Saturday, December 19, 2009

moving forward

I am pleased to announce that some of our grant money has been reissued and the project is beginning to find an avenue to move towards success again.
I had a fantastic meeting with Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit #5 staff yesterday. We will begin planning on how to recruit science educators to help write the accompanying curricula to go with the coyote documentary. We meet again in April.
Telemetry continues to be done several times per week, and I simply cannot wait to catch up with what Carrie has been finding lately. She has some preliminary results of the dietary study, and has some additional lab work to complete which I hope to participate in.
There has been an observation of coyotes driving a deer into the lake (to no avail, I might add), and then tending to a packmate with a broken leg. Special thanks to the Park Rangers, who continue to report these things to us.
We have submitted for additional grant funding for Environmental Education, and have a very long list of granting agencies to inquire with. Due to grant timelines, specifically the time lapse that takes place between the actual proposal submittal and when funding is released, we will become quite aggressive in tracking down potential funding sources. The project simply cannot be put on hold indefinitely as the field research will go on regardless of the film production. It simply must: as battery life on the radio collars is a few years at best.
We also will be continuing to partner with one of our funding organizations, who will have an exciting addition in helping our efforts. Check back here in January for this exciting announcement.

Monday, October 5, 2009

5 October 2009

Unfortunately, the coyote project has been put on hold due to lack of funds as of August 1st. Please check back with us soon. We are dedicated to this production, and will continue to search for grants elsewhere.

Monday, July 20, 2009

20 July 2009

A pale sickle clings to the bottom of a black orb. A veil of clouds shrouds the blushing horizon. It is possibly one of the quietest mornings of the summer, only the whip-poor-will sings in the distance.
It is quite dark, and my mind wanders to a similar morning ten years ago when I was startled from my concentration by two coyotes down the trail. It was clear they saw my approach and alerted everyone. The coyote's bark is one that is very different from a domestic dog. There is clearly urgency and fear in the coyote's voice.
The grasses are long, and I cannot walk in silence. And then I hear him: woof, woof. First low and quiet as if he's unsure of himself. I stop, turn on the camera and record the panic of barking to come. I can see his white chest only 30 yards or so down the trail. He's frantically trying to communicate danger to someone. After about 5 minutes he disappears in the shrubs nearby. I take the opportunity to set the camera down, point the microphone in the right direction, and pull my hood over my face to mask my white skin. He continues on and on--complaining of my presence.
His absence gives me an opportunity. I advance and force the tripod legs into the bramble. The tiniest bit of light breaks through the darkness. I can see three times as far now. As I settle in, he reappears on the trail: barking, barking, barking. But he does not see me, and he cannot smell me either. He advances, trying to ascertain where I've disappeared. Up over the ridge? No. Further still? No. Closer? Yes, but where?
His show goes on for about 40 minutes, until he finally gives up with a final two barks.

Friday, July 10, 2009

10 July 2009

The trees are alive with the celebratory song of birds. A feast! The Cardinal declares it so. Red translucent gems cling to dense undergrowth. They're all here: the catbird, waxwing, robin, flicker, blackbird, and towhee. Juvenile robins cling close to one another, and waves of blackbirds move through the grass as the wind. The time is now to take it in--as we have now passed midsummer and are on the downside of summer. Gorge yourselves now, fall will be here before you know it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

8 July 2009

The drive in is dark--the moon veiled by thick storm clouds. Something small on the side of the road hesitates to take cover, and as I approach it's identity becomes clear. It is a miniature version of a coyote: one of this year's pups. He's probably no bigger than a large house cat. At least he takes cover as my headlights get closer.
The moon's brilliance breaks through the clouds. A trio of Whip-poor-wills serenades my hike into the darkness, and the mosquitos descend by the millions. As I settle my camera and gear into the Bayberry, an Eastern Towhee and Whip-poor-will sing the moon to sleep. It is dark again.
You know that feeling you get when you know you're being watched? Well, I look to my left to see a coyote watching me. Clearly, he can't figure out what I am. He changes his position, half-heartedly sniffs the ground and stares again. It is far too dark to film anything. Perhaps this coyote followed me in on the trail--they do that being curious about people. Finally, something triggers the alarm and he runs for cover. Eh, wishing I had a night vision lens.
I wait patiently as the sun rises and the long shadows shrink. Nothing but a rabbit.
Undulating screams burst from the thick undergrowth behind me. Adult coyotes steady out the song--it's either breakfast or nap time.

Monday, July 6, 2009

6 July 2009

I am blessed with yet another cool morning. The Whip-poor-will is still singing--perhaps he enjoys this weather too. For the past three mornings there has been an almost raspy cry coming from high in the trees. It's almost hawk-like. As I work my way through the sub-climax forest I'm sure I'll see who's voice this is. A silhouette reveals an ear-less owl. He shrieks again, turns to look at me, and silently flies to another post. I continue on my way. I can only guess a Barred owl based on the size and shape--though I've never heard them cry this way. Only the 'who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?' typical inquiry.
Dew helps collect sand on my pant legs. There is no wind.
This trail has seemingly eroded over the past ten years. If something short like a coyote were to walk by, it would surely be hidden by the tall grasses lining the trail. I sit in the field anyway and hope someone will decide to use the dune across from me. A pair of chickadees work a nearby pine. Sparrows visit a clump of bayberry with pieces of grass dangling from their beaks. Surely they're finding a place to call home.
Hours pass and I decide to quit. Upon returning to the trail I find it riddled with what are certainly puppy tracks. The gait is smaller, and the foot as well. When they were here I cannot be sure--but there was rain last night which wiped the trail clean. I'm thankful that they are still here, and hope to have luck again tomorrow.

