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The Scarcity of Spotted Skunks

Everyone knows what a striped skunk looks (and smells) like. Their reputation precedes them. Around this time of year, they like to hunker down in their dens inside of rock openings or hollow logs. They’ll spend most of their time in these dens until May and June when females give birth to their litter of “kits”. When they do come out to find food, they dig for protein-rich insects and worms, and will also eat plants during the summer.

A stripped skunk

A stripped skunk captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera.

The striped skunk’s smaller cousin, the eastern spotted skunk, is a much rarer sight. Spotted skunks were historically found in the southwestern part of Wisconsin, but their range was primarily across the western plains states and some southern states. They are similar in size to a gray squirrel, and have a distinctive white, upside-down triangle on their foreheads. Their preferred habitat is near open prairies and brushy areas at the edges of woodlands.

A spotted skunk and striped skunk side by side

Graphic created by Sheri Amsel, http://www.exploringnature.org

In addition to spraying perceived threats with a smelly musk, eastern spotted skunks also have an unusual defense behavior. They will do a handstand on their front legs and stick their tail straight up in the air when threatened. They will also stomp the ground with their front paws.

Spotted Skunk Handstand

Spotted skunk performing its defensive handstand. Photo by Holly Agnieszka Bacal, labeled for public use.

The spotted skunk is so rare in Wisconsin that there hasn’t been a confirmed sighting in the state for decades. But it’s not just Wisconsin that they’ve disappeared from. Spotted skunks have been in decline across their entire range for the past century. A study done by Gompper and Hackett in 20051 found that harvest records from the 1980s showed the eastern spotted skunk had declined to less than 1% of what their population had been at the start of the 1900s. We know so little about spotted skunks that their causes of decline are unknown, but hypotheses include habitat loss, pesticide use, overharvesting, and disease1-4.

Spotted Skunk by a Log

An eastern spotted skunk near a log. Photo by Holly Kuchera, labeled for public use.

A group of concerned scientists have banded together to begin learning more about spotted skunks and to promote their conservation. The Eastern Spotted Skunk Cooperative Study Group is comprised of 140 wildlife biologists across dozens of state and federal agencies, universities, and tribal nations. In 2018, they authored a conservation plan for the species with the goal of summarizing what is already known about spotted skunks and identifying areas that need further research.

According to the group’s conservation plan, management of spotted skunks vary by state. Some states recognize spotted skunks as furbearers and allow hunting and trapping of the species, while other states do not. One of the spotted skunk sub-species that lives in the plains is currently under review for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

In the state of Wisconsin, spotted skunks are recognized as rare and the DNR asks that sightings be reported to the Natural Heritage Inventory Form. A photo is necessary to confirm a sighting, so make sure you snap a picture if you suspect you’ve stumbled upon one. Just make sure to give it space if you see it doing a headstand!

Peer-reviewed articles:
1. Gompper, M.E., and H.M. Hackett. 2005. The long-term, range-wide decline of a once common carnivore: The eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius). Animal Conservation 8:195– 201.
2. Choate, J. R., E. D. Fleharty, and R. J. Little. 1974. Status of the spotted skunk, Spilogale putorius, in Kansas. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 76:226-233.
3. McCullough, C.R. 1983. Population status and habitat requirements of the eastern spotted skunk on the Ozark Plateau. M.S. Thesis. University of Missouri, Columbia. 60 pp.
4. Schwartz, C.W., and E.R. Schwartz. 2001. The Wild Mammals of Missouri. Second Edition. University of Missouri Press, Columbia. 392 pp.

Flying Squirrels

Squirrels are so common in Wisconsin that many of us take them for granted. They’re everywhere, stealing bird seed, digging holes, chattering from the tree outside of your window. Of all the animal photos we’ve collected at Snapshot Wisconsin, squirrels and chipmunks make up 9%, making them our second largest animal category after deer. Most people know of the gray squirrel and fox squirrel, but Wisconsin is home to eight other squirrel species as well. I was most surprised to learn that we have not just one, but two distinct species of flying squirrels (the northern flying squirrel and the southern flying squirrel).

