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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bobcats return to the Finger Lakes Region of NY

I have been enjoying my camera traps for several years now and have been blogging about them for nearly two. But my fascination for them continues to grow. I have been toying with new sets lately and, as expected, have had mixed results. Not all new ideas are good ones. But it was an old fashioned hedgerow set this summer that produced my most unusual capture to date.

We had a group of middle-schoolers scheduled to visit our Muller Field Station this August for a day of outdoor adventure and a taste of science in the real world. I had set out some camera traps a few days earlier and to increase my chances of captures, I used some scent lures we had left over from a previous project. The field station is adjacent to a wetland and although we have only a narrow strip of forest along our old fields, we but up to almost two thousand acres of State-owned lowland ash-maple forest.

I gave the kids a brief introduction to camera traps (some were familiar with them from personal family use) and we predicted what animals we may capture given the habitat. Then it was time to check the cameras. I took them to the sets and explained at each one what my intention was. One was at the mouth of a culvert pipe, one was along a deer trail, etc. and the final camera was in the hedgerow closest to the buildings. I literally chose this location becuase it would bring us back around to the station along the easiest possible route. When we got back to the classroom, I pulled an SD card at random from my pocket without knowing which camera it came from.

(Richmand, NY 08/12)
And the very first photo from that very first card was the photo on the right: a BOBCAT! Well, half a bobcat. To say that I was excited is an understatement. Some of the middle-schoolers fed off my enthusiasm while others were more "Like, it's just a butt!". Well, yes, but it is the butt of a BOBCAT! Not only is a bobcat a pretty cool capture anyplace, it is particularly great here in the Finger Lakes because we are just getting a resident population back after many decades.

But that is news to some people. You see, sightings of bobcats have been much, much more common than the confirmed evidence would predict. Physical evidence of bobcats would most likely be road kill, camera trap photos and incidental captures in foothold traps. These forms of physical evidence have become increasingly more common in the Finger Lakes over the past ten years in particular. So why the "too-common" sightings? Misidentifications, of course. Feral cats are common and it is easy for someone to mistake a big feral cat with a bobcat.

(Richmond, NY 08/12)
It turns out I got two bobcat photos that day in August. The very next photo on the card was this one (left). The purplish color occurs when the light meter causes an incorrect exposure in low light conditions. It doesn't happen often but unfortunately it happened here. With the time stamps so close together, I have no reason to doubt that this was the same cat photographed earlier. I have to admit, the quality of the photos detracted some from the joy, but not much :)

The story isn't over yet. In September, I had my own students at the Muller Field Station for my Wetland Mammals class. Each group of students designes and implements a two-wwek field study with camera traps. This year, Stacy, Jeff and Adriel decided to compare wildlife crossing a beaver dam, a man-made bridge and a likely water route across the channel. The small iron bridge proved to be quite the highway for that two week period with red fox, gray squirrel, raccoon, BLACK BEAR and.... (wait for it)..... BOBCAT. And again there were two photos. This time, the pictures were from an IR camera, so they are black and white.

And a red fox for scale:

It turns out that this was the first confirmed bobcat in Honeoye Valley reported to the NYS DEC. What a thrill for my students and I. We were able to contribute a little to the natural history of this species. Leo Roth from the Rochester NY newspaper The Democrat and Chronicle did a story on it. And the timing of all this was perfect as the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation just released a new bobcat management plan for NY. You can find that plan here.

Looking forward to the next bobcat captures!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Skunk diggings and droppings

Striped skunk
(Seneca Falls, NY 8/12)
"Did you tell your Father about the skunk?" Laura said over dinner the other night.
"Skunk? What skunk?" I said with a forkful of food poised at the ready. You see, this is the time of the semester that I challenge my introductory mammal students to a friendly game of "who can see the most mammal species and their sign". The checklist is displayed in the classroom and of course, the honor system is the rule of the land. I had yet to see a skunk, but apparently one was in the lawn the previous night when Danika got home and she stayed in her car for a few minutes to let it gain some distance before coming into the house. (At right is a photo I took earlier this summer)

Lawn damage from skunk
(Seneca Falls, NY 11/12)
I poked around the yard with a flashlight a little with no luck. But the next morning, I did some scouting and found that this guy has been busy in my yard for some time now. What you see in the photos are diggings made by a skunk to search for grubs and other invertebrates. Raccoons do this as well and I am not sure how to tell the difference. I am certain I read an account recently*, so i will have to search for it (and with the magic of electronic editing, amend this entry to make it look like I knew what I was talking about the whole time!). The photo to the left is a particularly deep hole. Note the penny for scale.
*AHA! I found reference I was thinking of. Elbroch's Mammal Track & Sign says (p. 698-99) that skunk digs are conical with the dirt thrown back only a short distance while raccoons have the debris pile farther from the hole.

