Thursday, January 24, 2013

"Wolves which batten upon lambs...."

"Wolves which batten upon lambs, lambs consumed by wolves, the strong who immolate the weak, the weak victims of the strong: there you have Nature, there you have her intentions, there you have her scheme: a perpetual action and reaction, a host of vices, a host of virtues, in one word, a perfect equilibrium resulting from the equality of good and evil on earth."

-Marquis De Sade


Wolves sniffing....
From Mech and Boitana (2003):  "Inside the nose of the dog, and presumably the wolf, the surface containing the olfactory receptors is much enlarged by extensive folding suported by a thin, bony structure (Hare 1975). This feature accomodates an estimated 280 million olfactory receptors, more than the number of visual receptors in the retina (Wieland 1938, cited in Moulton 1967)."

Wolves loping....
From Mech and Boitani (2003): "Wolves usually travel at a lope.  Since they are narrow-chested, and since their elbows are turned inward and their feet outward (Iljin 1941; Young and Goldman 1944), they put their feet one almost directly in front of the other as they walk.  They can maintain this tireless gait for hours at a rate of about 8-9 km/hr [4.9-5.6 mph, TB] (Burkholder 1959; Mech 1966, 1994......."

Coyotes risking....

Wolves searching for the next one they shall "immolate"....
From Mech and Boitani (2003):  "Reports of wolves killing coyotes are common (Seton 1929; Young and Goldman 1944; Munro 1947; Stenlund 1955; Carbyn 1982; Paquet 1991; Thurber et al. 1992).....By July 2001, at least twenty-seven coyotes had been killed by wolves in YNP [Yellowstone National Park-TB], eighteen (67%) near wolf kills when coyotes approached to scavenge.  There are no reported cases of coyotes killing wolves."

These video clips were taken during an ongoing student project initiated in January.  I hope to have many more videos and pictures of Wolves (Canis lupus) to share with you.  As for the direct quotes....I figure....what better voices to hear of wolves from than those of experts and poets?

Literature Cited:

Burkholder, B.L. 1959. Movements and behavior of a wolf pack in Alaska. Journal of Wildlife Management 23:1-11.

Carbyn, L.N. 1982. Coyote population fluctuations and spatial distribution in relation to wolf territories in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba. Canadian Field Naturalist 96:176-183.

Hare, W.C.D. 1975. Carinvore respiratory system. Pp. 1559-1575 in Sisson and Grossman's The Anatomy of the Domestic Animals, 5th edition (R. Getty, ed.). W.B. Saunders.

Iljin, N.A. 1941. Wolf-dog genetics. Journal of Genetics 42:359-414.

Mech, L.D. 1966. The wolves of Isle Royale. U.S. National Park Service Fauna Series, no. 7. U.S. Government Printing Office.

Mech, L.D. 1994. Regular and homeward travel speeds of wolves. Journal of Mammalogy 75: 741-742.

Mech, L.D. and L. Boitani (eds.). 2003. Wolves: behavior, ecology and conservation. University of Chicago Press.

Moulton, D.G. 1967. Olfaction in mammals. American Zoologist 7:421-429.

Munro, J.A. 1947. Observations of birds and mammals in central British Columbia. Occassional Papers of the British Columbia Provincial Museum no. 6.

Paquet, P.C., 1991. Winter spatial relationships of wolves and coyotes in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba. Journal of Mammalogy 72:397-401.

Seton, E.T. 1929. Lives of game animals. Vol. 1: Cats, wolves and foxes. Doubleday, Doran and Co.

Stenlund, M.H. 1955. A field study of the timber wolf (Canis lupus) in the Superior National Forest, Minnesota. Technical Bulletin no. 4. Minnesota Department of Conservation, Minneapolis.

Thurber, J.M., R.O. Peterson, J.D. Woolington, and J.A. Vucetich. 1992. Coyote coexistance with wolves on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. Canadian Journal of Zoology 70:2494-2498.