A fox squirrel looking right at the camera
Fox squirrel captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera.

Growing up, I had no idea we had flying squirrels in our state. I had assumed that these unique gliders were only found in vast tracks of forest out west. Two years ago, a family friend told me a story about a flying squirrel that snuck in through a hole in their old farmhouse and took a nap inside one of their pillows. It wasn’t until they laid their head on the pillow that they startled the squirrel, which quickly bolted for safety. Thankfully, most of us don’t have alarming encounters with squirrels, but this story made me realize that I had been living alongside these small creatures all my life and I had no idea they were there. I decided to learn more about them. 

A small flying squirrel on a log at night.
Flying squirrel captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera at night.

Flying squirrels are nocturnal, which explains why they only show up on our Snapshot Wisconsin cameras at night. They have large, glassy eyes and cinnamon-colored fur. During the day, flying squirrels make themselves at home in old woodpecker holes or other naturally occurring cavities in trees. You might be able to catch a glimpse of one if you’re in the woods a few hours after dark, or just before dawn when they’re most active.

A flying squirrel spread out mid-flight
A ventral view of a flying squirrel captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera.

“Flying” is actually a misleading term since these tiny squirrels get around by jumping from the trunk of a tree, then using their extra skin to help them glide to the next trunk. The farthest observed glide was over 290 feet, but most glides are around 60 feet.  

Although the southern flying squirrel is found across the state, the northern flying squirrel is mostly found in the old-growth forests in the northern part of our state. The northern flying squirrel is a species of “special concern” in Wisconsin. This means it is not yet threatened or endangered, but they are still protected and monitored. A flying squirrel’s diet can include nuts, fruits, buds, and insects, but a large portion also comes from mushrooms. They help spread the spores of these fungi, which assist coniferous trees with water and nutrient absorption. The flying squirrels themselves are also prey for a large number of species, some of which include owls, coyotes, weasels, fox, and hawks.

I was surprised to learn just how much these small creatures contribute to our state’s ecosystems. It just goes to show that there’s always more to learn about the wildlife around you.

Sources:
https://www.eekwi.org/animals/mammals/flying-squirrel
https://dnr.wi.gov/files/PDF/pubs/er/ER0678.pdf
https://academic.oup.com/jmammal/article/88/4/862/909098#15736779

Contributing to Science While At Home

The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator Ryan Bower for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.

While the world is practicing social distancing, it can feel like there are limited options to stay connected with friends and family. Inspired by the boost in classifications during the pandemic, the Snapshot team wants to highlight ways that people can have fun together and still contribute to science.

Emily Buege Donovan, Research Scientist at the Wisconsin DNR and member of the Snapshot Wisconsin team, discusses a new opportunity within Snapshot Wisconsin and other ways to make classifying photos a group activity.

Donovan holds two positions within Snapshot, a database manager and spatial analyst. “I do a lot of spatial analysis, mapping and managing our spatial datasets,” said Donovan. “I also manage a lot of the Zooniverse data and regular functions of the Zooniverse site, and I support science products within Snapshot. It is a lot of odds and ends.” But of late, Donovan has been focusing on a new classification project within Snapshot.

Snapshot Wisconsin Bird Edition: Explained

Snapshot Wisconsin Bird Edition, as we’re calling it, is a collaboration between Snapshot Wisconsin and the Natural Heritage Conservation, specifically the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II,” said Donovan. The Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II is a multi-year census of the birds that are breeding in Wisconsin. Through documenting current bird breeding patterns and distribution, we can compare them to future numbers and identify areas that could be improved for better bird conservation efforts in Wisconsin.

Donovan explained, “At Snapshot, we classify only a handful of birds to the species-level, especially those of special management interest.” Whooping cranes, sandhill cranes and a few upland birds like turkey, grouse and pheasant are the only birds that are classified to the species level. “Everything else, all the other 250-plus species of birds that are found in Wisconsin, get classified as ‘Other bird.’ We have a long history of bird photos that were categorized into the umbrella category of ‘Other bird,’ and the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II was interested in any examples we had of birds breeding.”

