Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Ghost in the Wood

We have a few resident Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) that occassionally come near the rural home where we live.  I hadn't seen much of them this summer or in early fall.  But come late fall and winter, their presence has been easier to detect, thanks to the snow. 

I know that they have also become more active at one of my research sites since December.

...even stopping to investigate some scent we put down to attract him.....

I've never actually seen them with my own eyes near the house, only their sign.  I bring a spotlight with me when I take the dog out for his nightly evacuation in the hopes that I will get a glimpse of our resident forest spirits in the orchard next door, or in the pine trees behind the house.....but so far, I've seen nary an eye-shine.

I would wager they are often out there, however....probably carefully watching the dog and I as we lumber along the driveway.  I often picture them hiding silently behind a wall of dormant raspberry, waiting for us to head back into our luxuriously warm abode before continuing with their constant struggle to survive during these frigid months.

Today, however, I found evidence that the Ol' Todd had recently come a bit closer than normal.

I found a set of fox tracks near the White and Red Pine Trees immediately behind our house.  We had an inch of new snow last night, so I knew the tracks were fresh.  They purposefully moved along the back side of our garden and past the compost bins.

The trail then passed along the pines behind our garage and just barely around the west wall, where the fox would have had a better view of our driveway and the road beyond....

....here the trail abruptly stopped. 

The fox then turned almost on a dime, planted on all fours once...perhaps to stop and scan his surroundings....before moving away from the driveway and back up into the safety of the pine trees.

If you look carefully at the picture above, the track in the foreground was the last in the trail moving this direction....the ones in roughly the middle of the frame are of Toddie's new direction (note the four to five tracks near eachother....probably where the fox stood to get a better look before moving on).

And so he went....until he hit one of my old foot trails back into the woods and I stopped following.
I like to imagine that perhaps it was the dog and I, coming out at just the right time, that caused the ghost to alter its silent course and head back into the woods.  Perhaps he saw the beam of my spotlight, or heard us clumsily walking over the snow from a mere 10 or 15 yards away on the driveway.

Whatever the case, I wish Todd the best of luck during these cold winter months...and wish all of you a happy New Year!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Pursuant Wolf

You may, or may not, remember the following video clip from earlier this year.....

Anyways, after I had posted this, one of my research students was reviewing the video clips and actually found something interesting in the clip right before this one. 

You'll notice two critters in the clip below: one at the beginning on the right and another several seconds later.

We had looked at this when we first uploaded it onto my computer and dismissed it as two White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) bounding through at top speed.  Closer inspection at a later date yielded the truth. 

Take a closer look. 

That second critter isn't a deer. That's a Gray Wolf (Canis lupus).  He and his pack mates were on the hunt, it appears.

Who would have thought that canine could leap as high as a deer?  I've always heard they have the ability, but you can't believe it until you see it!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Happy Walkin' Bird Day From Your Friendly Neighborhood Trailblazer!

In anticipation of the coming Holiday, I figured I should post the best camera trap picture of a Walkin' Bird (Meleagris gallopavo) that I could ever hope to get.  Some students and I obtained this picture in the spring during a class exercise.  We didn't get any photos of hens on this occasion, so I'm assuming they were behind the camera.  This is the pose one would expect from a Tom on a greeting card for Thanksgiving (which is ironic, seeing that they usually adopt this posture in the spring, during the breeding season, and not in late November).

Also...have a look at this rafter (look it up :)  ).

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bucky, the Red-Tail and Others....

Mostly random stuff to post today....

I can't help but post another clip of the resident Badger (Taxidea taxus).  I just don't get them that often, so I get excited about any clip we get.

Then, another rarity, a raptor on the cams.  I have gotten Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) in the past (as well as a few other raptors, see here and here).  This is the first video clip, I think.

From what I can tell, this Red-tail appears to have nabbed something....

We still get some Canids, but they have become rare on this site lately....mostly becuase there has been an increase in human activity from the landowners.

I can't blame them at all for wanting to ride their ATVs on the property.  Plus, they are nice enough to let me use the land for my research, so I can't really complain.  Just a shame to see a real decline in the activity of some species on-site due to the ATVs....  Especially considering the the diversity I had seen on that tiny parcel prior to the ATVs (including Otters, Mink, Long-tailed Weasel, and Badgers).

Recently, we got a few fleeting shots of Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) and Coyotes (Canis latrans) on-site.  We hadn't seen either species since July, whereas the Red Fox in particular was a constant fixture in the previous two years.  We even had pups this spring, but shortly after the pups showed up, there was a real decrease in Canid activity on-site (which coincided with the greater ATV activity).

