Audubon offers wildlife workshop

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Pomfret - posted Mon., Jan. 28, 2013
Fran Baranski points out recent activity at a beaver lodge. Photos by D. Coffey.
Fran Baranski points out recent activity at a beaver lodge. Photos by D. Coffey.

Master naturalist volunteer Fran Baranski and Citizen Science Coordinator Paula Coughlin led 11 wildlife workshop participants onto Audubon property in Pomfret on Jan. 26. A light snow had fallen the night before and they were hoping it would yield clues to the animals passing through. By the time they crossed an open field, made their way across a frozen swamp and into the edge of a wooded area, they'd come across signs of deer, squirrel, beaver, muskrat, rabbit, crow and mice.

“I've found more tracks in this section where the road and the Air Line Trail meet up than any place in the sanctuary,” Baranski said. “I've seen tracks of every animal we have in the sanctuary.” He stepped off a wooden bridge into what is swamp in the summer. Just 50 feet from the road and adjacent to a marked trail, he showed the group where he had found a large print of a bobcat some time ago. Bones in scat dropped at the edge of the bridge could have been from the cat, but it was so old he couldn't be sure. “You have to doubt yourself,” he said.

Christin Arnini, a high school environmental teacher, was on the trek. She's been taking Audubon workshops and citizen science programs for four years. “I love the stories in tracks,” she said. “And it's nice to bring observational things to students.” The sessions encourage input from everyone. “That's the most interesting thing to do, actually, is say what else could this be,” she said. “You learn a lot just by going through the possibilities.”

“Anticipate the tracks,” Coughlin said as she gathered the group around some prints in the open field. If you can't identify something right away, follow them until you find clues that help, she said. Reference books are a good starting point, but identifying tracks can be difficult. It's challenging even for Baranski, who has spent a lifetime in the woods as a surveyor. One day he found a track he had never seen before, so he followed it. It turned out to be a leaf, he admitted, laughing. 

The day-long workshop started off inside the Connecticut Audubon Society Center, where Coughlin had set up three tables filled with displays. On one table were the skulls of an American black bear, a fox, a raccoon and a hawk – resin replicas that gave participants a close-up look at the differences in the bone structure of familiar animals. Reference books on tracking were available.

Coughlin had written out puzzles on index cards. She'd labeled plastic bags holding scat so participants could see the differences from one species to another. Half-eaten acorns were on display, showing how different animals ate through the tough outer shell. And Baranski showed them slides of prints and patterns in the snow: an otter's tell-tall jump and slide; the imprint of a hawk's wing where it caught its prey in the snow; a kill site with raccoon, bobcat and fisher tracks; the prints of a fox walking next to those made by a mouse.

The workshop was a three-part lesson in mystery, exercise and observation. Scat, the size and patterns of prints, the type of landscape and the vegetation available are all clues to identifying an animal from the prints it leaves behind.

Dana Wehking and her husband, Michael, came from Canterbury to attend the workshop. “It's a good way to get outside and be active,” said Wehking. “We love it. It's a lot of fun. We know enough to know that we need to learn more.”

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