Using catalogued photos that were previously classified as ‘Other bird,’ volunteers can add observations to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II through Zooniverse, just like when they are classifying for Snapshot. “The first step,” said Donovan, “is to classify these photos to the species level. The second step is to determine whether there is any evidence of breeding. Examples are birds carrying nesting materials, a pair of birds in suitable habitat or young birds like fledglings.”

Anyone with a bird field guide or the internet can contribute to this new project. There are resources available on the Zooniverse page that describe how the breeding codes work for birds. Donovan encourages anyone with an interest in birds and birding to participate.

“This is actually a really good way to practice birding,” said Donovan. “You can rewatch the sequence as many times as needed to get a good look. The bird isn’t going to fly away. Plus, you can dedicate as much or as little time as you want.”

owl

Join the Community on the Zooniverse Discussion Board!

In addition to the Snapshot Wisconsin Bird Edition, the Snapshot team also encouraged people to give the Snapshot discussion board a try. The discussion board can be found on the Snapshot Zooniverse page under the “Talk” tab.

“You can use it to help identify a tricky photo or ask for a second opinion. It’s also a great way to interact with the researchers and find out more about the project,” said Donovan. The discussion board has a community of frequent classifiers from across the globe who interact with each other using this feature. “With the current events going on, you can’t always get out and interact with people in person, so [the discussion board] is a great way to meet fellow wildlife enthusiasts and interact.”

Zooniverse allows classifiers to share individual photos to the discussion board. Whether sharing a silly animal selfie, an interesting coat pattern, or asking a question about an animal’s behavior, volunteers can share cool photos for others to see. Additionally, photos can be saved into collections. Collections, viewable under the “Collect” tab, are a great way to save your favorite pictures and are an easy way to see what others have saved.

Family of bobcatsIt is also common to tag photos with popular hashtags, such as #Multi_Species and #Interesting_Behavior, which automatically get added to each hashtag’s collection. Others can click on or search for that hashtag to find all of the photos with that specific tag. These hashtag and collection features are available without sharing them to the discussion board, but isn’t it more fun to share cool photos with others who will appreciate them?

One important hashtag of note is #SuperSnap. The #SuperSnap photos are reviewed each month by the Snapshot team, and one is chosen to be featured on our Zooniverse page. If you have a moment today, check out the great photos under the #SuperSnap collection! Or tag the best photos you come across, because one might get featured in a future post.

New Snapshot Activities

The Snapshot team has also been working on a few new ways that people can use Snapshot to stay involved with people they care about. Whether you are a parent looking for an afternoon activity to keep your kids entertained or friends wanting to do something meaningful together online, Snapshot has a few new options you can consider.

Snapshot already has lesson plans for educators on its website, but sometimes you don’t get the luxury of time to plan activities. “Having a niece and nephew myself, I understand you don’t always have the ability to plan ahead,” said Donovan. So, Snapshot developed two quick activities that you can do to spend time with someone you care about and help contribute to wildlife monitoring in Wisconsin.

The first activity is a Snapshot version of Bingo [PDF]. All the planning one needs to do is print out the bingo board and fill the spaces in using our recommendations or ones you come up with yourself. Then, jump on your Zooniverse account and classify photos until you come across a photo that fits a Bingo space and mark that space off. Play can be cooperative, playing with someone you can’t physically meet up with because of health concerns or distance, or play can be competitive between siblings or friends. The game is what you make it, so make it your own version of fun!

The second new activity is Snapshot Yoga [PDF]. In Snapshot Yoga, volunteers spend ten or so minutes classifying photos on Zooniverse, saving their favorites into a special collection. Then, as an away-from-screen activity, volunteers can try mimicking the photos in their collection. Any brave souls are welcome to share with us a photo of themselves trying one of these poses. Bonus points if you can capture a special Snapshot yoga moment with a friend, family member or pet! Donovan added, “I like that you can do these activities competitively or cooperatively. You can even send the photos to each other that you find [while classifying] to share them back and forth.”