So, I was very happy to see some Canids on the cams this week, even if the Red Fox does look a little mangy....
Wil E. appears characteristically cautious....

There's also an impressive (but lazy-eyed) buck still occassionally running through the site.  He's also been pretty rare since the ATVs started moving around.  We now only see Bucks like this after there has been no ATV activity for a few days in a row. 

He's avoided the arrows so far (probably because he only appears to be active when its dark out, from what I can tell).  We'll see if he lasts the gun season.  Interestingly, I don't think he's one of the two bucks seen earlier in the year (see here).

That 18-pointer hasn't been back since the summer.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Bull in the Jar

I recently needed to access the specimen collection housed at a nearby University.

This collection has many specimens that are of historical importance.

As I was climbing up and down the ladder, looking through various jars, I happened to glance up and see the following tag.....

Peering back at me through the sheer wall of his eternal resting place, sat The Beast......

......a large Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), which is now a rather rare species in our neck of the woods.  In fact, it has likely been decades since one has existed on campus at the now urban university where this specimen is housed.

Although his clouded eye didn't see me, I couldn't help but smile at him.  It may seem strange to smile at the sight of a dead snake in a jar....and it is perhaps a shame that this once impressive critter ended up sitting in preservative on a shelf.

Yet, my smile was broad. 

Just imagining this large fella scaring the hell out of the inhabitants of the "men's dormitories" at the university over 80 years ago....one cannot help but chuckle.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Lucky Bucky Returns!

I've never gotten a good picture or video clip of a North American Badger (Taxidea taxus).

I've come close on two occassions (see here), but it's never quite been what I was hoping for.

FINALLY......at the same site where I got only a fleeting picture of one last year, we nabbed a good video clip of a Badger!

Other video clips at this spot, indicate that it overflow-eth with mice (Peromyscus sp.) and Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus), either of which would make a nice meal. 

How could a person NOT be fascinated with Badgers?  They're the complete package, for me: a mustelid, hard to camera trap (around here), ornery, and cute as hell.....

Wish I could give a more detailed post.....but was at The Wildlife Society's annual conference this week.  The conference was great (even got to hang out with Alyssa from Nature in a Nutshell and JVN from Backyard Beasts), but it put me way behind the 8-ball.

Yet, it had been so long since I posted anything, figured I better sneak something in!

Hope you all are well!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The End of the 2013 Herp Season Approach-eth....but there are still TURTLES!

The beginning of the semester sort of stinks.....

The collision of the field season and the school season means there isn't a free second.  We have three projects still in the active data-collection phase, which we are trying to coordinate schedules for....and everyone has class (students) or teaching/grading (me).

All of that will change sooner than we think, though.  We are in that time of the year when weather becomes highly variable.  Last week, for example, we had a high of 90 deg. F on Tuesday, and a high of 63 deg F on Friday.  This week we had two days in the mid-80s, while today it was in the mid-60s over the weekend.

That means Fall is coming, which also means the cold-blooded critters will be going down for the winter very soon.

So....thought I'd share some late-season "herpstuff".  Mostly a random conglomeration of neat things seen over the last few weeks.

Our 200-level Field Methods in Ecology class had their annual day of turtle trapping and marking (see here for last year's haul).  This year was another great one.  By luck, we got to take advantage of the last few good days left for trapping before the turtles started to focus on hibernation (and, thus, aren't as attracted to bait). 

We set traps out for two days straight.  Day 1 yielded some nice little Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)........

........ and of course some nice Common (northern) Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina).


On Day 2, however, our traps were nearly exploding with turtles! 

A ton more Paints....

.....no Snaps (suprisingly)...BUT...a much rarer find: a Blanding's Turtle! (Emydoidea blandingii). 
Photo courtesy of T. Gotrik
In three years of trapping this location, we've never caught a Blanding's Turtle before.....

We also trap the nearby creek...and this year got another first: a Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apolone spinifera).
Photo courtesy of T. Gotrik

The students were pretty excited (and so was I).  In the end, we caught 26 Paints, 2 Snaps, 1 Blanding's Turtle and 1 Spiny Softshell.

Enough turtles for everybody to be able hold at least one in a group photo!
Photo courtesy of T. Gotrik

The students worked hard and enjoyed themselves....even when hip waders weren't quite enough to keep them dry....

OH...and it's the time of year when salamanders are migrating from their summer ponds, to where they will spend the winter.

