Friday, February 21, 2014

Lucky Bob....

In my most recent post, I mentioned that we found tracks of the Bob-tailed Cat (Lynx rufus) in the snow.

After reviewing the video clips on the cameras we checked, we found the following:



This was very close to the Bobcat tracks we found and is likely the same individual.

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

Bobcats are pretty hard to come by for us.  In the southern part of our fine state, they are mostly nonexistant (or very, very scarce).  They are much more common in the northern part of the state, but still don't exist in very high densities compared to other mammals of comparable size and trophic status.

It's only becuase this particular project is ongoing further north that we are able to get Bobcat clips (see also here and here).

Thus, 'cats are one of my favorite critters to get on a camera trap!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Winter Wildlife Tracking....and more

Recently, I accompanied my research students into the field.  We are in year two of a project focused on Wolves (Canis lupus), which I've previously posted tidbits from (see here, here, and here).  I haven't been able to get out with them to do fieldwork as much as I would have liked on this project.  However, they are amazingly competent, organized and detail-oriented.....so I haven't felt the need to hover over their shoulders.

Although I haven't needed to be there, I have desperately wanted to go out with them more often.  Circumstance has always intervened, unfortunately.  During their most-recent trip, however, everything fell into place. 

Before I share some of our observations from that trip, allow me to give you a bit of context for what their fieldwork involves.  This project requires that every two weeks, they take a 3 hr car trip north.  Because it's too expensive to stay in hotels, etc., all of their fieldwork must be crammed into one day.  This means a 14-15 hr day, including drive time, assuming everything goes smoothly (if you want to know about some of the 'hiccups', ask them how many times they've gotten a vehicle stuck during these trips :)  ).  The days are shorter up here in the winter.  So, to insure that they have enough daylight to finish their objectives, they leave early (5 am).  This way, they arrive at the first site at alittle after sun-up and valuable light isn't squandered while driving.

Winter fieldwork is the best, in my opinion.  Many folks I know talk about how much they love summer, and given my fondness for herptiles...I understand.  But summer can get just too dang hot.  There are only so many clothes that you can legally take off to deal with the heat of summer and eventually you just have to wallow in your own moisture.  Winter is the opposite: you can always add more clothes.  So long as you are dressed appropriately, winter fieldwork is great.

We needed that appropriate dress at the first site we visited...the sun had barely been up and the air was bitter cold.  Just having the fingers exposed to take pictures with my "fingerless" gloves (with the flip-up mitten tops) set my skin to burnin'!

But, the research students (Phil and Sarah) got right down to work, while I got some photos of them in action.

Pretty soon, we were headed back to the vehicle.  It wasn't long before the air started to warm a bit and it was downright pleasant to be working outside.  The amount of time spent at each location isn't too great....although sometimes the walking in and out can take time, depending on the amount of snow.  However, it's the time we spent on-foot that gave us opportunities to observe some very cool stuff!

Wolf packs are in the general vicinity of every study location we stop at.  We obviously don't know where they are.  They could be 50 yds away or 5 miles away, depending on where the pack is within it's territory.  Regardless, we know wolves have probably passed through our immediate area at some point in time.  Thus, there is wolf-sign galore!  We had some great opportunities for photographs....

There was lots of Wolf scat around.  Its fun to try and find some evidence of recent meals by looking at scat.

Take the example below:

I was an idiot and forgot a ruler....but the print to the left is from my size 12.....

Here's a close-up:
Lots of hair (which a quick inspection appeared to be from White-tailed Deer).  Also note the dark consistency...which would suggest alot of muscle or organ meat was consumed.  This is an important point to remember, especially when viewing other examples of scat we found.

Take a look at another scat below, which was along a different trail.....
Notice the track at the bottom....scat more towards the top.

