Wednesday, April 14, 2021

A Week at the Beaver Pond

Today we return to the beaver pond where the encounter with the mink occurred; one of my camera traps has intermittently been on the pond's shore during the last four years. As spring progressed the remaining ice on the beaver pond almost completely melted and it was time to put a camera trap back on a shoreline tree.

A number of wood ducks flushed from the pond when I went to put the camera in place, which raised the expectation of getting videos of wood ducks as well as beaver and other wildlife.

The camera trap is aimed at a fallen log that extends from shore into the water. The log began as a tree that fell into the pond in June 2019 after the area received over five inches of rain in three days. After that much rain, the saturated soil couldn’t support the tree's weight and down it went; the descent was captured by my camera trap and shown in the video in this post

Now, two years later, I placed a camera trap to view the log and the wildlife that uses it. Here are the results from the camera’s first week at the beaver pond –

The videos of the wood ducks were a treat (at least to me) and it was quite gratifying to get several videos of a mink running the log. The plan is to leave the camera in place throughout the spring and summer to capture videos of the wildlife using the fallen log.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Der Waschbär

Der Waschbär is the German term for an invasive exotic reportedly brought to Germany in the 1920s and 30s to be raised in captivity for their fur. Subsequently some were released into the wild as quarry for hunters and during World War II allied bombs hit one of the fur farms allowing more animals to escape into the wild.

Now, almost 100 years after the first introductions, there are an estimated one million of the animals in Germany. There are fears that this invasive exotic will spread to occupy all suitable habitat in Europe – preying on the eggs and young of native birds and mammals, eating native reptiles and amphibians as well as crops and fruit.

Der Waschbär translates into English as “The Washing Bear” which should be a clue to its identity.

The situation is much the same in Japan where this invasive exotic is known as araiguma. There are accounts of 2,000 araiguma being imported to Japan each year in the late 1970s and 80s, as pets – although there are other reports of a number being brought to Japan as pets by G.I.s after World War II. As pets they’re cute when young but aggressive and nasty as adults – many were released when they were no longer cute. Thus most of Japan is now occupied by araiguma.

And the identity of this invasive exotic: the North American raccoon –

 
And why is it called the washing bear? Not because it actually washes its food, but because it looks as if it’s washing as it searches for food in water bodies where it finds frogs, crawfish and an occasional fish, alive or dead.




Raccoons aren’t gourmets, they’ll feast on anything remotely edible; like humans they’re omnivorous. Here are raccoons living up to their name of der Waschbär –

North America is suffering from the introduction of species from afar; but it’s a two-way street, other parts of the world are also suffering from species native to North America – Canada geese, gray squirrels, bullfrogs, American mink, fall webworm and many more – as humans gradually homogenize the world’s flora and fauna.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

One Dead Deer - Many Diners

A township road borders a small stream; across the stream from the road is a wooded slope that blends into an abandoned pasture. Vehicles traveling the road often strike wildlife – as do vehicles on other roads throughout the land. Two years ago a raccoon had been hit on the road and got across the stream before it died; the mammals and birds that fed on the remains were the subject of this post. The road, in addition to bordering the small stream, borders property that belongs to friends of ours.

Bill called to say that their two dogs had found a dead deer in their woods. Ah-ha says I, here’s another opportunity for a camera trap. So the next day I placed one of my camera traps to capture videos of whatever came to dine.


Judging from the multitude of half-melted tracks around the snow-covered body, and since the carcass had already been opened, the deer had probably been dead for at least a few days. Without a necropsy* it was impossible to determine the cause of death, but it’s almost certain that the doe had been struck by a vehicle and managed to get across the stream and partway up the hill before she died.

The doe’s body has been feeding a variety of wildlife –

 

Raccoons were the principle diners; in the first several weeks there were hundreds of videos of them as they stripped most of the flesh from the carcass. Raccoons continued to feed on the carcass throughout the time these videos were taken but you certainly don't want to watch more than 875 videos of raccoons munching away.

