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Monday, April 28, 2014

Northern Short-tailed Shrew Nest, Latrine and Cache

Greetings everyone! I have been slow to blog in 2014 due to a very busy schedule. This weekend's wildlife encounter forced me out of exile and back into the blogosphere. On Friday evening, we hosted the FLCC Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society for a nice spaghetti dinner (thank you Laura!) followed by a woodcock walk on our property. We checked for tracks in muddy spots, looked at muskrat lodges in the wetland, learned a little about native warm-season grasses and tried to find spring peepers in the pond. But one of my highlights is always flipping over some old pieces of siding to see who might be living underneath.
Short-tailed Shrew
Seneca Falls, NY (4/14)
I should explain that I have been a "flipper-over" for a very long time. I saw my very first weasel when I was a teenager by looking under an old sheet of plywood. I found my first Norway rat under an old automobile hood. Childhood successes such as those made me a life-long investigator of all things flip-able. So I was very excited when our first piece of corrugated siding produced a short-tailed shrew. One of my students caught the shrew and I held it for all to see. Sasha (club adviser and FLCC Technician) noticed a nest and we concluded it was the shrew's. It was empty.
On Sunday, my wife and I took a walk to look for antlers and decided we could risk disturbing momma shrew and flipped the siding again. We waited patiently and within a few minutes, the shrew began to nose around at her newly disturbed world.
Molting short-tailed shrew
Seneca Falls, NY (4/14)
In the photo above, you can see a bit more of the shrew and she is clearly molting out of her winter coat. I guess it makes sense, but I honestly never thought of shrews molting before. Notice how small the eye is. Shrews are not known for having good eyesight. She slowly emerged from her tunnel and made her way into the grass...
Northern short-tailed shrew emerging from tunnel
Seneca Falls, NY (4/14)
There is the short tail that gives this species of shrew its common name.
Seneca Falls, NY (4/14)
I decided it was worth it to peek into the nest. I have only ever found one other shrew nest and blogged about it here. But if there were shrews in this nest, they would be less than two days old. We carefully peeled back the dried grasses to find a ball of leaves. And inside the leaves were eight tiny altricial shrews.
Baby shrews in nest
Seneca Falls, NY (4/14)
Look for five digits on the front foot to rule out mice
Seneca Falls, NY (4/14)
Baby short-tailed shrews in nest
Seneca Falls, NY (4/14)
We carefully covered the babies and I quickly snapped a few photos of the other items under the siding. There was a large pile of scat within a foot of the nest. I cannot imagine it was made by any other species (especially given how fresh some of the scat was). However, the diameter seemed rather large when I compare it to published information. Elbroch says up to 3/16 inches in diameter and although I did not measure the scat, it sure seemed larger than that. He also states that when they are feeding on worms or other soft bodied animals, the scats would be "soft squirts". Well, that certainly describes the freshest of the scats. Here is the latrine:
Short-tailed shrew latrine
Seneca Falls, NY (4/14)
Short-tailed shrew latrine. This is the end that was closest to the nest.
Seneca Falls, NY (4/14)
The piece of corrugated siding was about four feet by three feet. Besides the nest and the latrine, I noticed two spots with concentrations of earthworms. Now, this entire area was bare of vegetation, yet the only earthworms to be seen were in two small areas. They were alive but slow moving. I have to believe they were cached by the shrew. Have a look:
Worms cached by short-tailed shrew
Seneca Falls, NY (4/14)
I wonder if the worms had been injected with some of the venom these shrews have in their saliva. That would explain how they could be cached alive. The large one near the top of the photo looks damaged.
I hope I did not disturb her too much but I learned a lot from this encounter. Latrine, cache, nest.... it was all here! I will check again after the young have left the nest and see what else I can find.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Christmas on the Baja Peninsula

I have been away from blogging recently due to a busy schedule and have honestly missed it. It has been
Family portrait on the island of Espiritu Santos, Baja Mexico
good therapy for me to write and I have learned a lot in the process. It is March as I write this but my thoughts have returned to our last family adventure: a Christmas trip to Mexico. We booked our tour through ROW Adventures and enjoyed every bit of it. We hiked, kayaked and snorkeled. We swam with sea lions and whale sharks. It was a true adventure! Five days and four nights of kayaking and camping were complimented with a few nights in a hotel and two nights at a lodge. Here are some of the highlights.

