Thursday, January 30, 2014

On Three Legs

At dusk last Saturday eight white-tailed deer went up through the yard. They were all does or last year’s fawns except for the last animal which was an 8-point buck. The buck had an obviously injured left front leg which flopped as he walked and on which he couldn’t put any weight. We were on the wrong side to see what the problem was, although the leg certainly appeared to be broken.
The commercial trail camera missed getting a video of the buck, although one of the other camera traps behind the house did get a photograph of the buck as he went past. The next morning when I downloaded the picture from that homebrewed camera; it showed an injury near the buck’s left shoulder.
January 25, 2014
This buck’s antlers are rather distinctive and I realized the same camera trap had gotten a photograph of him last November 19
November 19, 2013
We had never seen him and the camera traps hadn’t gotten a photo of him before that November photo. Between November 19 and January 25 we’d not seen him nor had any of the camera traps behind the house gotten a photo of him.
Several questions come to mind:
·      How was he injured? Probably wounded during hunting season.
·      Where has he been for two months?
·      And most of all, will he survive?
With an injury like that he’s prime prey for the eastern coyotes that roam the hills – or for the free ranging dogs that also kill deer (for which coyotes are all too often blamed). Or he may succumb to an infection.
He was back again last night and left the track of the foot he was dragging.

Only time will tell if this buck will survive and there’s a good chance we’ll never know. He disappeared for two months, and may do so again for an even longer time. Perhaps the scavengers may have a late winter meal and scatter his bones, or perhaps one day I’ll find his remains. 
But deer are tough critters and can survive horrendous injuries. Many years ago I photographed a doe with an arrow through her head – she survived, but was later shot and killed.

This series of photographs also shows how resilient deer can be:
So, will the broken-legged buck survive? Maybe he’ll have his photo taken again, or we’ll see him walking through the yard. Maybe we’ll never know.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Seven Days

Not every week provides something interesting every day – but once in a while this old guy gets lucky. A recent seven day period let me see some great things:

First Day – Walking on a recreational path along one of the larger nearby
streams, I looked across a small back channel and saw a mink working its way along the far shore. Often, a few squeaks will bring predators to investigate potential prey; in this case, the mink heard the squeaks, entered the water, swam to the near bank and disappeared – never did I see it again. Maybe it entered a muskrat hole, maybe it followed the bank, maybe …?
Day Two – At the lower end of some fast water in the river there was group of 10-15 male common mergansers and one female. They rode the tossing waves easily, and occasionally one would go underwater in search of fish. Suddenly there was a great commotion among the mergansers, with the whole group in splashing pursuit of one individual. At first I thought the males might be rushing the season and attempting to mate with the female. Wrong! As the photo shows, they were chasing a bird that had been successful in catching a large fish.

Day Three – At the beginning of a walk in the Big Woods I was heading down a seldom-used road when something walked out in the road. Although it was too far away and happened too fast for a photo, it was still exciting to see a bobcat cross the road and disappear into the adjacent old field now occupied by shrubs and small trees.

Fourth Day – As I walked along the river a pair of adult bald eagles flew upstream and landed on a large electric transmission tower. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen an eagle on the tower, but it was the first time there had been two birds.

This tower is the highest perch anywhere in the area and overlooks a shallow river section where the fishing is easy. Contact with transmission lines has historically been a major cause of eagle mortality. Fortunately the design of this tower makes it extremely unlikely that an eagle would contact both a hot line and the tower.

Day Five – Got home after sunset, but before dark, to find the tall trees in the yard filled with crows, several hundred, in fact. But, those crows were only a small fraction of the thousands in surrounding trees and flying nearby. I’ve seen this happen before, just not so near the house. The crows were staging before flying to the roost where they spend the night. They appear to assemble after sunset, wait until it’s darker, and then fly to the roost in a patch of large trees several miles away along the river. Interestingly, there’s a significant crow roost among shade trees in downtown Williamsport, Pennsylvania – adjacent to the tall building where a peregrine falcon frequently spends the night on a ledge.

Day Six – This was a pretty evening with an almost full moon showing through high thin clouds. Around the moon was a beautiful halo showing the full spectrum of colors typical of a rainbow. The first thing that came to mind was, “That’s a pretty moonbow.” But a moonbow is actually a “rainbow” caused by bright moonlight, typically seen at a waterfall, but also possible with passing rain. This halo was a corona caused by moonlight passing through high thin clouds, where the ice crystals act as prisms to separate the light into its different wavelengths. By the time I’d gone in the house, gotten a camera and got back outside, conditions had changed and the moon was obscured by thicker clouds.
Seventh Day – Changed the memory cards and batteries in the camera traps behind the house. Between the three cameras there were 495 photos and a few videos from the commercial trail camera. There were photos of gray squirrels, dark-eyed juncos, cottontail rabbit, a roaming house cat, opossum, raccoon, white-tailed deer and many of the neighborhood gray fox. The fox spent quite a bit of time wandering around in front of the commercial camera while it took an infrared video of the fox marking its territory three different times. While our deed to the property is recorded at the county courthouse, a lot of other species also lay claim to this spot on the side of the hill where, years ago, we built our house.

