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Monday, June 29, 2015

Norway Adventure Part I: The Muskox

Our family vacation in 2014 was a ten day excursion to the beautiful country of Norway. Why Norway you ask? Well, it happened like this: We decided we wanted to go to Europe (I was the only one that had never been....) so I started researching wildlife vacations (or "holidays" as the rest of the world calls them) and found a few promising locations. But what really tipped the scales for Norway was the combination of brown bears and muskox. This post will focus on the first leg of the trip and our muskox encounters, but our full itinerary was a simple one: We flew in to Oslo and took the train from the airport to Kongsvoll Station where we spent three nights at the Kongsvold Fjeldstue Hotel. We then took the train North to Grong Station where our host and guide Jan Bjornar Totsas. We rented a cabin from Jan in Lierne and also hired him to guide us for day trips (the subject of my next post). After five nights, we returned to Grong and boarded the train for a ten-hour journey back to the Oslo airport. We had a fantastic time! Our mammal list for the trip in order of appearance:
We stayed in the Trollheim  (troll home) at Kongsvold Fjeldstue
(8/14, Oppdal, Norway)

European moose (Elg)
Muskox
Caribou (reindeer)
Mountain lemming
Red fox
Mountain hare
European pine marten
Roe deer

And we saw sign of brown bear and beaver.





The Land of Muskox
Our adventure really begins the moment we exit the driveway for the (first) airport. It is an hour to the airport, but it is a relatively small one so our next stop is a major hub. On this trip, we flew from Rochester, NY to Newark International then Amsterdam before landing at the Oslo airport. There is a train station right at the airport so we never did see the city of Oslo. The weather was great and our train ride was beautiful. We arrived at the unstaffed Kongsvoll Station and walked with our luggage the short distance to our lodging. We were ready for dinner and sleep. I managed a short hike around the historic grounds. Although the oldest buildings standing today date back to the early 1700s, this location has been a stopping point for travelers for over a thousand years. But the history was lost on us that first night as we settled in for some much needed sleep. By ten am we were well fed and ready for our muskox tour. Having no familiarity with the area, we decided to join the "muskox safari" that leaves directly from the hotel. The weather was good and the group was a bit large, about two dozen. Our guide was a likable young man but I would not consider him an expert. We car pooled a short distance down the road to a parking area and started our hike there. In fact, we had a muskox in view from the road.
As you enter the muskox area, there are signs in several languages warning hikers to keep their distance. They recommend 200 meters. Our guide did get us a bit closer than that, but not nearly close enough for good photos.
Warning signs in Norway
(8/14)
The fear is that a person would be charged by a muskox that feels threatened. Although charging muskox can cause injury and even death (last report I can find is this 1964 incident), the mighty charge often ends in a bluff as shown in this video. This is all in stark contrast to historical information I read in preparation for our journey.

Before our trip, I read the chapter "The Musk-Ox" by Caspar Whitney from the 1904 classic Musk Ox, Bison, Sheep and Goat. I completely enjoyed reading Whitney's account of his 57-day hunt for musk ox. He had hired several Natives as guides and they spent a considerable amount of time just traveling to musk ox country. Once there, they had some trouble actually locating their first band of the creatures. But once they did, all hell broke loose. The dogs were unharnessed and sent to chase the musk ox. The men strapped on snow shoes and chased the dogs. Whitney did the same but his
Photo of musk ox from first day
(8/14, Norway)
store-bought buckles and harnesses were difficult to manage with his inexperienced hands, thus he was the last to set off. "My preconceived notions of the musk-ox hunting game were in a jiffy jolted to the point of destruction, as I now found myself in a situation neither expected nor joyful. It was natural to suppose some assistance would be given me in this strange environment...but we were a long way from the Post and interpreters and restraining influences..."(p.21). Whitney worried about getting lost and about not getting to shoot a musk ox himself. He recounts running in the direction of the dogs for an hour and a half before he caught sight of them. More chasing ensued with the actual  kill (to me at least) anticlimactic. Whitney ran on to try for another but was unsuccessful. He finally gave in and was able to find the rest of the party by back tracking his own footprints. The last paragraph of the chapter: "Then in a sixty-seven degrees below zero temperature we rolled up in our furs, while the dogs howled and fought over the carcass of my first musk ox." (p. 31).

