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Monday, December 7, 2015

Norway Adventure Part II: Lierne

Jan's cabin
It has been many months since I wrote Norway Adventure Part I: The Muskox and I decided I couldn't delay any longer. This post will focus on the second half of our trip, after leaving Kongsvoll. Our train ride to Grong was beautiful. We arrived on time and met our host for the next five days, Jan Totsas. We rented a cabin complete with sauna, mountain bikes and canoe on a private lake.

Jan has a beautiful set up and he was a fantastic host. He loves wildlife, American cars and metal music. He took us fishing on the lake. If you watch the video, you will see we had a fantastic time and caught more than enough for dinner. Laura and I took the mountain bikes out and discovered some young mountain hares.
Young mountain hare Norway
Mountain Hare

Norwegian Mountain Hares
Hares are born precocial. That means they are well-developed at birth: eyes open, fully furred and mobile. Compare that with rabbits which are born altricial: eyes closed, naked and helpless. So these hares were pretty young. They were everywhere. I used the GoPro to take this video of young mountain hares.

Norwegian Troll
One evening we biked to a stream hoping for beaver. We parked our bikes near the statues of trolls (apparently a Norwegian invention) and headed across the meadow. We didn't find any fresh beaver sign but had great sightings of moose, red fox and lots of birds. But it was the bike ride home that produced our best sighting. With Danika in the lead and Laura second, I somehow managed to miss seeing the European pine marten that crossed the road in front of us. It would have been a new mammal for me and an exciting addition to our trip list. Even Jan was impressed!

The gnats were fierce once the sun went down but fortunately for us the days were long. We went to bed knowing that tomorrow was our best chance to see a brown bear.

In Norwegian, this is an Elg. In English, it is a Moose
Norway, July 2015

The Van Niel family in Norway
July 2014
Our last full day before we headed home, it rained. And rained. This was our day to look for bears and bear sign. The bear sign was going to be easy to locate but the bears themselves proved elusive. Jan took us to a location where the bear sign was heavy. We went to a well-known area that contained numerous trees that were bit and scratched along a path. The path included places where the bears had stepped and re-stepped int he same spots so that well-worn footfalls were present. I would call this area a "ritual trail" and I have studied the ones made by black bears here in the US. If you are interested in learning more, check out these posts. They didnt photograph well and I have included no pictures here.

This first photo is a tree that has been bitten and scratched. The purpose of the markings is not entirely clear. Bears are not really territorial. 

Brown bear bites and scratches
Norway, July 2014
Here is a single bite mark on a sapling that tore a nice chip from this tree. Note the wood fibers that were torn by the bear's canine teeth. If you look VERY close you can see that the fibers point towards the center indicating canines moving in both directions rather than say a bullet grazing the tree and moving in one direction.
The clean bite of a brown bear.
Norway, July 2014
Brown bear hair left while rubbing
Norway, July 2014
On our way back to the vehicle Jan took me to a sandy hill with some older tracks that further suffered from rain. I sure wish we had seen these tracks when they were fresh. But I did my best to photograph these older sandy tracks. The closest track is a front. The next is a rear.
Old brown bear tracks in sand
Norway, July 2015
We had a fantastic time in Norway. We only saw nine species of mammals but most were new for me. We structured the first part of our trip around the musk ox and our second half around the area with the bear sign.

Friday, July 31, 2015

A Tale of Three Cameras

"Button Buck" captured on camera trap
(Muller Field Station, 5/15)
I set three Reconyx cameras at our Muller Field Station in May of this year. They were retrieved about a month later. Each of the sets were located along the channel but each had very different results.  I guess this is one of the reasons I enjoy camera trapping so much. First, you never know what you are going to get and second, there is really a level of knowledge you need to tease out what is happening in the photos. Here are some of the best stories from each:

SET 1: Let's see... 145 captures X 10 photos per capture = 1,450 photos to sort through. I captured
Raccoon inspects snapping turtle
(Muller Field Station, 6/15)
six species of mammal at this location (including that handsome deer in the photo above) but my favorite story involved a reptile. In the photo to the left, you can see the top of a shell of a snapping turtle. It appears the raccoon doesn't know what to make of it. I wish the camera was set a bit lower to capture the whole image, but we will have to make due.