Here's a close-up of the scat, itself...
This scat is much lighter in color...a bit more chalky in appearance.  My guess would be that this wolf was consuming less meat and more bone.  Perhaps this individual was scavenging on an old-carcass...crunching up bones, etc.  In fact, there appears to be some bone fragments visible in there.

What's really interesting about this particular scat is that there appears to be a bit of blood (just above the excrement in the picture below).
 It looks more black in the picture than it did in real life.  On the snow it was a dark red.  So, is this blood due to a bit of scraping from the wolf passing that scat with the bone chunks?  Possible.  Another explanation is that the blood came from a female in estrus.  In this area, we found lots of urine marks.  Perhaps this spot represents a location where a female in estrus dribbled a bit of urine and also defecated.

We are currently in the wolf breeding season (January through April), so females could be in estrus.  Interestingly, females are apparently in estrus for a short period of time (1 to 2 weeks).   Wolves are "monestrous", meaning they have one estrous cycle annually, which occurs at roughly the same time of year.

Speaking of urine...like many canids, wolves mark their territories with urine.  Such territorial markings can be referred to as a "raised leg urination", or RLU. 

Because wolves often travel along roads, a good way to quickly assess for the presence of wolf activity is to watch for RLUs from a slowly moving vehicle.  This is relatively easy to do, as the urine really sticks out against the white snow.
After you see an RLU, its important to get out and assess the area to find more evidence of wolves.  Obviously, folks walk their dogs along roads too, or bring dogs into remote areas for hunting, so you have to check things out a bit to confirm wolf activity.  Tracks, for example, or the height of the RLU can be good bits of evidence in support of wolves being present.

In another location we found beautifully pristine wolf trails along old tire tracks in the snow.  These were along a little-traveled snowmobile path and there were many associated RLUs.  Thus, the RLUs we found here were very likely to be from wolves and not dogs.

Here are two examples:

 
Finally, and as you probably already guessed, there are a plethora of tracks and trails!

There were so many wolf trails on the route in the picture below, it was sometimes hard to tell how many wolves were present.
From the picture above, you can also see how deep the snow was by looking at it in relation to Sarah and Phil, whom are standing in a single set of tire tracks on this trail.  Also, note the wolf tracks leading away from us in the tire impression.

Some of these tracks were perfect imprints (and I wish we had brought some snow track-casting gear).
 
 
 
Below is a picture of a domestic dog print, for comparison.  Although my hand is meant to provide scale, this obviously isn't perfect.  The distance of my hand from the track, etc. can confound things, but it will give some you idea of the size relationship.
Wolves weren't the only critter we saw evidence of on our trip....

Rodent trails were abundant, and some areas looked as like a criss-crossing highway of rodent tracks.
...more (and bigger) rodents to come!

Lagomorphs were also easy to observe. One of my favorites from those we saw were the tracks of the Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus).
In these pictures, the front feet are obviously on the left, and back feet on the right.

Just check out the size of those kickers!!

There were other carnivore tracks at some of the sites.  Sarah found the tracks below in the road.  I stepped right over them, as I was watching a little Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) moving through the underbrush next to the vehicle.  Thank goodness she was paying attention!

A Bobcat (Lynx rufus) had wandered around along the road very near where we parked.

The diminutive size of their tracks always amazes me...
 

The day was coming to a close.  We made our way to the last of the sites we needed to visit.  On the way, we stopped by a dead-end road where Phil and Sarah had seen lots of Bobcat tracks in the past.  There was a very small culvert just off of the road.  They had found a high concentration of 'cat activity near the culvert on a recent trip.  This suggested that the culvert was perhaps a winter refuge spot for the 'cat.  We thought we'd see if we could get some more track photos, so we took a quick detour to check things out.