I was most interested in what Whitney had to say regarding the danger of these animals. I had read (see above) the warnings about the musk ox and wanted to know the thoughts of this man who spent a long time in their company in an era that was not concerned about liability insurance. On page 56 he states: "...hunters and trained dogs could practically wipe out every herd of musk-oxen they encountered; for while it is true that musk-oxen give you a long run once you have sighted them, yet when you get up to them, when the dogs have brought them to bay, it is almost like shooting cattle in a corral." I of course would not have trained dogs and nor was I planning to stand a rifle-shot away. What did he have to say about that?
Musk ox habitat
(8/14, Norway)
"Several Arctic explorers who have written on the musk-ox also refer to it as 'formidable' appearing and 'ferocious', but those are the last adjectives that I should apply to the creature," writes Whitney. "The Indians and some of the Arctic authors also say that it is dangerous to approach, especially when wounded. My experience does not indorse  [sic] that statement. We encountered one hundred and twenty-five musk-oxen, killing forty-seven, and I did not see one that even suggested the charging proclivities for which it is given credit." (p. 73). And my favorite line of this entertaining read: "Perhaps the musk-ox might charge if you walked up and pulled his ear, but I doubt if he would under less provocation, and really, I do not feel so certain that he would even then." (p. 74).

Danika at trail junction
(8/15, Norway)
On day two, we decided to head back to the musk ox area on our own. There is a fantastic trail that began across the road from our lodging and went up into the alpine tundra. We left at sunrise and it didn't take us long to reach the top. It was now a matter of finding musk ox. That proved just as easy. There were several other small parties already on top. One group was slowly approaching two females with calves. The musk ox wanted nothing to do with them and kept out-distancing them. Slowly, the herd was getting farther from the hikers. As much as I wanted photos of calves, I saw little point in trying for these. Their comfort zone was too large. Instead, we spotted a single (male) muskox on a rise ahead of us. We set off over the lichens to try our luck with him. Along the way, we spotted a single male caribou on a distant patch of snow. This was our only caribou of the trip but a truly wild one (many tourists see only captive or semi captive reindeer as they disembark the cruise ships at a native village. We also spooked up a mountain lemming and some ptarmigan (no photos). We approached the musk ox, the sun came out and I set up the tripod. We had made the right decision.

Male musk ox
(8/15, Norway)
I would have been happy with this view. We were so much closer than we had been the day before. And as you can tell, the musk ox didn't seem to be bothered by our presence. As it turned out, we had stumbled on the perfect scenario. From our vantage point, we were not able to see that there was a narrow but deep ravine between us and the musk ox. What luck! I could now get much closer... so I did.







Musk ox rubbing side on a rock
(8/15, Norway)

Musk ox scat pellets
(8/15, Norway)
Musk ox fur
(8/15, Norway)
Musk ox
(8/15, Norway)
He eventually made his way down the ravine and into the stream. We watched him for several hours before moving on and trying our luck with others. But by then, there were many other visitors and the musk ox seemed a lot more skittish. We headed back down the mountain and readied ourselves for the second half of our journey.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Jumping mouse jumps no more...

Great Blue Heron with bullhead
(Seneca Falls, NY 5/15)
I had a few camera traps set near water recently and captured a few images of one or more Great Blue Herons catching their dinners. Most of the images were fish, bullhead specifically. But one particular series caught my attention for two reasons. First, the heron caught a mammal and secondly, the images were recorded a mere 20 minutes before I pulled the camera. It was a reminder to me that timing is everything in camera trapping. Most camera trappers mitigate that concern by keeping as many cameras out as long as possible. But there is still the question of where to put them and when to move them. It makes the camera trapping game more interesting and active.
Great Blue Heron with jumping mouse sp.
(Seneca Falls, NY 5/15)
The GBH in these photos caught a jumping mouse. There are two species of jumping mice in NY (woodland and meadow) and both have that diagnostically long tail.














Another view. Here you can see the huge hind feet jumping mice use to 'jump'.
Jumping mouse caught by Great Blue Heron
(Seneca Falls, NY 5/15)
Last photo before the mouse becomes dinner:
Great Blue Heron preying on jumping mouse
(Seneca Falls, NY 5/15)
A shot with the mouse on its way down....

And its gone.


Woodland jumping mouse with white-tipped tail
(South Bristol, NY 5/11)
I cannot quite make out which species the heron ate. The photos were taken with an infrared flash so they are not in color and the distinguishing characteristic is small: the tail tip. If it is a white-tipped tail call it a woodland. If it lacks the white, call it a meadow.










