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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunny Sunday: Turkeys, Ticks and Trampolines

The word of the day is "sunshine". It never got very warm due to the wind but that didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the day. Laura and I checked the cameras and got some nice photos today:

Male turkey strutting (Seneca Falls, 3/11)
1. Turkey: What a great pic! The rising sun cast some amazing rays in this photo of a young male turkey strutting his stuff. I know this is a young bird (or jake) because the two central tail feathers are longer than the rest. In an older bird, the entire tail fan is the same length. Opening day of turkey hunting season is May 1st. The birds will still be strutting then, but the difference will be that the females will be paying attention!

White tailed deer with tick (Seneca Falls, 3/11)
2. Ticks: I have one of the camera traps set low on the dike of our backyard pond. The muskrat photo in my last post came from that camera. It is set so low, that this passing deer was cropped at the top of the legs. Look closely at the front leg and check out what looks like a tick. Any other guesses? I had a deer a few years back with a similar circle on rear leg...

3. Trampoline: Sorry, no amazing camera trap photos of a critter doing a back flip. I guess I just needed a third "T" for the title. But today on the way home from basketball Danika said "Wouldn't it be amazing if we had an ingound trampoline?" It would be...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Muskrat Love....

This has been a busy week! It was hard to find time to blog. In the past two weeks, I acquired the following three photos of muskrats:

Muskrat (Seneca Falls, 3/11)
First up is a trail camera photo of a muskrat in our backyard. This is my very first muskrat on the camera trap. We have several ponds on the property and the 'rats are tunneling into the dikes more and more each year.  I guess I don't mind. I enjoy seeing the muskrats.

Muskrat tracks (Savannah, NY 3/11)
This next photo was taken last Thursday on Howland Island Wildlife Management Area. The weather was unseasonably warm and I hiked for several hours and got some nice photos. This was one of my favorite. Muskrats will follow any little trickle of water when they disperse and these muskrat tracks were in a small muddy rut. HIWMA has no shortage of muskrats! Note how long the nails are on the rear foot (track in the top left corner of the photo).

Muskrat hind foot (3/11)
The final photo is of a muskrat hind foot. At one of the den visits last week, one of the DEC biologists had this muskrat in his truck and showed it to my students and I. He is nuisance trapping on some State land.  Note the "fringe" on each toe making the foot more efficient for swimming.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Friday's Black Bear Den

As I wrote in yesterday's post, I visited a bear den on Friday with some students. Our main responsibility at a visit is to gather data on the den. We describe the den itself (some are dug into the ground, others are under brush piles), measure its volume, take temperature readings inside and out of the den, record the direction of the opening, rate the level of human disturbance, etc. It took us nearly as long to take our measurements as it took the DEC to work up the adult.

Black bear den
(Dansville, NY 3/11)
This particular den was dug by the female. In this photo, look carefully to the top right of the den entrance and see an old woodchuck hole. PERHAPS the bear started her den where a similar opening already existed.

The den was on a steep slope so we didn't get too many curious visitors while we were working. Some of the measurements require a person to actually go into the den. Here, Katie's legs are visible while Bethany takes notes.
Researchers collecting bear den data
(Dansville, NY 3/11)

When it was my turn to take a look in the den, I grabbed a photo of the wall. Katie had pointed out that the individual claw marks were visible from the
excavation. Note how sandy the soil is, making the digging relatively easy. Friday was unseasonably warm. We took an outside temperature reading of 64 degrees F while it was a cooler 58F inside the den. Remember, there were four bears inside this hole. Granted, three of them are little and one of them is pretty inactive, but mom weighed 190 pounds and her three growing boys were about six pounds each. That is a lot of heat being generated! See if you can pick out any tiny scratch marks on the wall of the den from the cubs...
Wall of black bear den showing claw marks
(Dansville, NY 3/11)

My final photo of the day is perhaps my favorite. The den got measured, the sow was weighed and fitted with a new GPS telemetry collar and the cubs were weighed, measured and fitted with PIT tags (more than one person has pointed out that what we call a "den visit" is more like an "alien abduction" from the prospective of the bear). Mom was returned to her den while still under the influence of the tranquilizer and the cubs were safely tucked in behind her. As we walked away from the den, I stuck the camera in and blindly snapped a few photos. One came out very well, giving us an idea of what the first few months of life look like for a black bear.