We pulled up and I hopped out to peek at the culvert.  The snow was very deep (up to my knees, right off of the road), and it took me a second to clumsily lumber over to the culvert.  From about three feet away, I could tell something had been moving around near the entrance.  There was some brown particulate matter on the snow, and I saw a few recently shed hairs.
However, I didn't see any obvious 'cat tracks.  I moved to my left a bit, so that I could see the culvert entrance, without being too close.  From that vantage point, I noticed several large pellets in the snow and my first thought went to a Lagomorph (cottontails and hares) of some kind. 

 
Yet, when I leaned over and saw that the it wasn't just a few pellets, but lots of pellets lining the culvert floor, it instantly triggered memories of a picture in the book "Tracking and the Art of Seeing", written by Paul Rezendes in 1992.  This picture depicts a Porcupine's (Erethizon dorsatum) winter den, and shows a pile of pellets exactly like what I was seeing.
 
I craned my neck slightly....and there was Porky.....
 
I was able to stick my camera in front of the culvert and snap a picture.  It's not an outstanding shot, but I also didn't want to disturb him too much by taking lots of photos.
 
It's amazing...who would have thought to look in this small, unobtrusive opening in the snow? 
 
Just to show you how unobtrusive it is, below is Sarah taking a picture of the outside.  The opening is just to her right.
 
 
Ultimately, what more could we ask for from a single 14 hour field day?  It's days like this that remind me how much I love my chosen profession.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Year-Old Tale of Romance (and how my students uncovered the continuing story....)

Happened across these pictures recently and can't believe I didn't post them before...

Last January, I happened to get pictures of two twitter-painted Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)...they were together smack-dab in the middle of the fox breeding season 'round here (which is usually January/February).




I'm willing to bet that this is the pair whom are responsible for the pup we caught pictures of on the same site several months later (see here)....

So...the ATV activity this summer really cut down on the number of fox pictures we got on the cameras for awhile.

But....much like with the Coyotes....that has changed this winter.  However, I wasn't sure if we would see any kind of breeding activity or evidence this year.  I thought that if the ATVs scared them off this summer, they might not consider it safe enough for breeding again.

Which leads us to my Advanced Ecology class this year (which is a class I've posted about during past years...see examples here and here).

Two weeks ago, the students deployed their camera traps for a semester of monitoring. 

They also spent some time assessing the habitat communities on-site and using GPS units to delineate community boundaries.


This gave them a chance to get a good feel for the property we are working on, and make some important observations.

Now, zoom forward to this week.  We gathered on-site to begin our weekly exercise, while also checking camera traps, etc.

Not long after we got started, one of the students called me over to their camera trap location to show me a burrow he had found.  In the picture below, the student is standing about where the entrance to the burrow is located.

He's pretty critter-savvy (experienced hunter and trapper).  We agreed it was in the size range for Red Fox....

There were clearly tracks heading to the entrance and it appeared to be active.  But we had snow the night before, so it was hard to tell (a) what species left the tracks and (b) how recently the burrow was used.
 

Could it be a pair of Reds is making a nice little love nest in which to rear their pups again this year?

The nearby camera trap the students put up gave us reason to be hopeful.

Here is our first glimpse of a fox leaving the den.  Not a great picture, unfortunately, but you can tell its coming out of just about parallel to where the student is in the picture above.
...and again later that evening...

 Then...just to give us something to brag about....our resident Badger (Taxidea taxus) lumbered by for a sniff.
 

 So fingers crossed that we will get a repeat of the fox pups this year!  Always fun to get pictures of them....

Monday, January 27, 2014

Wil E. Returns

The Coyotes at one of my study sites grew sparse after some heavy ATV use began in the summer.

However, the snow seems to have curtailed the ATV activity, which gave the canines a chance to sneak back onto the site.  In fact, the beginning of the calendar year seemed to really bring out the 'yotes....

Although glimpses of them were as fleeting as you might expect at first....
The 'yote is in the far background in this picture, partially obscured by a dead branch


They also appeared to be appropriately skittish.  The IR flash of the camera caused this individual to turn-tail and run.  This is a response to IR cameras that I've observed from Coyotes several times in the past (see here , here and here).
 