5 July 2009

I return to find the previous morning's breakfast missing. I hope that someone came back for it. As at least one of yesterday's coyotes found me out I shift position again. Further, further now down the trail. I push through some spindly small trees and one branch pushes back a little too hard. I look up to see a coyote staring me down--only for a moment--then he dissolves into the night.
I think to myself that's probably it for this morning and haven't even set up yet. Mist forms out over a distant pond. I wish to myself that it would come my way. It is cool and calm once again. Usually if I hear noises behind me I don't turn around--but stay still in hopes of not giving my location away. But today something told me to look. A branch snaps somewhere behind and down from me. I look to see a coyote pushing her way through the shrubs to come out into the open grassland. This is our collared female, and the first I've seen of her since that cold, rainy night. She is in excellent condition, and thankfully so is the collar. She does not see me so I take the opportunity to swing the camera around almost 180 degrees. There is a large shrub between us now, and I make more adjustments--exposure, focus, width of frame. I open my left eye to gauge where she'll pop out from behind the shrub, readjust frame, focus, look again and she's seen me. Too late--she's dove back into the thick cover behind me.
Two coyotes, two mornings in a row.
Two buck pick their way through the dense growth almost a mile from me. They are merely red dots, but work their way closer. But as they disappear, two does graze their way into the meadow. They are fawnless. One clearly is a yearling, the other much larger.
I wait. Song sparrow, Eastern towhee, Yellow-billed cuckoo, Great blue heron, American robin, and American goldfinch all help pass the time.
The sun is high in the sky now, and I give up my post.

4 July 2009

The rain has finally stopped, and sleeping in is gladly interrupted once more. With turtle nesting nearly done, I return to my original post. The very moment my camera and tripod are settled a ghostly figure appears on the ridge beside me. With no moon and a cloudy sky it is quite dark, but his white chest gives him away. This is the largest coyote I have seen in some time, and he is gone in a moment.
Whether he saw me or not I'm not sure. I'm nestled up to my chin in shrubbery. It is cool and humid--perfect conditions. The mosquitos have their morning meal, and I watch as the first morning light sets fire to the cottonwood across the trail.
Along comes another...but looks rather strange. I peer through the viewfinder and see that this one has his morning meal: a raccoon dangles from between his jaws. He must be eager to eat, as his pace is very fast. Trotting through the sand straight for me, he never sees me until he is five feet away. He lets out a yelp, drops his breakfast and bolts in the direction that he came from. I can see clearly that this is not an adult raccoon--but one that was born this year. Certainly no bigger than a house cat. His clear eyes look up at me. I feel guilty for interrupting coyote's breakfast--but why he gave it to me I'll never know.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

22 June 2009

My attack plan has shifted. I grumble under my breath--the hot sun is out and it is torture to put on a scent-lok camo suit. One cameraperson, well done please.
It is evening, and all the players are on the stage: Catbird, Bluejay, Fox squirrel, and of course the ever present chipmunk. This is truly chipmunk city. Not a moment passes that I can't see three of these little rodents at the same time: busily in search of food, or frozen in terror. They climb a nearby shrub and dangle from the thinest branches reaching for berries.
The weasels pop in and out of the nearby snag. Now I'm positive they live there. With so many chipmunks around this is surely weasel heaven. 
Hours pass.
The sun has finally passed over the treeline, and I begin to loose light under the forest canopy. Insects dance in the remaining beams of sunlight: like dust with wings. Everything seems to move about with less vigor than in the morning. I imagine they're all full from a day's feeding, and are now stuffing their faces before heading off for a good night's sleep. Like Americans on Thanksgiving.
Even bird song is thin and distant. There are moments of complete silence. The light slowly slips to pink, and finally gray. Surely, the raccoons are eager to come out for an egg dinner? But no one comes. No skunk, no raccoon, no coyote: the usual suspects in the turtle egg marauding business.
But there is a rustle in the grass nearby, and with a burst of enthusiasm comes not one or two weasels, but five! All bound across the trail in single file. Four pups and mom. It must be time for the night hunt: mouse must be on the menu!

21 June 2009

The Summer Solstice brings no special event. I sit and wait. Nothing. It's just me and the bloodsucking insects. The birds are cheerful, at least. A Wood thrush sings somewhere off in the distance, and a Catbird directly behind me. The weasels must be sleeping in.
I wonder about coyote pup development. There are some differences between Eastern and Western coyote puppies--possibly attributed to their differing genetics. In 2000, a study was completed based on the DNA analysis of Eastern coyotes from several areas: New York, Ontario, and Maine. All of the samples came up with markers present only in one other species: the Eastern Wolf. How far south these genes go is not known. I do wish we had collected samples from our study population.
But where did these wolf genes come from? When coyotes were colonizing the Eastern states over the past 100 years, they first passed North of the Great Lakes region into Canada and then moved South into the Northeastern states. Along the way, they mated with the Algonquin wolf, and produced viable offspring. This all gets pretty complicated for a blog, but I can explain more if you ever visit me in person. What it comes down to is that coyotes do not mate with 
Gray wolves--as those genes are not present in the coyote DNA analysis, and the Eastern wolf encompasses two populations: the Algonquin and the Red. But this has yet to be rectified by the scientific community. There are arguments on both sides--the opposite against the Red wolf being designated as a species at all, while the other calls for a re-writing of Canid history in North America, as well as adjusting scientific names--which takes a very long time.
Now even someone with a non-scientific background would realize that wolf genes may have an impact on the coyote's behavior and physiology. It turns out there are a few known characteristics: Eastern coyote pups have longer legs, are more social and less aggressive with their littermates, and are larger than their Western cousins. In New York, researchers found that there was a dietary difference as well: coyotes are eating beaver, just like the Algonquin wolves do in Ontario.
So, I sit and wonder what the pups are doing. I also think of my own puppies at home: now 10 months and 4 months. Surely, coyote puppy behavior isn't that different than the play of our family pets.

