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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wetland Birds

Raccoon on misty night
(Seneca Falls, NY 9/2011)
I moved two cameras to our little wetland area two nights ago. The weather has been bad, with lots of rain both nights. On the first night, I only got raccoon photos. Not that I am complaining, but I was hoping for muskrats. I set the camera trap near some fresh looking 'rat tracks.... We had some heavy fog as you can see in this photo.

Last night produced no new photos. I am not entirely surprised as it rained heavily most of the night. However, I did manage two nice bird photos.

Green heron
(Seneca Falls, NY 9/2011)
This photo shows a green heron. We have loads of tadpoles, frogs and even some fish in our wetland s there should be plenty for this guy to eat. Green herons are also known to eat insects like dragonflies. On the day I set out this camera trap, I spooked up a great egret, so I am hoping for some more wading bird pics to come!

Greater yellowlegs
(Seneca Falls, NY 9/2011)
I have to admit that shorebirds are not my specialty, but I think I have this one identified correctly. I am making this a greater yellowlegs. Most of these have already migrated through and it will be interesting to see how long I get photos of this one before it too heads south.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mink Den?

Mink nest
(Muller Field Station, Richmond, NY 09/2011)
Last weekend was the first session of my Wetland Mammals class. We stayed at the college's Muller Field Station. A few students were exploring and lifted a board only to have a mink dart out from under it and into the water. I took this photo and assume that the nest-like structure was made by the mink. I have read that mink are somewhat nomadic except during the breeding season and may move from one spot to the next each day. I am in the habit of only using the term den to refer to the place where young are raised, not simply the place you spend the night (or day). Perhaps I am being too fussy....

Mink scat
(Muller Field Station, Richmond, NY 09/2011)
In addition to the dried grass nest, there were several scats under the board as well. Now, I know I just wrote that mink MAY NOT use the same resting place for more than one night, but by default, that means that they MAY as well. This looked like a particularly good spot! It was within 5 feet of the channel, it had that nice drain pipe access and with the fields to the upland, it seemed to have it all. One of the scats was very runny. It was hard to photograph, but you can see it if you look closely tot he right of the obvious scat in the photo.

The students set eight camera traps and I set two of my own. We are due to check them in another week and I will post the results.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Raccoon tracks and trails

We traveled so much this summer, it was hard to keep up with the blog. And to make matters worse, I had nothing but trouble with my camera traps. I have one set near the pond in our backyard and got a few interesting coon pics to share with you.

Young raccoon
(Seneca Falls, NY 9/2011)
We have had our share of wet weather lately, first with Hurricane Irene and then Tropical Storm Lee gave us a soaking. I am not complaining as many people lost homes and worse, but giving you some perspective... This camera trap is set right on the berm of the pond in our backyard. Coons are attracted to wet areas for the wealth of food they provide. This coon is so thin and small looking that it must be a young-of-the-year. And although there is only one animal in this photo, a camera trap doesn't always tell the whole story. It is getting late in the year, but not so late that I would expect the young to be on their own.

Family of raccoons
(Seneca Falls, NY 8/11)
Here is a photo from August that shows four coons in one frame. Again, who know what the camera missed? Is there another young one or two just out of frame? Anyway, these guys are headed straight to the pond. No matter how much rain we get, our pond always dries down in the summer. This leaves a nice ring of mud for tracking (and probably makes it easier to catch frogs, tadpoles and aquatic macroinverts...). Friday, I went down to the pond and took a few photos of coon tracks to share. But first, take a look at the feet of the coons in this photo and note the difference in size and shape between fronts and rears...

Raccoon tracks
(Seneca Falls, 9/11)
There were so many tracks going to and from the pond that it was hard to find a spot that wasn't too confusing. Raccoons leave a distinctive pattern of fronts and rears. Specifically, a front right is paired with a rear left and vice versa. It looks as if I have photographed the steps of several raccoons. If you look carefully at both pairs of tracks pictured, BOTH appear to be right fronts with left rears slightly in front. It is common for the front tracks to fall behind or even with the rear tracks. This is called an overstep walk. But if this was a single coon walking, we would have seen the pattern mirroring itself so that the left front would fall inside of the right rear.... interesting.....

Lets take one more look at the photo above, but I will zoom in on only the two center coons. This way we can see the shape of their feet better but also try to determine where each foot is going to land. The raccoon on the right has two feet on the ground - its right front and left rear. Note how close they are together and imagine what the tracks will look like.... just like the photo above! It is a little harder to see what is going on with its sibling on the left, but that guy has its left rear and right front in the air while the right rear and left front are making the distinctive track pattern (or would if this wasn't grass).

