowa County!
February’s Volunteer of the Month goes to Mike from Iowa County, one of the first two counties where Snapshot Wisconsin started recruiting volunteers. Mike was no stranger to trail cameras when he joined the project two years ago—he had spent his career as a biologist in the tropics where he used trail cameras as one technique to study and conserve wildlife.
“Camera trap techniques motivate me because the photos are a fantastic way to learn about wildlife. The pictures are a moment in time of critters’ daily movement that is captured forever,” Mike said.
Birds are among his favorite critters captured at his site, including sandhill cranes, pileated woodpeckers and a great horned owl (who Mike noted doesn’t appear to have caught the squirrel repeatedly triggering his camera). Check out this awesome photo below that Mike shared of a squabbling pileated woodpecker and crow. In addition to participating in Snapshot Wisconsin, he is also involved with wintertime roosting eagle counts with the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council.
Thank you, Mike! Thank you to all our trail camera hosts and Zooniverse volunteers for helping us discover our wildlife together.