The camera trap will remain to catch videos of those that come to eat, although the pickings will be slim now that almost all of the flesh has been consumed. And the camera trap won’t catch the many insects, other invertebrates, bacteria, fungi and different microscopic beings that will feast on what remains of the deer and recycle the nutrients of this formerly living being. Where would the world be without scavengers and decomposers?

 

* an autopsy performed on an animal

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Encounter with a Mink

Several weeks ago, early in minks’ breeding season, the beaver pond was entirely ice-covered. Breeding season – that’s the reason two mink were traveling across the ice in the same general direction.


Two males on the scent of a receptive female? A male and female done with their rapid coupling and now going their separate ways? Only the mink know.

A couple of weeks later in the spring and much of the beaver pond was still partially covered in ice. A lone mink ran across the old road that borders the pond – mink don’t do anything slowly – and began exploring among the cattails and sedges edging the pond. Mink are closely tied to water (streams, ponds and wetlands) and partially webbed feet make them good swimmers. Wherever they are, mink are almost always searching for something to eat (a muskrat, small rodent, rabbit, fish, a duck, frog, crawfish, or songbird).

A few squeaks to imitate a small injured creature caught the minks’ attention and on it came. First it was on shore, then crossed a narrow strip of open water covered by a thin skim of ice and onto the sheet of ice –
























It ran across the ice until WHOA, it slammed on the brakes and stuck it’s nose in the air as it caught the scent of a human





After a few seconds of smelling the air it turned tail and beat a hasty retreat across the ice until it disappeared in the cattails and fallen trees at the far end of the pond –






Other times, other mink, they show little fear of humans and may approach to within a few feet – not this time, not this mink.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Katy's Church

On an absolutely beautiful, but cold and very windy afternoon, H and I took a ride through an area known as the Muncy Hills. The Muncy Hills are a broken, highly eroded upland rising about 500 feet above the  lowlands lying to the north and south. The hills are mostly wooded, but in the 1800s many of the more level hilltops were cleared as farmland. The acidic shale-derived soils were soon exhausted and many of the fields reverted to woodland.

Now some of the remaining farms are growing Christmas trees; others still produce crops (after applications of lime and fertilizer); some are now State Game Lands open for hunting, fishing and hiking; and some have been subdivided as rural homesites.

As we headed toward the Muncy Hills we came upon Katy’s Church Road – an intriguing name for a road. The road was paved for a while, but as it climbs into the hills it becomes a dirt and gravel road. Up it climbs until it gains the heights whereupon a white church without a steeple comes into view across an open field.

There it is – Katy’s Church, backed by a beautiful large white oak tree (more about that tree later)


Katy’s Church sits at the four-way intersection of two roads, one side of which hadn’t been plowed all winter. Although there are a couple of fairly new houses nearby, the church seems isolated –


And appears to be very well maintained –


We pulled into a small parking area and faced the adjacent cemetery with its trees, fence and sign with that intriguing name, Katy, now including her last name – VanDine–


The cemetery has a gorgeous view, 19 miles across the valleys of Muncy Creek and its tributaries, to North Mountain which rises 1,200 – 1,500 feet above the surrounding lowlands. The cemetery wouldn't be a bad place to spend eternity


Home we went, thinking about that intriguing name and wondering why the church and cemetery were named for Katy VanDine. Had she donated the land, or …? Time for some research.

The search turned up several versions of a local legend about Katy VanDine; all relating that she met her end hanging from a tree in the church’s cemetery –

  • That she was a young unmarried woman who became pregnant, was shunned by the community and hung herself rather than live in shame.

or

  • That she was betrothed to a soldier killed in war and, in grief, hung herself in her wedding dress.

or

  • That she was the mistress of a wealthy married man; she became pregnant and he accused her of bewitching him, then local people hung her as a witch.

There isn’t a date or documentation for any of the legends and some living members of the VanDine family strongly dispute all versions of the legend. Some say that Katherine (or Catherine) VanDine lived into old age and died in 1899 when she was 86 or 87.

