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Saturday, December 29, 2012

RIP Dustmop...?

Just before the rush of final exams we had a spate of warm weather. I took that opportunity to get some work done in the back field. From atop the tractor I spied a patch of gray fur... it was a dead opossum. I figured it was the dustmop. She had been dead for sometime but that did not deter me from inspecting the carcass. After a cursory examination, I saw no obvious cause of death. I made a mental note to return shortly with camera in hand.
Opossum front foot
(Seneca Falls, NY 12/12)
But then finals week kicked in. Then the snow came. It wasn't until Christmas Eve that I found the time to walk back out to the spot and see if the dustmop was still lying there. By now we had ten inches of snow and I literally had to sweep my boots back and forth through the drifts in order to find her ("What did you do on Christmas Eve?", asked any sane person. "Oh, I crawled around looking for a frozen carcass of an opossum in order to take photos of its feet." said I).
It is a primitive characteristic to have five toes on a limb and the opossum has five on the front and back feet. Sometimes when I say that in class, I get push back from students. We don't like to think of ourselves as "primitive". But the word is not pejorative. Animals with fewer fingers and toes are more specialized. Think of horses with their single toe per limb. They are very good at what they do but do not have the generalizability that we have with our "primitive" hands. Ever get a text message from a horse? I rest my case....
The hind foot of the opossum never ceases to amaze me. Check out the opposable big toe. Note that it does not have a nail. This isn't the greatest of shots but the carcass was not cooperating very well.
Finally, let's have a quick look at the tail. Naked and semi-prehensile, it is unique in North America. There is no sign of frostbite at the tip so I think this is a young opossum (although we did have a very mild winter last year and perhaps this individual made it through without any freezer burn).
Opossum tail
I was saddened by the loss of the dustmop. Although I only wrote two entries of the opossum and skunk duo, I had literally hundreds of photos from that particular camera set. But it was Christmas Eve. Family was due in an hour and I still had presents to wrap. I trudged back to the house with my head down, concentrating on covering the distance quickly. It was then that I saw the fresh tracks...
Opossum trail in snow
(Seneca Falls, NY 12/12)
I knew right away that this was an opossum. Could THIS be dustmop? Was there more than one opossum visiting that carcass (I never photographed more than one at a time)? The tracks led for quite some distance and through deep and shallow snow, thus providing some great tracking opportunities. First, the trail as I initially found it in deep snow. Notice the relatively wide trail width or straddle along with the short legs (short legs are deduced by the belly drag in the trail). In our area, that usually means opossum or skunk. What sealed it as an opossum even at a distance was the numerous tail slaps in the snow. In the photo at right, you can see several tail marks close to the photographer (me) and to the left of the trail. Finally, notice that this animal is not direct registering. In other words, the front and rear feet are not landing in the same spot. Many animals direct register (I have also seen that described as perfect stepping) so this was a clue as well.
I was particularly pleased with this identification because I was not identifying tracks, I was identifying the trail. The snow was too deep here for me to make out much int he way of individual tracks. For me, this was a step forward (pun intended) in my journey as a tracker.
One more view of the tail slaps:
Opossum trail
(Seneca Falls, NY 12/12)
As the opossum moved into shallow snow, the tracks became more distinct, the belly drag was eliminated and the tail slaps became mere wisps in the powder. In addition, notice that the front and rear feet are ALMOST landing in exactly the same spot. I found that interesting since in the deeper snow, they were so far apart. Have you ever followed the tracks of someone else in deep snow? Its easier to step right where they stepped rather than making your own prints -- that is, unless they have a very different stride than you do. When I break the trail, I try to keep my strides a bit shorter so my wife and daughter will have an easier time following. I think the opossum with his short legs had a hard time in the deep snow even keeping up with his own trail and simply couldn't direct register easily. Last thing to note in this photo: direction of travel. I have learned from several trackers the adage "Long in, short out." Even if a trail is blown in with snow, you can tell the direction of travel because the feet make a long mark on the way in and a short mark on the way out. In this case, the opossum is moving away from the photographer. You can also see that in these wolf tracks from Yellowstone.
Here is one more shot in medium-depth snow. Note the tail marks. Moving to the right.
Finally, a shot in the shallowest snow I could find. When the opossum got to our backyard, it followed my ATV tracks for a while and went up the driveway and to the road. The two tracks are nearly next to each other, like two incorrect jigsaw puzzle pieces placed together out of frustration. The front foot is on the right and shows the typical sprawling star-like pattern that helps tell these feet from raccoons. The hind track has four toes pointing forward and the opposable big toe actually overlapping the palm pad of the front foot. These were the first distinctive tracks I had seen on the entire trail. I was pleased that I had confirmation of my identification. I wanted to continue on the trail, but a car was pulling into the driveway. My parents had arrived and I was pulled out of my adventure and back into Christmas Eve...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The dust mop and the powder puff II: CHIMERA

