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Monday, October 29, 2012

The not-so-impressive white tails....

This has not been a typical camera trapping fall in regards to white-tailed deer. I have had dismal results on my property and not much better on my Father's. I have not had the number of overall deer I normally get nor am I getting the quantity or quality of bucks seen in past years.

Here is an interesting pair of photos taken about an hour apart. This first photo is of a deer with his first set of antlers. Since deer are born in the spring and data is collected from harvested deer in the fall, deer ages are usually given with an "and a half" added. For example, this deer is one and a half years old.

Yearling white-tailed deer
(Seneca Falls, NY 10/12)
Now take a look at the next deer to walk past the camera. He is sporting a much larger rack. Now that could be for a variety of reasons. He could have better genetics. He could have better nutrition. He could have both! But this guy is almost certainly just OLDER than the first deer. We can look at two clues in the antlers. One is the larger spread. Almost every single 1.5 year old buck has a rack that is inside his ear-spread. This second deer is not quite past the ear-spread either, but that is still common for 2.5 year old deer. The next clue to the age of a deer is the diameter of the antlers. Look at how much thinner the rack is above than the one below.

Two and a half year old buck
(Seneca Falls, NY 10/12)

Just one more year or two and that buck above will be a nice trophy. And that has been the theme this fall. Any photos of deer I have gotten, all show the promise for future seasons, but none look like the kind of buck I would like to harvest this year. The test for me always comes on some cold day when I find it hard to remember the last time I saw a deer and along comes a young buck. It is then that I feel torn between letting him walk and HOPING to see him again or killing him then and there and filling the freezer. In the last decade, I have let far more deer walk than I have shot. In the end, I do not regret that. There always seems to be venison from Dad, even when I don't find the buck I want to shoot. One last photo to share. A ten-point buck that I need to find next year....

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Flying squirrel in action

I have spent so much time on this darn video that I have to keep the text short here. Earlier this month I blogged about a camera set I have in the back yard specifically for squirrels (read the original post here ). The Cuddeback Attack is pointed up a black walnut tree in our backyard and has produced slim results... until now. Last week brought an increase in gray squirrel activity on this tree and a new camera trap species for our property: flying squirrel! Check out the video. Nothing super special, but my first video of flying squirrel. Having on my home court is even sweeter.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Out on a limb...

Sometimes I am reluctant to pronounce with authority what is happening in my camera trap photos (Going out on a limb so to speak). But this time, I feel I can safely say I have solved "The Mystery of the Barkless Branch". When I came upon the branch in question, my first thought was "This is the work of squirrels!" But I had never seen anything quite like it before. I have seen thinner branches stripped and I have seen smaller patches barked, but never have I seen such a large limb laid so bare. The second thing that gave me pause was this was a downed limb. By the looks of it, it seemed dead rather than a living branch ripped from a tree. So I was puzzled as to who did it and why. A camera trap was in order! Now, someplace on this laptop or in one of the dozen SD cards floating around my workspace are the photos that I took of that limb to show you good people the extent of the damage. I will add them if I ever find them.

Squirrel bite marks
(Stony Brook SP, NY)
As for WHY, I felt there were three options. First, it could be feeding. Squirrels and other rodents  (as well as rabbits) are known to "bark" trees for food. The prize is the tender cambium layer under the bark. Take your fingernail and score a young tree and you will easily find the green cambium layer. Second, this could be a marking behavior. As it so happens, I have been increasingly looking for squirrel bites after first learning of them in February. I wrote about woodchuck bites here. (and remember that woodchucks ARE squirrels). Here is what a typical squirrel bite looks like -->
Notice that it is a long stripe on the tree. The purpose of this biting seems to be to transfer scent from glands on the cheek rather than to feed. The bites themselves never make it all the way to the cambium layer. So what I was seeing on the branch in front of me was nothing like this. But I am no squirrel-marking expert so I was reluctant to eliminate any possibility. Finally, I felt it was possible that the bark was being collected as nesting or winter den material. The only flying squirrel nest I have ever seen was in a bluebird box and was completely made of shredded bark.

Look closely to see the individual incisor marks of the squirrels.
One last shot to give you an idea of how large this stripe is. According to Mark Elbroch, the squirrel bites are likely to be on the sheltered side as this one is -- they are taking advantage of the natural lean of the tree to keep the scent from being washed away too quickly.