Whatever the truth, the stories are interesting, as is the church which was built in 1869 and officially named the Immanuel Lutheran Church. Katy’s Church is now only used for occasional services, weddings and community gatherings. Naturally, given the legends, the church and cemetery are said to be haunted.

Now about that tree –


It’s a white oak, one of the longest-lived tree species in eastern forests; I once counted the annual rings in the stump of a felled white oak and determined it was 358 years old when it was cut. The wide spreading crown and large lower limbs on the white oak at Katy’s Church reveal that it has been growing in the open with few if any adjacent trees throughout its life – which almost certainly began after the adjacent fields were cleared, perhaps even after the church was built.

If Katy was hung, was it from this tree? Unlikely, since the tree would almost certainly have been too small in the 1800s. But then perhaps Katy’s story is just a legend after all.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Surprise on the Hill

We’ve lived on the side of this hill in northcentral Pennsylvania for over 49 years and have seen a lot of wildlife here – snakes and insects and amphibians, deer and bear and 124 species of birds. A few things have surprised us: the wet black bear tracks going through the breezeway on a rainy day, the eastern chipmunk gnawing the flesh from the head of a newborn cottontail, the camera trap images of a doe apparently eating from the leg of a dead fawn.

Some of the recent videos on a camera trap’s memory card added to the list of surprises –


There are quite a few cottontail rabbits around the house and in the woodland on the hill, so the video of the rabbit was no surprise. However, in those 49 years we’ve never seen a great horned owl on the hill and have only once, many years ago, heard one. That, in itself, is unusual since the habitat is suitable and there’s an abundance of potential prey. So it was quite a surprise to see the video clips of the owl catching one of the cottontails that shelters beneath a shrub thicket on the hill.

Apparently the approaching deer frightened the owl into flight. The dead rabbit must have been too heavy for the owl, so it was dropped. When the first deer smelled the spot where the owl killed the rabbit it licked at the snow – licking up the blood presumably.

The body of the dead rabbit attracted the two deer, which proceeded to lick the remains; one pawed at the carcass and also mouthed the rabbit, but they’re really not equipped to open the hide in order to access the flesh. No, the deer were not exhibiting compassion or trying to revive the deceased. White-tailed deer are known to eat meat, feeding on carrion and even occasionally killing fledgling birds and small mammals. From the video it’s not possible to determine if, other than licking the blood, the deer actually managed to eat any of the rabbit.

As the deer wandered off the almost immediate return of the owl leads to the conclusion that the owl had perched above the scene waiting to reclaim the rabbit.

A number of predators regularly appear in camera trap images from the hill – red and gray fox, eastern coyote, fisher – but this is the first time for a great horned owl. It’s also the second time one of my camera traps has documented deer as meat eaters.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Eagle on Ice

Woke up to find a world coated in crystalline ice after a night during which freezing rain fell. All the trees and shrubs in the yard were coated, as was the fence out front and the driveway. Birds made repeated trips to the feeders from ice-coated shrubs –



The far off hills looked beautiful so, after lunch when the ice still hadn’t begun to melt, we hopped in the car and headed for the hills. And those ice-coated hills really were beautiful –





We drove through the valley and to the lake where a handful of folks were fishing through the ice –





As we pulled into a parking area a couple of dark objects far out on the ice caught our attention –


The camera’s zoom lens revealed that those objects were an adult bald eagle and several crows –




Zooming the lens for an even closer look it was apparent that the eagle and the crows were feeding on a fish that someone had discarded. The human who caught the fish may not have wanted it, but the birds sure did –

A later examination of an aerial photo indicated that the eagle was 1,500-1,700 feet from where we had been parked – hence the photos aren't very good.