Christmas was on a Wednesday this year. That meant the public school vacation would extend 16 days. We decided to take advantage of that block of time and found a tour that advertised great activities and some interesting wildlife encounters. We left the unusually harsh NY winter on Christmas Eve and flew through Mexico City then connected on to La Paz, Mexico on the Baja Peninsula. That evening, we met our guides "Charo" and Damian, as well as the other family that was on the kayaking portion of the tour. We were fitted with wetsuits and snorkeling gear and given dry bags to pack our gear. We left early Christmas morning by motor boat for the island of Espiritu Santos and four nights of camping.
Laura and Danika, Christmas Day 2013
When we arrived on the island, we were given some additional instructions regarding kayak operation and how to pack it evenly. Each day we paddled only about four hours, giving us enough time to set up camp at each beach and explore the upland areas a bit. We saw rays jumping, dolphins swimming and everywhere there were birds. Gulls, pelicans and frigatebirds were the norm.
Magnificent Frigatebird, male
Baja, Mexico (12/13)

Picture the habitat of southern Arizona, but along the ocean. Once I turned from the ocean, I would swear I was in the Sonoran desert south of Tucson. The cardon cactus looked to me the same as the saguaro I had seen years ago in AZ. However, the fact that we were on an island with very little fresh water in the Sea of Cortez meant a very muted fauna. So although the bird life was abundant, we only saw one species of land mammal (Black-tailed Jackrabbit).

The morning of our final day on the island was spent taking a short motorboat trip to snorkel with sea lions at a small rock jutting up from the ocean. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. The sea lions ranged from tolerant to outright social with us. If you watch the video here you will see that one of the sea lions even grabbed on to my arm for a moment or two. Warning: That video is about 11 minutes long. I just couldn't bring myself to edit it down any shorter. I won't be offended if you just watch a little :)
Still photo from GoPro camera
Baja, Mexico (12/13)
Whale shark photo with GoPro
After snorkeling, we headed back to camp to pack. Low tides forced us to shuttle our gear through shallow water to the motor boat that came to pick us up. We arrived back in La Paz with plenty of time to unpack, shower and get ready for our group dinner together. The next day, we were driven to the harbor and met Dr. Deni Remeriz for a morning of searching for whale sharks. We had never even seen a whale shark no less swam with one, so the entire Van Niel family was excited for this adventure. Deni was very free with her knowledge of all things whale shark and you can find out more about her and her organization here. For a video of our adventure on YouTube, click here.

Our final two days were spent in Todos Santos, a small town with plenty to offer. We went horseback riding on the beach, took a cooking class, hiked and even got to help release sea turtles. One of our guides (pictured here) was Citlali. Turns our that means "morning star" in Aztec. In turn, we taught her the name of our daughter "Danika" which is morning star in Danish :). Here is a photo from the cliff hike. We had numerous sightings of humpback whales while on this hike.

On our last evening, just before dinner, our guide and driver told us they had a surprise for us. They had talked to the man that coordinates a sea turtle rescue operation and he was confident that there would be freshly hatched sea turtles to release to the ocean. This story deserves an entire entry by itself. But the short version goes like this: The olive ridley sea turtles come to the beach in Todos Santos and lay their eggs. But vehicles are allowed on the beach and would crush the eggs if they were left in place, so volunteers dig them up and re-bury them in an enclosure on the beach. When they hatch, they are collected and brought to the ocean where they must fend for themselves. It takes about 10-15 years for them to reach sexual maturity. There were about a dozen of us there to witness the release and the gentleman in charge picked Danika to carry the turtles to the surf.

All told, this was one of our most memorable trips.
Sunset in Mexico

Sunday, December 1, 2013

In nature, nothing goes to waste

My last entry described setting out cameras for my Black Bear Management Class and hoping to capture images of bears. As I reported, it was my third year conducting that activity but the first one that didn't produce bear captures. That activity ended about two weeks before the start of the regular firearm season for deer and bear, so I repositioned a few of the cameras in hopes of getting some last minute scouting in on the bucks in the area.
My Father is still recovering from his back surgery so hunting from a tree stand was not possible this
year. Instead, we set out a ground blind in a likely location, but one in which neither of us had hunted before. I set out a camera there of course.You can see the blind in the background. Notice the trail to the blind has been nicely raked so Dad would have an easy time getting to it. Although I changed cameras, this is the same set where I had placed "Bear Lure" on a dead log (foreground). We got some nice results!

