In today’s post, Jessie Pleasance, staff at Neys Provincial Park Discovery, helps us learn some identification skills.
Summer is in full swing, so it’s time to brush up on your nature detective skills!
Learning to track and detect wildlife is a privilege, so the first thing you need to know is how to respect the habitats you are in, which will help us preserve the ecological integrity of our park’s diverse ecosystems.
Always respect wildlife by being as discreet as possible. In other words, do your best to leave the ecosystem as you found it. This means things like not picking flowers (no matter how beautiful they are), not constantly moving sticks or stones, and especially not littering.
Remember to practice “leave no trace,” and if you wouldn’t do it in your own home, please don’t do it in the homes of the precious flora and fauna of our parks.
Another thing you should know is where you can find various flora and fauna.
In the city, you may find it difficult to find different species to detect and track. However, Ontario’s parks offer a wide variety of ecosystems and habitats to explore and spot.
Once you put on your hiking boots and adopt a positive attitude, there’s only one more thing you may need before you venture out: a guide!
Guides are a great resource to pack and take with you. You can keep one in your backpack for easy access during a hike.
iNaturalist is a great app that will help you during your investigations in case you find something you can’t identify. If you take a photo of your finds, you can post it so professional naturalists can identify it for you. Whether it’s in seconds or a couple of days, you should have answers.
Learn more about using iNaturalist.
Plants don’t leave the same type of tracks that animals do, so you’ll have to stumble upon a plant first.
Once you find a plant, you’ll need to know how to identify it. Below are some basic features that will help you get an accurate identification.
Questions to consider
- What type of plant is it? Is it a bush? A tree?
- How many petals does it have?
- How many leaves? (This can be very helpful in identifying poisonous plants like poison ivy. Remember, leaves of three, leave it at that!)
- What shape are the leaves? Palm, heart, round or maybe even needles? This can help you rule out evergreens if the leaves are not needles, or reduce the number if they are!
- Are the leaf veins reticular or parallel?
- Do the leaves have a simple pattern or a compound pattern?
- Are the edges of the leaves smooth, toothed or lobed?
- Is the stem arrangement alternate, opposite or whorled?
- What is the location of the plant? Plants differ from place to place, so it is important to note where you saw your find. A plant found in southern Ontario may not be found in northern Ontario and vice versa.
- What month are you seeing the plant? Knowing a plant’s flowering time is helpful in determining what you may be seeing.
These are just a few questions to help you begin your plant identification process.
Pink lady’s slipper
Take the pink lady’s slipper for example.
This flower already has so many unique characteristics that make it very easy to identify. It has two large basal leaves, which grow up to 20 cm long, have many veins and are elliptical in shape.
The inflated lip of the flower (the slipper part) is between 3 and 6 cm long and is usually dark pink, but this can vary.
If you are lucky enough to come across one of these beautiful flowers, be very careful not to disturb it.
Only about 2% of Pink Lady slippers are pollinated, as the bees recognize that there is no nectar reward for them.
Pink Lady slippers also take a long time to bloom for the first time – about nine years!
Summer is the best time to explore some of the different trails left by many species.
First things first: are the slopes BIG or small?
Once you know the approximate size of the footprint, you can rule out several species.
Look to see if the prints are shaped like hooves or paws.
If the print is a hoof print, then you can be sure that the animal you are tracking is an ungulate such as a moose or deer.
After that, you can narrow your searches by looking at the specific shape of the print and the number of fingers it has.
One trail that is almost impossible to miss is animal droppings!
You heard me: poop.
Traces of feces can tell us a lot about what kind of animals have been in the area, and approximately when, as well as what they may have been eating.
Pay close attention to the size and shape of the stool.
If you find something that looks a little like chocolate covered almonds, don’t eat it! Looks are deceiving…
What is that sound?
If you listen carefully, nature often tells you who its inhabitants are.
Many birds can be heard chirping during the day, so listen carefully! The white-throated sparrow sings “Dear sweet Canada, Canada, Canada,” while a black-capped chickadee sings “Here darling, here darling” or “Chicka-dee-dee-dee.”
Many amphibians like frogs can be heard bellowing throughout the day and at night too!
Do different frogs (and toads) actually have different calls? Not all frogs and toads make the familiar “ribbit” sound!
For example, a bullfrog often uses a deep tone to almost growl the sound “jug-o-rum, jug-o-rum.” A wood frog makes a low, rapid quack, like that of a duck.
A Spring Peeper makes a high-pitched “peep, peep, peep” sound.
These sounds are easy to replicate, so give them a try!
Find the signs
Some animals can leave other traces besides droppings and footprints.
If you see a tree that appears to have been clawed out, that may be an indicator that a bear was once in the area, looking for some bugs to snack on. If you see some hair stuck in a tree, chances are a bear has found its new favorite scratching post!
Birds can leave feathers. If you see traces of eggshells at the bottom of a tree, there may be a nest nearby.
Some wildlife can be found right under your nose! Many species, such as butterflies, camouflage themselves in their environment to avoid predators, but if you are patient something surprising happens…
Remember: When tracking wildlife, look HIGH and LOW, and you’ll notice indicators everywhere!
Most importantly: have fun!
Now that you know some basics, you can begin your adventures!
Being a nature detective is about much more than your identification skills. If you have a passion for nature and are willing to learn, then you are already there!
Now go out and make new discoveries!