It wasn’t long until the eagle took to the air and circled over the lake, coming closer and then receding – perhaps looking for more discarded fish









After two circuits of the south end of the lake the eagle landed on the ice again, almost as far away as when we had first seen it –





 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Naturalists

In the late 1970s and early 1980s a group of six to ten friends would arise early and get on the road headed to …? Perhaps to New York’s Bergen Swamp to photograph wild orchids: small white lady’s-slipper and dragons-mouth

Perhaps we were headed to Elk County, Pennsylvania to photograph what was, at the time, a small band of elk. Another time we went to the old growth forest of Alan Seeger Natural Area to photograph Smalls twayblade, a tiny rather unassuming yellow orchid. A timber rattlesnake basking area and the remnant stumps of the forest of huge white pines that drew long-ago loggers kept us closer to home. 

One winter a friend of a friend had found a female black bear denned with her newborn cubs beneath a fallen tree and so “The Naturalists” went to see them.

And a wandering great gray owl drew us to northwestern Pennsylvania. All in all, we took many trips and used an abundance of Kodak film.

It’s been many years since the group got together, but those grand times live on in memories and collections of fading 35-millimeter slides.

Through all of the excursions there was a rotating cast of characters and a few one-time participants. Some of the regulars had nicknames, some not, but these are the principals:

 

Wayne was the oldest of the group and the first to pass on. He was, during his later years, probably the finest amateur botanist in the state and an excellent photographer. It was Wayne who led us to a hidden population of small whorled pogonia, the rarest wild orchid in the eastern U.S. At age 78 Wayne caught a timber rattlesnake the color of black velvet with his bare hands so the rest of us could photograph it before it disappeared into thick vegetation.

 

Hillary was frequently the driver for the group. In the tradition of his eastern European heritage, he was a gatherer of wild mushrooms and always brought jars of mushrooms he'd picked and canned to share with others who were hesitant to gather their own. Hillary was, for a number of years, in charge of an environmental education center at a state park. He too is now gone – the mushrooms had nothing to do with his demise.

 

Jack was probably the finest photographer of the bunch, an all-around fine fellow who almost always wore a smile, and a science teacher whose students often said he was their favorite teacher. Besides traveling with The Naturalists, he went south to photograph plants and wildlife in Virginia. Unfortunately, he died a number of years ago, still too young to leave this world.

 

 

 

Trapper paid much of his way through college with the proceeds from the sale of pelts from a trapline that he ran – hence his nickname. He was a forester and in many ways the rogue of the group and a bit of a free-spirit; he too is gone, not while on some grand adventure, but while mowing his lawn.

 

Grump was the curmudgeon of the group; a forest manager, naturalist, photographer and now blogger who wrote occasional articles for magazines – but never about trips The Naturalists had taken. He began taking photographs of wild critters, wildflowers and other natural objects in the 1960s and continues to this day. He's mellowed over the years, at least a bit.

 

Thump was also a forester and got his nickname as a result of the spectacular falls he occasionally took; if he resented the nickname he never showed it. Easygoing and a just plain nice guy he seemed to know everyone and always had a new idea about a place for the group to visit. I have him to thank for getting me interested in native orchids over 45 years ago. Sadly he recently died from complications of COVID-19 after being hospitalized for several weeks.

 

Bob and his wife lived in an off-the-grid log cabin he built with his own hands from logs he cut on his land. I've never met anyone else with such an extensive knowledge of the trails, history and wild places of northcentral Pennsylvania. He was a consummate storyteller, pausing during the long strenuous hikes he led to regale fellow hikers with accounts of wildlife and historical figures. Now he too is gone but not from the memories of his many friends. 

 

In the 1970s Ralph knew more about Pennsylvania’s elk than anyone else and was greatly saddened by the circus-like tourist attraction they have more recently become. Although he never lived in it, he too built a cabin with logs from his land. On The Naturalists’ excursions to photograph elk we occasionally spent a night in his cabin. Ralph wrote several short works on Pennsylvania’s elk herd and an extensive history of the Quehanna Wild Area; he died a few years ago and is sadly missed.


With the passage of time the ranks of The Naturalists have thinned; few who went on those jaunts are still alive. What great times we had. For all who enjoy the natural world, I hope you can have rambles with such friends.