Impressive hind feet of a woodland jumping mouse
(South Bristol, NY 5/11)
Woodland jumping mouse with ear tag
(South Bristol, NY 5/11)




Saturday, April 4, 2015

Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

Laura: "Hey, I brought some chicken home from work. It's in the van."
Me: "Excellent.", as I imagine chicken tenders or even (dare I dream?) wings. But what I find is much different. You see, my wife teaches high school seniors that plan to go into the medical profession. I have written about her program in the past as she conducts a deer heart dissection each year. On this day, the students practiced sutures by sewing up cuts made in chicken thighs. The lesson was taught by Dr. Sinclair who works in the ER at Geneva General Hospital. I carefully removed the stitches from each piece and cut the thighs into smaller portions.
Fisher
(Seneca Falls, NY 3/15)
Since I only have one camera trap deployed at the moment, I used the chicken as bait there. Our very first capture was the fisher that only recently showed up on our property (see my previous entry). I was excited to see him back and in the day time to boot!
Fisher are members of the weasel family. They are sometimes called "fisher cats" but they are not felines at all. I think that name comes from the long cat-like tail they sport. I am fairly certain this is a male due to the size. Females are about a third smaller. Below is the same photo but cropped down to have a closer look at him:


Fisher are essentially creatures of the forest. As I mentioned in my last post, they were eliminated
Close up of fisher
(Seneca Falls, NY 3/15)
from our part of the state many decades ago and are only recently making a comeback. When a mammal species expands its range, it is the males that are the pioneers. That makes sense. The males are the ones that disperse farther from their birthplace Who knows how long it will take for the females to catch up with this guy? Time will tell... Most weasels have a short snout (think otter) but the fisher has a bit longer of a nose than most. Not as long as a red fox or coyote mind you, but longer than any of the other weasels we have in NY.
I put out the chicken on March 23rd in the evening. I obtained these the following morning.
Here is the best shot from an artistic perspective:


Fisher
(Seneca Falls, NY 3/15)
During the morning visit the fisher did not take a single piece of chicken and I do not know why. At 7:09 PM he was back and this time he grabbed some of the bait. In all, he made five visits in a few minutes, taking some chicken each time. There was not enough time for the fisher to have eaten all the pieces so he must have been caching them.








Well, I have to admit he is looking pretty catty in this photo. These are the last photos to date of the fisher. That doesn't mean he isn't still around. Fisher can range over a large area and I have hopes that this guy will be a permanent resident.
With only five pieces of chicken missing, there was still plenty left. What would be the next species captured?







Red fox. The following morning, a red fox showed up. This first photo shows a nice fox in its winter coat eyeing up the chicken.
Red fox
(Seneca Falls, NY 3/15)
However, this next photo reveals a problem. This fox has mange. That bare spot on the tail is where the mites have burrowed into the skin. The mites cause hair loss and itching. The itching causes the fox to scratch which causes more hair loss.
Red fox with mange on tail
(Seneca Falls, NY 3/15)
The red fox made seven trips to cache chicken. Now, these bright sunny photos notwithstanding, this was a cold morning and although I had carefully cut the chicken into bite-sized chunks, many of them froze together into a giant mass. Well, on the fox's final trip he grabbed the whole pile and dragged it away.
Red fox
(Seneca Falls, NY 3/15)
It took less than two days for all the chicken to get grabbed up by two very different carnivores. It wasn't all eaten of course and who knows if any of it changed hands again as caches sometimes get raided by others. The evening after this photo was taken, one more carnivore was captured by the camera. Perhaps this coyote smelled the chicken because it seemed to wander in front of the camera a bit and sniff around. What started as a classroom project ended as meals for at least two predators and some great photos for the blog. :)
Coyote
(Seneca Falls, NY 3/15)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mammal #29