19 June 2009

For once I'm early. It's quite a dark hike into the woods this morning. The weasels are at it again: surely they must have taken up residence in this snag. Immediately following this, a coyote comes around the bend on the trail. He stops at a distant tree and looks to his right. Something is out of place.
The night before, Carrie and I set up two additional game cameras. One faces the opposite direction of the original, and the second goes on a ridge where I heard them howl from the week prior. We place the camera on a game trail--for there is no hiking trail to be found in this area of the park. Directly in front of the game camera is a special deposit: coyote scat containing a deer fawns hoof. They must use this trail on a regular basis.
The coyote stares directly at the game camera. He shifts his position, and directs his gaze again at the mysterious black object. Enough for him: he turns around and leaves.
It amazes me how animals know when something is out of place or foreign in their habitat. I'm sure this coyote would have come closer to me if the camera hadn't been there. He didn't even look in my direction, and I am downwind. Maybe next time...

Monday, June 15, 2009

15 June 2009

The past few mornings have been incredibly still. This makes one thing remarkably horrific: mosquitos. I've run out of bug spray and am being bombarded by at least a thousand, I'm sure. If I stay too long, maybe I'll fall asleep due to blood loss.
I sit, and wait, and wait. The sun is quite high now and nothing, I mean nothing has happened in the realm of the coyote. A glimpse of a Tom, then a doe...but that's all. Orioles alight on the oak branches above and stir up even more mosquitos. If Joe Root did eat them for breakfast, I'm sure he didn't go hungry. 
I finally decide to give up my post, stand, and almost topple over. My entire leg has gone asleep during my four hour sit. Oh, that feels strange. I hobble over to one of the turtle nesting hot spots and peer over the edge: two occupants busily digging away. It is then that I hear a ruckus inside a snag. I'm sure it's a raccoon, but then I see a tail slip out of a crack. Looks like a chipmunk tail at first glance.
As I stand there, a small pointy head peers out of the end of the log. It is unmistakably a weasel. I set up my tripod and make all my adjustments and cross my fingers. I've never had luck with weasels before. He seems busy, as if he's cleaning house. Sawdust is flying out of the crack and the whole snag is shaking under his tiny weight. Just what is going on in there? Then, it all stops and some activity resumes on the ground at the other end of the halfway fallen log. I take my chances and creep around to the other side. Not one, but two Long tailed weasels. One seems to be half playing, half being the lookout, while the other is trying to haul something out of the end of the log. What it is I can't tell until I peer through the viewfinder: a chipmunk. So, it's chipmunk for breakfast today, eh? Not eggs or mosquitos, but chipmunk.  They continue to dart in and out of the hole at the end of the log, and run along the length of it. Images of Rikki Tikki come to mind: and this character fits the bill. 
One is clearly smaller than the other and I strain to remember if there is sexual dimorphism in weasels. It turns out there is, but more than likely this is probably a mother and pup. I am given the opportunity to shift again, and get the action from a third angle. Huh. Next stop, weasel film?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

13 June 2009

The opportunity is so great to sit by a reliable food source that I return to the same area this morning. Shortly after becoming situated, a fire station siren wails off in the distance. Just like most any other time, a reply is heard in the distance.
I can pinpoint exactly where they are. But there are no pup voices to be heard. Two adults, probably. I only wonder where they have gone, and hope to see them before they're full grown.
Again, I expect to see loads of skunks, raccoons and opossums. No show. I wonder, now, if my timing should change. 
Carrie and I meet shortly after I have finished accomplishing nothing for this morning. We gather one of the game cameras and head back to where my post has been for the past two mornings. We hope that perhaps we will discover who is robbing the turtle nests. Any photos would be exciting.
We've chosen to use game cameras with this research for many reasons. They are fairly unobtrusive and may help us asses the park's coyote population. Up until this point, it was anyone's guess. Now, all we can say for sure is that there are at least nine: an alpha pair on one end of the park with or without pups, this has to be confirmed yet; and an alpha pair, a subadult and four pups at the other end. So far, I've seen two, and the positioning of the game cameras hasn't yielded as much information as we'd hoped. So, once again taking advantage of a food source could be the key. It's now eight hours since I've had breakfast and certainly lunchtime. Eggs, anyone?

