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Natures Playground: Identify Trees, Flowers and Animal Tracks

Studying nature is a wonderful way to recognize the beauty and brilliance of natural design. Whether you live in a rural country area or a busy city, you can find many different animals, plants, and trees that will help you understand how important nature is to our planet. When exploring a playground for squirrel tracks or braving the woods for evidence of moose foraging, know what you find may vary across region, season and the particular subjects you're researching. For example, a young tree's bark or a baby fox's tracks can look different from older varieties. Regardless of what you find in your outdoor playground, have fun, but try not to disturb habitats!

American Crow - Since crows like to travel between trees and the ground, their tracks can often be seen in dirt or snow. Crows have three toes; the middle one is longer than the two on the sides. Their talons are long and skinny and can three inches in length.

Balsam Fir Tree - This tree brings cheer to anyone who celebrates Christmas because it's the same type of tree that's decorated during the holidays! It has needles for leaves and gives off a memorable, fresh scent. The bark has a bumpy, plate-like structure.

Birch Tree  - Many birch tree leaves have an usual oval shape, but their edges are spiky. Different varieties of birch trees have peeling bark in common. The bark on this type of tree may resemble paper and have a plate-like structure, too. It can be light in color, like white or gray, and have horizontal stripes that look like pinstripes on a suit!

Bluebell - The appearance of bluebells live up to their name! Bluebells come in a blue or purple color and droop upside down to make them look like hanging bells. Their floppy oval leaves droop upside down and stems tend to bend under the weight of their blooms.

Bluebonnet - This Texas native is a royal blue beauty with a white part at the top that looks like frosting on a cupcake! Petals are densely packed together to form a cone shape. Their leaves are bent upwards so that they can catch rainwater. They form a star shape around the base of the flower so that it never has to be thirsty.

California Poppy (PDF) - These orange, yellow or golden flowers look forward to sunny days! They have four petals that are soft and silky to the touch. Their leaves have hints of both blue and green and resemble feathers.

Cornflower - Similar to daisies, cornflowers showcase white, blue or pink coloring. Petals on some cornflowers can be sparse while others can be big and bushy. Their leaves can be confused with grass and may look like they have white hair growing out of them!

Cottontail rabbits - Since fluffy bunnies tend to hop, you can identify rabbit tracks by looking at the pattern they leave behind. When rabbits hop, they keep their front paws together while their back paws remain separated, which creates a triangle shape. Their toes are small and round, and tracks left by hind feet can be over two inches long; tracks left by front paws can be about an inch long.

Coyote - Dogs and coyotes belong to same taxonomic family and they have similar tracks. Coyote tracks, however, can be more oval in shape and smaller than dogs', with front paw tracks being 2 ½" long. The front paws of both coyotes and dogs have four toes and share pad shapes, but coyotes' hind paws have a distinct, almost circular pattern.

Creeping buttercup - A popular wildflower, buttercups are famous for having a certain look: buttercups can be easily identified by their five shiny petals and their yellow coloring. Their three-toothed leaves don't have stipules and the flower has many stamens. Technically a weed, the flower can be poisonous if it's eaten by dogs, so keep an eye on your pup if you're taking an outdoor stroll with him.

Dandelion - Dandelions are a common, pretty weed with long, narrow petals. They feature jagged leaves that can feel rough. When dandelions mature and create seeds, they turn into white puffy spheres that you can blow around the playground.

Deer - Moose and deer have similar track patterns: both look like upside down hearts and have pointed toe shapes. The tracks of a deer, however, can be much smaller than a moose and can be between 1 1/2" and 4" long. Deer tracks may look different depending on where you see them; for example, if they've been made on soft ground, they can look pointed. If the deer has walked on hard ground, they might be rounded.

Dog - Some of the most common tracks you can find are made by dogs. With four toes, claw marks and a triangular heel pad, they are some of the most easily recognizable. Since there are numerous species of dogs with many different shapes and sizes, they can range in width and length from less than inch to several inches. It's not uncommon to find these on a playground.

Douglas-fir Tree - The maximum heights of these trees can depend on where you live, and can reach an impressive 250 ft. in the Pacific Northwest. The tree may look like a cone formation from far away. Its leaves look like needles. Its bark color will usually be a shade of gray that darkens as it gets older. The bark can have noticeable deep fissures.

Duck (PDF) - The webbing of duck's foot can create a distinct pattern on the ground. These tracks can look like anchors with a rope connecting the top points. They can be as big as three inches long.

Eastern Fox Squirrels - When they're standing still, squirrels have a unique posture: their paws can often make a square shape. Their toes are easy to identify because they are long; there are five toes on their back paws and four on their front. These tracks can be over an inch long and one way to know if you're following squirrel tracks is to find that the tracks lead to a tree!

