A Very Beary Animal Scat Challenge

PEEC Educator Denise Matthews and her helpers, Hugo and Jasper, joined us for Bear Festival to teach everyone how to play the Very Beary Animal Scat Challenge!

Join PEEC’s Play-based Education Specialist Denise Matthews and her helpers, Hugo and Jasper, to learn about the Very Beary Animal Scat Challenge in this video!

Try this activity out at home! Here are instructions for how to make the playdough and complete the challenge at home. If you try it out, we’d love to see your “scat” photos! Please send them to publicity@peecnature.org.

Be sure to check out the other events, contests, and more going on for Bear Festival here!

Nature Art

Liv Niklasson created this piece of land art in early April and it was still intact in mid-May when she checked up on it! What art can you make with the natural materials around you? (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)

This week on Take It Outside, learn how local artists have been inspired by the natural world around them, and spend some time making nature art yourself.

This week, we’re also celebrating Los Alamos ScienceFest virtually! See what PEEC has in store for this virtual festival.

Summer Nature Challenge:

Participate in our Summer Nature Challenge! Every week, participants who complete the challenge can earn a sticker. If you finish all nine weeks, you’ll earn a bonus sticker! Find our archive containing all of our past Take It Outside activities here.

Download the challenge sheet here to print out and complete at home. At the end of the challenge, you can either bring it to the nature center or mail it to us at 2600 Canyon Rd, Los Alamos, NM 87544.

If you don’t have a printer or prefer to work online, you can tell us about your experiences in the Google Form below or email your stories and pictures to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

Blog Post:

Patricia Galagan reflects on photographing our forests with her husband Philip Metcalf in the aftermath of the Las Conchas fire. Their book, Fire Ghosts, was published in late 2019 and features their photography portfolios from this project. Learn more about what they learned from this process in this week’s blog post.

Outdoor Challenges:

We’re posting three outdoor challenges today that you can enjoy throughout the week!

Tell us about your experiences with one, two, or all three of them! You can do this in the Google Form below, by writing or drawing about them on our summer challenge sheet, or by sending an email to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

 

Challenge #1 – Land Art:

Go outside and spend some time getting a feel for the area, then gather natural materials that speak to you. Use them to create land art, ideally using the materials in the area where you found them. If you like, take a picture of your artwork, and share it with us! Leave the art for others to discover, and to break down naturally over time.

See some additional tips here.

 

Challenge #2 – Wildlife Photography:

A male Calliope Hummingbird photographed at a hummingbird feeder. They are the smallest birds in the United States! (Photo by Aditya Viswanathan)

This challenge is from Aditya Viswanathan, a rising sixth-grader from Los Alamos and wildlife photographer.

July is a great time to learn wildlife photography as the hummingbirds are coming to Los Alamos in large quantities. Here are a few activities that you can try to get started or fine-tune your skills. If you have a hummingbird feeder, you can wait for a while and see which hummingbirds come and try to photograph them. Hummingbirds like to visit feeders and you’re more likely to see them at one rather than on a flower. If you don’t have a feeder, try making a simple one from recycled materials! Make sure to get the camera crosshairs on the hummingbird, or else the photo will be blurry. Phones work okay, but cameras (especially ones with zoom lenses) are better if you have one. It will take a bit of practice and patience, but if you stick with it, you should have some very good photos.

If you are ready for a bigger challenge, research which flowers different hummingbirds like. Hint: hummingbirds like red, tubular flowers. If you don’t have any of them, other flowers work too. Wait at a flower of your choice for about half an hour and see if any hummingbirds come. Photographing them at a flower will create a more natural-looking picture. Butterflies and bees may come too, which are also good photo targets.

Another advanced challenge that you can do is try to freeze a hummingbird’s wing while in flight. To do this, adjust the shutter speed in the menus. I recommend 1/1000 seconds for the shutter speed. Please note that some cameras don’t have this feature. I hope you find these activities fun and helpful. Send a picture you snap to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or post it on social media and tag @peecnature!