12 June 2009

A food source is a great way to find what your looking for: wildlife that is. If you are aware of your surroundings, do some tracking and have known the place for years you might just figure this one out.
This morning I go to a part of the park that I have never attempted to film in before. Not because I didn't want to, but because I just have never tried. There are so many possibilities at Presque Isle, that I will probably never utilize them all. But a food source is a stroke of luck.
Once again, I lug my gear around in the dark, and climb up over a dune. I really don't know if this will work--the space is much more confined than any I've tried before and I worry that my lack of a large open space will prevent animals from coming in for free lunch. 
The tripod goes in place, and the chair placed next to it. I flip the blind open and tip it over the camera. Suddenly, there is a weight pushing towards me from inside the blind. The camera has started to fall over but the blind luckily breaks it's fall. Here I am again, making a ton of noise when I shouldn't be. I'm glad no one is around to see but the birds.
I unzip the door and climb inside the dark blind. I make better adjustments to the camera legs and try and situate my chair so that it is comfortable. No luck. I unzip the window and wait. Mosquitos are so high in numbers now that I can hear their buzzing. There must be millions, and I have the bites to prove it: twelve on just one knee. 
It's still far too dark to film, and that's of course when I see him. A coyote up on the trail above me, darting back and forth behind a fallen tree. I'm sure he's enjoying his egg breakfast.
I thought for certain I'd see raccoons and skunks and opossum enjoying the same meal, but maybe it's past their bedtime. Not a single one.
I'm disappointed that I couldn't get this one on film. And my frustration is echoed by another creature in the nearby pond: a beaver slaps his tail on the water. The sun slowly finds its way to the forest floor, and illuminates a buck munching his way towards me. He gets incredibly close before he looks right at me. He begins to make his way in a half-circle around me, but in a non-concerned way. He never stomps or snorts or flicks his flag of a tail. Maybe he enjoys the company because it's thirty minutes before he finally saunters off in the distance.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

3 June 2009

Sometimes nothing goes right. I didn't want to get out of bed this morning, and knew rain was coming. I check the radar on the internet but it offers no excuse to go back to bed. Rain will not arrive until 10 am--plenty of time. But with the extra activity, I'm now 15-minutes late out the door--yet another excuse to stay home: it'll be light by the time I reach the woods. Now I'm grumpy, but manage to make myself breakfast for the usual on-the-go. Who wants to get up earlier than 4 am just to sit down for breakfast?
I go out the door and realize the temperature is much colder than I expected. So, back in the house. Where are my long johns? It probably sounds ridiculous to wear layers in June, but sitting still in the damp morning air for hours upon end gets cold very quickly. I stuff peanut butter toast into my mouth, and drive to the park. 
The ranger on duty is obviously bored, and drags out our morning conversation. Again, making me later and later. At this point, does it really matter. By now, I'm thoroughly grumpy and no song will cheer me up so the radio gets switched off. 
Skunks everywhere.
I park and put on my extra layer then dig my camo out of the plastic bag in the back. It's still inside-out from being in the dryer--yet something else to consume my time. I really don't know why I'm even bothering at this point. I gather all my gear: tripod, camera, chair, blind and situpon and hike into the morning light. I have a spot in mind.
I'm carrying more than usual as I don't usually take a blind. I get angry because it keeps slipping off my shoulder and when it does, it makes noise.
I finally arrive to my desired post, and change my mind. I've been eying up another new spot just a short distance away and decide to try that instead. Here, the blind is useless. The tangle of Bramble berry makes settling in impossible without a ruckus. It finds all the hooks on my tripod's legs and holds fast. I think I've just announced to the entire county where I am, but sit and wait anyway. 
At 6 am, a thankful break in silence: a Fire Station siren wails off in the distance. About 2/3rds of the way through the siren, a coyote gives his location away. He cannot be more than 400 yards. His voice sounds like he's been singing too much lately--probably overuse from the kids always wanting to know where he is. He sounds horse. I debate wether to answer his call or not. I know that these coyotes are smarter than that...most of the time.
I wait again.
I am situated so that my field of view is directly down the trail. Coyotes are lazy--they like to use the easiest route possible and so naturally use our hiking trails. But this morning, it's coyote's hiking trail. Finally, something breaks onto the trail from the brush in the distance. It's movement gives it away: not bobbing like a turkey, nor hesitant like a deer. The coyote languidly moves along with half-purpose on his mind. He stops, looks around, then continues towards me. I'm concealed from the chin down--so he actually makes it about 20 feet from me before he realizes something is out of place. I'm sure my slight movement of the camera gives me away, and he disappears.
My adrenaline is so high that I can feel my heart beating in my palms. I can barely sit still now.
All of this morning's misfortune, bad luck, and temptation to turn back is Coyote. I hear him loud and clear.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

18 May 2009

Fog is moderately heavy today over the ponds. It creeps back and forth between ridges, and obscures my view from time to time. This makes the sunrise magical. 
Somewhere in almost every direction is a bird telling me to drink my tea. And a short distance behind me a tom reminds us all that it is spring.
Some mornings are like this; I never see anything. But the sounds and sights are enough to calm even the most despairing of souls. A steady dose once a day of four to five hours will turn anyone into a Zen master. My name is Tracy, and I am addicted to nature. 
The sun is hotter than usual, and not a cloud in the sky. I do try to sit in the shade to hide myself better, but little rays always poke through and find me now and again. The sun burns hotter, and the fog slowly begins to rise up, up, up, almost to the top of the tree line before it finally disappears. Everything is damp.
I need two of some mornings. Today is one of them. Off in the distance I can barely make out the sound of an old water pump. And today would be a good sound day because for some reason the city is quiet. Maybe it's the dense air, or the way the wind is blowing--I don't know but these are my favorite days. Once again, the water pump. But as some of you know, it's not a water pump at all, but the mating call of the American bittern. He pauses for a few minutes between sets. And after about an hour, he moves about 1/4 mile closer and I can clearly hear his song. 