Black bears in den
(Dansville, NY 3/11)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Another Black Bear Den Visit

Bear den near road
(Dansville, NY 3/11)
What a day for a den visit! With temperatures over 60 degrees and no rain in sight, this was a fantastic day for a den visit. Today we joined the DEC south of Dansville to change the collar on an 11-year-old female bear.  First, let's talk about the den. She dug her winter home into the sandy soil on a bank literally on the edge of a road (a sleepy little country road, but a road none the less)! This first photo shows the DEC staff beginning to take the adult from the den. I only caught a tiny bit of the road in the lower left of the photo, but I can assure you that I was standing on the road when I took the photo.

Besides the female, there were three cubs in the den, all males. As I mentioned in previous posts, the cubs are weighed, given PIT tag implants and the ears and hair are measured to estimate their age. All cubs today weighed about six pounds, which is expected for cubs that are about 2 months old.

JVN and FLCC students
(Dansville, NY 3/11)
Before the cubs are returned to the den, about a million photos are taken! Here is a picture of me and the four students that attended the den with me today. I spent very little time with the cubs today as I was focused mostly on the den measurements. As you saw in the first photo, the den was on a steep slope making the data collection interesting. Tomorrow, I will post some photos of the den itself.

Two-month old black bear cub
(Dansville, NY 3/11)
 I will leave you with one final photo of one of the triplets. Check out those sharp claws. As he gets older and becomes more mobile, the claws will become worn and duller, more appropriate for climbing trees and finding grubs instead of taking a brotherly swipe at a sibling...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Login to Critter Scat

Today I will take a break from black bears to talk about scat. I took advantage of the warm weather (Spring Break = no classes) today to take a hike at Howland Island Wildlife Management Area in Savanna, NY. It was a good day for critter sign! I got some nice track and scat photos.

Today we are going to look at an array of animal scat found on logs:

Male Ruffed Grouse scat (Campbell, NY 3/11)
Ruffed Grouse: In the spring of the year, male grouse use logs as drumming platforms. They drum by beating the air with their wings. This is the "song" of the ruffed grouse and is used to attract females. We found this scat on the way to our second black bear den this past Tuesday.

The white in the scat is uric acid. Birds do not urinate, but instead get rid of their nitrogenous waste in their scat.

Raccoon scat (Howland Island WMA, 3/11)
Raccoon: Raccoons use logs to travel and often leave scat behind to mark their passing. The first photo is relatively fresh. Raccoons are opportunistic feeders, so their scat can contain plant and animal components. And when a fruit or mast crop becomes ripe, a scat may be almost completely made up of the one food source. That is the case with our next photo...

Here is an extremely old scat. I assume this is raccoon based on the volume and the location. In fact, the scat is so old, all that is left is a pile of indigestible skins from some small fruit.

Old raccoon scat, indigestible fruit skins
(Howland Island WMA, 3/11)
 I learned to look for these "ancient" scats after finding a pile of seeds this summer in Massachusetts. I just couldn't figure out what animal would have left so many cherry seeds piled in the open on the forest floor. Val walked up, looked down and solved the mystery by saying: "Huh, old bear scat." and walked away.

Muskrat: The last scat for today is muskrat. Beaver normally defecate in the water but 'rats usually scat on some object. Today, I found muskrat scat (muskscat?) on rocks, logs and and piece of ground that rose above the water.

Muskrat scat (Howland Island NWR, 3/11)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bear Den Visits Continued...

For several years, FLCC has been a partner with Region 8 DEC in their black bear studies. In today's post, I will focus on the data collected on cubs. 