The uneasy truce between Powder Puff and Dust Mop described in my last post is holding. In fact, evidence shows that perhaps the relationship has been taken up a notch. Friendship? Bromance? Um, no. But have a look at the foggy photos below and tell me what you would call it:

This is the closest I have seen them. They are even on the same side of the carcass.
Opossum and skunk feeding at carcass
(Seneca Falls, NY 12/12)

Yeah, I'm not sensing total trust here....

Here is an interesting shot. The fanciest tail in all Didelphidom....
Opossum and skunk chimera

Are theses two getting chummy because they are more and more familiar with each other? Each day there is less and less food available on the carcass and each day they seem to tolerate each other more. But correlation doesn't mean causation. I am genuinely curious as to why these two were never photographed together at the start of this set and now I am photographing them more frequently together rather than apart. I don't know. But i do have one other variable to consider: There is a new actor in the night shift. A gray fox made a few tentative appearances and then got comfortable enough with the flash that he settled right into the carcass recently for some venison. Is the additional pressure of the new scavenger on the scene influencing the dust mop and powder puff's relationship? And what clever name can I give to this catish fox? These are the questions that keep me from grading papers tonight.....

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The dust mop and the powder puff

Opening day of the regular deer season was November 17th. I found myself, as usual, at my Father's property. It is only the two of us now. The other regulars have all hung up their guns for the last time. So a day hunting typically plays out like this: We get up early and ride double on Dad's ATV out back. We fist bump and head to our different spots. The Van Niel's are tree stand hunters and there are several to choose from on Dad's 80 acres. We hunt for a few hours on our own and then I usually head over to Dad and join him for a bit longer and then we ride back to camp for lunch. After lunch, it may be a quick snooze before the evening hunt, dinner, and usually grading papers for me.

7 point buck
(Fremont, NY 11/12)
The only variation to the routine this year was checking several camera traps while working my way to Dad's treestand. Results will be the topic of a future post :) By the time I arrived at Dad's stand it was noon. It only took a moment to catch up on the events of the day, since neither of us had seen much. But as so often happens in a hunt, everything changes in an instant. I was still settling in when Dad grabbed my arm and whispered "Buck!". I froze. The ettiquite is simple: His stand, his deer. I ducked out of the way and caught a glimpse of the large bodied deer walking slowly across the field. One shot and it was over. Just like that. Dad has been hunting for over 50 years and still gets a thrill out of each hunt.

We paced the distance as we walked up on his buck. 193 yards. I snapped a few photos of my proud papa and then got down to the messy work. Truth is, I enjoy gutting a deer (or any animal for that matter). Besides being "The Eviscerator" I am also the butcher. But the reward is venison for us and a carcass for the camera trap.

I selected a location in our short hedgerow simply becuase it was close enough to the house to check easily. The carcass has been out for several weeks now and the cast of characters has not changed.

THE DAY SHIFT: The diurnal crew is all-avian. A murder of crows and a single red-tail hawk. I have up to seven crows in one frame but the one below is my favorite.

THE NIGHT SHIFT: The nocturnal crew is decidedly furrier and toothier. I call them the Dust Mop and the Powder Puff.

Dust Mop -- This was the first image of the opossum that I obtained and it was so unglamorous that I had to laugh. The poor opossum has quite the image problem already without me plastering unflattering photos all over the internet.

To be fair, let's have a look at a good hair day:
In fact, opossums can be downright cute if given the right light, a bloody carcass and an open mind:

Opossum on deer carcass
(Seneca Falls, NY 11/12)
Powder Puff -- My other nighttime visitor has more of a dramatic flair. This one knows how to make an entrance. Powder Puff makes the most of her assets and owns this carcass the moment she sets foot on the stage.

An unexpected benefit of the carcass is that Powder Puff is no longer tearing our lawn to shreds in search of grubs. This is clearly the same skunk from a previous post.

For weeks, the day and night shifts never crossed paths. No skunk or opossum photos in the day and obviously no crow or hawk photos at night. But in addition, the night shift and day shift didn't intermingle within their respective tours of duty. Not surprisingly, no photos of hawk and crow appeared and no photos of skunk and opossum were captured. But that changed recently. A few nights ago, numerous photos of Dust Mop and Powder Puff in what I would like to believe is a tentative detante.
Opossum and striped skunk
(Seneca Falls, NY 11/12)