I had set aside some time to blog today and was planning to whine about the snow. I had selected some rabbit and squirrel tracks to discuss, but those plans all changed once I checked my camera trap. I was going to check the camera on Friday, but got busy with other things. The story was the same on Saturday. But on today (Sunday), I had run out of excuses. You see, we had some chicken thighs I had to dispose of. They had been used as part of a lab by my wife's students. They were practicing suturing and the result for me was bait for the camera trap. I do not go out of my way to bait animals, but I was not going to let these go to waste. I cut out the sutures and chunked the meat into bite sized pieces.
Fisher tracks
(Seneca Falls, NY 3/15)
I am sure glad I waited. It is only a short walk from the house to the camera. The fresh snow obscured all but the most recent tracks. I followed a set of red fox tracks that must have been made only hours earlier as they had no snow in them at all. I arrived at the set, changed the SD card and dropped off the chicken. I decided that I should take a different route back. Almost immediately I encountered a trail that had been snowed in by the day's precipitation. I admit that I was a bit distracted at first and wrote the trail off as fox. But fox didn't fit, This was not a side trot as I had originally thought but rather a lope.
I am reading Animal Tracking Basics by Jon Young and Tiffany Morgan. They advocate looking at a trail or track and listing your three best guesses. So I gave that a try. My first thought was striped skunk (although I knew these tracks were way too big). My second critter was raccoon because coons can leave some really odd track patterns (but I wasn't convinced of that either). My third guess was the hardest of all. I kept telling myself these couldn't possibly be fisher. I have never seen a fisher on my property or even heard of one in the township. I do not have fisher habitat.
Here is another view of those same tracks. The sun was getting low in the sky and that provided
Fisher trail in a lope
(Seneca Falls, NY 3/15)
enough shadow to bring out the detail in these tracks. These had been protected a bit by the trees and had far less snow in them than the first ones I encountered. I bought the ruler in the photo from Sue Morse when I attended one of her tracking workshops. At that workshop, Sue described the toe pattern of a fisher as "C" shaped. I could see that clearly in three of the four tracks shown here. I was still a bit in denial that these were fisher tracks. It is interesting what the mind can do. I really wanted to turn them into something, anything that I would expect to find here in Seneca Falls. I kept telling myself they were fox or just some weird skunk tracks. But I just couldn't make anything else fit besides fisher. And in the words of Mr. Spock (who was paraphrasing Sherlock Holmes): "If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.". Who am I to argue with Spock (or Holmes for that matter)? But I did. I argued. I resisted. I have one more track photo to show you, the one that convinced me I just couldn't argue anymore.



Fisher tracks
(Seneca Falls, NY 3/15)
Here is as good a fisher track as I was able to find. I found it under the spruces. I learned that from Sue Morse as well. Sue told us several times during that weekend workshop to follow a trail until you found sheltered tracks that would show the details. Fisher like other members of the weasel family have five toes on the front and rear feet. You can make out all the toes in this photo.
I was very excited to say the least. This was the 29th species of wild mammal I have documented on our property (and the title of this entry). It is now one of four that have only been documented a single time (house mouse, beaver and star-nosed mole are the others).
So if I hadn't checked my camera today, I wouldn't have found these fisher tracks as the weather in the next few days will assure that they will soon be gone. But the story is not over. I returned home and slipped the SD card into my laptop. Skunk, deer, opossum, cottontail, and a few others appeared. There was the red fox who left the trail I originally followed. But my prize was there at the end. Any doubts I had about my identification of the tracks were laid to rest by several images of a fisher. The fisher tracks near the camera were obscured by the other tracks that were present and drifting and blowing snow. But once I knew where to look, I was able to find those tracks as well. None of the photos are spectacular, but I will include them here to complete the story.

Let me share two photos to set the stage and give you some scale. First, a striped skunk. Striped skunks are variable in their pattern and this individual is particularly white. Just below that is an opossum, very obscured by the vegetation. This camera only uses infrared flash at night so none of the photos will be in color.

Both are about the size of a house cat and both are in nearly the exact spot where the fisher was captured. Here is the first photo of the fisher. You can see that he is laying down tracks as the snow is busily filling them. This animal is clearly larger than the opossum or skunk.
Fisher
(Seneca Falls, NY 3/15)
Here is the second photo of the fisher. I include it here because it shows the tail so well.
Fisher
(Seneca Falls, NY 3/15)
Finally, the fisher walked so close to the camera that it only captured the top part of his body. I say "his" because I am pretty sure this is a male by size. Females are smaller (as is common in the weasel family).
Fisher
(Seneca Falls,NY 3/15)
What an exciting final day of spring break for me. I head back to classes tomorrow and begin the "Wildlife" section of CON 102 Introduction to Wildlife and Fish. This is a class that is required for all conservation majors at our college and the inspiration for this blog in the first place. I can't wait!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winter tracking: Red Fox

This winter has been marked by a large amount of snow and long periods of below freezing temperatures. Although the temperature was only about 24F it was sunny and I strapped on the cross
Red fox
(Seneca Falls, NY 2/15)
country skis to retrieve one of my camera traps. Turns out there has been a lot of fox activity at that site, both red and gray. At right, a red fox noses under the snow for food.











Next, a gray fox appears after a fresh snow:
Gray fox
(Seneca Falls, NY 2/15)
Red fox leaving a trail in the snow
(Seneca Falls, NY 2/15)


I have been looking at animal tracks in the snow for years. Tracks and trails in the snow are often easy to identify. Up until recently, I have been focusing exclusively on the track itself. This winter, I have paid attention to the changes to the snow below the track. The weight of the animal compresses the snow, packs it down and makes it harder. If you find a trail that has fresh snow on top of it, you could try to gently brush away the new snow and uncover the harder lumps left behind. you could confirm track size, gait and perhaps even direction of travel.
What I found today was a bit different. Instead of fresh snow covering an old trail, I discovered an
Two red fox trails
(Seneca Falls, NY 2/15)
old trail that had been scoured by strong winds. The hard compressed snow at the bottom of each track remained while all the other snow was whisked away. In the photo at right, the new trail is towards the bottom of the screen and the older trail is above that. Both foxes are travelling to the left. You can see the shadow of my head in the photo for some scale.