Young, S.P., and E.A. Goldman. 1944. The wolves of North America. American Wildlife Institute.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Getting Rid of the Winter Blues: 2013 Edition

The time has come again.  The annual ice fishing trip with my high school buddies, which always occurs in January.  I've posted about this trip in the past (see here).  It's a great time, filled with laughs, reminiscing....and food (lots and lots of food). Our friend, Nate, is an outstanding wild-game chef...and we are spoiled by his cooking throughout the weekend.  It's always a trip to look forward to.

This year was a strange one, from a standpoint of local climate.  We are accustomed to very cold temperatures (-20 to -40 F is not uncommon) and lots of snow. 

Justin and I arrived at the cabin early on Friday to a very different state of affairs.
Above: Justin assesses the situation on the ice (note the shorts and sandals)

Temperatures were in the mid-40s....the snow was melting, or had melted, and there was slush on what ice remained over the lake.  Shorts and t-shirts were tolerable least for a half-hour or so....and then they were only mildly uncomfortable.  But...regardless...there was work to do.  First, the tip-ups (an important bit of ice fishing gear) had to be gathered for deployment. 

Typically, Nate checks all the gear over before we schlep it out onto the ice, but he and the others wouldn't be arriving for several hours.  So, Justin and I got to work drilling holes in the ice and setting out some of the tip-ups.

We also took some time to get a few camera traps hung in the woods.  I had three available for the task.  It's a fun endeavor and based on tracks observed during past trips I know there are weasels, fishers, fox, and bobcats in the area.  There's also Wolves that pass through, although they don't exist in as high of densities there as in other parts of the state.

But there was a lot working against the success of the cameras I set out.  For example, the short time frame (2 to 3 nights, at maximum).  Then, there's the typically harsh weather....which can result in some critters not moving quite as frequently.  Also, with such large areas of undeveloped land, there's a lot of space for critters to roam.  Thus, they are not concentrated on small patches of suitable habitat, as they are in the more developed and agriculture-dominated landscapes further south.  Finally, there's the fact that I don't want to tresspass and have a limited amount of land available to hang cameras in.

Yet, half of the fun is finding spots and hanging cameras.
Above: deploying camera traps.  Note the lite long-sleeved shirt and muck boots (not snow boots). 
It was warm out there!

I decided to pull out all of the stops again this year.  I brought some scent lures, Fox urine and Beaver castor, and an electronic predator caller to deploy with one of the cameras.  We also had ample minnows (fishing bait) to put in front of the cams.
Above: "Let ME come to IT" instructed Andy when I asked if he wanted to smell fox urine. 
Apparently, there was concern I would shove it in his face.  When have I ever...?!

I've always had a soft spot for any members of the family Mustelidae (the weasels, otters, badgers, mink, etc.).  So I always try and find spots for weasels or fishers on-site.  I've seen their tracks in several of our past years at this location and this year was no different.
Above two pictures: notice the size of the tracks...I'm guessing either a Long-tailed or Short-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata or M. erminea).  Also notice the "dumb-bell" pattern in the trail in the second picture,
created by the weasel's bounding gait.

So, the presence of the weasel tracks confirmed that our first camera location was good.  This set was located on a sort of peninsula separating the lake from a small backwater wetland area.  I hung the camera on a tree about where two breaks occurred in the trees/shrubs, creating easy paths that crossed between the wetland and the lake's edge.  Although I didn't see a large number of tracks...the snow was melting everywhere and I figured it was still a natural corridor.  This spot got a dab of beaver castor, smeared on a bit of alpaca wool (for a visual attractant) and a few dead minnows as bait.
Above: camera 1 location, facing the backwater wetland (past the shrubs in the current field of view)

The second location was along the dirt road heading out to the cabin.  The cabin itself is on another large peninsula and there is very little vehicle traffic on the road.  I always see lots of tracks here and can't resist mounting a camera.  This spot received a combination of beaver Castor, fox urine and some minnows.
Above: camera 2 location along the dirt road

The last location was selected based on seeing many tracks in the snow covering the lake in previous years (usually near our fishing holes).  I always find fox tracks and see the minnows we have accidentally dropped on the ice getting chewed up by morning.  Yet, in the past there has been a constant string of snow mobiles on the lake.  These make me nervous.  I worry that any camera I leave on the ice will be stolen or run-over. 