As for the WHO, I had several suspects in mind. I was pretty confident this wasn't a bird, but I considered woodpeckers. However, the wood was really not compromised at all as one would expect from a woodpecker. That left mammals and more specifically rodents (this just wasn't the work of rabbits). I was thinking gray squirrel since the are bigger and this was some big damage and the woods were primarily deciduous; the prime habitat for gray squirrels. I remember thinking Eastern chipmunk as well and as it turns out we never got a single image of chippies.

So our game of clue was upon us. Was it Professor Pileated with the candlestick in the library? Or Ms, Squirrel in the kitchen with a lead pipe? Time would tell.....

Here are the results:

First, the most images obtained were of mice. I never saw the mice engaged in any behavior that would account for the damage. It appeared they were using the log as a highway. I made a single composite photo of several mice just for fun:

But the second most common critter was the red squirrel. I didn't really consider this prime red squirrel habitat so I didn't really think of him as a suspect, but perhaps that is exactly WHY he was eating bark. In prime habitat, the red squirrel is eating pine seeds. I am under the impression that bark eating in squirrels is a sign that there is not enough of their preferred food. We had a very poor beech nut and acorn crop this year so maybe that had something to do with this behavior as well.
Red Squirrel
(Wayland, NY 10/12)
I have done this once before but here is a composite image of a gray and red squirrel so you can easily compare their sizes.
Red and gray squirrel compared
(Wayland, NY 10/12)
But its the video that really helps tell the story of what is happening:

Camera trapping with my Black Bear Management class

On Friday, I took my Black Bear Management class to my Father's property in Wayland NY to retrieve 10 camera traps I had set out two weeks earlier. Let's see -- 10 cameras X 2 weeks = 20 camera/weeks. In other words we had squeezed in five months of work into two weeks by setting out so many cameras at once. Special thanks to Lisa Tracy of North Hennepin Community College (NHCC) for assisting with the camera sets.

I conducted a similar field trip last year with my students and had excellent results which I reported here. At that time, I was unsure if we would even get a single bear photo. Well, we obtained several including some nice video. So a approached this year's venture with more confidence. I repeated several of the sets and even used one of the cameras to target rodents instead of bears. So for class this past Friday, we all packed into the van and made the hour-long drive to retrieve the cameras. We were also targeting bear sign and any other interesting natural history finds along the way.

Our total species count (in no particular order):
-Black bear
-White-tailed deer
-Red fox
-Gray squirrel
-Red squirrel
-White-footed mouse
-Eastern cottontail
Obvious missing species:
-Striped skunk
-Eastern chipmunk
-Wild turkey
-less common species like gray fox and bobcat

(Wayland, NY 10/12)
Here are some of the highlights. The first camera set was on the same trail that produced a ten-point buck last year. No such luck in 2012 but a nice coyote and some antlerless deer. The second set was not too much farther, perhaps only a 100 yards away, but produced far more photos. This second camera was set on the mowed ATV trail and even eliminating the photos of Dad going back and forth to his tree stand, we got the greatest variety of species on this camera. Some of the better photos include:

White-tailed deer
Red fox

And our target species, BLACK BEAR
Last year, we had a bear on this camera heading on the other direction. So I believe we have a regularly used path, but an infrequently used one -- in the two weeks, this was the only bear photo at this location.
Set #3 was specifically targeting rodents. I will have to share the full results in another dedicated post, but here is a teaser photo. I stumbled on this downed limb that was being barked. I just HAD to set an Attack camera and get some video of the culprit. Although we photographed several species here, this was the only set that produced red squirrel.

Set #4 was a new location from last year. I saw a faint trail leading into some pines and when we went to investigate, the area was so vegetation-free that it was just begging for a set. We only got one species here, white-tailed deer, but multiple sightings made up for the lack of diversity.

Our fifth set was also a repeat from last year. As we approached the camera, I told the students that LAST YEAR, we had a black bear walk in front of this camera and camera set #2. Wouldn't it be cool if that happened again? Well, it did, except this year the bear was going in the opposite direction. Remember, camera #2 was on the ATV trail. Camera #5 was about 300 yards farther down that trail.
We were excited, but diversions to examine scat and identify trees had put us a little behind schedule. It was correctly pointed out to me that next year I should just plan for that and allot more time. :) Camera trap #6 was a bust. It was Dad's camera and although I thought i put fresh batteries in it, it was inoperative. No photos, and a new project for me this weekend as I am testing it out in the back yard. Camera trap #7 was the one I was most excited to check. Last year I had placed some scent lure into an old rotting log and we managed a nice video of two bears checking it out and one even licking the camera. I am not one to argue with success so I repeated the process this year. Well, we did not get a video of two bears, but we did get two videos of one bear!!! I have combined them below:

Let's discuss the behavior a bit. The lure is a sweet scent that is supposed to smell like something good to eat. This bear shows no signs of trying to ingest the scent or even to find the source of the smell to eat it, but rather looks more like a dog that just needs to roll in whatever stink they just found. the bottle is about four ounces and has now lasted two years. I am anxious to try some more scent luring for bears in the future.