Flowering Dogwood - The classic leaves of flowering dogwood tree are oval shaped with a point at the end, but what makes them a head-turner are their colors: while a brilliant green on top, they're gray underneath. They turn to a red or even purple when the fall season starts. This tree's bark is interesting because it seems to break into square sections, forming a grid-like pattern. They also grow round, little fruit with nuts inside.

Gerbera Daisies - Daisies have long, skinny petals and a yellow, brown or black center. The stem of the flower is smooth and leafless. These flowers can come in a variety of colors, and a single daisy can showcase different hues.

Honey Mesquite Tree - Interesting features of honey mesquite trees include a crooked trunk and brown or gray bark that seems to crack at the surface. A single leafstalk can seem to split into a "Y" formation and feature leaves on the curved part of the stalk. This tree's leaves can droop and point to the ground. Yellow flowers may bloom on a honey mesquite tree.

Indian Paintbrush - The Indian Paintbrush is a beautiful flower that can appear red in color and have other colors, like white and yellow, mixed in with the hue. The petals of this flower resemble spikes and its leaves are also long and pointed. Hairs can dot the stem.

Moose - If you're in a woodsy area, you may run across large tracks that are about six inches long and five inches wide that look like upside down broken hearts. You may also find little marks on the sides of the tracks or behind them - these are declaws and are part of the moose's hoof!

Opossum - Tracks made my opossums can look silly, as their hind paws can look like toddlers' hands - complete with thumbs! Both front and hind paws have five toes, and their hind paws have opossum thumbs. Opossums aren't very bit, and their tracks are about two inches wide, with their hind paws being a bit wider.

Quaking Aspen - Though its name makes the tree sound like it's scared, the tree actually has strong wood! Its dingy yellow-green or gray bark is notable for having a smooth texture. The leaves on this tree are look more like circles than ovals and they easily shake in the wind.

Raccoon - Unafraid of both the city and country settings, it can be just as easy to spot a raccoon's tracks in your backyard or in the forest! Raccoons have five toes on both their front and hind paws, and their hind feet are much longer than their front. Their hind feet, which can be as long as four inches and as wide as almost two inches, can look like upside down triangle shapes while their front paws can appear similar to human hands and can measure more than three inches in length and about three inches wide.

Red Fox - Foxes may have prints that seem to line up in a straight line, but they may also leave distinct drag marks. Their tracks look similar to a dog's, with four toes and claws. Red fox prints can be as big as 3.1" long.

Red Maple Tree - The red maple tree can be instantly spotted by looking at its leaves: in the fall, they turn red or even orange-yellow! Leaves are saw-toothed and have between three and five lobes. Older maple trees have scaly gray bark. Red flowers also bloom on this tree.

Skunk - While the stripes on a skunk is one of its most easily identifiable characteristics, its tracks are also unique. A striped skunk's tracks look very similar to those of a cat's, except skunk tracks showcase five toes and claw marks. They're about two inches wide.

Sunflower (PDF) - Known for their bright yellow petals and large, brown disk located in the center of the flower, sunflowers can brighten up anyone's day! Though some sunflowers are small, others can grow more than 12 feet high and have flower heads that are over a foot! They have lance-ovate leaves and the flowers tend to turn towards the sun.

Sweetgum Tree - Also called the Gumball tree, this tree has more going for it than a sweet name! The bark on this tree has deep grooves and corresponding scaly ridges that make it look like a fearsome animal has used it as a scratching post. Its leaves are star-shaped and give off a smell if they've been damaged.

Tulips - These brightly-colored flowers boast a distinct, tight bulb shape that points to the sky. Since they have three petals and three sepals, many people assume that they have six petals. There are typically very few, long leaves and one bulb per stem. Tulips appear to be symmetrical.

White Oak Tree (PDF) - As one of the most popular trees in the country, it also has leaves that are very distinct. Its leaves have rounded protrusions that make it look like they have fingers on them! The bark on this type of tree appears to change in color and texture throughout its life: when it's young, it's smooth and a red or brown color, but as it gets older, it turns gray, gets scaly and becomes rougher to the touch.

Plants, trees and animals have existed on Earth for millions of years, so you should treat them with respect. Spring can be the best time to look for plants, trees and animal tracks as this season is when flowers bloom, trees have all their leaves and animals prance around. When on your outdoor adventure, be careful not to confuse tree leaves with the leaves of poisonous shrubs; stay away from trees or shrubs that look like they have three leaves on a single leafstalk, because they could be part of a poison ivy plant. Take your time in nature and recognize patterns - nature loves repetition! For example, you may notice that moss tends to grow on the north side of trees. Write down your findings in a journal and share them with your friends or your teacher!

Written by: Ben Thompson