This year, however, the slushy conditions on the lake were not conducive to snow mobiles.  So I felt comfortable enough to put a camera on the ice (strapped to an over-turned 5-gallon pail).  I also strapped the speaker for the electronic predator caller on this bucket.  The remote control had a range of over 50 yards and I was able to stand on the porch of the cabin and trigger sounds day or night (usually rabbit in distress or a coyote howl).  This set also received a bit of fox urine and some bait minnows.
Above: Camera 3 location on day 2.  Resting on the ice facing the nearby shore.

It was not long before the others arrived.  Nate went through the remaining fishing gear to insure things were in working order.
Above: Nate gives the gear a once over, while Justin helps (apparently)

At roughly 9:30 pm that night....our first fish was caught: a very nice walleye.  Not sure why I didn't get a picture of it!  But, then the weather grew even more unfriendly, and it misted/rained for most of the evening.  This made the conditions on the ice even sloppier. 

The next morning we awoke to a total slushy mess.  There was still 8 to 10 inches of ice over the lake, so it was completely safe.  But on top of that ice was a mix of ankle-deep water and melting snow.  I quickly discovered it was actually better to wear my muck boots than my snow boots as we drilled holes and deployed the remaining tip-ups.
Above: Justin, Nate and Chad hope for better ice conditions during Day 1 of the trip

That first full-day produced nothing but a few stolen minnows, an average-sized Northern Pike, and a very small walleye (that was promptly returned to the water). Furthermore, the strange weather conditions continued.  Over the course of the day, the temperature made complete 180 degree turn and dropped from the 40s down into the teens by that evening.  And so it was that we spent the second night waiting....playing Scrabble and cribbage....hoping for better luck on day two.
Above: Andy, Chad, Nate and Dan spend a quiet evening over the Scrabble board

The sun rose on a very frigid second morning (hovering around 10 degrees F).  The slush upon the ice had frozen into a solid, smooth sheen that was treacherous to walk over.  With the drop in temperature, the ice on the lake started to thicken.  This resulted in a spectacular (and intimidating) sound that occurs when ice forms over a large area, like a lake.  As the ice expands, which happens with extreme temperature changes, stress cracks can occur across existing ice over a lake.  Because these stress cracks are transmitted and resonate through the ice, they can sound like a loud "boom".  Although it can be unnerving, it doesn't necessarily mean the ice is dangerous.....this sound is a result of the ice thickening, in this case.  It is an awesome sound.

So....we started the day by deploying our equipment as the lake sang around us.

We re-drilled our holes and set our tip-ups out again.....
Above: Andy and Dan re-setting one of the tip-ups.

Because of the cold conditions, we had to frequently re-check our setups throughout the day.  It was often necessary to remove new ice that formed in our hole around our tip-ups....and re-bait hooks that were robbed of their minnows by hungry fish.
Above: Chad breaks the ice away that has formed in the hole under a tip-up

After a few missed opportunities....finally....success!  A 25" Northern Pike (Esox lucius)!
Later that day, a flag from one of our tip-ups popped.  We threw on our gear and trudged out over the ice to assess the situation.  I happened to arrive first and saw that the line was going out quickly.  Not wanting to scare the fish, I carefully lifted the tip-up and handed it to Justin, who kept the lined spooled in as I quickly jerked the line to set the hook.  At that point, I began to gingerly draw the fish up towards the hole in the ice.....but he would have none of it.  On at least seven or eight occasions, we got the fish near the hole only to have it turn and run.  We always allowed it to do so.....hoping the fish would tire and be easier to pull through the ice, but it never seemed to happen.  It even once tangled into line on an adjacent tip-up!