A stretching fox in the snow

“I think these activities are entertaining for people of all ages, not just kids. Especially Wisconsinites, we have an interest and pride in our wildlife. People love looking at photos of animals. But this is different from a lot of other activities because it is interactive and contributes to wildlife research,” said Donovan. Descriptions of both activities can be found on the Snapshot webpage along side our resources for educators.

The next rainy day, the next time you’re craving some cool photos of animals, or the next time you want to do a fun activity with a loved one, consider Snapshot Wisconsin as an option. Just because we are practicing social distancing doesn’t mean we can’t still interact with those we care about and contribute towards something bigger than ourselves.

 

Bald Eagles in Wisconsin

Happy Fourth of July!

The bald eagle serves not only as a national symbol, but also as a conservation success story. Bald eagles were at high risk for extinction in the early 1900’s due to habitat destruction, illegal shooting, and contamination of their food sources. They have since made a comeback both in Wisconsin and across the United States through the Bald Eagle Protection Act, federal listing under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the banning of the pesticide DDT, and conservation actions by the public. Over the last 40 years, they have recovered from the brink of extinction and their range has expanded to 71 out of 72 counties in Wisconsin. There are plenty of ways for anyone who is interested to continue supporting bald eagles in Wisconsin and across the country. Members of the public can purchase an endangered resources plate or participate in the Adopt an Eagle Nest program. More suggestions from the American Eagle Foundation can be found here!

Check out some of our favorite bald eagle photos captured on Snapshot Wisconsin cameras from across the state!

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Birds of Snapshot Wisconsin

With migration in full swing and breeding season upon us, you may be noticing more feathered friends passing by your Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera.

While volunteers are not required to identify most birds down to the species level, we know that many volunteers are curious of what exactly is showing up in front of their trail cameras. According to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology around 250 bird species can be regularly found in Wisconsin, though more than 400 have been recorded in the state. Of this diverse variety of birds, there are a few that make frequent appearances on Snapshot Wisconsin trail cameras.

Check out the below slideshows to learn the ID’s of some of the common species found. More information about the species can be found in their linked names below. Please note the birds are not accurate size ratios.

Species that volunteers are required to ID:

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Learn more about Sandhill Crane, Whooping Crane, Wild Turkey, Ring-necked Pheasant and Ruffed Grouse.

Common woodpeckers:

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Learn more about Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker.

Common water birds:

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Learn more about Wood Duck, Mallard, Canada Goose and Great Blue Heron.

Common raptors:

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Learn more about Bald Eagle, Barred Owl, Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk.

Other common birds:

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Learn more about American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, American Woodcock, American Crow, Hermit Thrush, Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbird.

For those interested in exploring more Snapshot Wisconsin birds, this year the Snapshot Wisconsin team embarked on a new project with all the “other bird” photos showing up in front of the trail cameras. Snapshot Wisconsin Bird Edition is a collaboration between Snapshot Wisconsin and the Wisconsin DNR Natural Heritage Conservation. The goal is to identify all of Snapshot Wisconsin’s bird images to a species level and to look for evidence of breeding. Breeding observations will be reported to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II and observations of uncommon, rare, or endangered species will be reported to the Natural Heritage Conservation. Learn more and get started at birds.snapshotwisconsin.org.

Rare Species of Wisconsin

Let’s take a dive into the rare mammals of Wisconsin! Although we do not expect to see many of these species captured on Snapshot Wisconsin trail cameras, having the option available to volunteers provides an excellent opportunity to identify their occurrences in the state. Each month, Snapshot Wisconsin staff members review any images classified as one of the following species to determine the validity of the identification. Volunteers have already accurately identified multiple moose, a marten and even a whooping crane on camera! Read below to find out more and prepare yourself for spotting even more rare species hiding in the massive Snapshot Wisconsin dataset.

Somewhat unlikely:

Whooping crane (Grus americana) – Whooping cranes are extremely rare, but there is a small introduced population in Wisconsin. These towering birds are snowy white with red crowns and black-tipped wings that can be seen in flight. The species declined to around 20 birds in the 1940’s but number about 600 today.

More likely: sandhill crane. Sandhill cranes have slate gray to rusty brown bodies, white cheeks and red crowns. Depending on the iron content of the soil in the area, sandhill cranes can appear lighter or whiter in color.

