Saturday, November 30, 2013

Our Neighbor the Gray Fox

Over 40 years ago we built our house in woodland that had developed in a long-abandoned pasture. Choosing to live in that location we also chose to share the space that was already home to a large variety of wildlife. From white-footed mice to star-nosed moles; turkeys and pileated woodpeckers; white-tailed deer and black bears, we’ve seen a lot of species – some only a few times, others frequently. One of our wild neighbors that I’ve never seen here and my wife has seen but once is a gray fox.

Because humans are diurnal critters and most other mammals are primarily nocturnal, I’ve kept at least one camera trap out behind the house for as long as I’ve used them. Although I took the camera traps out of the Big Woods well before hunting seasons began, the ones behind the house were left in place.
While the gray fox keeps out of sight, it doesn’t escape the camera traps. Yesterday, a check of the cards from two cameras out back revealed 412 photos including 193 of one or more gray fox – so the gray fox certainly isn’t camera shy. It’s not even shy of the camera’s flash, with sequences of photos taken over a short time as rapidly as the camera’s flash capacitor could recharge.

The gray fox is an interesting animal: the only canid that regularly climbs trees; it may form lifelong pairs; it eats about anything, from nuts and berries to mice, birds and rabbits; and prefers extensive woodland. They spend the day in a den, usually among or beneath rocks, in a hollow log or perhaps in an old woodchuck burrow. On the ridge above the house are extensive rocky areas where the fox probably spends the day, but there are a few scattered fallen hollow trees that would make suitable den sites. In any case, in all my wanderings I’ve never found a den.
We’re glad to have the gray fox for a neighbor; it keeps to itself, doesn’t make much noise, and doesn’t seem to mind having its picture taken.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving everyone --

For food , friends, fields, forests and family may we be ever thankful.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Loser

Bill was telling us about an experience he recently had while walking their two dogs in a wooded area on their farm. It seems the dogs discovered an injured, barely moving 6-point buck lying at the edge of a small valley. He decided that the dogs would best be taken home, so he took them back to the house and then returned to look at the deer. 
By the time he got to the deer it had died, so he searched for a wound and found none. Grabbing an antler to move the deer, he realized that its neck was broken. Then he saw that its lower jaw was also broken. Bill said that a large 10-point buck had repeatedly been seen in the area and he figured that the two bucks had gotten into a battle, which the 6-point lost in a big way. 
 In October there were reports and photos of one of Pennsylvania’s bull elk that had been killed in a rutting battle. While relatively uncommon, mortal wounds from fights during the rut do happen. Whether deer or elk, these are powerful animals equipped with potentially lethal weapons.
 Bill’s account made me wonder about the remains of antlered bucks that I’ve found over the years. Although these look somewhat similar, they are not the same deer -- 

I’d usually assumed that these deer had been shot during hunting season and not recovered or been hit by a vehicle and run off to die some time later – 

But, that’s not an assumption that should be made.
Fatal wounds are not the only way that rutting males can die. In the 1950s we went to the Heads and Horns museum at the New York Zoological Society’s Bronx Zoo. Part of the museum’s collection consisted of many pairs of male elk, moose and deer that had locked antlers while fighting and, being unable to disentangle themselves, perished. That collection was subsequently moved to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY.
Battles for mating rights don’t always end with the looser going off to fight another day; sometimes the loser loses his life.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bear Diggings

Anyone who spends much time in the outdoors in late summer or fall has seen our eastern chipmunks gathering nuts and seeds. “Chipmunk cheeks” is a most appropriate description for the way these critters look as they stuff their cheek pouches and scurry back to their burrows.

The chipmunks are gathering their winter food supply – for, although we probably won’t see them until spring, they don’t hibernate. Instead, they go through sleep/wake cycles; sleeping for extensive periods, then waking to eat some of the food they’ve stored in chambers in their burrow. The storage chambers contain the fruits (that is a pun, is it not?) of the chipmunk’s labor – hickory nuts, acorns and other seeds and nuts. 
Now our black bears also favor hickory nuts and acorns as a fall food while they gorge and build up the fat reserves which will see them through their winter’s nap. Bears will gather individual nuts from the ground and climb trees to get them directly from the branch. But, it’s apparently much more energy efficient to locate chipmunk burrows and raid their storage chambers.
The Big Woods are full of chipmunks and has a significant population of black bears. Occasionally I’ve walked up on a bear excavating a chipmunk burrow –

Once the bear was partially submerged in the hole –

Scattered throughout the woods are numerous signs of the bears’ diggings –

There are several old roads through the Big Woods that have been improved by the addition of a few inches of fist-sized crushed rock that was covered with smaller aggregate. The gaps between the larger rocks seem to have been ideal for chipmunk burrows. Now the bears are digging up the roads to get at the stored nuts. In a one hundred foot length of one road bears had dug at four different spots.

