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Monday, July 30, 2012

Visitors to an ever-shrinking pond...

Drying pond
(Seneca Falls, NY 7/12)
It has been dry this year and the pond in our backyard is barely earning its name. But the mud pan is good for tracking and I imagine that the small pool of water concntrates prey making it easier to catch. The camera trap is not visible in this photo but it is attached to the willow tree in the background left. BTW, this end of the pond is now completely dry so I moved the camera to the deeper end yesterday.

The mud is just littered with raccoon tracks, so it was no suprise that I captured several really nice coon shots.
Raccoon family
(Seneca Falls, NY 7/12)

I love this photo! What an action shot. Each of the youngsters is actively searching for food. The young coons will stay with their mother all summer and may even spend the winter with them. I hope to keep getting photos of these guys and watch them grow. I can't tell if that is an eye shine in the backgound. Evidence that it may be is this next photo of four young
Raccoon and four young
(Seneca Falls, NY 7/12)
Among the raccon tracks, I found a single set of skunk tracks. We only have one species of skunk in NY, the striped skunk. I have had no shortage of skunk photos this year. Check out other entries here.
Striped skunk
(Seneca Falls, NY 7/12)
Skunk and raccoon tracks have some similarities. They are both about the same size and both have five digits on the front and rear. But there are some obvious differences. The digits are not aligned the same and are much shorter on the skunk. Skunks also have some really long claws on the front feet. So when I found this skunk's tracks among the coons, it was pretty obvious.
Striped skunk track (rear)
(Seneca Falls, NY 7/12)
Striped skunk track (left)
Seneca Falls, NY 7/12)

The final track I wish to share is a little different. This one is on the camera itself! At first, I brushed it off as a raccoon. I have had experiences with coons climbing my cameras before but this one didn't look right for coon. We are looking at the print to the right of the flash. Note that only four toes are showing. That in itself doesn't eliminate coon. It is common for a toe (or two) to not show in a track, but it had me thinking of who would leave a four-toed track. The answer: rodents. And when I looked at the photos from the camera I found this:

The unmistakable tail of a gray squirrel. Look at those long whispy hairs on the edge. Here is the whole squirrel for comparison:

Gray squirrel
(Seneca Falls, NY 7/12)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Eastern coyote summer coat?

I normally do not bait my camera trap sets, but this week my wife taught a class on cardiac health that culminated in pig heart dissections. Since the class was held at the local hospital, it would be unwise to dispose of the hearts on site. Imagine if someone mistook them for human organs in the trash!

I placed the hearts in front of one of our cameras. It didn't take long to attract some of the locals. Raccoons were first on the scene. Here, mom stumbles on a nice meal for her and the little ones.
Raccoon family
(Seneca Falls, NY 7/12)
The next coon to show up really struck a pose!
Daytime raccoon
(Seneca Falls, NY 7/12)
This next photo was taken hours later, but may be the same raccoon:

At around 4am, two coyotes showed up. They looked very different from each other. One has a nice thick coat while the other is a bit thinner. Here they are:
Eastern coyote in July
(Seneca Falls, NY 7/12)
Eastern coyote with thin coat
(Seneca Falls, NY 7/12)
Why the difference? Well, I think I have two healthy coyotes here but one is a juvenile. That would account for the thinner coat. Let's call this an educated guess rather than wild speculation or fact. I have people that tell me all the time that these thin coyotes (and foxes for that matter) have mange. But I am not buying it. Chime in if you have more experience than I do, but until then I am sticking with my juvy theory...

