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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Seeing red

In "January" of A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes: "... where the rabbits have packed down the snow with their tracks, and mottled it with pinkish urinations." I confess that when I first read that line, my brain tried to turn the phrasing into 'pink carnations'. I think my students are just as puzzled.

Well, it turns out that Leopold was being literal. Rabbits CAN have pink and even red colored urine. A simple Google search of "red rabbit urine" reveals numerous concerned pet owners assuming they are seeing blood in their bunny's urine. But it seems the color change is caused by dietary conditions.

Reddish Eastern cottontail urine (Seneca Falls, 2/11)
I was reminded of all this today when I found four different rabbit urines in the back yard (we have a HUGE Eastern cottontail population this year). One was yellow and three were bright red. Unfortunately, the red really doesn't show in the photo. Get out there and look for this phenomenon yourself before the snow is all gone!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Setting Fisher Traps

Sasha and Elaina prepare a trap

We spent the majority of our time in the field setting seven box traps for fisher. These are live traps. They are essentially a wire cage with a door that closes behind an animal once it enters and stands on the trip plate. For bait, we used meat scraps. The traps are covered in a plastic garbage bag to keep the contents dry. They they are lined with wool so any animal caught will keep warm. All of that is then camouflaged with pine boughs which are themselves covered in snow to keep them in place. To help lure in fisher, there are two more components of the process. First, the traps are pre-baited for several days. To accomplish this, the trap is left closed and the meat is left in front of the trap, but under the pine branches. In this way, fisher are lured into returning. Secondly, a scent is added to a nearby tree to give the fisher's keen nose something to cue in on from a distance. They were using a skunk scent mixed in with Vaseline (to keep it water resistant and lasting longer). Our job was to stir up the scent spots to release some of the scent.

Here is Danika stirring up the skunk scent. A smelly job, but someone had to do it!

Danika took this photo of me placing the meat in the back of the trap. To give you an idea of how large the trap is, my right arm is completely extended and I still cannot reach the back of the trap. My job was to make sure the meat was in the back of the trap, there was nothing underneath the pan or foot plate and wool was tucked into the wire trap sides. We found fisher tracks at every one of the seven sites, but we also found fox, coyote and bobcat at some of them. Those animals are not likely to enter into the long trap, so this method is selective.  

0827: My Favorite Marten, Epsisode II

Danika and Laura snowshoe along a marten trail
Just a few more marten-related photos. Marten are members of the weasel family and as such often travel in what is a called a 2x lope. When they do that, the front feet land near each other and then the rear feet land in the same holes leaving a "2 by 2"pattern.

Another highlight for me was seeing some of the den entrances for 0827. Elaina showed us one entrance at the base of a birch tree. She inserted the antenna cord and we clearly heard the beep beep beep that told us 0827 was home. The fancy word for conducting business (moving, eating, sleeping, etc) under the snow is "subnivean". The marten's den was subnivean and perhaps also under ground as well. The two entrances we viewed were within 20 feet of each other and I assumed they were connected underground.
Marten den

A final photo below shows another entrance that 0827 used the night we were visiting. What I love about this photo is that it doesn't just show the tracks coming and going but also clearly shows strike marks in the snow from the antenna on 0827's collar. I am guessing that this marten was caching some of the bait I used in front of the camera, so this may be an unusual amount of traffic for a single night.

One of 0827's den entrances

0827: My Favorite Marten, Epsisode I

Elaina listening for signals from collared martens
 I am just a hair too young to have watched "My Favorite Martian" on TV, but not too old to enjoy 36 hours in the Adirondacks learning about marten and fisher with my family and another FLCC peer. Sasha arrived in our driveway at 7AM Wednesday morning and 20 minutes later we were heading to the Adirondack Ecological Center (AEC) near Newcomb, NY. Owned and operated by ESF, the AEC is home to classes and research projects. Our purpose was to meet up with one of our alums, Elaina Burns, who has been working as a field technician on a marten and fisher research project since December.