WhoopingCrane

Marten (Martes americana) – The American pine marten was extirpated from Wisconsin in the early 1900’s but has since been reintroduced to certain parts of the state. The fur of a marten varies from dark brown to tan and may contain yellow tones. Marten usually have a paler head and dark legs (though color is difficult to tell in nighttime photos when marten are most active). Marten also have a whitish cream to orange throat and relatively large rounded ears.

More likely: mink, weasel or fisher. Mink are a small, long-bodied animal that is typically found near water. The fur of a mink is dark brown and they sometimes have white patches on the chin and chest. Compared to marten, mink are more uniformly colored and have smaller ears. All weasels are small and have long, thin bodies with short legs. In the summer, weasels are light to dark brown with white markings on the chin, throat, chest and/or stomach, during the winter the coat of weasels turns to white. Weasel are smaller than marten, and have less bushy tails. Fisher are a long-bodied species with very long tails and have dark brown fur all year long. The feet and tail are generally darker than the body and head, and some fisher have a cream-colored patch on the chest.

Marten

Moose (Alces alces) – Moose were extirpated from Wisconsin in the late 1800’s, but visitors from farther north are occasionally spotted in upper parts of the state. They are one of the largest land mammals in North America and have a blackish brown body with a long nose. Males have large palmate antlers and the young are reddish brown. Because they are such a tall animal, it is often that only the legs and feet are visible in Snapshot Wisconsin photos.

More likely: elk or deer. Elk have a large, thick body with long slender legs. They have a dark brown head and neck, lighter body and a cream-colored rump. Males have antlers which fork off a main branch and a dark shaggy mane that hangs from the neck to the chest. The young have white spots. Deer are lightly built, and grayish brown to reddish brown in color. The underside of their short tail is white. Males have antlers which fork off a main branch and the young are reddish brown in color with white spots.

Moose

Feral pig – Feral pigs are non-native, domestic pigs that have become feral after living in the wild. Sightings are more common in the southern U.S. but are occasionally reported in Wisconsin. They are stocky animals and can vary greatly in size and color. Compared to domestic swine, they have longer snouts, longer course hair, a straight tail, and may have tusks.

More likely: deer, black bear or other large mammal. Due to their large stature, a feral pig can be misidentified as other more common large animals, such as deer or bear. Deer are lightly built, and grayish brown to reddish brown in color. Black bear are large, round animals with dark brown or black coats.

Feral Pig

Highly unlikely:

Lynx (Lynx canadensis) – There are no known breeding populations of lynx in Wisconsin, though an occasional visitor from Canada will pass through. The coat of this cat varies from gray to grayish brown with spots on the legs and belly. The lynx has long black tuffs on the ears, short black-tipped tails, long legs, and very large furry feet.

More likely: bobcat. Bobcat coats vary from gray to reddish brown, typically with spots, especially on the belly. Bobcats have stripes on the insides of the legs, and telltale white markings on the backs of the ears. They have short tails that, on the tip, are black above with white below.

Lynx

Cougar (Puma concolor) – There are no known breeding populations of cougars in Wisconsin, though there have been several recent sightings of wandering young males from out west. The coat of this large slender cat varies from yellowish brown to grayish brown with a lighter color belly and throat. Their head is relatively small and the area behind the ears is black. Cougars have a long black-tipped tail.

More likely: bobcat. Bobcat coats vary from gray to reddish brown, typically with spots, especially on the belly. Bobcats have stripes on the insides of the legs, and telltale white markings on the backs of the ears. They have short tails that, on the tip, are black above with white below.

Cougar

EXTREMELY unlikely:

Jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) – Though formerly abundant in Wisconsin, this species is now extremely scarce. Jackrabbits’ upper side is grayish brown in color with gray or white on the underside, and in the winter, the fur is white. The tail is white year-round. Jackrabbits have ears which are longer than the head.