Skittishness is probably one of their greatest survival mechanisms.  It might even be a reason why (despite the best efforts of humanity) the Coyote has avoided eradication throughout recent history.

Yet, sometimes, skittishness is over-powered by the desire to check out what the neihbors are up to.

This individual (on January 10th, perhaps the same one from the 5th and the 9th?) is very interested in the canine urine we deposited in front of the camera. 

Considering we are in the general time period of the breeding season, it's not too surprising to see the canines doing some territorial investigations.

I imagine "curiosity" treats the canine, much like it does the cat .....if said canines don't learn quickly.  Canine urine is a common tool in the trapper's toolkit.

Another quick capture on January 15th....

I've also seen a large number of tracks and trails throughout the site since the first of the year.  One of my research students even found an interesting trail in the snow two weeks ago.  It appeared to tell a story of ol' Wil E. catching a Cottontail (complete with blood and tufts of rabbit fur).  I'm pretty happy to see them return after their long absence this summer and very sparse appearances in the fall.

I can't imagine our resident forest ghost is particularly thrilled (seeing that Coyotes will exclude Red Fox)...but it hasn't scared him/her off completely. 

Although he does appear a bit more on-edge than before....
 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Getting Rid of the Winter Blues: 2014 Edition

 
Back to the cabin we go for another year of fun, fishing and catching up with long-time friends.  The same six of us high school buddies made the trek north for three days of fishing and frivolity, as we have done for almost a decade.

The trip would not start easily, however, as Old Man Winter decided to show his face during our drive up. As a result, we pulled in at the cabin amidst a bout of freezing rain and snow.  Although we arrived unscathed, we were all glad to be out of the storm.

Andy looking out at the lake through a snowstorm
After unpacking, my first order of business was to set out camera traps.  The short duration of our stay means there is a low probability of catching things on the cameras.  In fact, you'll note that past years have yeilded very little (see here and here).  Regardless, the quicker the cameras are out....the more time we have to catch something. 

So, Justin and I made a rather hasty trip into the dark with a bucket of cameras and smelly stuff.  Whether I catch anything or not, it's fun to try.  Its also fun to bring a different scent lure each year.....just to mix things up a bit.  This year my lures of choice were Beaver castor, Muskrat Gland and Fish Oil.

Applying some Muskrat gland to a stick that will be stuck in the snow in front of a camera
After our quick adventure, it was back to the cabin for some catching up with the others.

"Catching up" often includes long, even-keeled debates on topics such as which NFL quarterbacks should be considered among the top 10 or 15 in the league.

Chad and Andy discuss things....


Chad and Andy discuss things further.....

After a discussion that left all parties satisfied, we played cards and then turned-in at a reasonable hour.  One needs plenty of rest to effectively fish in the morning.
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We awoke to the sight of frosted trees, thanks to the Old Man's activities.....
 
....and the view from the lake was very nice.... 
 

Once out on the ice, we began to drill holes with the ice auger so that our fishing tip-ups could be set....

Justin (background) and Hank (foreground) help Dan (right) drill and clean out a hole in the ice

Then it was back inside for some breakfast.......

Nate is nice enough to cook most of the meals on the trip, and boy-howdy....they are good!

After breakfast, we waited....and played cards.  Cribbage is a favorite, as is Euchre. 

Dan, Chad, Andy and Justin wait for some action on the ice....

We have almost no demands on our time, which allows us to undertake whatever whim comes to mind.  For example, I was able to do some random meandering and hunt for tracks in the fresh snow.  Most of what I found belonged to White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

A heavily used Deer trail into the woods (note the woodpecker tree to the right).

Rodents and Shrews were among the more interesting trails I found in the snow, and although I was hoping for Fisher or weasel, I'll take what I can get....