Now, it is important for me to tell you that I am not a fanatic when it comes to lawn care. In fact, I am not much for yard work of any kind. I look at the digging as an interesting piece of natural history and perhaps a bit of soil aeration. There are several patches in both the front and back yards. Below is a photo that gives you an idea of the extent.

Skunk diggings for grubs
(Seneca Falls NY, 11/12)
 One more photo as I don't think these are showing up well (compensate for quality with quantity is the theory here...):
Skunk digging in lawn
(Seneca Falls NY, 11/12)
The skunk or skunks have left some scat behind as well:

The piles are similar to each other and I must admit that I would be hard pressed to call them skunk without the circumstantial evidence of the holes and the sightings. I checked the camera in the back yard and found this:
Striped skunk
(Seneca Falls, NY 11/12)

But a camera trap capture doesn't count. The sighting must be of a live animal. So last night I took the headlamp out again. This time I didn't make it 15 feet from the door before I could smell him. I heard some movement only 10 feet away and off he scurried! It appeared to be the same white-backed individual captured above. I watched as he waddled under my daughter's car. I have to remember to warn her.....

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Touch of gray

After about a year-long dry spell in regards to gray fox, I am getting photos on three different cameras. Even if this is one individual instead of several, I am happy for the results. I am under the weather today and not feeling chatty. But I have some nice images to share, so scroll through and enjoy.

This is probably the best photo. It seems that I have a very high percentage of gray foxes that have their heads turned away from the camera. Nice to see the face here...
Gray fox
(Seneca Falls, NY 11/12)
Two interesting photos of very different gaits. Look at the careful stride of this top photo compared to the longer pace of the lower photo. Sure wish there was snow on the ground to compare tracks.

Finally, I have a camera set on a mossy downed limb. It is an interesting set and I was intending it to be for rodents. One of my first images was this gray fox, right in the camera's face...
Gray fox walks on log
(Seneca Falls, NY 11/12)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Flying squirrel and pumpkin guts

Since our daughter is too old to dress up for Halloween any more and our house is so rural that we don't get any trick-or-treaters at the door, the only tradition left is carving the pumpkins for the front porch. I must confess that I only participate in eating the roasted seeds after all the work is done. This year I saved a little of the pumpkin goo for camera trap bait. I finally remembered to take it out of the fridge and set it out early this week.

When I got to the camera set this evening, I was first excited to see that pile of pumpkin guts had been ravaged but then dismayed to see the camera askew and covered in mud. I sighed inwardly. Ten photos were registered, but how many of them would be blurred by a muddy lens? I trudged back to the house with the certainty that some critter had ruined another set...

(Seneca Falls, NY 11/12)
 The first few photos were incidental to the bait. An eastern cottontail hopped by. The neighbors cat made an appearance. And then the raccoon appeared. It doesn't seem to be honed in on the pumpkin at first. But with that nose to the ground, it won't take be long before it finds the prize.

(Seneca Falls, NY 11/12)
A minute later, the coon finds the bait. He spends a minute there and then heads back on his original track.

This was the last clear photo. "Clearly" this was the culprit. I have had coons climb my cameras before but this one really sent the camera at an angle. The camera was now pointed at some random spot on the ground rather than y precious pile of putrid pumpkin. Sigh....

Flying squirrel sp.
(Seneca Falls, NY 11/12)
Which is all to say that the next photo was all the sweeter for the luck involved. FLYING SQUIRREL!!! :) And I never would have gotten this capture without the coon tilting the camera (Look how far from center the pumpkin bait is now!). He posed nicely between the smudges of mud. I couldn't have asked for a better result from the pumpkin guts experiment. In a word: "gourdgeous"