Bears have an interesting reproductive strategy called delayed implantation. In NY, bears mate in June and July, but the fertilized egg does not develop in the female right away. In the fall, if the female has sufficient fat reserves, a chemical triggers the fertilized egg to attach to the uterus and begin to grow. Cubs are born only a few months later and are relatively small because their development time is so short.

Black bear cub, Wayland NY (3/10)
When we go to a den with cubs, they are kept in fleece sacks to keep them warm. They are weighed and sexed. The weight, however, doesn't tell much about the cubs' health unless one knows their ages as well. A study done some years ago in Virginia showed that you can tell the age of a cub by measuring its ear and hair length and plugging that info into an equation. The hair is measured on the top of the skull and is pretty straight forward. However, measuring the ear is a little more difficult. You know that little nub of flesh that sticks out of your ear close to the opening? It is called a tragus and bears have it too. Imagine taking a squirming cub and carefully lining up the ruler from the tragus to the tip of his ear. Now read the ruler to the nearest millimeter. Easier said than done...
FLCC students measure a cub's ear length (Wayland, NY 3/10)

A final photo of the tragus is below. Note also that this cub has some real blonde hairs. Most likely, he will grow out of them, but they make an interesting pattern now!

Black bear cub tragus (Canisteo, NY 3/11)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Black Bear Den Visits

Of all the cool things I get to do in my job, the bear den visits inspire the most envy. Today, my Black Bear Management II class visited not one, but two black bear dens. Both were females with cubs and each was exciting in its own way.

Holding a black bear cub (Canisteo, NY 3/11)
Photo by Patty Wakefield
DEN #1: Our first den visit was near Canisteo, NY on a great family farm. As we waited to go into the den, we watched deer and turkey foraging in the cut corn field and investigated the tracks left by about half a dozen wild animal species in the area around the barn. The NYS DEC staff is the advance crew. They go in first and immobilize the adult. Then we come in (along with any other guests) and assist in the processing and data collection. The female weighed about 215 pounds and has been collared for several years. She is about seven years old. She had three cubs, two females and a male. One of my students took this photo of me holding a cub. The sacks help keep the bears warm as well as reduce the chances of humans or bears being injured. The cubs are not aggressive, but their claws are very sharp because they haven't been worn down at all.

The cubs are given a PIT tag and weighed. We also measure the hair and ear length to help estimate their age within a few week period. The female had dug a nice den into the side of a hill with a southern exposure. The soil was nice and sandy making the digging easier. This den visit went smooth as silk and everyone had the chance to see the adult and hold a cub.

Collared black bear in tree
(Campbell, NY 3/11)
Collared black bear in tree
(Campbell, NY 3/11)
DEN #2: Our second den visit was near the town of Campbell, NY. This visit was rained out last week, so we were all encouraged to see the blue skies. It was a vigorous hike to the den! My students and a few other folks were left about 150 yards from the den while the shooters went in to tranquilize the female. About 25 minutes later, we received a call that she had been darted but exited the den and started up a tree. They asked for several of us to bring the net, which we would hold under the tree to help break her fall. Well, as it turned out she just went higher and higher in the tree, despite being darted. The dart may have hit fat instead of muscle, making the drug ineffective. The dosage may have been light for her weight. Or.... who knows? There are no guarantees when it comes to immobilizing wild animals. I was able to snap a few shots and when it became apparent that she was not going to succumb to the drug, the decision was made to back off and let her return to her den (and cub). We were about 75 yards away when we saw her shimmy down the tree and go back to her den. 

How high was she? Well, I didn't measure and I am sure my guess would not be accurate. But here is a photo that will let you decide....

Treed black bear (Campbell, NY 3/11)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Signs of Spring:"Pair o' possums" and the "Skunk stalker"

It was a good week for the camera traps! I tallied four species of birds and nine species of mammal. Here are a few highlights that tell me spring is on the way:

Striped skunk (Seneca Falls, NY 3/11)
Skunk Stalker: My last post showed what I believe are these same two skunks as well, but they were about an hour and a half apart in their travels. Last night, they were photographed within one minute of each other. Since skunks are solitary, my assumption is that this is a male trailing a female.