Below is an attempt to turn a powerpoint slide into a jpeg for easier viewing. These two photos were taken four minutes apart. What a great comparison!
Eastern coyote
(Seneca Falls, NY 7/12)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Yellowstone National Park: Cubs and coyote

Black bear and two cubs
(6/12,Yellowstone National Park)
I was able to spend a week in Yellowstone National Park this past June. I met up with relatives visiting from Australia. We had a great time and the kids got to see some amazing stuff. We saw over a dozen bears, but none were more exciting than our first. Here is a female with two cubs spotted along the road to Tower Falls. As is usual for YNP, there was a large crowd gathered to watch. There were also three rangers helping to control the situation. You will hear me echo this in future posts about this trip, but I cannot say enough about what a fantastic job the park staff did at all the various "jams" we encountered (bear, wolf, bison, etc.). They were friendly but insistent that the animals be given appropriate space and that traffic flow smoothly. As I tell my students all the time, the key to these roadside sightings is to find the first available legal parking space and grab it. Don't attempt to park with part of your vehicle on the road. Please note the positions of the two cubs near their mother.

Within a few minutes of our arrival, a braking and downshifting tour bus scared the female bear and she vocalized a huff that told her cubs "Danger!" and they headed for the big tree at the edge of the meadow. It is worth noting that one cub took this warning far more seriously than the other. Look at the photos and see that not only did one cub reach the tree much faster than the other but it also climbed much higher. That was also the cub that was closest to mom at the start. Why the difference? Is it related to personality of the cubs or perhaps slightly differing experiences already?
The second cub never actually left the ground
It is important to the story to tell you now that when the cubs left the tree, only one returned to the mother's side. Care to guess which one? :) The other cub kind of wandered in the other direction.
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
We were enjoying the sighting. As far as I know, this was my nephew Luc's first wild bear encounter. The other visitors were equally appreciative. The couple to our left spoke only in whispers despite the great distance from us to the bears. There were probably three dozen people standing at the edge of the meadow and a steady stream of traffic passing to our left. A ripple of excitement and murmers alerted me to a new player taking to the stage: a coyote. The coyote had just crossed the road and walked in front of an admiring line of spectators. Canis latrans had not seen the bears yet and I smiled thinking that the coyote was probably under the impression that we had all been waiting for HIS arrival. He did not disappoint as he stayed close and walked the entire length of the crowd.
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)

Coyote chasing bear cub
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
The coyote then turned its attention to the meadow and after a preliminary sniff he began to nose about for rodents, birds and even smaller prey. It was then that it spotted the bears. By now, the cubs had resumed their activities after the "Great Bus Scare of 4:30 pm" and the one cub had put some distance between itself and mom. I focused on the coyote and just kept my finger on the shutter. In a flash, I was rewarded with a burst of speed as the coyote took off after the cubs.

Coyote (foreground) chasing bear cub (background)
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
Here is the coyote chasing the cub that had strayed farthest from the mother. It so happened that this cub was therefore closest to the tree. It made it up without a problem and I can assure you this time it DID take the threat seriously and went far up the tree. At this time the coyote stopped the pursuit and turned its attention to the other cub and the adult bear.

Mom literally chased her second cub up the tree.

Once the cubs were safe, she turned her attention to the coyote. 

The female bear ran several feet towards the coyote until it turned and fled.
Female black bear (left) chases off coyote (right)
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
Note that she did not go very far. Once the coyote was retreating, mom took a hard right and ran about 30 yards from the cubs.
Black bear (left) and coyote (right)
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
It was all very exciting. I was not rooting "for" or "against" any of the players; I was just enjoying the natural spectacle and soaking in as much as possible. I have never actually SEEN this behavior before. I have read about it and spoken about it with confidence, but seeing was another thing entirely. When I teach (whether to my class or a public audience) about safety around bears, I always include information about bears and cubs. Many people have heard that you should never get between a mother and her cubs. I always nod and say "That is true. I won't even get between a mother and her cubs at WalMart." But the rest of the story is that black bears rarely defend their cubs vigorously. They usually do exactly what this one did -- sends them up a tree (through a vocalization) and then makes herself scarce. Grizzly bears are another story entirely. Many people find it easier to just lump all bears together (much like people that only know that poison ivy has "three leaves", so they avoid ALL three-leafed plants rather than learning the one to avoid). It is worth noting again that in this instance mom DID turn and face the threat and even ran towards the coyote. But she quickly gave up on that.