Finally, it seemed as if we were starting to win the battle.  I could barely make out the end of the line coming up through the dark water.  The snow on the ice had melted so we were able to see through into the water below.  Chad was next to me as we got our first glimpse of the fish...and what a glimpse it was!  As the fish flashed its broad-side up towards us, there was no doubt.  It was a Muskellunge....a Muskie......the dragon of the inland waters! 
A Muskie (Esox masquinongy);
Photo Source: Sport Fishing Americas

The Muskie is a relative of the Northern Pike, but can grow to massive sizes.
Photo source: Outdoor Life Blogs

We later "guestimated" that it was 35-40".....nowhere near a size worth bragging about.....but that didn't diminish my excitement.  It would be the first Muskie I'd ever caught.  I've had one or two on the line in the past (accidentally hooked them while fishing for Northern Pike), and never landed one. 

After getting the fish close, however, it reminded me of my naivete.  He rolled to his side and turned his giant baleful eye towards me through the hole in the ice, looking more like a mythical beast than a fish. 

He apparently did not like what he saw.

With one lazy shake of his head, the line snapped and he was gone.  The tip-ups we had deployed were not geared towards catching Muskie.  But at least we went away with a good story to tell!

The rest of the day was a lazy one......
Above: Justin and Chad show us how to relax around the fire

And all too soon the next day was upon us and it was time to say farewell to the cabin for another year.

Unfortunately, all of my efforts with the camera traps yielded no wildlife!  The strange weather and short time-frame are all I can blame.  This was very similar to my camera haul last year at the cabin.

Camera one didn't take a single picture of anything but me.....

Camera two snapped a few pics of Hank (Nate's dog).

It's possible that Hank played a small role in the lack of success on camera three.

Watch the time stamp and know that I have a pile of bait minnows in front of this camera.

Bad dog, Hank!  :)

And so our time at the cabin ended for the 2013 ice-fishing season. 

We always (always) have a good time, regardless of how many fish we catch or pics of wildlife I get on my cameras.....and I already can hardly wait until next year.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Birthday Otter Returns?

I had to pull two of my research cams today and brought my daughter with.  Figured I could pull her in the sled from camera to camera and then we'd sled down one of the hills nearby.

The first order of business was to find the cameras.  I try to encourage her to walk ahead and tell me what she can see.  Often she identifies "deer poop" and the occassional track.

Today, she found my camera for me ;)

It also appears that some of our residents have continued moving about, despite the snow.

This includes the remaining Brute....whom survived the hunting season for yet another year.

...and, of course, The Todd still graces us with his presence every now and then.....

Today, however, as I pulled my daughter in the sled to the top of a hill near the cameras.....I happened to look down and see (what I'm almost certain are) otter tracks!  Comments on ID welcome!

It's the same high and dry site where I got a picture of the birthday otter in early December.  These tracks are heading in the opposite direction of the one I got on the cam trap before.

Perhaps a return trip?

There are so many fox and coyote tracks's always a possibility that I've mis-identified these.  Furthermore, the snow is melting...which distorts the tracks and makes them look strange.  Than there's the fact that the toes on Canine tracks in snow are more spread out than in hard mud (which could give the impression of otter toes sometimes).   But I'm pretty sure I see a fifth toe on both of these tracks above, webbing depression, and an elongated inter-digital pad.  Also these tracks were fresh...not melted Canine tracks.  Unfortunately, gaits were hard to make out, due to the snow melt.  I quickly lost the trail in the melted patches.

The pics above really look like otter tracks.  The ones below (which were the obvious next tracks in the trail) give me pause.  There still looks like a dragging depression where that fifth toe might have come down and was lifted when the animal moved forward (right side of the track).  Looks like a long inter-digital pad as well.