Striped skunk (Seneca Falls, NY 3/11)
These photos got me thinking about whether skunks are "symmetrical" or not. In other words, would the pattern hold true on each side? Can I identify an individual regardless of which side is photographed? Has someone already studied this? Could I get enough skunk photos to test my theory or should I go to fur auctions and take some measurements? Am I THAT desperate for a publication?

Virginia opossum pair (Seneca Falls, NY 3/11)
Pair of Opossums:  The opossum is also a solitary species. I believe this is the first photo I have of two adults together. Opossums have an incredibly short gestation period of 12 and a half days. Baby opossums are born the size of a honey bee. There can be over 20 young in a litter, but mom only has 13 nipples. Each baby needs its own dedicated milk supply since they are born so small and underdeveloped. So if opossums are mating in the middle of March, babies are being born as early as the beginning of April. They spend weeks in the pouch, so you shouldn't see your first young of the year until the last part of May at the earliest!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Right There in Black and White

Striped skunk (Seneca Falls, NY 3/11)
I checked my three camera traps today and got some nice skunk photos from last night. At 11:34, this skunk passed the camera and at 12:59, a DIFFERENT was photographed going in the other direction. As you can see we had some snow last night but it was melted by the time I checked the cameras. I have yet to have a bad experience with skunks. I have been way too close on several occasions, yet not sprayed. It really is a last-resort defense. Click on the photo above and check out the long front
claws typical of striped skunks.

Striped skunk (Seneca Falls, NY 3/11)
When Danika was little, we had a "Tag Along" bike for her. Picture a bike with no front tire, attached to my bike like a trailer and you have the idea. She could peddle or free wheel and we went everywhere. Once, we rode out to Montezuma with Laura and on the way back, with Danika and I far in the lead, we came upon a skunk foraging right along the side of the road. Danika was enthralled and asked if she could get closer. I told her to quietly get off and slowly walk towards the skunk, but if it changed what it was doing in any way to stop. If it lifted its head, retreat! Well, she crept up closer and closer until she was about 15 feet away (It was at that point that I wondered if a five-year-old would try to pet a skunk). That was the extent of her comfort zone. She stopped and quietly watched the skunk for a few minutes. I will never know how close that skunk was going to allow her to get, nor will I ever know how long Danika's patience would've lasted because it was then that Laura caught up to us and put a quick end to the great skunk experiment of 2001!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Spring cleaning

I pass a vacant lot on my way to and from work that has always been of particular interest to me. The grass is always punctuated with mole hills. Whenever I think of moles, I think of a phone call I received from my Uncle Ralph 25 years ago. It went something like this:

Me: "Hello?"
UR: "Johnny, I got problems. I've got moles running all over the back yard. They're everywhere. They are running up my downspouts! How do I get rid of moles?"
Me: "Uncle Ralph, moles don't run around. Those must be mice."
UR: "They can't be mice. Your Aunt's afraid of mice."

I always chuckle at that logic.... I explained how to get rid of the "moles" by buying mouse traps. He insisted again that they were not mice, they were moles. I assured him that the traps would work regardless. I never did hear how he made out.

Moles are not built to run (or climb). They are built to dig (and end up being good swimmers as well because the motion is the same) and spend a large part of their lives underground. When they DO come above ground, it is usually at night. If they didn't build those hills, we might never know they are around.

Mole hills (Geneva, NY 3/11)
I paid particular attention to that vacant lot today, as the melting snow gave me a good look how the winter has impacted the moles' world. Moles create two kinds of tunnels: surface tunnels for feeding and deeper tunnels for safety (and food in the colder months). The shallow tunnels are created by the moles pushing the soil aside so they create ridges along the ground. The deeper tunnels require excavation, so they are the cause of the mole hills.