15 May 2009

The day after a rainstorm has always brought me luck, and today is no exception. Because Wednesday was clear I have the timing right: up at 4 am and in the field by 4:45. As usual, the Whip-poor-wills and Nighthawks serenade my night hike.
I arrive in darkness, and plop down where I sat two days prior and wait. Mist forms out over the distant pond, and ebbs back and forth in the field below. I love this time of year. Fog is a filmmaker's friend. It deadens the subject's sense of smell and often they come in closer to try and figure me out.
A monstrous buck ascends the ridge next to me. He looks as though someone smashed two cupcakes on top of his head. He stands on his hind legs to reach leaves in a nearby tree, then begins to follow the game trail towards me. At about 30 feet he knows something isn't right. He looks and looks, stomps his front leg and bobs his head. I sit completely still: even watching him with one eye closed. He snorts a little -- trying to get my scent. Nothing. After some time, he finally decides he doesn't like what he sees, and flicks his tail and walks away. 
Only minutes pass and reinforcements arrive up on the ridge. The cupcake buck is joined by two others: a second buck with tall, bifurcated antlers, and a yearling. All three are still in their winter brown drab. Once again, they move in close to investigate. The tall-antlered male moves in first, while cupcake hangs back with the yearling. Just what is this thing? Moving very slowly, I manage to swing my camera around to get a few shots. It's a repeat performance: head bobbing, snorting, and foot stomping. Reluctantly, they turn and half-heartedly leap through the grass. I still don't think they quite figured me out.
As always the odd turkey shows up to forage in the field. There are so many turkey on the park I've stopped filming them unless they're doing something other than eating.
A pair of Brown thrashers have been dutifully visiting a clump of shrubs all morning. When I go over to investigate, the loud wail of a fire station siren goes off. Wait. There, not more than a half-mile from me is a group of coyote pups howling. It's good to know they're nearby. So aside from all the other city noise, I always welcome the sound of a fire station siren.

13 May 2009

The first day out is always a disaster. Trying to figure out the exact timing of when to get out in the field always takes a day or so. I wake at 4:30 only to hear the Robins singing already. My goal is to be set up in the field before first light: which on a clear day is an hour before sunrise.
I arrive at the park and scurry to put on my camo, and gather my camera gear. Hiking into the woods at night always is a little creepy--but I at least have the moon to keep me company. 
Whip-poor-wills sing their incessant song, occasionally punctuated by a Nighthawk's 'meep'. The most faint light is on the horizon now--so I'm late. I struggle to adjust the tripod over my crossed knees. Sitting on the ground seems to work best this early in the season; until the grasses become too tall. Somewhere off in the distance, across the bay is the roaring sound of what could be a jet engine. I'm guessing it's Erie Coke. It's amazing how all the city noises make their way over to the park, and make sound recording quite impossible most of the time.
The first visitor to the field is a hen turkey, busily feeding for the upcoming nesting season. After about 30 minutes she disappears into the brush and not a moment later 3 jakes come strutting right down the middle of the trail, making a fuss the entire way. But there's gobbling off in the distance, and a few minutes later two toms come up over the ridge. A chase ensues. Wether this is play or aggression -- I have no idea. Round and around the field: around trees and clumps of bayberry shrubs. Just watching them run makes me laugh. The pursuant never catches the jake, and each group goes their separate ways. I can only imagine this was a turf battle over mates.
By now, it's 10 am, and I'm stiff from sitting in one place for so long. The Wild lupine is beginning to open here and there, and I can't wait for the spectacle that is to come. This is the most Wild lupine I've seen in this area in ten years. A Ruby-throated hummingbird even pays a visit. It's warming up, and time to go.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

26 March 2009

Seven turkey hens on the beach, Song sparrows singing, and damp warm air greet us as we arrive. Despite last night's rain, we are not the first to enjoy the warm air. Large boot prints and Canine tracks are present on the trail. But there are other tracks as well, clearly not dog. With hindfoot and forefoot overlapping, I'm sure this is a coyote trail. These tracks were present yesterday: huge. I measure the stride with my fingers: 21 inches from toe tip to heel of the next track.
Every spring I strain to remember bird songs. But one is clear: a Great crested flycatcher sings somewhere off in the brush. Song sparrows continue to sing, and Peepers are going strong in the nearby pond.
I continue on, and the large boot prints turn around. My suspicions are confirmed as the coyote trail continues on to the other end of the trail. 
Fen and I are out on the road now, and turn back towards the car. Something in the undergrowth catches Fen's attention. He freezes and woofs quietly. I look and look but can't make out what passed through. It was certainly larger--maybe an opossum. Still nothing. We keep going. More fresh coyote scat.
Coyotes, much to everyone's surprise, can be active at any time of day or night. Especially at this time of year and throughout the summer, coyotes can be observed during the day foraging for food. With a family to support, finding more food is critical for the litter to be successful. And there is certainly plenty of food at Presque Isle: squirrels, mice, rabbits, dead fish that wash up on the shore, berries, grasshoppers--anything they can put in their mouth is food. They'll eat anything: and this is one of the reasons for their success.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

25 March 2009

The usual beaver in Lily Pond is active again this morning as I drive past. A raccoon scuttles across the road, almost waddling. Unlike at our house, the wind is absent here and everything is calm. However, it must have visited the park at some point because the trail's sandy portions are cleared of all recent activity. I am quickly disappointed at the top of the dune, and turn back the way I came.
But there are tracks here. I don't think they were here a moment ago. Maybe the coyote watched me take the short trip up to the top of the dune, and then went on his way. I follow the tracks, and like before they disappear into the grasses. Sand is misleading--but this appears to be a rather large coyote.
The second set is empty. We need more traps out here if we hope to catch anything in our last two weeks. Both my project and Carrie's depend on it.
On my return, the wind makes a quick burst into the pines. A hawk is on the ground--and after seeing my approach, alights on a nearby branch. The ground is not frozen for the first time in over a week, so the only noise I make is by accident.
Rain is coming--which has been to our advantage in the past.