The one below has nice spread-out toes like an otter track and apparent webbing, but no fifth toe....

Eventually the patience that a 4 year old has with looking at holes in the snow wanes (even a 4 year old that likes animals). 

So, we got down to the activities that we had really set out to do.....

Monday, January 7, 2013

Phenology 2013: The Great One Calls

Photo by C. Weimar

Today (January 7th), as I went on a forced walk in a futile effort to undue the damage of the Holidays, I heard my first Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) call of the year.  I had heard them calling in the woods behind the house at roughly this time last year, as well.

Great Horned Owls have a fairly early calling/nesting season here in the upper Midwest.  The Phenology calendar for our state indicates that courtship activities for this species begins around January 30th.  The Department of Natural Resources suggests that calling individuals can be heard from late November through December and January. 

Nesting is also a very early affair for this species.  In fact, my friend Bill over at The Future of Birds once told me that it's not unheard of for females to incubate eggs with a thin layer of snow covering their heads and shoulders!  Stout (2008) reported an average egg-laying date of February 7th for various monitored nests from 2002-2005. He also reported average hatching dates to be March 12th.

Yet, this is not the earliest known report for this species, from our neck of the woods.

Again, Stout (2008) has the honor.  He details a nesting pair observed copulating on December 22nd (2007) and then observed one of these incubating eggs on January 1, 2008 (estimated clutch initiation of December 29th)!  At another location in the same year, he also reported eggs observed in a nest on January 8th.

This is the earliest reported and confirmed nesting activity for Great Horned Owls in our state (by over 20 days!).

Both nesting locations that Stout observed were in relatively warm and protected micro-climates, and both were in anthropogenically altered landscapes (one located in a cemetary, the other associated with a power plant).  He suggests the protected nature of the nesting sites may have encourage these early egg-laying dates.

Photo by C. Weimar

The Great Horned Owl is known to occupy tree cavities for nesting, but will very often take-over abandoned nests of other species (such as Red-Tailed Hawks, Herons and Crows).  Interestingly, Stout postulates that prior to extensive logging in our region, this species may have had larger trees (with larger tree cavities) available to nest in.  Such large cavity nesting sites may have been traditionally preferred by Great Horned Owls over the abondoned nests of other species.  Because sites within such tree cavities were likely more sheltered than an abandoned hawk nest, Stout suggests that very early nesting dates may have historically been the norm for this species.  Yet as the original forests were logged from the landscape, so to were all of those large trees and nice nesting cavities.....and the owls were forced to adapt. 

It's always fascinating (and alittle depressing) to think about how the wild critters carried on before our arrival....and how massively different things must have been.

Regardless, I was happy to hear the Great Ones calling again this year.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Stroll Atop the Snow.....

I'm not sure how it's possible that I've had less time for blogging AFTER the semester ended....but that's the way it goes. 

I do have one small anecdote to share with you all.  Last Sunday, a student and I pulled all of my cameras at one study site and relocated most of them.  He took several of the cameras for a double-secret project that I hope to share cool pictures from soon (assuming it works out the way we intended).

As we pushed through the snow, moving from one camera location to the next, we continually came across both Coyote (Canis latrans) and Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) tracks.  See the example of some Coyote tracks below, and notice how spread out the toes appear. 

These canine trails consistently gave me reason to smirk.  Here we were, large and cumbersome primates, trudging our way through the shin-deep snow drifts....and getting pretty tired for it.  

Ol' Wil E., on the other hand, was able to take a more effecient route: walking on top of the snow....weight apparently spread out just right so as not to punch through the upper crust of the drift.

In all three of the pictures below, you can see the Coyote tracks on top of the snow in the foreground, while ours (as well as tracks of numerous deer) created deep tread marks in the background.

I guess that digitigrade stance pays off in a number of ways!

Hopefully more wildlife picture and stories in the future once I catch my breath.