As we found out when checking our drift fences recently.....
Tiger Salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum).
Photo courtesy of N. Rudolph

Blue-spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma laterale)
Photo courtesy of N. Rudolph

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Holy 18-Point Buck, Batman!!

I had to sneak this one in quick.....

Two impressive animals on the cameras.

The first one would make most hunters drool.....

The second one, however, would probably give the average hunter a heart attack, if they saw it from a deer stand.


Despite the title of this blog post, I'm honestly not sure how many points this one has.  I count anywhere from 16 to 18, depending on the picture. 

Here are more....he's still in velvet, by the way.


This is the same site where I've been getting these nice bucks on camera year after year (see here, here, and here).  I will point out that we have a plethora of Coyotes on this same site.  There is also a fair number of hunters in the general area, and the property in-question is hunted. 

Still...every year I get these massive bucks on my camera traps, although the pictures are always in the middle of the night.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Sneaky Bob

Bobcats (Lynx rufus) are a somewhat tricky lot to camera trap around here. 

They aren't really found in the southern part of our fine state, which is where I spend most of my time.  Further north the ol' Bob-tailed Cat becomes more common, but still doesn't exist in very high densities (at least compared to other frequently cam-trapped critters). 

Much like many Felines, they are also very secretive and sneaky.  Slinking quietly through an area, leaving little evidence of their passing, unless one is lucky enough to find some tracks.

But we finally caught up with this Sneaky Bob!

Earlier in the Spring, the students on the wolf project had a few quick glimpses.

You have to watch this first video clip in its entirety....he/she doesn't show up until the very end....off to the far right.

In this second video clip, which is several minutes after the one above, we basically get a second.  The 'cat is now on the far left and appears to be spraying a stump before moseying on.

In late July, however, we got a better clip of Sneaky Bob.

I haven't put alot of thought into it, but I do wonder why this species doesn't take to the more populated areas in the southern part of our state?  Especially considering that out west they have acclimated to urban edges in parts of California (e.g., Santa Monica), Colorado, Arizona, and Texas.

I suspect these urban 'cats have access to some pretty rugged habitat immediately adjacent to the edge of Santa Monica (for example), which makes crossing over into the urban sphere pretty easy.  At the same time, we have lots of rural and sparsely populated areas 'round here.  Lots of "green space" and public natural areas....seems like there would be plenty access to the more southern parts of the state. 

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that some of the states listed above have more arid environments.  Thus, the 'cats are drawn into the well-watered greenspaces/lawns (and associated rodents) in urban areas.  We aren't as dry here, but neither is Dallas/Fort Worth, and Bobcats apparently end up there.

Perhaps its only a matter of time?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Frenetic Mustelid

I've been cam-trapping this property for about two years.  Just when I think I've got a very complete inventory of the species on-site, I get a surprise!

As we poured through the video footage from our cameras on-site, we saw this (from July 29th).... You may have to "maximize" the clip to see the critter.  It's sort of in the lower right of the frame and you can see the eye-shine in the shrubs a few seconds later.

...and this....(same date, lower left-hand corner now).....

Looks "weaselly" to me.  This also wasn't far from where I found Poor Ol' Slim dead on the road earlier in the summer.  So...weasels are a real possibility on-site.

There are also gillions of Eastern Cottontail clips (Sylvilagus floridanus), including babies, from this exact camera set.  They often move in and out of the shrubs where the weasel went.  I was desperately hoping for an awesome predation event on camera, but alas....it was not to be.

These clips were pretty cool, but the weasel only makes a brief appearance in each of them.

So, I was incredibly thrilled to see this video clip from July 31st.  Different camera on the same site.

I'm going with a Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata) on the ID for this critter.  The tail appears to be at least 1/3 or greater of the total body length (you might have to maximize the clip size to see it).  The length of the tail suggests M. frenata.  If correct, this would be a different species than Ol' Slim, which I think was the Short-tailed Weasel M. erminea.

Weasels are always tough for me to get pics or vids of.  It's only happened once or twice before (see a previous post).  Having never seen any evidence of them on-site after about two years (no tracks in the snow nor other camera pics), I had given up on them for this property.

I guess....if nothing else....it really shows the importance of being patient and acquiring a long-term dataset when cam-trapping!

Friday, August 2, 2013

"The Timber Wolves Will Be Our Friends...."

"The Timber Wolves will be our friends,
We'll stay up late and howl,
At the moon 'til nighttime ends,
Before going on the prowl."

-Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes)

The Wolf project has been going well this summer.  My students have seen some incredible stuff while out conducting the field work.  They've also picked up some great video clips.

Below is  recent example....

This is such a nice bit of video footage.  Not only does it give a perfect glimpse of the Wolf, it gives a clear look at how the tail is held.  Note how straight that tail is out behind the body....not drooping down at all, as one might expect from a Coyote. 

The little poem by Bill Watterson at the top is sort of silly, but still great.  It simply, yet eloquently encapsulates how one should feel about seeing a critter like a wolf.  As a wildlife biologist, few other species embody that visceral feeling of "wilderness" as do the Wolf and (for me) the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).

Enjoy!  My students have worked hard all summer for clips like this!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

More Box Turtle Stories? Not Quite!

I had mentioned at the end of my recent Turtle Dog post, that there would be more box turtle stories to share.  Figured it was about time!

Earlier in the summer my students and I had another opportunity to work with our state regulatory agency to conduct some rare reptile surveys.

This time, however, we would not be fortunate enough to have Turtle Dogs along to help.  Instead we had a lot of humans, which we got together in a coordinated fashion to "pound the ground" looking for turtles. 

Thus, we all met at a completely different site than the ones we had worked previously.

After a brief organizational meeting and a run-through of our objectives (find as many turtles as possible), we set to our task.  The habitats we would be working in were very cool...including some beautifully well-managed oak savanna....
High-quality oak savanna habitat is something of a rarity these days.  The primary reason for the loss of such habitat is its conversion to agriculture and urban/suburban development.  But, there's still more that threatens oak savanna and prairie habitat: uncontrolled vegetative succession
What is succession, you ask?
I'll have to keep this somewhat simple, to avoid making this post too long.  So, I'll briefly define succession as the directional change of a plant community from an early community of species that establish immediately after disturbance to a final community of species that are superior competitors. 
The community that establishes immediately after a disturbance (such as a fire, or heavy grazing) is called a Pioneer Community.  Pioneer communities usually consist of colonizing species that have specific characteristics. 
  • They are often small annual species, and ones we might consider "weedy"
  • They can generally handle harsh conditions (high light intensity, high heat, low moisture)
  • Their seeds are often dispersed by wind
  • They are easily out-competed by later successional species.
  • They reach sexual maturity quickly.  In this way they can quickly reproduce and disseminate their seeds to adjacent disturbed habitats before the later successional species (which are theoretically superior competitors) move in and push them out.
Eventually, other species, that perhaps grow taller (e.g., shrubs) enter the area....shade out the pioneers and change the species structure within the community.  An example would be a mowed field that is left untouched for years eventually growing in with shrubby vegetation.
In theory, successional change will continue to occur (i.e., the plant communities will progress from pioneer to climax) if no further disturbance happens.  Thus, over time this community will eventually change from a pioneer to a Climax Community.  The climax community is the final community an area can achieve post-disturbance....in other words, these species are the best competitors and will not allow new species to come in, out-compete them and replace them. The plant species in Climax Communities have the following characteristics:
  • They are usually larger as adults and shade-out competitors (e.g., trees)
  • They are often slow to mature
  • They have shade-tolerant seedlings
  • Their seeds are dispersed by gravity or seed-dispersers, such as birds 
Image Source: http://faculty.ycp.edu
One last important point: Although successional change is directional (i.e., moving from Pioneer to Climax Community) if a new disturbance happens, the community undergoing succession can be knocked back to its pioneer community (or some earlier successional state).
So, how does the concept of succession relate to the previously mentioned oak savanna?  Well, although too much disturbance is obviously a bad thing, not enough natural disturbance can be bad as well.  Habitats like prairies and savannas typically have a vegetation community that is in an earlier successional state when compared to woodland.  Thus, these habitats are dependent upon natural disturbance to persist.  Usually this disturbance comes in the form of natural fire or moderate levels of grazing/browsing by herbivores.  What this means is that even if a prairie or savanna parcel is protected from development, it must be properly managed or succession will occur until the parcel is no longer comprised of savanna.  So, legally protecting land is only half of the battle.  It is necessary to have the means and resources to effectively manage the prairie and savanna to keep it in an earlier successional state.  The typical management practices used on savanna and prairie include mowing, hand removal of vegetation (chainsaws, etc.), herbicide applications, and purposely starting (controlled) fires.
WHEW!  Sorry about the wordiness of this post!
Anyhoo...back to the story.....
The site we were surveying in had received appropriate management to maintain savannas.  For example, you can see the limited understory vegetation, yet mature trees, in the picture below.  This occurs because a controlled fire was used to kill back much of the small vegetation.  The large trees, however, are resilient to low-intensity fire and so they persist.  Management of this habitat is designed to keep the community in an earlier successional state in a way that specifically promotes oak savanna.