Damaged surface tunnels of moles (Geneva, NY 3/11)
In the spring, the moles will repair cave-ins and fresh soil will appear on top of the hills. New hills will sprout up. And the surface tunnels also become damaged from the melting snow and the frost heaving. In this next photo, you can see clear paths in the soil. However, these are supposed to be tunnels, covered on top to protect the moles from predators. All of those tunnels will have to be recreated or new tunnels will be made.

Sandy soil from mole hill (Geneva, NY 3/11)
If I have moles on my 50 acres, they have kept themselves quiet enough that I haven't seen evidence of them. And I know the reason. It is the same reason I was able to buy the property in the first place. That same heavy clay soil that kept the price of this old farm low is also what keeps the
moles away. They like well-drained soils that are easy to dig through. And the soil of this vacant lot is very sandy. As I drove away from these mole hills, I kept one eye on the lawns I was passing. Within a quarter of a mile, I stopped seeing mole hills. I wonder if I can find an enterprising student curious enough to plot those mole hills on a soil survey map.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Eastern Cougar extinct

After completing a five year study, the USFWS has declared that the Eastern cougar, a subspecies of the cougar (or mountain lion or puma or panther or one of several other names) extinct. They point out in their study that most of the tiny number of documented mountain lions in the east have proven to be from Western or South American origin. They found very little physical evidence for mountain lions of any heritage to be in the east.

Captive mountain lion (2003)
If you know me, you know this is a topic of great interest for me. I have a professional interest in this subject and believe it is the perfect way to teach students about critical thinking, the role of science, what counts as evidence and how to discern good sources of information from bad.

So I have been following news stories and have taken the time to read many comments posted by readers and found very little new. Same story: I saw one. My neighbor saw one. I saw a picture of one..... you know the drill...

Last night I found an article that caught my eye because of the title. Posted on Yahoo News, this author based his belief in east mountain lions partly on some photos that were emailed to him of a mountain lion from a town in Connecticut. It only took me 30 seconds to find the history of those photos ( a new hoax for me, by the way) and they were debunked over a year ago. I sent the author the link to that previous article, gave him a little background on my history and asked if there was any way to correct the misinformation in the article.

I should pause here and say that when I contact people about misinformation, one of three things happens. Sometimes I never hear from them. A few times, I have gotten rude replies, but some of that might be my fault too. It is hard to tell someone they are wrong tactfully, especially when it is someone you have no history with. Often, they contact me with more questions and I get an apology or a retraction (I got Channel 8 News in Rochester to retract a story on air this fall). Brad, the author of the story in question, was in this last group. He sent me a very nice email and got his editor to add a paragraph to the story (see link below). Even though I had no classes to teach today, I felt as if I was an educator.

Many people assume that since there are so many sightings of mountain lions (John Lutz, founder of the Eastern Puma Research Network boasts of collecting of over 11,000 mountain lion sightings through his organization). The theory is that all of these people cannot be wrong. But the paradox of the situation is that the more sightings, the more lions there must be. And the more lions, the more physical evidence. See, if there were only a few sightings spread over a large area over many years, no one could say for sure that the sightings were not legitimate. But we have many sightings in many locations for many years and still no "smoking gun". No physical evidence.

So some people spend a great deal of effort documenting many stories when in fact they are only undermining their case in the process. Many cats means much physical evidence and that is not the case. If 99% of Lutz's stories were misidentifications, that would still leave 110 actual cougar sightings. That doesn't mean there are 110 mountain lions, as one individual cat would be seen multiple times, but it still would represent dozens of individual cats. And if there had been dozens of cats in the east, at least some (or one) of them would be hit by cars, captured on trail cameras, get treed by hounds, shot by hunters, produce scat, tracks, kills and other physical evidence, etc. The TRUE amount of misidentification in this story is probably closer to 99.99%. Here is one of my favorite misidentifications, although it does not involve a mountain lion :)