The next day, the turtle was in the exact same place (making me pretty sure it was a female laying eggs) and two river otters found her. In this photo, the one of the river otters actually puts it front paws on the carapace.
River otter and snapping turtle
(Muller Field Station, 6/15)

SET 2: The otters visited this site as well. With no turtles to play with, they had to occupy their time in other ways. They visited a total of five times in the month but never stayed for more than a few minutes.
Daytime capture of river otter
(Muller Field Station, 5/15)

River otters mating?
(Muller Field Station, 6/15)
Alright, let's talk about that last photo. Although the otters are in the mating position, I am not certain that they are actually copulating here. This could just be play. What I am certain of is that the encounter was brief.
Otters weren't the only story here. Canada Geese came on many nights to loaf in front of the camera.
Banded Canada Goose and goslings
(Muller Field Station, 5/15)
That means lots of photos. I assumed that it was the same group of birds each night but when I looked closer, I noticed that on a few occasions, a banded adult showed up while on other nights, the adults were all unbanded. I don't recall ever camera trapping a banded bird before.

SET 3: This was the most interesting set. Years ago a tree toppled over the channel and what was the trunk is now a horizontal trunk that is suspended over the water. I have always wanted to create a set here and finally did. One of the tree limbs, now pointing towards the sky, worked as a perfect point of attachment. I assumed I would get river otters here. I mean, it just looked like a real inviting place for otters to climb up and explore. It turns out this was the only set that did not capture otters. Instead, I captured my other favorite mammal... black bear! And it only took four hours from the time the cameras were set until the bear showed up (I understand how lucky that is! The last time I set a camera at the Muller Field Station, it took 10 weeks to capture a bear image).
Black bear
(Muller Field Station, 5/15)

Black bear showing hind paw
(Muller Field Station, 5/15)
Birds were the second story of this set.
Wood Duck drake
(Muller Field Station, 5/15)
Great Blue Heron
(Muller Field Station, 6/15)
Wood Duck hen
(Muller Field Station, 6/15)
Take a look at the photo above. The photo below was taken less than 48 hours later. The camera hasn't moved but the water level changed dramatically. Instead of ducks loafing on a dry perch in front of the camera, they are SWIMMING past it. This was not the only hard rain we had this year and I am grateful that the camera stayed above the waterline :)
(Muller Field Station, 6/15)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Norway Adventure Part I: The Muskox

Our family vacation in 2014 was a ten day excursion to the beautiful country of Norway. Why Norway you ask? Well, it happened like this: We decided we wanted to go to Europe (I was the only one that had never been....) so I started researching wildlife vacations (or "holidays" as the rest of the world calls them) and found a few promising locations. But what really tipped the scales for Norway was the combination of brown bears and muskox. This post will focus on the first leg of the trip and our muskox encounters, but our full itinerary was a simple one: We flew in to Oslo and took the train from the airport to Kongsvoll Station where we spent three nights at the Kongsvold Fjeldstue Hotel. We then took the train North to Grong Station where our host and guide Jan Bjornar Totsas. We rented a cabin from Jan in Lierne and also hired him to guide us for day trips (the subject of my next post). After five nights, we returned to Grong and boarded the train for a ten-hour journey back to the Oslo airport. We had a fantastic time! Our mammal list for the trip in order of appearance:
We stayed in the Trollheim  (troll home) at Kongsvold Fjeldstue
(8/14, Oppdal, Norway)

European moose (Elg)
Caribou (reindeer)
Mountain lemming
Red fox
Mountain hare
European pine marten
Roe deer

And we saw sign of brown bear and beaver.

