Natural History Mystery

What is this story left imprinted in a snowy field? (glove just for scale)

A bobcat was sitting, and a vole or mouse was scurrying between tunnels! Bobcats’ typical hunting method is sitting patiently and ambushing prey. As they spend time in the same position, the details of the tracks are left in well-defined prints in the snow. This bobcat was sitting facing to the left of the photo, towards the vole or mouse tracks between tunnel holes. Perhaps the bobcat was waiting to pounce on an emerging vole or mouse! Voles and mice are a significant part of a bobcat’s diet, along with hares and cottontails. When there is deep snow to allow for easier predation, occasionally a large bobcat will also feed on deer.

Look for a few tale-tell signs to distinguish this cat track (left) from a dog track (right):

🐾Four toe impressions are asymmetrically arranged, unlike symmetric dog tracks you can make an x through without touching the heel pad or toe impressions. 

🐾The heel pad is flat or bi-lobed, unlike dog tracks where the heel pad is pointed.

🐾Fine and retractable cat claws often aren’t visible in tracks, unlike the thicker blunt nail impressions of dogs that usually do appear in tracks.

🐾In light snow, you can see a fur impression around cat tracks, absent in dog tracks.

Stick Play

“Children find sticks an endless source of make-believe fun. Sticks can turn into swords, magic wands, majorette batons, fishing poles, and lightsabers. When children pretend with sticks, they cultivate their creativity and develop their imaginations. They explore as they search outdoors for just the right one. Children build with sticks, bat balls with them, and walk with them. They are the original building blocks for creative play. Sticks also promote free play—the freedom to invent and discover. They encourage playing outside instead of inside. Sticks are all around us; they are natural and free. … Sticks are not only possibly the oldest toys, they’re possibly the best!”

-The Strong National Museum of Play

Happy stick season! Four Winds has created a guide to creating an open-ended outdoor play space anywhere with sticks, including materials to have on hand, adult role, benefits, and books. Check it out here. What will you do with a stick!?

Natural History Mystery

Who made these winding designs on this birch tree? 

A snail has left a feeding trail! The birch tree is covered in an algal film, fine food for a snail. The snail’s radula, a tongue-like organ covered in small teeth, scraped off the algae in an intricate pattern of rows of short lines undulating from side to side. 

Snail radula magnified 400x.

This snail scraping might be beneficial to the birch. Clearing the bark could allow more sunlight to penetrate the birch’s thin outer bark and enable late-winter photosynthesis. The bark scrubbing could also help the bark reflect light, keeping the tree from heating and expanding on a sunny day and “frost cracking” at night.  

While the snails are likely now sealed in their shell and snuggled under the soil for winter, we can still read their stories on trees. 

A Halloween Riddle

I’ve been referred to as “demon droppings”, depicted as the work of witches, trolls, and monsters, and may have been the inspiration for the 1958 horror film The Blob.

I have no arms or legs, but I can move at rates of about 1mm per hour.

I can combine with others to become a single cell with thousands of nuclei, oozing over the ground and engulfing fungi and bacteria.

I have no nose or eyes, but I can detect light and chemical cues from food.

I have no brain, yet I can find the shortest path through a maze, recreate human-designed transport networks, and remember.

I can live freely as a single cell, but when food is scarce I can form multicellular reproductive structures.

I am not a fungus, but I produce spores, out of which microscopic amoeba slither. 

If I’m cut up into pieces, my pieces can move as individuals and also can fuse back together, sharing what they’ve learned while apart. 

I can grow indefinitely with an adequate food supply and a comfortable environment, not aging or dying. 

Who am I?

Slime mold! 

Likely the early and late stages of Chocolate Tube Slime.

Leaf Play

“A leaf is a leaf – a bit of a tree. But when cool days come chasing, it also can be a …wind rider, lake glider, pile grower, hill glow-er, frost catcher, moth matcher…”      

A Leaf Can Be… by Laura Purdie Salas

What will YOU do with a leaf?! Here are some ideas:

Sort leaves: by color, size, shape, stem length, holes, and more! As you’re looking closely, identify leaves or come up with your own leaf names. Here is a leaf guide from Crow’s Path. 

Walk or crawl through fallen leaves on your bare hands and feet. How does it feel, sound, smell? 

Make a leaf creature! Here are some books for inspiration:

If You Find a Leaf  by Aimee Sicuro 

Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert

Look What I Did With a Leaf! by Morteza E. Sohi

Use leaves as loose parts – that is, open-ended materials for play!

Make a leaf soup, use leaves as currency, make a leaf fan – what fantastical ways can you use leaves?