More likely: cottontail rabbit or snowshoe hare. The fur of the cottontail rabbit is brown in color with longer gray and black guard hairs, giving it a grizzled appearance. Their fur does not typically vary with seasons, and their ears are often shorter than the hind feet and are small in proportion to the body. A snowshoe hare is slightly larger than a cottontail, and their coat varies with the seasons turning from dark brown/reddish to white during winter months. Hare have long feet and black tipped ears are large in proportion to the body.

Jackrabbit

Spotted skunk (Spilogale putoris) – The spotted skunk hasn’t been seen in Wisconsin in 30+ years, and only in the southwestern part of the state. They have the same black fur as striped skunks, but instead have white blotches all over. The spotted skunk’s bushy tail is white underneath and at the tip.

More likely: striped skunk. Striped skunks bear a white stripe that runs down the center of their face, usually have two white stripes going down the back, and a long/fluffy black tail.

SpottedSkunk

Wolverine (Gulo gulo) – Wolverines are considered extirpated from Wisconsin. They have thick, coarse, dark brown fur with light brown stripes starting at the shoulders and traveling along the body to the base of the tail. Wolverines have a fluffy tail and often have a light-brown face.

More likely: porcupine, skunk or badger. The body of a porcupine is stout with an arched back and covered in quills. Porcupines appear dark brown in color and have small round ears and tiny dark eyes. Striped skunks bear a white stripe that runs down the center of their face, usually have two white stripes going down the back, and a long/fluffy black tail (though the pattern of striped skunks is often distorted during nighttime images). Badgers have low, wide bodies with short legs. The fur of a badger ranges from grayish to reddish along the back with a buff colored underside. Badgers have distinctive black patches on their face and a white stripe extending from nose, down the back.

Wolverine

Natural Design

The destiny of a Snapshot Wisconsin photograph is to contribute to a one-of-a-kind data set, ultimately supporting management decisions related to Wisconsin’s wildlife. However, the development of this data set is not the only goal of the project. The photos, through their collection and distribution, also serve to pursue the goal of public engagement. As the project has grown, as has our collection of incredible wildlife photos, and the photos have begun to speak for themselves. For me, personally, the fact that we can’t entirely control what the photos will look like (i.e. which animals will present themselves for a photo, and what they will be doing) adds to the appeal.  Trail camera photos show life uninhibited – especially with the increasing quality of the photos as technology improves. Many of our crowd-sourcing volunteers and trail camera hosts can attest that not every trigger captures a moment in time with crisp detail, however. That is the nature of trail cameras. Recently achieving the milestone of over 2,000 cameras on the landscape, Snapshot Wisconsin has learned some simple camera deployment tricks to increase the chances of catching a spectacular photo.

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This turkey photo captured in Waupaca County has some diffuse back-lighting, so no details are washed out on the subject.

A trail camera operator who wants to maximize the visual appeal of their photos can benefit from considering some properties of traditional photography. First, let’s talk about light. The camera will read the amount of available light and automatically adjust its settings, but the camera operator does have some control over the direction of light in the photographs.  Some Wisconsin animals have crepuscular activity patterns, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, when the sun is low on the horizon. We often recommend positioning cameras to face north so that animals will never be back-lit and overpowered by the bright sun, as they may be if the camera is facing east or west. We recommend north over south because Wisconsin’s relatively high-latitude position in the Northern Hemisphere means that the sun will always be hanging in the southern sky, especially in the wintertime. The best compass bearing for the camera will undoubtedly vary from site-to-site, however. Take the above turkey photo, for example. This photo was taken at 10:42 AM, and the shadows cast by the trees indicate that the sun is behind the subject. This camera is likely facing east. In this case, the forest is dense enough to block out the light directly, and the trail appears to be coming up a slope. The key here is to consider where in the camera’s field of view the light will be coming from.

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A Jackson County bobcat entered the camera’s field of view at a distance of around 15 feet.

The next consideration, image sharpness, is a little more difficult to control. There are a lot of factors that can play into how crisp or soft an image will be, including how quickly the animal is moving, where it decides to enter the frame, and when it visits the camera site (sharp nighttime photos are notoriously rare).  For locations along a clearly defined game or maintained trail, a few helpful considerations can be made. Our cameras tend to take the sharpest images when the subject is around 10-15 feet away. Placing the camera at approximately this distance from where animals are expected to cross in front of the camera can increase the chances that the animal will be in focus.