Coyote (foreground) carefully watching bear cubs (background)
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
It took a while, but the cubs did come down from the tree. When they hit the ground, they headed right over to their mother who was in some thick brush. I could only speculate on how much I was missing being so far away. Were they in vocal communication? As the cubs moved, they caught the attention of the coyote again and it came to investigate. At one point, it was closer to the cubs than the mother bear was but it made no attempt to reach them. Again, was there some sort of communication taking place that I was missing? Was it all just visual cues like ear position and such or was there some vocalizing or other things happening?

Coyote crossing road in Yellowstone National Park
(6/12, Yellowstone National Park)
The cubs reached the mother without incident. The coyote decided it had enough and went back across the road from whence it came. We headed back to the car with the kids both saying "I'm hungry."

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Feral cat on the camera trap

Here is an interesting sequence from my south hedgerow recently. We have three feral cats that regularly show up on my cameras and I have to say I am not happy. I have a real bias towards native animals and that makes the cats unwelcome additions to our property. I have nothing against predation (see my previous post for example) but I feel that every animal taken by one of these cats is one less that a fox or coyote has available. I do very little small game hunting myself, so this is not a case of me wanting the critters all for myself. And I feel that feral cats in many ways represent irresponsible behavior on the part of humans. Owning an indoor "fixed" cat is one thing; feeding semi-wild neighborhood cats is another. But before I say too much and get myself into trouble, let's just have a look at some amazing photos.

Eastern cottontails
(612 Seneca Falls, NY)
Regular readers of my blog (are there any???) might recognize the location in the accompanying photos. I call this my south hedgerow set. It is a nice shady spot in some overcrowded silver maples. There is a nice mowed trail that I keep here and I have obtained some nice photos here. Check out the time and date on this first photo of two eastern cottontails. I like this photo. It is full of energy and composed nicely. It is a real study in how rabbits move, too. Look at the one closest to the camera and focus on the front feet. Now look at the one in the back and see how it is springing up from its rear feet.

This next photo captures just the tail end of one of the regularly occurring feral cats on the property.
Feral cat
(6/12 Seneca Falls, NY)

It wasn't long before this cat was back. I do not know how common it is for a cat to kill a rabbit this large, but in my years of camera trapping, this is my only photo.
Feral cat with eastern cottontail
(6/12 Seneca Falls, NY)
I wanted to post the entire photo so you could see the time and date stamp. Here is a magnified view:
Feral cat with eastern cottontail
(6/12 Seneca Falls, NY)
An eastern cottontail should weigh 2-3 pounds I am guessing. This cat was either very good or very lucky. Is this a female with young that need feeding? I am not sure. But two days later, I got this photo:
Feral cat with eastern chipmunk
(6/12 Seneca Falls, NY)
What makes me angry is the idea that this cat may not even BE feral. There is a very real possibility that it is owned and fed by someone that wants an outdoor pet. And these carcasses are being brought home and left on the front porch as "gifts" or whatever to the owner.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The very lucky safari family or "Not a good day to be a porcupine."

I wanted to write something special for my 100th post and have had my heart set on telling our African porcupine saga. It isn’t that I have any shortage of things to write about. We have just finished our Conservation Field Camp and I have more I can post from that. The Cuddeback Attack in out half-hedgerow has been getting some nice displaying woodcock video. And I am currently writing this entry while in the Chicago airport waiting to meet family in Yellowstone National Park. But all of that will have to wait…
M'tanganika (center) our guide in Tanzania
(8/11, Tanzania)
Last August, our family vacation was a photo safari to Kenya and Tanzania. As I have mentioned in previous posts, we travelled through African Servalcat Safari and have nothing but great things to say about their service. Every detail was arranged for us. Our guide in Kenya was William and over the course of the ten days we spent with him he became a part of our extended family. So it was an emotional departure at the border between Kenya and Tanzania. William handed us over to M’tanganika with a handshake and some instructions. “John likes to look at the birds and Laura wants to see a leopard in a tree.” M’tanganika said he would do his best!
Guides from Kenya are not allowed to work in Tanzania (and vice versa) so we spent our final leg of the safari with M’tanganika with Leopard Tours. I am not sure if ALL the guides in this part of the world are as capable and friendly as our two were or if we were just lucky. Our experience in Tanzania was every bit as flawless as our time in Kenya. And it was in Serengeti National Park that we had our most dramatic encounter. Four species of mammal and two species of birds played a role in the drama that unfolded. In addition, the entire story occured with no other visitors present! In the midst of one of the busiest national parks in the world, we found solitude. And that made the experience all the more enjoyable.