And what of the chipmunks that have lost the contents of their winter larder to a bear?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Peregrine Is Back

In the last few years there have been three known peregrine falcon nests within 25 miles of my place, two on bridges and one on a traditional site on a cliff along the river. Several of the adult birds now also spend the winter near one of the bridges where there is a large population of pigeons on which they prey.
On a recent morning as I walked along the river one of the peregrines was perched in the same tree where a peregrine frequently spent time last winter.

It was in the same tree where I photographed a peregrine exactly 364 days before.

The return of peregrines to Pennsylvania and many other eastern states is one of the real conservation triumphs of recent years. Thanks to banning of DDT, which thinned eggshells - resulting in broken eggs, and the efforts of both government agencies and volunteers to re-introduce peregrines, many of us now have the opportunity to be thrilled by the sight of these birds.
Years ago I worked with a fellow who, when he was much younger, reportedly had removed a clutch of eggs from a peregrine’s cliff nest – the eggs were said to have gone to a museum for its collection. Since the final successful nesting of peregrines reported in Pennsylvania during the DDT era was in 1957, that nest must have been one of the last nests in the state before DDT eliminated peregrines as a nesting species.  
Now they’re back – Great!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Flats

A while back I took a long walk on an area of the Big Woods that we’ve always called “The Flats”. At about 2,000 acres The Flats is pretty good-sized, but not huge. It acquired its name because, compared to the rest of the Big Woods, it is quite flat.  The terrain gently undulates until it reaches the several deeply incised stream valleys that border The Flats. Cross those valleys and the rolling terrain stretches on, covering well over 8,000 acres in total.

The Flats were logged long ago using railroads to haul the larger logs to a sawmill. Even the smaller trees occupying The Flats in those long-ago days were also of value to the loggers. After the small trees were cut they were put on the logging railroad, hauled to a spot where they were transferred to a main-line railroad and then transported to the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania. There they became props and lagging to hold up the roof of many miles of underground mine shafts.
The grades of the old logging railroads wound across The Flats and into the valleys. Although no adequate records remain, logging of the old-growth forest apparently ended here before 1916, perhaps even before 1908. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) transformed some of the old grades to roads in the 1930s; since 1980 others have been used in logging the second-growth timber that has grown since the original logging. However, many of the grades were abandoned and forgotten; those are slowly being lost through frost action and the growth of vegetation. The CCC also built foot trails across The Flats, some of which have been used as part of a recreational trail network.
The forest now growing on The Flats would impress few people, the trees are not large nor are they very tall. Beneath the trees are extensive patches of witch-hazel and the evergreen mountain laurel; below those higher shrubs grow several species of huckleberry and blueberry and a groundcover of teaberry. Photographs taken during the logging railroad era show a forest very much like the one we see today, not the inspirational old-growth that was found in other places.
From Benj. Kline

Along one of the old CCC trails, just beyond the end of one of the railroad grades, is a pile of four-foot long American chestnut bolts. Almost all of the chestnut in this part of Pennsylvania succumbed to the chestnut blight fungus around 1920, but chestnut is amazingly resistant to decay and the bolts remain where they were stacked. So, might these chestnut bolts have been cut for use as ties for the logging railroad or were the CCC fellows perhaps cutting dead chestnut for firewood?

The Flats tends to be a place where few people spend much time. The forest itself is not inspirational; the soils are acidic and infertile; except for ubiquitous songbirds like black-capped chickadees, wildlife sightings are few and infrequent. And yet, and yet, there is something hauntingly beautiful about The Flats that brings me back occasionally. This time it was the autumnal reds of black huckleberry leaves – 

and the scarlet oak saplings that hold their leaves long after the leaves of larger trees have fallen to the ground.