Challenge #3 – Nature Sketching:

Practice nature sketching this week by drawing the details of different leaves! (Photo by Terry Foxx)

This challenge comes from Teralene Foxx, co-author and illustrator of Plants of the Jemez Mountains, which can be ordered from PEEC’s online shop.

Sketching is a good way of learning and remembering the different shapes and sizes you observe in nature. Wander around your backyard or go on a hike and collect five leaves from five different plants (make sure to stay away from shiny, 3-leaved poison ivy!). Note what plant the leaf comes from: a flower, a shrub, or a tree. Are the leaves positioned opposite each other or do they alternate along the stem? Write down what you see. Look at the top of the leaf and the underside and see any differences.

With a paper and pencil, lay the leaf on the paper and trace around the outside of the leaf. Now you have the outside dimensions of the leaf. Observe the leaf carefully and draw anything you see about the leaf and put the detail into your drawing (e.g. the edge of the leaf, the veins, the color, hairs, texture). Ask yourself: Is the top of the leaf the same color as the bottom of the leaf? Record this information. If you have colored pencils or crayons, you might want to color the leaf. If you have a ruler, you might want to measure the different sizes of leaves and make a note. 

After you practice shapes and sizes of leaves, try drawing a leaf without tracing the outside of the leaf. You will be amazed at the different shapes and sizes of leaves!

 

Want to Learn More?

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about your outdoor experiences! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside. If you’d like this to count for the Summer Nature Challenge, be sure to include your name and email address.

Animals

Mule deer are a common large mammal here in Northern New Mexico. These deer are named for their large, donkey-like ears! (Photo by Mouser Williams)

This week on Take It Outside, explore the world of our local animals. In past Take It Outside posts, we’ve explored reptiles and amphibians, mammals, birds, and insects. Find information and activities about these topics and more on our archive page. This week, we’re exploring aquatic animals, animal signs, and animal behavior in our outdoor challenges. Plus, take a special look at New Mexico’s fish in this week’s blog post!

Summer Nature Challenge:

Participate in our Summer Nature Challenge! Every week, participants who complete the challenge can earn a sticker. If you finish all nine weeks, you’ll earn a bonus sticker! Find our archive containing all of our past Take It Outside activities here.

Download the challenge sheet here to print out and complete at home. At the end of the challenge, you can either bring it to the nature center or mail it to us at 2600 Canyon Rd, Los Alamos, NM 87544.

If you don’t have a printer or prefer to work online, you can tell us about your experiences in the Google Form below or email your stories and pictures to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

Blog Post:

Do you like to fish? Have you ever wondered how native and introduced fish in our ecosystem differ? Casey Harthorn of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish discusses fish in New Mexico, with a special look at our state’s native and introduced trout species. Read his blog post here.

Outdoor Challenges:

We’re posting three outdoor challenges today that you can enjoy throughout the week!

Tell us about your experiences with one, two, or all three of them! You can do this in the Google Form below, by writing or drawing about them on our summer challenge sheet, or by sending an email to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

 

PEEC campers were able to find frog eggs, tadpoles, and adult frogs in this pool in Acid Canyon. (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)

Challenge #1 – Aquatic Animals:

Northern New Mexico doesn’t have a lot of water, but aquatic animals are able to find and take advantage of even very small bodies of water to grow and reproduce.

Seek out water in your area, like rivers, lakes or reservoirs, stock ponds, springs, or pools in canyon bottoms, and look for signs of aquatic animals. Here are some things to look for:

  • Adults and larvae of aquatic invertebrates (insects and other small critters)
  • Frog or salamander eggs, tadpoles or nymphs, and adults
  • Fish
  • Birds, reptiles, and mammals visiting water sources

 

Challenge #2 – Animal Scat:

Scat can tell us who was in an area and also what they ate. Go on a hike and look for scat! How many of these can you find? Based on what you find, what types of food are animals eating in your area?

  • Scat containing berries or fruit
  • Scat containing grass or other plants
  • Scat containing fur or bones
  • Scat containing insect parts

Remember that all scat contains bacteria, so don’t touch it with your fingers (use a stick!) and wash your hands when you get home. Stay away from dog poop, which is often very uniform in texture and lacks recognizable food items, since most domestic dogs eat processed dog food. Remember to always clean up your own dog’s poop when out on the trail!