Red fox (Mt. Washington, NH 1999)
In 1999, Bruce Gilman and I took students on an environmental course to Newfoundland. On the first day, we drove to New Hampshire to take the cog railroad to the top of Mount Washington. It is a fun trip and really gives the students a sense of the various ecosystems we will encounter. There was a fox den near the parking lot and one adult and several pups were poking around on that rainy afternoon. One pup was fairly close so I grabbed my camera and stood perfectly still as he came out of the brush. Another visitor, not from our group, joined me and we stood elbow to elbow snapping photos as the pup emerged, shook off the rain and loped into the brush about 45 feet away. I turned to the man and smiled. He smiled back and from under his Red Sox hat he said "Bobcat, right?" ... I was momentarily speechless. I was not expecting that at all. Did he not just see that long bushy tail get shaken? How about a dozen other characteristics that differentiate a dog (red fox) from a feline (bobcat)? I am sure some of that confusion was visible on my face, but I managed to only say ", red fox." But what do you expect from a Red Sox fan?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Painter and the Sculptor

I took advantage of the thaw yesterday and placed two camera traps out in new locations. The first is in some thick pines. The weather forecast calls for some nasty weather and I was interested to see if I could get some photos of critters seeking shelter. The second I put on a woodchuck hole. There were muddy tracks leading out of the hole and I am hoping for a photo or two of a woodchuck in the snow.

Both of these locations are about a half mile from the house and on the way I poked around hoping to find a shed antler or something else of interest. I discovered two works of art...

Meadow vole tunnels revealed in melting snow
(Seneca Falls, 3/11)
THE PAINTER: In The Sand County Almanac, Leopold calls meadow voles engineers because they create tunnels. They tunnel underground, under vegetation and under and through the snow. And as the snow melts, these last tunnels are revealed. I found numerous examples of them on the walk yesterday but one series in particular struck me. The long squiggly lines made by these rodents looked random and erratic. I smiled as I thought of how a true engineer would have a fit over the inefficient design of these tunnels (I wonder of the voles at East Hill are held to a higher standard). Instead of well thought out blueprints, these designs reminded me of finger paintings. If I could just add some color to his canvas, it would be hard to tell the difference between his work and the preschool creations we saved from Danika.

Rodents have stripped the bark from this
tree (Seneca Falls, 3/11)
THE SCULPTOR: The second artist left his work unsigned (at least to my eye... more experienced naturalists may know for sure who created this) but I am certain he was a rodent of some kind. Many animals will eat the bark of trees for food. Beavers will cut down an entire tree to get at the cambium layer and newer stems. Elk use their lower incisors to gouge hunks of aspen bark. Rabbits will also take bark, but only has high as their long hind legs and snow banks will let them. Rodents, however, can climb, so they often strip trees and limbs. I have seen it before but I cannot remember seeing it so extensively. From a distance, this tree stood out in stark contrast to its neighbors. It looked so pale. I was reminded of driftwood. As I got closer I realized this was a living tree that had been recently barked (not de-barked... the correct term is "barked", so de-barking a tree would technically be putting the bark back on :) and was not the result of the bark falling off after being dead and drying out. It is the work of a rodent, but which one? My first thought was gray squirrel. But that one limb sure looks thin and I wonder if a gray would be too large to do the work. We have red squirrels, so they are another possible candidate. Chipmunks could do this, but if it is truly fresh, they spend most of the winter sleeping. Flying squirrels are another possibility, but they are so small I doubt if they would have tackled the thick bark of the trunk. So I am left with a mystery. I wonder if careful measurements of the chisel marks in the second photo would reveal the artist.

Most of the wood was smooth, but here is a spot with many "chisel"
(incisor) marks. (Seneca Falls, 3/11)

Friday, March 4, 2011

I kid you not!