Our eighth camera set proved to be a bust. When the batteries on the Cuddeback Attack get low the camera tends to respond by randomly or continually firing. I can accept that, but by "low" I mean a reading of 75%. To me, that is a design flaw. Anyway, I have to count this set as a total loss, despite the (are you ready?) 847 photos and videos recorded!! None of them were triggered by a critter. That left us with two sets. Set #9 was only a few yards away from #8 and I was silently seething at the failure of two cameras so close to each other. My annoyance soon melted as I checked the captures and found:
As we passed around the little preview camera we brought, I told the students "Fourteen hours ago, a bear was standing right here." It was a nice thought...
Our final camera set was anticlimatic. A few nice photos, some false triggers and no new species. Well, unless you count these creatures --
Brent and Ben
(Wayland, NY 10/12)
The day will come when we won't have to drive an hour to get into serious bear habitat. The "expanding bear range" is only 30 minutes to our south, which includes both of the College's field stations. Bears are resident but still relatively few and far between there. Although the bears have more chapters to write in their story as they move north and increase in numbers, they are increasingly being edged out of the wildlife headlines here in the Finger Lakes by other wildlife stories such as the newly arriving bobcat and fisher. These are exciting times to be a camera trapper!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Look up, look down, look all around

Gray Squirrel
(Seneca Falls, NY 9/12)
I have been playing around a little with different camera angles. My secret goal is to get some flying squirrel video footage. To that end, i have a Cuddeback Attack pointed up a tree in our backyard. I chose the tree only out of pure convenience. Without getting a ladder, I was able to reach the lowest branch and attach the camera at an interesting angle. The results so far have been slim, but today I found this photo and video of a gray squirrel. I cannot label this as "special" but perhaps "cute" is enough to blog about.

The video is only 16 seconds long and not particularly special, but I really like the angle. For a moment at the end there, I always forget that he is moving up and think he is moving straight away from me :)

Gray Squirrel
(Seneca Falls, NY 9/12)
The squirrels have been busy getting food cached for the lean times ahead. Last year we had no real winter to speak of but these guys don't seem to be fooled into thinking that will happen twice in a row. So here at our property it is all hickory nut mania. I have lots of streaky photos of squirrels going about their business and a few posers that seem to be mugging for the camera. But it is a different story at my Father's property. He has more pines and fewer hickories than I do. His acorns are nearly nonexistent this year so his gray squirrels supplement their diet with less than ideal food.

Gray Squirrel
(Fremont, NY 8/12)
Red squirrels are the ones that thrive in the pine forests. But that doesn't mean a gray cannot eat pines seeds. I found references that mentioned casually that grays eat pine cones and others that mentioned that they only eat green cones or eat cones at the end of winter when nothing else is available. All I can say is that I personally have not watched gray squirrels collect pine cones.

I also have had a few cameras pointing down hoping to catch some deer behavior. Monday, October 1st was the opening day of archery season here. Traditionally, the opener is October 15th so hunters are out two weeks earlier than usual this year. I was hoping for a nice big buck on one of the cameras to get me excited but no such luck yet. This first photo is a very small buck, almost certainly a yearling buck. I am only going from memory here, but I believe the statistic is that 90% of 1.5 year old bucks grow antlers that are not as wide as their ears. The second set of antlers are usually wider but even at 2.5 years old 25% of deer are still growing antlers that are not as wide as their ears. Even if the width isn't quite there yet, the diameter of the antlers is increasing. This final photo is set at our farthest pond. There is an area beaten down by the deer as they come to drink. I have a Cuddeback Capture set high on a limb. This is the only buck so far. I think that the thin rack that is not as wide as his ears tells me he is almost certainly a yearling or 1.5 year old deer. When I see a deer like that while hunting, I let him pass hoping that he will grow. I am not a trophy hunter by any means, but I enjoy the challenge of taking a deer that is wiser for having survived a season or two. Other hunters disagree and I can respect that. Taking the first legal deer is a valid goal and one that I ascribed to for many years. I guess I enjoy mixing it up, whether I am stalking prey for with the gun, bow or camera trap...

White-tailed Deer
(Seneca Falls, NY 9/12)