Old fox tracks that have been scoured by wind
(Seneca Falls, NY 2/15)
Here is the same scene but a bit closer. I know that photos of tracks can sometimes produce an optical illusion and it is difficult to see what is depressed and what is raised. In this photo as in the one above, the upper most trail is raised and the lower trail is the fresh trail with impressions in the snow. If you look closely at the upper tracks, you can see that they are almost an inch above the rest of the snow.





Here is another view. What is amazing here is that for three steps, this fox matched the old trail perfectly. There is a good chance that this is actually the very same fox taking the very same trail maybe a week apart. I have added some shadow here to provide some depth to the photo. Can you tell the direction of travel? I can.







Compare a fresh and old red fox track in the snow.
(Seneca Falls, NY 2/15)
There are two pieces of evidence that I can see in the photo that tell me the old trail is heading towards the top of the image. First, if you look closely you can see the faint impressions of the toe pads as well as the palm pad. They are faint, but they are there. Secondly, notice that there is a slight uptick to the hard pack at one end. That is the back of the track. It is literally the spot where the leg itself bore some of the weight of the animal as it stepped in the snow




Red fox track
(Seneca Falls, NY 2/15)
I scooped the track up and held it in my hand. I smiled thinking that I was probably the only person in the world that was holding a fox track at that very moment. I turned it in the bright sunlight to catch the shadows along the surface. I scraped off all the excess snow until I was left with the hardened lump. I was pleased with myself. It had been a good walk. I felt the cold track in my bare hand and thought of the animal that had made it. It was time to head home. On an impulse, I took a big bite out of the fox track and dropped the rest. A perfect ending to my lesson in the snow.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Winter shrew

We have an old farmhouse that features an unfinished basement. Consequently, we have mice more or less all the time. But over the weekend my wife reported a dark ball of fur darting past the washing machine and she concluded: It was a shrew. So I set a Sherman trap baited with peanut butter and within hours, I captured a short-tailed shrew. I placed him in a cardboard box and took a bit of video with my Go Pro. Got a minute? Watch the video here.

I wanted to get some photos of the shrew in snow but I didn't want to just release him outdoors. We have had a very cold winter so far with lots of snow. Letting him go outside might jeopardize his survival. So I came up with a different plan. I filled a large Tupperware container with snow and placed the shrew in it. I hoped that I could snap off a few photos before the shrew bolted for the dark corners of the basement. Much to my surprise, the shrew tunneled through the snow and climbed on the edge but refused to leave. I got my photos and then gently returned him to his adopted home.

One defining characteristic of our shrews is the dark enamel on the teeth. There are white-toothed shrews elsewhere in the world, but our shrews all have dark teeth.
Short-tailed Shrew
(2/15, Seneca Falls, NY)

The short-tailed shrew is very common and may be the most common mammal in New York State. They have small eyes and no visible external ears. They are NOT rodents and therefore not closely related to mice. In fact, the short-tailed shrew can actually prey on mice with their venomous saliva.
Short-tailed Shrew
(2/15, Seneca Falls, NY)
Aaaahh.... :) Check out the tiny black eye visible in the photo below. The real story is those whiskers though. This is an animal that uses scent and touch more than vision.
Short-tailed Shrew
(2/15, Seneca Falls, NY)
Shrew tunnels are smaller in diameter than mouse tunnels. Shrews are active all year and require an enormous amount of calories each day. I have read that the short-tailed shrew specifically takes in 75% of its own weight each day. In that is a lot to find in the subnivean world.  I hope my shrew ingests lots of spiders and maybe even some mice in that basement of ours!
Short-tailed Shrew tunneling in the snow
(2/15, Seneca Falls, NY)
Did you remember that this was all staged in a little Tupperware full of snow? Here is the shrew getting up on the lip. But after a moment, it was back into the snow!

One bonus photo: Shrew scat. Whether you call it shrew poop, shrew scat or shrew droppings, it is all the same thing. I am not sure how typical this scat is, but it looks very different than the pellets that are produced by mice.
Shrew scat
(2/15, Seneca Falls, NY)
Thanks for reading. Check out my other shrew posts to see a shrew nest and some baby short-tailed shrews.