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This red fox from Oneida County seems to pose for a portrait. The snow-heavy branches frame the scene nicely, and the fox’s red coat stands out in contrast with the white background.

The final element that I’d like to touch upon is composition. What makes the composition of a photo “good” is difficult to discuss, not only because it’s a matter of opinion, but also because the composition within the frame can change based on the time of year. Not to mention, we can’t always predict where in the frame the animal is going to be captured and in what position! This is tied to one of my sentiments at the beginning of the post – the composition is often special because we can’t control the details. This concept known as “natural design”. It’s familiar to most of us who have a fondness for nature; a glen of naturally-scattered ferns has a special quality that just wouldn’t be the same if they were hand-placed.  Our trail camera hosts often have a relationship with the natural design of their unique camera site, which has resulted in Snapshot staff curating individual collections of our own favorite snaps.  Of course, being aesthetically pleasing does not give a photo any more weight in our data set, but the potential for such photographs is another reason that Snapshot Wisconsin is such a special project.

Feeling artsy? Check out the past blog, “Getting artsy with Snapshot Wisconsin” to hear more about the creative side of the project.

An Iowan Learns About Porcupines

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Before joining Snapshot Wisconsin in 2016, I knew very little about porcupines. I grew up in Iowa where porcupines were extirpated in the 1800’s. What I knew consisted of what I learned from my grandparents as a youngster on summer fishing trips to northern Minnesota. Essentially, porcupines have sharp quills and you don’t want your dog to tangle with them. I never saw a porcupine on any of these trips but was always on alert to make sure my dog, a Miniature Schnauzer named George, never wandered too far.

My first task upon joining Snapshot Wisconsin was classifying photos from Black River Falls, where trail cameras are in place to monitor the reintroduced elk population. As I was flipping through photos, I kept seeing these critters that I couldn’t identify. They were small, rounded and dark colored, always facing away from the camera, and only appearing at night. I wasn’t sure what these could be, and we had yet to create resources to help with this task, such as the Snapshot Wisconsin Field Guide*. Sometimes I classified them as raccoons and sometimes as beaver (in my defense, our early cameras didn’t take very clear photos!)  Eventually, my porcupine identification skills improved and thankfully so did the photo quality of our cameras. Porkies have since become one of my favorite species captured on our cameras. Read below to learn more about these quill-y, charismatic critters!

There is only one species of porcupine in Wisconsin, the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). Worldwide there are 23 different species of porcupines. Our porcupine is the second largest rodent in North America, only beavers are larger. Their size ranges from 7-30 pounds and 20-26 inches. They typically give birth to one young per year. Young are called porcupettes.

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Porcupines are herbivores, consuming tree bark, branches, buds, evergreen needles, garden produce, and even tool handles.. A common misconception is that porcupines can shoot their quills when threatened. The quills are actually loosely attached  and embed themselves in the unfortunate victim when they come in direct contact with the porcupine.

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Porcupines occur in the Northern and Central Forest regions of Wisconsin. To date, we have had  4,175 reports of porcupine from trail camera hosts. These have not yet been verified and presumably include a few raccoons and beavers due to my early classification mistakes and similar errors by other staff and volunteers. A handful of porcupine classifications from southern Wisconsin (Grant, Iowa and Waukesha counties) revealed the true species to be woodchuck, raccoon, unknown bird and squirrel. Species distribution maps are quite useful for classifying our photos and Snapshot Wisconsin data will be instrumental in updating these in future.

Find out more about porcupines at the links below!

Sources:

*Snapshot Wisconsin Classification Field Guide (located on the right hand side of your screen while classifying photos on Zooniverse)

Chutes and Otters

otters

A “romp” of river otters seen on a Snapshot Wisconsin camera in 2015.