The Land of Muskox
Our adventure really begins the moment we exit the driveway for the (first) airport. It is an hour to the airport, but it is a relatively small one so our next stop is a major hub. On this trip, we flew from Rochester, NY to Newark International then Amsterdam before landing at the Oslo airport. There is a train station right at the airport so we never did see the city of Oslo. The weather was great and our train ride was beautiful. We arrived at the unstaffed Kongsvoll Station and walked with our luggage the short distance to our lodging. We were ready for dinner and sleep. I managed a short hike around the historic grounds. Although the oldest buildings standing today date back to the early 1700s, this location has been a stopping point for travelers for over a thousand years. But the history was lost on us that first night as we settled in for some much needed sleep. By ten am we were well fed and ready for our muskox tour. Having no familiarity with the area, we decided to join the "muskox safari" that leaves directly from the hotel. The weather was good and the group was a bit large, about two dozen. Our guide was a likable young man but I would not consider him an expert. We car pooled a short distance down the road to a parking area and started our hike there. In fact, we had a muskox in view from the road.
As you enter the muskox area, there are signs in several languages warning hikers to keep their distance. They recommend 200 meters. Our guide did get us a bit closer than that, but not nearly close enough for good photos.
Warning signs in Norway
The fear is that a person would be charged by a muskox that feels threatened. Although charging muskox can cause injury and even death (last report I can find is this 1964 incident), the mighty charge often ends in a bluff as shown in this video. This is all in stark contrast to historical information I read in preparation for our journey.

Before our trip, I read the chapter "The Musk-Ox" by Caspar Whitney from the 1904 classic Musk Ox, Bison, Sheep and Goat. I completely enjoyed reading Whitney's account of his 57-day hunt for musk ox. He had hired several Natives as guides and they spent a considerable amount of time just traveling to musk ox country. Once there, they had some trouble actually locating their first band of the creatures. But once they did, all hell broke loose. The dogs were unharnessed and sent to chase the musk ox. The men strapped on snow shoes and chased the dogs. Whitney did the same but his
Photo of musk ox from first day
(8/14, Norway)
store-bought buckles and harnesses were difficult to manage with his inexperienced hands, thus he was the last to set off. "My preconceived notions of the musk-ox hunting game were in a jiffy jolted to the point of destruction, as I now found myself in a situation neither expected nor joyful. It was natural to suppose some assistance would be given me in this strange environment...but we were a long way from the Post and interpreters and restraining influences..."(p.21). Whitney worried about getting lost and about not getting to shoot a musk ox himself. He recounts running in the direction of the dogs for an hour and a half before he caught sight of them. More chasing ensued with the actual  kill (to me at least) anticlimactic. Whitney ran on to try for another but was unsuccessful. He finally gave in and was able to find the rest of the party by back tracking his own footprints. The last paragraph of the chapter: "Then in a sixty-seven degrees below zero temperature we rolled up in our furs, while the dogs howled and fought over the carcass of my first musk ox." (p. 31).

I was most interested in what Whitney had to say regarding the danger of these animals. I had read (see above) the warnings about the musk ox and wanted to know the thoughts of this man who spent a long time in their company in an era that was not concerned about liability insurance. On page 56 he states: "...hunters and trained dogs could practically wipe out every herd of musk-oxen they encountered; for while it is true that musk-oxen give you a long run once you have sighted them, yet when you get up to them, when the dogs have brought them to bay, it is almost like shooting cattle in a corral." I of course would not have trained dogs and nor was I planning to stand a rifle-shot away. What did he have to say about that?
Musk ox habitat
(8/14, Norway)
"Several Arctic explorers who have written on the musk-ox also refer to it as 'formidable' appearing and 'ferocious', but those are the last adjectives that I should apply to the creature," writes Whitney. "The Indians and some of the Arctic authors also say that it is dangerous to approach, especially when wounded. My experience does not indorse  [sic] that statement. We encountered one hundred and twenty-five musk-oxen, killing forty-seven, and I did not see one that even suggested the charging proclivities for which it is given credit." (p. 73). And my favorite line of this entertaining read: "Perhaps the musk-ox might charge if you walked up and pulled his ear, but I doubt if he would under less provocation, and really, I do not feel so certain that he would even then." (p. 74).