I can still hear M’tanganika’s voice in my head as I remember him telling us how the day would unfold. With our agreement, we would load into the Land Rover with our camera gear, binoculars and boxed lunches, turn off the radio and “disappear into the bush”. This style of searching for wildlife was a point of pride for him. He made a point to tell us more than once that there were many guides out there that would merely listen to the CB radio chatter among the guides in order to find game. We would have our own adventure and feel that sense of accomplishment that comes with earning your rewards. We all liked that idea. So much so that Danika took to calling the other guides “vultures” for feeding on the information left-overs…
Crested porcupine
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
The rules of the Park say that vehicles must stay on the existing tire tracks  worn into the ground. There were plenty of those tracks to choose from. And it seemed everywhere we went, there was wildlife. We found a pride of lionesses and cubs that totaled 21 in all. We saw all three species of jackal. We saw a leopard – in a tree of course. And we saw birds. We were all having a fantastic time. As we rounded a bend I saw a shape ahead of us that my mind kept telling me was a bear cub . I knew I was wrong and convinced myself that I was SO wrong that it wasn't even an animal at all. But as we got closer it moved and I knew what it was: a crested porcupine.  This is a vastly different species than the porcupine of North America. For more info on "our" porcupine, view this entry from Bearly Alyssa

Hyena and crested porcupine
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
We were so excited to see this animal out and about in daylight. Our guide said this was only the third one he had ever seen in his entire life and the other two had each been dawn sightings. We were so excited by our find that we never thought to ask "Why?" -- as in "Why WAS this porcupine out of bed in the middle of the day. We snapped a few photos and continued on our way. We progressed about 10 minutes down the road when M'tanganika suggested we turn around and try another route. That suggestion made all the difference in our safari! As we reapproached the porcupine, I could see that it had retreated into the bushes and a spotted hyena was very close by. I assumed the hyena was harassing the porcupine but as we got closer, I could see the hyena was eating something.
Spotted hyena eating crested porcupine
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
At first, we thought the hyena was eating young porcupines. I did not know that more than one porcupine adult would be found in a den, so it was a logical (if incorrect) conclusion. In addition, the size of the item the hyena was eating was small.  In the photo to the right you can see a few quills sticking out of the hyena's mouth.

Spotted hyena trying to remove porcupine
quills (8/11, Serengeti National Park)
The story was beginning to unfold. We knew that the hyena had killed a porcupine (still thinking it was a juvenile) but we had yet to meet all of the players. As I was taking photos, my daughter Danika was taking video. This first clip is about two minutes long and shows some interesting behavior. In the photo on the left you can see the hyena trying to work some quills loose from its mouth. In the video, I call this tool use and I stand by that assessment here. Using a woody branch or forb to remove quills from its mouth, the hyena was utilizing an object in a novel way. There is no one definition of "tool" so there is no consensus on what constitutes tool use. This hyena never modified the vegetation so that it performed the required task better, so perhaps this is akin to an animal rubbing against a tree to relieve an itch. Comments welcomed!

Here is the first segment of video shot by my daughter Danika Van Niel:

The bat in the video turned out to be an Egyptian slit-faced bat. They are known to live in porcupine burrows and as this video shows, that includes active ones. There turned out to be two bats present and we watched them fly in and out of the den several times. I have one nice photo of a bat here:
Egyptian slit-faced bat
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
In addition to this photo of a perched bat, Danika was able to snap a picture of one in flight:
Egyptian slit-faced bat in flight
Photo credit: Danika Van Niel
(8/11, Serengati National Park)
Spotted hyena carries crested porcupine carcass
(8/11: Serengeti National Park)
But back to the hyena.... At the end of the video clip, the hyena was cleaning its mouth of quills. Apparently, it had gleaned all the meat it could from that meal and was ready for more. We watched as it entered the porcupine den and since we were still under the impression that it had killed a young porcupine, we thought it was going for another. After a few short minutes, the hyena reemerged with its actual kill, the mate of the live porcupine. What a sight! The hyena could barely lift its head high enough to keep the carcass from dragging on the ground. Our guide kept telling us that we were a very lucky safari family to be seeing such sights. We agreed.