Test your knowledge of animal scat in this poop quiz, too!

Challenge #3 – Animal Behavior:

This squirrel was photographed with a mouth full of nesting materials! (Photo by Mouser Williams)

It’s fascinating to watch animals go about their daily lives. Go outside and find an animal: a bird, insect or other invertebrate, mammal, reptile, amphibian, or fish. Be as still as you can to let it get used to you, and watch what it does. Can you see how it does any of the following things?

  • Gathering food and eating
  • Moving around
  • Regulating its temperature
  • Feeding and caring for young
  • Nesting
  • Taking shelter
  • Interacting with others of the same or another species
  • Communicating with others
  • Defending itself or its young
  • Playing

If you have a nature journal, record some of your observations. Let us know what you notice!

 

Want to Learn More?

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about your outdoor experiences! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside. If you’d like this to count for the Summer Nature Challenge, be sure to include your name and email address.

Week 3, Day 3: Scat and Tracks

This gray fox says, “You can’t leave tracks when you walk on a fence!” (Photo by Bob Walker)

We are exploring scat and tracks in today’s Take It Outside post. Learn how you can get started identifying tracks, scat, and other animal signs when hiking on our trails in today’s lesson. We’d love to see what you find while exploring the outdoors today!

Upcoming Event:

Join Bob Walker today at 10 AM on the Los Alamos Nature Center’s wildlife observation camera livestream to see what birds and other critters are visiting the nature center. Tune into the livestream here.

Blog Post:

Wildlife biologist and PEEC’s Field Science Specialist Mariana Rivera Freeman shares some tips on looking at scat, tracks, and other animal signs while out on the trails. Check out today’s blog post here.

Craft:

Play a scat mystery game!

Look at the scat of black bears, coyotes, mountain lions, raccoons, and mule deer.

Have each person in your family choose one or two types of animal scat. Make the animal scat from playdough or mud balls, matching shape and size. Go on a walk to collect add-ins for your scat. Some ideas:

  • Dried crabapples, rosehips, and juniper berries
  • Grass and other small plants
  • Small twigs to represent bones
  • Pussy willows, other tree buds, or dried grass to represent fur
  • Small seeds or shiny rocks to represent insect parts

Once the scat is finished, line them all up for a mystery challenge. Have each family member guess what animal each type of scat came from. We definitely want to see pictures of your homemade scat, so share them with us on Facebook or Instagram, or email them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

Use this homemade playdough recipe if you don’t have playdough at home.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Scat can tell us who was in an area and also what they ate. Go on a hike and look for scat! How many of these can you find? Based on what you find, what types of food are animals eating in your area?

  • Scat containing berries or fruit
  • Scat containing grass or other plants
  • Scat containing fur or bones
  • Scat containing insect parts

Remember that all scat contains bacteria, so don’t touch it with your fingers (use a stick!) and wash your hands when you get home. Stay away from dog poop, which is often very uniform in texture and lacks recognizable food items, since most domestic dogs eat processed dog food. Remember to always clean up your own dog’s poop when out on the trail!

Test your knowledge of animal scat in this poop quiz, too!

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Mule deer are a common sight on the Pajarito Plateau. Can you find their scat, tracks, or other signs of them while outside today? (Photo by Bob Walker)

Look for signs of wildlife on your walk! Look for:

  • Scat
  • Tracks
  • Fur
  • Feathers
  • Owl pellets
  • Animal burrows or nests
  • Scratch or peck marks on trees or in the ground
  • Animal middens (piles of food waste, like pinecone bracts)

Can you identify any of the creatures they came from? You can use our downloadable scat and track guide, our online Track Guide, or the other resources listed below to help you identify the signs. Let us know what interesting things you find out there today!

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our four-footed friends this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Tomorrow, we’ll explore black bears and seasonal behavior!