Raccoon tracks
Seneca Falls, NY 12/10)
Here is a photo I took last winter that shows this exact circumstance: two raccoons walking side by side in the snow along our North trail. But the photos line up even better than that.... If you start with the tracks at the bottom of the photo, they match up perfectly with the coons above. Follow the trails up and imagine how the raccoons made each pair of tracks..

Raccoon leaving tracks
(Orlando, FL 4/11)
One last photo: I took this photo in April in Florida and blogged about it here. The posting focuses on defining the words plantigrade and digitigrade but the photo is my best ever of a raccoon leaving footprints and therefore is worth reposting today. You can actually see the fresh footprints in the silt. Note again the position of each foot and try to imagine how this animal moves on its four limbs. I challenge you to give it a try. I can tell you from experience that this overstep walk is difficult to replicate. But with some practice, you too can leave nice coon-like prints in your own mud. And don't forget to wear your mask....

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Big Five: African Elephant Part I

It has been SOOO hard to keep up with blogging. We returned from Africa only to have all the craziness that goes with the start of the semester. So far, I have only managed a single safari post and that was just an overview. Tonight, let me start a series of posts regarding the "Big Five". I was only vaguely aware of the term "Big Five" before researching our safari and knew it had something to do with trophy hunters. In fact, the term refers to the five game species hunters sought that were both dangerous to humans and provided fascinating trophies. From the hides of lion and leopard to the horns of rhinos and buffalo to the tusks of elephants, the Big Five seem to still be the standard many safari-goers judge their experience by. We saw several tour companies that incorporated the big five in their name and/or logo and many more that took great pains to feature those species on their websites and in their itineraries. Don't get me wrong, we wanted to see them too. But that is only because we wanted to see EVERYTHING.

African elephant with injured trunk
(Serengeti National Park, Tanzania 8/2011)
 Of the Big Five, it is usually the leopard that is hardest to spot. That was true in our experience. We only saw two leopards (one in Kenya and one in Tanzania... but that will be the subject of another post!). In contrast, we saw hundreds of elephants. We visited seven parks/reserves and I believe we saw elephants in all of them. This posting includes some of my favorite elephant photos:
Short trunk: Laura was the one to notice that the elephant pictured to the right had an extremely shortened trunk. It appeared to have been severed. Our guide guessed that perhaps it had been accidently caught in a poacher's snare. The elephant appeared to be healthy and since they live so long, this injury could have been sustained many, many years ago. Still, one has to think this is a hinderance! We saw the elephants do some truely amazing things with their trunks. This girl seems to have thrived despite her injury.

African elephant in the "swamp"
(Amboseli National Park, Kenya 8/2011)
 "Swamps": In several parks, most memorably Amboseli National Park in Kenya, wetlands were present that our guides called "swamps". In the US, we would call these areas "marshes" as they were dominated by soft, emergant vegetation (that is, plants that grow up through or emerge from the water). Swamps are dominated by standing timber (dead or alive). The softer vegetation would be easier to digest and although we saw elephants of many different ages in these African "swamps", they are most essential to the oldest elephants who have worn teeth and can no longer process the tougher foods found elsewhere. It was amazing to see the elephants  feeding as they were partially submerged in the water. From a distance, it appeared that they were standing in high grass. But the white cattle egrets walking on the ground would give away the true situation (There is one under the ear of the elephant in the foreground and two near the elephants int he background.). The elephant in the photo above has just gathered a large trunkful of soft vegetation and is about to bring it to his mouth (Imagine how the elephant with the injured trunk would accomplish this!?!). Note how the trunk looks dark because it is wet.

African elephants
(Amboseli National Park, Kenya 8/2011)
 Family: In the final photo for this entry, have a look at the dark line on each of these elephants. They have clearly just gotten wet, perhaps from a river crossing or perhaps from venturing into a swamp. Since each elephant was a different height, each faced a different challenge when negotiating the water. You can almost trace a straight line through each of them and imagine the depth of the water! Well, almost all of them. The little guy looks completely dark and must have been completely submerged at one point :)

We all agreed that the "ellies" (as our Australian relatives would say) were favorites and we simply did not tire of seeing them. I will have to write another post or two about them to do them justice.....