Natural History Mystery

How did this munched mushroom get wedged between tree branches? 

A red squirrel is drying out a future meal! Hanging mushrooms from branches or rough bark dries out the mushrooms so they resist decay and can be cached for later winter meals. While red squirrels know mushrooms have to be cached dry, they also know that cones have to be stored in cool, moist piles, so they don’t open and disintegrate. 

Red squirrels have the ability to eat mushrooms toxic to us, and potentially facilitate spore dispersal. So beware not to trust squirrels as your mushroom guides. 

This Amanita mushroom is toxic to humans, but apparently not to the squirrel who cached it.

Spiderweb Detective

Morning landscapes draped with condensation reveal the silken works of spiders all around. All spiders spin silk, even the name spider originated from the word “spinder”. Spider silk is a protein liquid that solidifies when pulled out from the spider’s spigot-like spinnerets (finger-like projections at the end of the spider’s abdomen). 

This Yellow Garden Spider’s spinnerets are visible above and between their top yellow dots.

Different spiders use silk for different purposes: continuous lines of silk (draglines) and egg sacs, parachutes to catch the wind (ballooning) and wrapping for their prey, resting retreats, and hunting webs. Of the spiders that do use webs to catch prey, there are four general categories of webs – head out on a misty morning and see how many you can find!

Orbwebs are made up of lines of silk radiating from a central point overlaid with a sticky silk spiral. Spiders hang in the non-sticky center or sides of the web, waiting to feel the vibrations of prey.

Cobwebs are an irregular jumble of silk threads, often tucked into nooks and crannies. Spiders usually sit in the center of the web waiting for their prey to trip their sticky silk snares.

Funnel webs are flat webs with a funnel-shaped opening at one end. The spider lurks in this funnel tunnel, waiting to dart and grab entangled prey. 

Sheet webs can be a flat, convex, or concave. Spiders often perch inverted below the sheet. When insects become trapped in the irregular silk threads above the sheet, the spider shakes the web until they fall onto the sheet. The spider then bites through the sheet web and pulls through their meal. 


I found one.
It’s plump.
Come see this
mushroom pump.
It’s spitting
spore on spore.
I’m squeezing
more and more.
Smoke scatters
summer air.
Puffball babies

-Amy Ludwig Vanderwater in the book Forest Has a Song

Immature white puffballs on left and mature brown puffballs on right

Now is the time of year to be on the lookout for puffballs to puff! Puffballs spend most of the year as mycelium (underground thread-like network) digesting dead wood. When ready to reproduce, the mycelium develops puffballs above ground. At first the mushrooms are white, covered in tiny bumps and solid inside. As they mature in the fall, the puffballs transform into a brown hollow chamber, filled with powdery spores. A pore forms at the top of the mushroom where spores are released in brown clouds with the impact of falling raindrops, scampering animals, or some gentle poking. 

The latin name for these puffballs was Lycoperdon pyriforme (which in direct translation is “Wolf-fart Pear Shape”), but due to DNA analysis, they are now in their own genus – Apioperdon pyriforme. More commonly they are called Pear-shaped Puffballs or Stump Puffballs. As you’re exploring puffballs, think about what names you have for this mushroom. How high and how far can you make the puffball spores go? Can you find the biggest and smallest puffballs? Can you incorporate puffballs into a fairy house? Happy puffball puffing! 

Natural History Mystery

What is inside this folded, browned sugar maple leaf?

This is a Maple Trumpet Skeletonizer caterpillar’s home! This pale yellow caterpillar uses its frass (excrement) and silk to build a hideaway from predators. The tube grows wider as the caterpillar (and its frass) get larger, forming a trumpet-like shape. The trumpets are nestled into a leaf folded with silken threads. The caterpillars feed, and thus skeletonize, the leaf from the protection of the trumpet.

The Maple Trumpet Skeletonizer caterpillar out from the safety of their trumpet.

In the fall, the caterpillar drops to the ground, creates a silken cocoon between two leaves, and pupates. The brown and tan speckled moth emerges in June, mates, lays eggs singly on maple leaves, and the trumpet-building begins anew! 

Loose Parts

“In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.” – Simon Nicholson: The Theory of Loose Parts, 1971

Loose parts are open-ended materials that can be manipulated in many ways. They are inherently flexible and promote creativity, problem-solving, communication skills, self-confidence, curiosity, and imagination. Outdoors, there are naturally many loose parts, such as sticks, rocks, flowers, cones, bark, shells, seed pods, and flowers.

Four Winds has created a guide to creating an open-ended outdoor play space anywhere with loose parts, including materials to have on hand, adult role, benefits, and books. Check it out here!