My lady and I consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have spent more than 40 years living in northcentral Pennsylvania where we’ve seen so many of the wonders of the natural world – many of them right out our back door.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Eastern Coyote: Coyote+Wolf = Coywolf

My camera traps repeatedly pick up photos of the coyotes that roam our forests and fields. Coyotes, coydogs, brush wolves, they go by many different names, but what are they really? A lot of folks call them coydogs, believing they’re half-coyote, half domestic dog hybrids. But breeding biology and other factors make it extremely unlikely that these hybrids would survive in the wild. So, what are they? Curiosity (mine and my friends’) aroused, I set out to find out just what they are – here’s a synopsis:
For decades people have recognized a wild canine in the northeast that they have called eastern coyotes. However, the large size of the animals – bigger than western coyotes, but smaller than wolves – has confused people about what they really are. DNA studies have now shown that eastern coyotes are a mixture of coyote (Canis latrans) and the eastern (or Algonquin) wolf (Canis lycaon), but primarily coyote. A study published in Northeastern Naturalist made the case that eastern coyotes should more accurately be called "coywolves". Apparently these coywolves originated in southern Ontario, in or near Algonquin Provincial Park, when coyotes moving in from the west bred with eastern wolves.

These coyote/wolf hybrids subsequently spread south and east through New England and New York to occupy a range that had been empty of large wild canines since the 1800s. Just when this movement occurred is open to question: there are photos from Pennsylvania taken in the 1930s showing animals that appear identical to the animals we see now. Some scientists currently recognize the coywolf as one of four wild canine species in North America, the others being gray wolves (C. lupus) in the western states and Canadian provinces, eastern wolves (C. lycaon) in eastern Canada and formerly in the eastern U.S., and western coyotes (C. latrans).
Coywolves are larger in overall body size than western coyotes; have larger, stronger jaws and bigger skulls, allowing them to hunt white-tailed deer. Like western coyotes – but unlike wolves – coywolves can adapt to and survive near humans, thriving in the country, in suburbs and in cities – including within parts of New York City.
An analysis of coyote weights throughout their range found that coywolves are heavier than the coyotes found in the states of the midwest. Coywolf males are heavier than females, and coywolves are so large that females from the northeast average over 20 percent heavier than male coyotes from elsewhere. Most of the studies in the northeast found numerous coywolves weighing more than 40 pounds; coyotes of that weight are rare in other parts of the country.
Ecologically, coywolves have a larger home range than most western coyotes (but at about 10 square miles, smaller than that of wolves); travel long distances (10–15 miles) daily; eat a variety of food including deer but mainly medium and small prey (rabbits, mice and voles) plus carrion; and often live in family groups of up to five or six. The coywolf has characteristics (and DNA) that can be seen as a blending of coyote and wolf.
Even though the term “coywolf ” may be appropriate for this hybrid creature, “eastern coyote” rolls off the tongue more easily, and genetically they seem to be about 80-90% coyote – so I’ll probably continue to call them eastern coyotes.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Ice is Nice

Yes, ice is nice. The other morning the temperature at the house was -6° F, the coldest it’s been here in many years. But, it was a beautiful morning! Anyone who listened to the folks presenting the weather on radio or TV would be left with the impression that to merely open the door would be to risk instantly freezing to death. I feel sorry for those folks who hate winter and only experience it as they scurry from house to car, from car to store or office, back to the car, and back home.
It was such a gorgeous morning that I couldn’t resist taking a 4½ mile walk along one of the streams in the Big Woods. Except for a few juncos and black-capped chickadees there was no wildlife to be seen and there wasn’t even enough snow to make tracking wildlife a worthwhile enterprise. But, there was the varied and beautiful ice along the stream:
Yes, ice will suffice!

I’m old enough to remember when below zero temperatures were common here, common enough that we would regularly register several below zero days every year and a winter without seeing zero was unusual, not the norm it has recently become.
But that was then, this is now and the world we live in has changed and is still changing – rapidly. The waterfalls we used to climb almost every winter after they froze now go years without freezing enough to make climbing safe.
There are forecasts predicting that by 2100, northcentral Pennsylvania’s climate will resemble the climate of central Georgia. If that comes to pass, our forests will change dramatically and many of our species of plants and wildlife will be in dire straits. As a friend used to say, “I’m glad I’m old.” For now, and while we have it, I’ll revel in the cold weather and enjoy the ice.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Got It

Those of us who use camera traps are always excited when we get a photograph of something new or unusual. Very occasionally there’s a photo of a predator carrying prey. 
The camera traps behind our house usually have quite a few photos of gray fox passing by on their way to hunt the small rodents that feed on waste birdseed beneath the feeders closer to the house. And, since gray fox aren’t too picky, they too may feed on the waste seed.  
Today when I checked the camera traps, one of them had a picture of a fox in the act of catching prey.

Then came a photo of the fox carrying a prey item. Unfortunately, the photo isn’t sharp enough to clearly show what the prey was.

The pictures are from January 1, and the first I’ve ever gotten on a camera trap of an act of predation – great way to start another year of photographing wildlife.