Detective Work on the Trails

Check out what a bobcat’s tracks look like on PEEC’s online track guide. (Photo by Bob Walker)

By Mariana Rivera Freeman

If you’ve been hitting the trails as much as I have lately, you’ve likely come across a lot of animal scat, tracks, and trails. Collectively, we call these spoor, or signs. It can be a fun exercise to search for and follow animal signs when you’re exploring the outdoors, and you can learn much from these little (or sometimes big) calling cards our wild neighbors leave behind. Not only can you determine what species of animal you’re looking at, but also which direction the animal was going, how quickly it was moving, whether it was alone or with company, and, with scat, what the animal likes to eat.

Identifying tracks in the wild doesn’t require many tools, gladly. Keeping a track and scat guide in your pocket is a quick and sure way to identify signs, but you needn’t carry books with you as long as you have some way to capture an image of the track, and a ruler or other item for scale. If you don’t have a camera, you can bring your nature journal or scrap paper to capture the likeness of a track or scat — the way naturalists have done for centuries!

No image is complete without scale, as it’s impossible to determine the exact size of a track without it. Hence the measuring tool. You can use a small ruler to get immediate measurements, or you can improvise and use something that can be measured later. Coins work great for this purpose, as well as keys, pencils, bobby pins, mostly anything. A word of warning, however! Be careful in the case of scat not to drop your measuring tool into the poop! I offer this great wisdom from personal experience.

Now that you have your equipment, you’re ready to do some detective work. Let’s start with tracks.

Tracks

Every wild animal has its own unique footprint, and defining the shape of that print (which we call a track) is usually the easiest way to identify species. Snow and mud are best for this. But in the presence of an ill-defined track (which is almost always the case), you can also turn to size to further pinpoint species. This is why a measuring tool is so important! A mule deer track, for example, won’t be larger than 3¼” long; in contrast to an elk track, which can measure up to 4¾” long.

Check out PEEC’s online Track Guide to learn more about the species you’ll see locally.

If you’re lucky enough to find a trail of tracks and you happen to have measuring tape, or you simply enjoy hiking with a yardstick, measuring the stride of an animal can also help differentiate species. Stride is measured from the heel of one foot to the heel of the next foot in the trail. A mule deer’s stride (the distance between prints) will typically be 24”, for example, while an elk’s stride can be double that length. The animal must have been ambling, however, for you to measure precise strides.

Scat

A mule deer scat pile in southern New Mexico. Notice how the photographer used a pen as a size reference. (Photo by J.N. Stuart)

If it’s your lucky day, you may find some scat in the trail. This is our much-dignified word for animal poop. Whether with tracks or without, you can use the shape, size, and contents of scat to differentiate wild species. This is especially true of mammals, whose diets are more widely varied.

Shape is perhaps the most important consideration when it comes to scat. You’ve likely come upon piles of poop pellets on the trails, for example. These pellets can be round or oval, they can be piled like pebbles or squashed in a clump. Regardless, if you find pellets you are looking at rabbit, deer, elk, or even bighorn sheep.

Size and ingredients of the scat are good determinants as well, though size and diet differences between juveniles and adults of the same species can cause some confusion. But your measuring tool will come in handy again if you can’t quite decide how small or big the scat is. Fox and coyote poop can look a lot alike, for example. Both animals have tubular scat that usually tapers at the end, and both may have fur and berries or other components of an omnivorous diet. Coyote scat, however, can reach 4” long; while fox scat is generally no longer than 2”.

Whether you’ve found a gooey dinner-plate sized dropping (likely a bear) or a palm-size pile of tiny pellets (likely a rabbit), there’s one rule you must always follow! Never touch the scat with bare hands. But do take a twig and poke at that poop, for investigative purposes of course!

A Last Thought

If after all your measurements and detective work, you’re still not sure what animal you’re tracking, knowing a little about behavior and ecology (an animal’s relationship with its environment) can be a huge help. 

For example, squirrel tracks typically lead from tree to tree, and under or along logs. You’re more likely to find elk tracks in a grassland than deer. You may look around and see claw marks where a bear scraped a tree. Remember to look up and around, too, and you may spot signs you’ve never noticed before!