Monday, March 23, 2009

23 March 2009

The past few mornings have been crisp--not springlike. Although the sun would have you believe otherwise. So deceiving, that I refused to wear my long johns this morning, and quickly regretted it. It was 27 degrees when Fenris and I arrived, and there was enough wind to bite through my thin pants. 
My flower bulbs at home are coming up: daffodils and lilies, allium, and bluebells. There is still no sign of spring flowers at Presque Isle. Spring seems to come almost a week or more later at here--ice still lingers on the lake, keeping the air cooler. 
Fenris finds every game trail along our way, and then some turkey scat. A 'j' shaped hook at the end of the scat indicates a tom had passed by here. No hook on turkey scat is indicative of a hen. It must smell interesting to him, because he refuses to move forward. 
Through the tall grasses and up over a dune. Peering through binoculars reveals no activity at the first trap. We immediately retrace our steps to the trail. 
I do worry about ticks and my dog. But Fen always wears flea and tick treatment, and does have his Lyme vaccination. And I do too. Ten years ago, when I first started visiting the park interior on a daily basis, my mom had heard of the Lyme Disease vaccination for people. It was a series of three shots. However, I will always test positive for Lyme Disease and will require a more specific test: the Western Blot Test, to determine if I have the disease. The vaccine is no longer available due to a lack of interest. We also use tick spray on our clothes that lasts for two weeks. This is yet another preparation process that we do to prevent tick bites. I spray my clothes outside, and hang them on the clothesline for at least three hours. The chemical, permanone, is toxic to cats--so we are extra careful that our two orange tabbies in the house are not exposed. 
All and all, I will have a permanent case of the heebie-jeebies until next winter.
Second set: empty. 
Fenris and I continue on to squeeze in his daily walk at the same time. He isn't tall enough to see three turkey run from our approach, but rather smells where they had crossed the trail.
Fen next finds some coyote scat: right in the middle of the trail. Coyotes tend to do this on purpose: to advertise whose territory this is. At least this makes scat collection a little easier.
A small flock of Common grackles fly over clicking as they go. A large pterodactyl-like bird retires from his roost, complaining as he goes of our disturbance. Or was it the owl that forced him from his perch? A Great horned owl follows quickly behind the heron.
Fenris is chewing on something. I shove my fingers in his mouth and pull out a paper food wrapper. If Fen wants to eat these things, it's no wonder we find them in coyote scat too.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

19 March 2009

Some mornings seem brighter than others, and this morning was blinding. Mist rises from Lily Pond as I drive by. This is one of my favorite types of morning light: fog. But by the time I reach the trailhead, it has disappeared into the morning's burning rays. Its more than 10 degrees colder here than it was at home, and I wonder if there has been another frost.  My suspicions are confirmed with crunchy sand under my boots. It rained a long time yesterday and last night, so only faint boot prints from Carrie's trap check last night remain. There is nothing, nothing in the sand to say that they've been here. Surely, we must move the trap line soon. We only have another couple of weeks until trapping stops for the arrival of pups.
All three sets are empty, so I decide to do a little poking around. Instead of turning around, I continue down the trail in search of recent activity. Being the early bird has its advantages: no
 one has used this trail yet this morning. 
And there they are: just beyond our trap line right on the trail: fresh coyote tracks. They're going in the opposite direction that I am, so I follow in reverse. They quickly disappear into the bramble. There is another small patch of sand a little further down the trail, so I investigate that, too. There always seems to be a lot of activity at this spot: it's where two trails intersect. A major hiking trail, and a well used 
game trail. There are two or three sets of coyote tracks here. A small scuffle in the sand makes me wonder if they were playing, or one putting the other in it's place. 
Coyotes are pack animals: more social than fox, but less so than wolves. They have a sort of elastic social bond. In winter, the pack may separate and go their own way if food is scarce. But in spring, the family group comes back together to help raise the pups. A pack is comprised of an Alpa pair--that is those that breed. The rest of the members are more than likely female yearlings or adults from previous litters. That's one difference between wolves and coyotes. Wolves are accepting of individuals who are not blood relatives, while coyotes are not. This is why I'm so curious about the coyotes at Presque Isle. 
Theoretically, or 'by the field guide,' there should only be one family group at Presque Isle because their home range averages 4-15 square miles (Kurta, Allen. 1998. Mammals of the Great Lakes Region.) So, if there is more than one pack (which everyone suspects) then I wonder if they are related somehow. Only genetics would tell, and this is not part of the current study unfortunately. 
Carrie has two coyotes collared: one from each end of the park and of opposite sex. A male near the neck of the park, and a female in the park's interior. Both have stayed put on the peninsula so far. And if they're here now, they're probably here to stay. Surely, for the Alpha male of the park's interior to tolerate another male nearby they must be related? Brothers? Father and son? Or is there just that much food at Presque Isle that they leave each other alone? Or are the Alpha females related? Questions spin in my head.
On the return hike, I hear the mystery bird again: it sounds just like a boat whistle. I have no idea, but swear that I'll bring my own boat whistle tomorrow and try and call him in closer.
A hawk! But where is it? It can't be a Blue jay, it's much too loud. I look and look. Where could such a large bird hide? But then I spy where the sound is coming from and it is a Blue jay. Some pipes on that bird. But I wonder what the fuss is about. 
Tomorrow we move the trap line, and hope for some luck.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