Yesterday I showed you some bighorn sheep photos, today let me share a pair of mountain goat shots I took in Montana last month. On the last day of my mountain lion tracking workshop, I spotted a pair of mountain goats on the top of, well, a mountain. I zoomed in and took several shots. The sky was clear blue and it made the goats all that much easier to see. Scroll down and have a look at the sheep photos from yesterday and see that there is no way anyone should confuse these two animals. Yet they do. On several occasions, I have had people argue that female bighorns were mountain goats because the horns were not large enough (discussed yesterday). My favorite was the woman that mistook bighorns for elk saying "I saw elk yesterday and they looked just like that." I try not to argue or get arrogant, but sometimes I cannot help myself...
Mountain goat (Montana, 2/11)

ANYWAY.... Here is a nice close up of one of the mountain goats in Montana. It wasn't until I got home and enlarged it that I noticed the radio collar. Mountain goats are white all year long. After taking a bunch of photos with the telephoto, I switched to a smaller lens to show what kind of habitat these guys look for. You are going to have to look closely for a small white spot on the top of that rock face to spot this one. Oh and if you haven't figured out the reason for the title yet, young goats are "kids"...

Mountain goat, habitat shot (Montana, 2/11)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"...out like a lamb."

Yesterday I wrote about lions. Today, lambs. As in, baby bighorn sheep. I was able to take Danika to Yellowstone National Park this past September (2010) and one of my goals was to climb Mt. Washburn with her... again. The FIRST time we climbed that together, she was 18 months old and Uncle Tom carried her the whole way. I was there with students from FLCC. Laura and Danika flew out to join us for a week and Tom and Kimberly drove up from Utah to do the same. The SECOND time we climbed it Danika was five and I hardly carried her at all.

Danika at the peak (Yellowstone NP, Sept. 2010)
 We got up early and drove to the trail head. I was excited to find we were the first car there. Our hike up was eventful, with a too-close encounter with a grizzly and her cubs ( a story for another day) and some sightings of other wildlife including some distant bighorns. These were the first for our trip so we took some time to enjoy them. We continued to the top and spent time in the small shelter there. On the way back down, we stopped to talk to a couple that were on their way up. As we talked, the woman noticed some sheep coming out onto the trail below us. Danika and I spent the next 30 minutes slowly approaching and taking photos.

Danika and bighorns (Yellowstone NP, Sept. 2010)
 Where are the "big horns", you ask? Well, on the males. Females have horns but they are smaller than those on a mature male. It is only the males that engage in the head-butting contests so the ladies do not need the heavy headgear. Typically, the males are more secretive than the females and there were no mature males in this group. There were, however, a few lambs that looked far too small to me to be mere weeks away from a Yellowstone winter...

Bighorn lamb, Yellowstone
One of the lambs walked very close to us. I should say for the record, that neither of us left the trail to approach the animals.

Bighorn lamb, Yellowstone NP

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"In like a lion..."

We had a nice thaw just the other day, so I am not sure that we can say that THIS March has come in like a lion, but that old expression gives me the perfect transition to talk about my recent trip to Montana to learn about mountain lions. Meet Jay Tischendorf. Jay offers a workshop on mountain lion tracking, ecology and management through his educational entity AERIE. The course began on February 1st in Great Falls, Montana and we spent four very full days in the field identifying tracks from lions, lynx, bobcat, coyote and domestic dog. I learned a lot and feel much more prepared for the next time someone presents me with tracks they found in NY that they believe came from a mountain lion. In fact today, the USFWS issued a formal statement regarding their five year review of the Eastern cougar.

It said, in part: "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) conducted a formal review of the available information and, in a report issued today, concludes the eastern cougar is extinct and recommends the subspecies be removed from the endangered species list."  

Jay photographing male
cougar tracks (Montana, 2/11)

I was struck by how easy it was to find lion tracks. We went to four different locations and each time, we came across at least two different trails. I asked Jay how he had discovered such rich sign, assuming he was going to tell us about his years of dedicated searching that led him to these special locations. Instead he sheepishly admitted: "These are the only canyons plowed in the winter." The trails were obvious and readily available for all to inspect. And I should note that this was AFTER the hunting season, so we had fewer lions than even a few weeks earlier. There is simply no way to hide a population of lions; their sign is just too easy to find and distincitve to identify.