The only deer photo:

A curious coyote:

And those bears we were hoping for two weeks earlier!!!
Bears rolling in "Bear Lure"
Well, opening day arrived and Dad saw no deer but he DID see these two cubs and their mother. He has no interest in shooting a bear. In addition, shooting a bear from a group of bears is not legal in our
part of New York. I was jealous of his sighting. I spent the day in my tree stand and saw no deer OR bears. The next day wasn't much better. We made plans to hunt on Tuesday. Turns out Tuesday was a far different day. Tuesday's hunt lasted a whole ten minutes. Dad had just gotten himself zipped into the blind and I had only taken a few steps away when I heard a soft whistle and turned to see his arm pointing out the side window at a buck that was walking through the woods. With a single shot, the buck was down and just like that I had my work cut out for me :). Not that I minded field dressing the deer. I made quick work of it and dragged the nice 8 point buck to level ground.
Now, I am not one to waste an opportunity. With that fresh gut pile just sitting there, I repositioned the camera in hopes of capturing whatever would come for the Thanksgiving-time feast. As you can see from the photo above, there was no snow on the ground on the day I made this set but a week later it was a different story when I went to retrieve it. It was cold. It had snowed, then rained, then froze, then snowed again. It made for some beautiful scenery:
When I got to the tree where I had left the camera, I found only a strap and attachment. This is a Cuddeback Attack so there is a plastic mounting bracket that goes on the strap. The camera can be taken off and checked and the strap remains in place. I could see some damage to the bracket and hoped it was either weather or wildlife and not a trespassing hunter. I felt around in the deep snow a bit and found the camera with no trouble. We had to take it back to camp to thaw it before I could extract the SD card and see what we had captured. First to find the gut pile were crows:

But the remaining photos (and video) were three bears: a mother and two large cubs.

I am always pleased to get bear photos but these were especially nice. First, these were certainly the same bears my Father had seen only a few weeks earlier. Second, it was interesting to see them scavenging. I wondered what their meat scats looked like. And finally, I had the camera set to take 30 second videos as well so I was treated to some excellent views of the big fat sow and her two healthy looking cubs. With so much food available this year, I was not surprised at their apparent healthy condition. I made a simple video and uploaded it to YouTube. You can view it here. Its only a few minutes long.

One final note: On our way out of the woods for lunch that day, I noticed something as we passed an apple tree near the ATV trail. Looks like our bears stopped and gave the tree a good clawing. I now have more bear sign to share with nest year's Black Bear Management students....

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Well, we were hoping for bear...

Trying a "creative" overhead set
This was the third year in a row I have set cameras out at my Father's property with the goal of capturing images of bears for my Black Bear Management class. Here are last year's results and results from 2011. Let me assume most of you will NOT click on those links (even though I highly recommend you enjoy the stories) and let you know I captured bear photos in 2011 and 2012. This year, we were not as fortunate. Seven cameras were out for 12 days, including four of our new Reconyx cameras. I used the same brand of scent lure I used in previous years to attract bears and fully expected we would achieve our goal.
Some highlights:
WTD: We captured deer on each camera. Our biggest buck
One morning of snow and this lip-licking buck
The best image from my "creative" overhead set

Coyote: Five cameras captured coyote. Here are my favorites
The Reconyx seems to elicit a response from animals
But the images from the Reconyx ARE nice. Look at this distant coyote and how nice it looks, even with the high magnification I subjected it to.
Raccoon: Even though we didn't get bears, we did get their lesser "cousins". I poured the sweet smelling lure directly into a rotting log.
Below is the log I have used in the past to attract bears. If you did check out my 2012 post, this is the set that produced the bear(s) rolling. In this set, the log is running perpendicular to the camera and is just below the field of view.
 So no bears, but this set did have a surprise in store for us: FISHER. Multiple visits by one or more fisher made this class project a success. Fisher are increasingly common in this area but are considered recent additions. I was thrilled to get pics and will dedicate a future blog entry to them exclusively. For now, enjoy a few of the better shots:
Cropped fisher in some wet snow
Love that tail!

Rolling in the scent
We captured seven mammal species this year (less overall than past years):
-White-tailed deer
-Eastern chipmunk
-Gray squirrel
-Red fox
Missing besides the black bear are common mammals in this area like red squirrel, opossum, deermouse sp., etc. I had fewer cameras but four were Reconyx (which have a wider range of detection than the Cuddebacks and therefore as a rule pick up smaller mammal species more easily). 
What will next year bring???
Why doesn't anyone care what the raccoon says?