18 March 2009

A low rumble rolls in from over the lake, and keeps going. It seems endless, so at first I think it cannot be thunder. But then a rumble comes again. Thunder? I don't remember hearing that it was supposed to rain.
It's warm and sunny, but it seems like the front is coming in fast. Dark clouds hang out over the lake and are coming our way.
Ben, Fenris and I head down the trail to complete our morning trap checking ritual. It's 57 degrees, and a warm breeze carries the smell of spring: pine needles warmed in the sun, and dark punky earth. As we crest the dune at the third set of traps, six turkey burst into flight. Fenris just stands there in amazement. We continue on.
Again, all three sets are empty.
In an immature forest, where young trees are still surrounded by high shrubs, we hear the fussing of what must be 20 birds. Upon closer inspection we see red dots upon their heads, and a reddish breast--almost looking like it has been stained from eating too many berries. Common redpolls. A mixed flock of males and females foraging together. One flys nearer to get a better look at us, but is gone in an instant.
The wind changes. Suddenly, the breeze is cold with the smell of winter. We quicken our pace.
Twenty minutes later, more thunder. This time, the rumble is answered by a turkey claiming his territory. Again: rumble, gobble. This goes on and on, and we laugh to ourselves.
The rain holds off until we reach home.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

17 March 2009

Yesterday was a beautiful morning, as was today. Today was warm--no coat necessary. Fenris was taking in all the new smells--but I wonder how long this will last for him. His head perks up at the song of a Field sparrow. He's never heard this before. Fen is just interested in everything, and I wish I knew what he was smelling on the trail: a whole world invisible to us. It would certainly make our job easier if we could track by scent.
All the traps are empty, so we continue on down the trail. It only takes an hour to wear out this pup, so our daily walk has become ritual for him. I'm waiting for the day when he sees a rabbit or a deer or something else he'll want to chase. I'm interested to see his reaction.
With coyote mating season over, any Alpha-females should be with pups by now. I imagine they are busy digging multiple dens--up to twelve. They move the pups from site to site for a couple of reasons: if the den is disturbed by a predator (such as humans) or maybe due to heavy parasite infestation (such as fleas, ticks, etc.). We've always wondered where the den is on Presque Isle. I can speculate. But it's only because of my time spent in the field, and knowing their habits that I have any kind of idea. I just never wanted to disturb the den for no reason.
Coyotes will augment another animal's hole such as a woodchucks. They also compete with Red fox for den sites; one of the reasons why Red fox aren't seen on the park any more. Coyotes are simply the larger of the two, and will run out or kill Red fox. They also compete for the same foods, too. Many people are upset by this--that there are no more Red fox on the peninsula. But in all reality, it is the Red fox who doesn't belong. Coyotes are endemic to North America, and Red fox were brought here by English settlers for the thrill of the hunt.
Were coyotes brought here by the PA Game Commission? No. Absolutely not. This is a story I hear again and again, and it's always someone's sister-in-law's nephew, or the like, who has shot the animal and found a tag in it's ear that says "Minnesota" or some other mid-western or western state. Funny, the hunter is always a distant relative, and the originating state always starts with an 'M.' This guy must be related to everyone!
Seriously, though. I think I do know where these stories come from. Hunting groups did bring in 5 or 6 animals to the Bradford area a long time ago. This was for the same reason that fox were brought in: for something to hunt. And coyotes are one of the toughest things out there to hunt. But if you know something about basic biology and genetics, then you know that such small populations do not, and can not populate a huge area. It's called the founder effect. There simply isn't enough genetic diversity in those 5 or 6 animals to sustain population growth. And I'm certain that the hunters who released them shot at least a few.
All you have to understand to know where the coyotes came from is their potential for dispersing from their natal den. When coyotes reach a certain age, they leave their mother and father's territory. These are just the animals we radio collared almost ten years ago at Presque Isle. We collared them in October and November, and by February both animals were off the park...long gone. The male went to a suburb of Cleveland--some 82 miles from Presque Isle before getting hit by a car. The female went to Hartstown--which is right near Pymatuning State Park--also very far from Presque Isle. She was shot by a trapper.
Knowing this, and by looking in the scientific literature you'll find that coyotes can go on average 100-150 miles from their natal den to find their own territory. Some have gone almost twice this distance, with males averaging further distances than females. So, coming East of the Mississippi over the past 100 years really isn't all that fantastical of a story. Coyotes, they really are amazing, adaptable creatures.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

15 March 2009

Yesterday was rushed: check traps, shoot Carrie doing radio telemetry, and run home. I thought for sure we'd get a late night call again because we went out to see my niece, Leah, do her Irish dancing at a local pub in celebration of St. Patrick's Day. Well, I'm only 1/4 Irish so maybe my luck will come through next time. 
This morning the shrubs and trees were dressed in the most beautiful white frost. From the ground to at least 6 or 7 feet up, a thick white coat surrounded branches and twigs on all sides. The blinding sunlight made everything look like quartz crystal. No clear tracks in the sand--just sneaker and boot prints everywhere. On the hike back I hear a familiar sound, one that heralds the depth of winter--well, for me anyway. Three Tundra swans fly overhead, and soar lower, lower and land in a nearby pond. The habitat changes in such a short distance here. You can walk through grassland, shrubland, and into forest all within a 1/4 mile. In the forest, beyond the dune somewhere down near the pond where the swans landed, I hear a bird song I don't recognize. This will surely drive me crazy until I find out what it is. Like Rikki Tikki: "run, and find out."
The bird call sounds like a boat whistle. One of those small plastic ones that small craft use for a distress call. I've never heard this before. The bird keeps calling. Thick shrubbery prevents me from investigating further because I'm not dressed for ticks. 
Deer ticks at Presque Isle are prevalent due to the thick vegetation, deer and mouse population and sandy soil. One recent study found that 30% of the Deer ticks at the park are carriers for Lyme disease. And with their nymph stage being no larger than the head of a pin, and adults the size of a crumb I don't want to take a chance. I'll investigate with my bird call CD at home instead. 
Still waiting for coyote number three and four.