Male mountain lion track, Montana
 We were able to compare tracks from similar species. We compared lion to lynx. We spent over an hour at a dog park looking at various tracks and learned the obvious and subtle differences between dogs and cats. We measured. We made plaster casts. We laid out wire rods to measure angles. It was very thorough and enjoyable.

On tha last day, I told Jay I needed some proof that I was actually present at these tracks. I had taken all the photos up to that point, but what could I do to document that I was there in person? Jay took a few photos of me posing next to a set of mountain lion prints, but I was afraid that just wouldn't do it. Then I had an idea. The conditions were such that we had a frozen layer of snow under a lighter layer of snow. This provided nice clear tracks, but also made it possible for me to actually chisel a track out of the snow to hold. We used some of Jay's spray wax to add contrast and I had my proof!

JVN holds lion track. Photo by
Jay Tischendorf

I have never seen a mountain lion in the wild. Laura and I camped in Zion National Park for Thanksgiving in 1989. It snowed a good inch the first day and when I woke up in the morning, I found lion tracks crossing (but showing no interest in) our tracks about 100 yards from our tent. I HAVE been up close and personal with captive mountain lions. We used to take the nature photgraphy classes to a place in Canada that had captive native wildlife. About the only species we couldn't actually go into the pen with was the cougar. The shooting was great though and I have managed to publish a few of my nicer pictures from those days. Here are three of my personal favorites:

Danika, age 4 (Massey, Ontario)

CUTE: One summer, Laura, Danika and I went up by ourselves to this establishment. It was nice to see the animals at a different time of year and even nicer to share this adventure with my family (they had heard all the stories...). Danika was four and it just so happened that her pre-school teacher had just given each of them a single-use camera with the assignment to take pictures of interesting things. Here she is taking a photo of a mountain lion cub. She also took photos of bobcats, fox, wolves, and a moose. When the photos were returned to the students, there was a note from her teacher that said: "What are these animals and where did you take these pictures?" :)

NOT SO CUTE: Everyone has to eat and since this is NOT a Disney movie, the predators at this place actually ate meat. Wilson, the owner, would buy the day-old chicks from a nearby egg farm (they only needed female chicks to replace their laying hens and would destroy the males). We would then feed these frozen chicks to the mountain lions, one at a time. This was a special treat for them only when photographers were there. You could get the lions to move to where you wanted them by launching some food in that direction. The encloser featured some interesting boulders, a rock face, some logs, etc. and this allowed some variety in our photos. One year, we brought a student that had a pitching arm like a pro and he could get those chicks to wherever we wanted them. That got me thinking about how good the lions would be at catching their food. So we instructed Justin to throw them just out of reach so the lion would have to lunge for it. Here are the two best photos I got of that experience.

Mountain lion feeding (Captivity)

Mountain lion feeding (Captivity)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My Favorite Faux Marten

Danika, Age 8 (Newfoundland)
 All this talk about martens reminded me that Danika dressed as a marten once. In 2004, Laura, Danika and I went to Newfoundland for our summer vacation. We flew to St. John's and camped in Terra Nova National Park. Danika was eight years old and we dropped her off at the kid's program at the visitor's center.The focus of the activity was "forest creatures" in general and the marten in particular. Martens are endangered in Newfoundland and the kids each made headbands with marten ears to wear. They learned about the adaptations that helped martens survive. Here is a photo of a slightly embarassed Danika Marten...

We saw many things on that trip, but one that stands out in particular was a bald eagle encounter. We took a tour in the bay and the captain brought along a cooler full of frozen fish. The eagles had become accustomed to taking the fish from the surface of the water and I was able to get some amazing pictures.

Captain Danika

Bald eagle (Terra Nova National Park, Newfoundland, Canada, 2004)