It is easy to cast the hyena in the roll of the villian. It is creepy looking. It laughs in an almost maniacal way. And we often have a soft spot for the underdog. But as the events unfolded, we began to feel sorry for the hyena too...

With the carcass removed, the remaining porcupine immediately headed for the protection of the burrow. Check out that foot in the second photo.

Watch another clip from Danika's video. It is a little over two minutes long and you get to hear the "laugh" of the hyena as it echoes from underground as well as our genuine reactions of suprise and amazement as the hyena emerges with the porcupine kill. As the video ends, we notice several other hyenas coming in to try for a bit of food.

I have some really graphic photos of the hyena tearing apart its meal, but I will leave those for class. Here, let me post one that is only sort of gross :)

Spotted hyena eating crested porcupine
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
Within two minutes of this hyena bringing its kill to the surface, other scavengers took notice. First, it was a handful of hyenas. Our original hyena stood its ground!
Spotted hyena defending its kill
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
In the end, the hyena had to relinquish some of his kill. He kept the biggest chunk for himself but lost out on some of the smaller pieces. It may be a better idea to loose a little to keep a lot and stay safe rather than try to have it all. Then the vultures arrived. I will have to consult my journal (not with me at the moment) to determine the species, but I do remember that there were two kinds. Here is a nice shot of the vultures soaring in. They never did get any of the meal...

At one point, Laura prophetically comments that it would be awesome if a lion came in and stole the kill. Well, a lioness saw the vultures decend and knew what that meant. M'tanganika was the first to spot her charging across the plains towards the scene laid out before us. In the photo below, you can make out a small dot in the upper center -- that is her.
African lion approaches hyena with kill
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)

As the hyenas notice the lion, they scatter. As she rushes into the scene, she is unable to locate the food. She trots from one hyena to the next trying to locate the food. When she didn't find anything, she went to see if the vultures had the food. That gave the hyenas the opportunity they needed. Two of them rushed to the carcass and each managed a small chunk of food before the lion rushed them and claimed the "lion's share" for herself.

The first thing the lion did was to lick the kill. I am not sure why. Maybe she had previous experience with porcupines and knew to smooth out the quills. Maybe she was licking off blood and getting some nutrition. Perhaps it was a way of replacing the hyena scent with her own. Maybe it was none of these. But it did make for a nice photo.
African lion claims crested porcupine carcass
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
After only a few bites, she picked up her carcass and headed back in the direction she came. A few hyenas followed, hoping for some scraps. We watched her depart knowing that we had just witnessed something truly amazing. If I had to select a single photo from the entire African safari as my favorite, it would be the one below.

Notice the position of her ears. She is looking ahead but listening behind. The reason is evident in this photo:
African lion with trailing hyenas
(8/11, Serengati National Park)
An hour had passed since we started. We were hungry, hot and drained. Only one hyena remained; THE hyena, the one that started it all and made the original kill. It did not follow the other hyenas. He watched as the vultures flew off. When he was alone, he turned and headed to the porcupine burrow to procure another meal...

EPILOGUE: We waited for another hour. We had no idea what was happening underground -- whether the hyena would be able to repeat his feat or not. We waited. We decided to eat our box lunches. The smell of our food wafted into the porcupine burrow and out popped the hyena, seeing if he could get an easier meal. We of course, did not feed him. But as he stared at us intently, we could see the evidence that below our feet was a fight for life. Once the hyena concluded we were not a source of food, it headed back into the burrow. We left before the final chapter was written.