Laura, Danika and Sasha
The drive from Seneca Falls took about 4 hours. We settled into our cabins and had a leisurely lunch before strapping on our snowshoes and exploring our "backyard". We quickly found tracks of marten and coyote. After this much needed break, we got back in the car for the five minute drive to the interpretive center where we walked the Sucker Brook trail and found tracks of bobcat, marten, mouse, snowshoe hare and coyote. It was a picture perfect day with blue skies and a layer of powder over a thick crust of frozen snow.

When we returned to our cabins, we played euchre until Elaina came back from the field. She helped us set out the two trail cameras I brought in likely locations. Trimmings from our steak dinner were added to increase the chances that I would capture an image, given that I only had one night to work with. The steak did the trick and I ended up with several images of a collared marten, # 0827. 0827 is a male, lives right behind the cabins and is named after the frequency of his collar (these are the numbers after the decimal point). Check out the photos below:

Note antenna from VHF collar
In this first photo,0827's antenna is clearly visible over his left shoulder. Also check out the trail he made to get to this spot. He came down from the little rise behind him and you can see the drag marks of his body in the deep snow. Martens change color from winter to summer. In the winter, they appear to have black socks on.

Collar clearly visible. Martens have long nails for climbing trees

In this photo, you can clearly see the transmitter on the collar. Most of that bulk is battery. Check back soon for more posts about this trip.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Heart-y meal...

Laura with deer heart
My wife teaches a program for high school seniors interested in pursuing careers in the medical profession. Each year she hosts a "Cardio Day" in her classroom at the hospital where the entire focus is on all things heart related (strangely, this always happens around Valentine's Day...I am not sure that is a coincidence). Doctors, technicians and others speak but the main attraction is often the deer heart dissection. Why deer hearts? Well, they are similar in size and shape to human hearts, making them useful and they are readily available from hunters and free, making them practical. The students love the activity and learn a lot. The problem is disposal. Simply throwing the sliced up hearts in the dumpster at the hospital is far too risky. Anyone finding them might come to the conclusion that they had stumbled on human hearts.... no one needs that kind of publicity! So after all these years, I know that MY role for Cardio Day is to get rid of the hearts at the end of the day. I come home from work to find our blue cooler sitting in the driveway. I then carry the cooler into the backyard and take out one sliced open heart after another and give them the old Frisbee toss into our field (Hey, why waste them...some backyard beast will enjoy them).

We used to have an opossum that lived under our back shed. One year, on the evening I tossed out the hearts, it snowed. The next morning I got up and checked for tracks. Sure enough, our resident opossum stumbled on one of the deer hearts less than 20 yards from its winter home. His tracks told the story of it grabbing the heart and carrying it back under the shed. I found no other tracks.

Opossums are a southern species. They really are not well adapted to winters in New York. When it gets really cold, near zero F, they don't even exit their burrows. Frost bitten ears, tails and toes are all common. Nor do they have behaviors that help! They do not hibernate. They don't even cache food. I mean a self-respecting New York mammal may have taken the time to have gathered ALL the deer hearts on a night that was warm enough to forage for food (I have a series of camera trap photos of a red fox doing this very thing). But this opossum just grabbed the first food it came upon and brought it home and ate it.

That old shed is gone but this winter we still have an opossum calling our backyard home. Last Wednesday was Cardio Day and I laid out a single deer heart in front of one of my camera traps. It took less than two hours to get the following photo:
Dinner is served!


Black Bear, Yellowstone NP
September, 2011
This blog is primarily for the students in CON 102: Introduction to Wildlife and Fish at Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) in Canandaigua, NY. For eight weeks, we cover about three dozen species of mammals. There is not enough time to cover all the material, show every photo and tell every story! Perhaps this site can serve as an extended "class" for us to all share on all things mammals. Students (and other visitors) are encouraged to comment, question and leave stories of their own. I have not entirely figured out exactly how I will organize this site, so suggestions on that regard are welcome as well.

All photos are mine unless otherwise indicated.