Danika at trail junction
(8/15, Norway)
On day two, we decided to head back to the musk ox area on our own. There is a fantastic trail that began across the road from our lodging and went up into the alpine tundra. We left at sunrise and it didn't take us long to reach the top. It was now a matter of finding musk ox. That proved just as easy. There were several other small parties already on top. One group was slowly approaching two females with calves. The musk ox wanted nothing to do with them and kept out-distancing them. Slowly, the herd was getting farther from the hikers. As much as I wanted photos of calves, I saw little point in trying for these. Their comfort zone was too large. Instead, we spotted a single (male) muskox on a rise ahead of us. We set off over the lichens to try our luck with him. Along the way, we spotted a single male caribou on a distant patch of snow. This was our only caribou of the trip but a truly wild one (many tourists see only captive or semi captive reindeer as they disembark the cruise ships at a native village. We also spooked up a mountain lemming and some ptarmigan (no photos). We approached the musk ox, the sun came out and I set up the tripod. We had made the right decision.

Male musk ox
(8/15, Norway)
I would have been happy with this view. We were so much closer than we had been the day before. And as you can tell, the musk ox didn't seem to be bothered by our presence. As it turned out, we had stumbled on the perfect scenario. From our vantage point, we were not able to see that there was a narrow but deep ravine between us and the musk ox. What luck! I could now get much closer... so I did.

Musk ox rubbing side on a rock
(8/15, Norway)

Musk ox scat pellets
(8/15, Norway)
Musk ox fur
(8/15, Norway)
Musk ox
(8/15, Norway)
He eventually made his way down the ravine and into the stream. We watched him for several hours before moving on and trying our luck with others. But by then, there were many other visitors and the musk ox seemed a lot more skittish. We headed back down the mountain and readied ourselves for the second half of our journey.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Jumping mouse jumps no more...

Great Blue Heron with bullhead
(Seneca Falls, NY 5/15)
I had a few camera traps set near water recently and captured a few images of one or more Great Blue Herons catching their dinners. Most of the images were fish, bullhead specifically. But one particular series caught my attention for two reasons. First, the heron caught a mammal and secondly, the images were recorded a mere 20 minutes before I pulled the camera. It was a reminder to me that timing is everything in camera trapping. Most camera trappers mitigate that concern by keeping as many cameras out as long as possible. But there is still the question of where to put them and when to move them. It makes the camera trapping game more interesting and active.
Great Blue Heron with jumping mouse sp.
(Seneca Falls, NY 5/15)
The GBH in these photos caught a jumping mouse. There are two species of jumping mice in NY (woodland and meadow) and both have that diagnostically long tail.

Another view. Here you can see the huge hind feet jumping mice use to 'jump'.
Jumping mouse caught by Great Blue Heron
(Seneca Falls, NY 5/15)
Last photo before the mouse becomes dinner:
Great Blue Heron preying on jumping mouse
(Seneca Falls, NY 5/15)
A shot with the mouse on its way down....

And its gone.

Woodland jumping mouse with white-tipped tail
(South Bristol, NY 5/11)
I cannot quite make out which species the heron ate. The photos were taken with an infrared flash so they are not in color and the distinguishing characteristic is small: the tail tip. If it is a white-tipped tail call it a woodland. If it lacks the white, call it a meadow.

Impressive hind feet of a woodland jumping mouse
(South Bristol, NY 5/11)
Woodland jumping mouse with ear tag
(South Bristol, NY 5/11)