Interestingly.......this post about "Box Turtle Stories" doesn't have much ado about Box Turtles!

Not for lack of trying, however.

There were at least 18 individuals surveying at one point during the day.  We went over and back over locations on-site that exhibited evidence of box turtles.  The oak savanna habitats were surveyed intensively, as were the more open grassland/prairie type habitats (note the prairie below is starting to grow in with more woody vegetation, i.e., succession is occurring!).

Some of the strongest evidence to suggest box turtles are around is the presence of fresh "forms" in the ground.  These are shallow burrows that the turtles dig in the ground for short-term respite from unfavorable conditions, or to sleep in at night. These forms usually don't go back very far, and they are shaped sort of like the profile of a box turtle shell.  We found plenty of fresh forms on-site during our surveys (see below), so we knew box turtles were active in the area.

One would think that 18 competent surveyors vs. a slow-moving innocuous reptile would be a contest stacked heavily in favor of the humans.

You'd be wrong!

Despite the fact that we knew there were box turtles in the area, and found fresh evidence of them when we arrived, not a single box turtle did we see!!

We DID find other reptiles (one of which was possibly even better than finding a box turtle.....more to come).  For example, we found several beautiful Smooth Greensnakes (Opheodrys vernalis).

This species is mostly insectivorous (eats insects) and prefers the shrubby edges adjacent to grassland/prairie, as in the picture below.

Let me tell you, there are few species that are harder to find than a green-colored snake that hangs out in the grass!

We also found a nice little juvenile Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos).  Note the upturned scale on the tip of the rostrum (or "nose").  This gives them the appearance of having a "nose" similar to a hog....or that's how it appeared to the person that named them!

But those weren't even the best finds that day!

Looks like a snake, doesn't it?

It's not a snake, although it is a reptile....and it is in a closely related group: the lizards.  Snakes and lizards are both in the taxonomic Order Squamata, while snakes are in the Sub-Order Serpentes.....the lizards are in the Sub-Order Lacertilia.

What we have here is a leg-less lizard....the Western Slender Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus attenuatus attenuatus).  An incredibly rare find in our neck o' the woods!

So, how can we tell this is a lizard?  Superficially, it looks just like a snake.  Yet, there are certain clues that belie this critter's ancestry....

First, all lizards have a hole on each side of the head, which is essentially an ear opening.  Snakes have no external ear-opening.

See the hole circled in red below?  You have to look carefully!

Lizards also have movable eyelids, something that snakes don't possess.  In other words: lizards can blink.  Obviously, I can't show you moving eyelids in still photos, so you'll have to trust me that these lizards can blink!

There are other differences too, but this is good enough for the current blog post.

These interesting little critters are not only hard to find, they are hard to catch.  At certain times of year (such as late spring) they have a tendency to sit concealed in the thatch of short grasses.  This provides them with cover and allows them to still soak up the sun.  It also makes them incredibly difficult to find.  Usually one only sees these lizards if they are almost stepped on, which prompts them to make a quick break for it.  The motion gives them away and they can be located.

In addition to their cryptic nature, there are two other difficulties a glass lizard surveyor must deal with: (1) they are incredibly fast, (2) they have the ability to perform caudal autotomy (i.e., break off their own tails when captured).  Why?  The tail, after separated from the body, continues to thrash and twitch....presumably to distract the predator and allow the lizard to escape.  The ability to break off pieces of their body is also apparently the origin of the name "glass" lizard.

We don't want them to loose their tails if they don't have to.  The tail takes a while to regenerate.  Better if they use that strategy when it really counts (i.e., avoiding a real predator).  Yet, if one is incredibly gentle when capturing and handling the lizard, they are much less-likely to drop their tails.

So, capturing glass lizards requires a quick, but careful, response.

We actually found a fair number of glass lizards, which was even better!

I tried to explain to my students that I had seen less than five of these lizards in my entire life up to that point.  On that day, we found 10!!!

On at least one occasion, there were two right next to each other......

...and so ended our second effort at finding box turtles.  Although not a box turtle was found, we still got some great wildlife captures!

There's still one more small box turtle story to tell, but I'll save that for a later date.