Within the scientific field of animal behavior, research topics such as parental care, natural selection, and feeding tendencies seem to arise far more frequently than animal play.  After all, a life in the wild tends to revolve less around play and more around survival.  For some animals, however, play is an integral part of their lifestyles and ultimately their perseverance.  River otters, for example, are social animals with a playful and charismatic reputation.  As their name suggests, river otters do not typically stray far from waterways, and some Snapshot Wisconsin cameras are perfectly positioned to capture interesting otter behavior.  We have observed otters grooming together, wrestling with one another, and – perhaps most amusingly for our staff and volunteers – sliding across the snow.  At the bottom of this post there is a compilation of otter slide photos.

otter_door017_4.15.18a-e1551379448343.pngUndeniably, sliding across snow or mud is an effective method for locomotion when you compare it an otter’s normal gate – a cylindrical body bounding on short legs.  It’s the kind of body shape that glides effortlessly through the water but doesn’t demonstrate the same sort of grace on land.  Those proportions make it especially tough to traverse snow, just take it from the otter pictured on the right.

Is sliding truly just an efficient way to travel, or does the otter’s seemingly spirited nature play a role in this behavior as well?  2005 paper published in the Northeastern Naturalist suggests that it could be both.  The study analyzed 5 minutes and 49 seconds of video of wild otters in Pennsylvania.  The otters were observed sliding 16 times, an excessive number for the sake of conserving energy.

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A Snapshot Wisconsin otter on what may be a latrine site.

The term “otter slide” doesn’t just refer to a mode of transportation, however.  It can also refer to the marks near riverbanks that are left when otters slide in and out of the water.  Often repeated otter sliding will occur near latrine sites, where the animals will go to deposit and read scent-coded messages from other otters in the area.  The slides are such a great indicator of otter presence, that the Wisconsin DNR conducts aerial surveys in the winter to help determine population trends.  Whatever the motivation is behind the sliding behavior, we certainly enjoy watching it on our trail cameras.

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The Process of Deer Antlers

Did you know that white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) antlers are one of the fastest growing tissues known to man? For instance, human fingernails grow between 1 to 10 centimeters a year whereas white-tailed antlers grow several centimeters each day during the growing stage! Unlike human fingernails, deer antlers are composed of veins, arteries, vessels, and cartilaginous tissue. Many hunters believe that the bigger the rack the older the buck. Yet, the inspection of teeth is the only accurate indication of a deer’s age. The greatest antler size within a buck’s life is from age five to seven. Factors sure as age, genetics, and nutrition of the buck determines the magnitude of antler size. Keep reading below to learn how antlers grow and change throughout the year!

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Pedicles, the area attaching the antler to the skull, are first formed on top of a buck’s head during late winter and spring and can reach up to ¼ of the ear-length. Snapshot Wisconsin asks volunteers to classify any deer with formations less than ¼ of the deer’s ear-length as antlerless, while reserving the antlered classifications for more than ¼ of the deer’s ear-length.

To create antlers in early spring, minerals in the ribs and shoulders of the buck are redistributed in his body. Velvet (pubescent skin) covers the antler and provides nutrients through the flow of blood. These nutrients cause antler growth. During the velvet stage, the antlers are very sensitive. Any impact will be painful and could, due to the fragile state, cause breakage. Nevertheless, this sensitivity allows the buck to comprehend the size of its antlers and, eventually, the buck will move through the forest with ease.

By late summer, the antlers are fully grown. Blood flow becomes constricted, causing gradual hardening and calcification. The velvet dies off in response and, like a sunburnt human, the buck becomes annoyed and wants to peel the excess skin off. The buck rubs his antlers on trees to rid himself of the velvet, exposing glabrous antlers. This rubbing strengthens the buck’s neck, which will come in handy during the rut where the buck will compete with other bucks’ antlered attacks.

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Due to reduced sunlight and testosterone, white-tailed bucks’ antlers fall off around January and February. Their body absorbs the calcium between the antler and pedicle, which weakens the antler, causing it to eventually fall off. If you’re looking for a hobby this time of year, check out shed hunting! Shed hunting is the pastime of searching for antlers that have been naturally shed by antlered bearing mammals. Another great hobby for this time of year is checking out the trail camera photos captured by the Snapshot Wisconsin project! Start viewing and classify photos today!

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