A rodent trail (probably a Peromyscus of some sort...either white-footed or deer mouse).  Normally all four feet are more obvious in the trail, but the snow was deep here. Thus, the treail looks alittle more dumb bell shaped.  You can also see the drag mark from the tail. 


I believe this is the trail of a shrew (Sorex or Blarina sp., but probably the latter).  The tracks are roughly comparable in size to those above, which is very small.  But, the footsteps alternate rather than bound as in the rodent above.


 By the end of day 1, we had done pretty well fishing.  A total of 11 fish...including the Yellow Perch (Perca flavescens) and Walleye (Sander vitreus) below.
 
Thus, we went to sleep satisfied.
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The next morning broke clear and breezy.  The weather front, which had hung over us the day before, moved on.

Nate and Andy working on clearing the holes in the ice
 
So we marched back out onto the ice to re-deploy our fishing gear...

Nate and Chad checking the gear before deployment
 
...and then marched back inside to play the waiting game again....
The gang playing cribbage, patiently waiting for the next fish
 
Luck would not be with us for most of the morning or afternoon, however.  By late afternoon, we decided to try a different location nearby.  This required we haul our gear to the opposite side of the peninsula.  Here we drilled new holes, deployed the fishing tip-ups and....again....waited (this time continuously exposed to the elements, not inside of a cabin).

Thus, a nice fire was in order....

Andy and Chad work on the fire, no easy feat when it is on top of snow and there is very little dry wood around

The fire takes on life!

Although the fire and conversation were great fun, our last full day of fishing ended with only one capture: a single Northern Pike (Esox lucius).
Chad holds our only capture on the second day of fishing.
 
Despite a slow second day, our good cheer would not be diminished!
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The camera traps deployed were a similar story.  Very little activity and what we got was mostly White-tailed Deer (which is a small improvement over the last two years).
 
They even did me the courtesy of investigating the scent I put out.  In the clips below, it's muskrat gland.
 
They even came in for a sniff of the camera.....





Of course we also got lots of pics of the two pooches that come along for the trip.....and their ball.

As you can see: few things in life trump Ball.....

Note: Wrigley (on the right) with Ball and Hank (center) whom first wanted Ball, but now sees the camera

Ball is all-consuming....


Wrigley repeatedly picking up and re-presenting Ball to us, while Hank investigates the camera

It matters not if the Master ignores them at first.  So long as they continually present Ball to the Master...the Master will eventually be driven to madness, and they will recieve their reward.....Ball.

Maybe....

There is one OTHER thing that almost rivals the importance of Ball for these dogs....and that's thieving bait that I've put in front of my camera traps.

Even if that bait is frozen Fish Oil.

Note the bottle in my hand, as I dump out some fish oil sporadically.

Now, note the giant frozen sheet of fish oil that Wrigley has decided to liberate.

After this year, I'll also give up using our left-over minnows as camera bait (or will only do it in front of cameras that are further away).  I've seen past evidence of Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) on the ice near our tip-ups scavenging the left-overs, which gave me the idea in the first place.

BUT...any camera trap on the ice with minnows in front only attracts two naughty canines.... :)

Hank (left) and Wrigley (right) stealing my bait....

And no matter how many times one yells "Leave it!", they are just so sneaky....
 

...and eventually they cleaned out every jowl-lickin' one of those fish-cicles.

It's also worth noting that the pictures above are but a few of several hundred that the cameras snapped of Hank and Wrigley.

Still...it's pretty hard to be mad at them.  I'm asking alot of the dogs by putting out food and expecting them to ignore it.  Plus, they know how to find the soft-spot.....

And so it was that our time at the cabin ended for 2014.  We pulled out of the driveway with heavy-hearts and drove off to face the real world again. 

It seems a shame that every day can't be like the time we spend ice fishing in January.

But...if that were so....we wouldn't have anything to look forward to next year, would we?   If I frame it in this way, then the road back to reality doesn't seem so dismal.

In fact......it's actually kinda pretty....