Friday, March 13, 2009

13 March 2009

I generally regard Friday the 13th as a lucky day; it's Monday the 13th's that I avoid. However as I started down the trail this morning to check our trap line, I received an infuriating phone call. My husband Ben called to tell me there was a coyote attack story on FOX news, and that they had reused my coyote footage that I granted one time use for just a couple of weeks ago for a story on Carrie's research. They didn't even give me credit for the shot. This is clearly violation of copyright--but I'm an independent film company and what can I do? Well, I can write about it, email it to everyone I know, and write letters to the editor.
I have worked so hard to get this project up and running. And up and running is saying the very least, more like holding on by it's fingertips. We have a golden opportunity to shine with this film: with it slated to open in the Big Green Screen Theatre in 2012. Why do people take advantage? Because they can.
I'm so angry that I'm shaking. I refrain from calling the TV station until I calm down so that I don't unleash my Italian Anger on whomever answers the phone. 
The issue that infuriates me about this is that my footage was used in association with a negative story about coyotes. People have ripped the 'big bad wolf' badge off of the wolf, and placed it squarely on the coyote's forehead. A scarlet 'A'. Wildlife is not out to get you. Coyotes don't randomly choose to attack people. Every documented attack on people was because the animal had been hand fed by humans. The bottom line: don't feed wildlife, ever, period.
Wild coyotes are very easily intimidated. I've had a group of three bark at me and hold their ground. All I did was walk towards them and they ran away. 
At least I can try and enjoy the sunshine. Regardless of the low 20s temperatures, the sun beats down warm and bright. I love the morning light, it makes everything golden and beautiful. And at this time of the year, the dry lifeless landscape is brought a shred of hope with the suns rays. I find fresh turkey and coyote tracks again. All traps are empty, I head home in a fury.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

12 March 2009

There are very few days on Presque Isle when there is no wind, and no sound from the city. These are the best days to record audio. Believe it or not, recording natural sound at Presque Isle usually ends up tainted with train whistles, Erie Sand & Gravel trucks reversing with 'beep, beep, beep,' and various other noises from who knows where. For someone trying to make a nature film near an urban area, it's nearly impossible and nerve wracking to say the least. I really should just bring my audio equipment every day. At this point, I need a van for all the junk I carry around.
This morning is one of those silent days. I pull a plastic bag out of my trunk, along with a sledgehammer and pair of rubber boots. The boots are cold and stiff, and I hope my feet don't cramp up before they can warm up the boots. Inside the plastic bag is a large wad of sheep wool, three glass bottles, a plastic tub, and a plastic squirt bottle. The container's contents are some of the most vile smelling I have ever experienced. Much worse than skunk--if you can imagine.
Yesterday's rain has wiped the trail clean again, and the slate is blank. When I arrive at the first set of traps, I pull out a vile of coyote gland lure. All the rain has probably diluted or eliminated the scents at our trap line. I pluck a dead grass stalk, and shove it into the mucusy mixture. Hold your breath. What covers the end of the grass is enough to stick into our man-made mouse hole at the trap set. Yuck. I have never and will never forget the smell of coyote lure. When I'm in the woods hiking with friends, I can identify the smell immediately if it is near. Thankfully, I have rubber gloves on, and can hold my breath long enough. This is the kind of stuff that sticks in your nose for the rest of the day.
Next is the coyote urine: a squirt on the trap backer. Finally, call lure in a nearby tree. Having scent up high will hopefully do what the lure says it will: call in coyotes from a distance to come and investigate our trap set.
The second set of traps has one that has been set off--but there's no sign by what. No tracks. No hair in the trap. Nothing. Carrie asked me to pull the trap, but the ground is completely frozen. I beat the ground with my hammer, trying to loosen the stakes. No luck. They are stuck. Sometimes I wonder what watches me while I'm tending to the trap line. Surely, carrying all this stinky stuff attracts someone's attention. When I did this study ten years ago, one of the few things we did learn before both coyotes left the peninsula was that coyotes like to follow people. If the coyotes were active, they would eventually follow me on the trails. Not in view, of course. But somewhere just out of view in the thick bayberry bushes, they would follow me up and down the trail until, I guessed, they got bored. Who was studying who here is probably the real question.
I call Carrie and she agrees that if we have to leave the trap we might as well reset it. I now work on reseting the trap without the trappers setting tongs, trappers cap or trappers fork. These are all tools to help prevent getting your fingers snapped in the trap while setting, and to help give leverage to open the trap. The trappers tongs are handy for people with small hands, like me. I open the trap with my feet, and swing the loose jaw towards the dog so I can push it down and set the pan at the right height. Into the ground, pack, pack, pack. First around the trap, then, carefully, inside. Next, sift dirt over top. Make a divit where the pan is--never for get where your trap pan is, scent, sticks, more sticks. Leaves, okay. I'm satisfied with the set and quickly leave the area. On to set three.
I hear a deer thunder away as I crest the dune. The last trap is empty, too. I rescent this, and leave. Back down on the trail, barely visible, are coyote tracks. The sandy portions have frozen with the overnight temperatures, and so even I barely leave a mark with my boots. Yesterday's puddles have frozen solid and clear. A mosiac of brown oak leaves caught within the ice. Things like this never come out in photographs.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

11 March 2009

The sun winks out from behind the clouds, and wind whips through the tall grasses as I make the daily hike out to our trapline. Fresh coyote scat. Coyote scat looks a lot like an owl pellet--if you recall grade-school science class. Most of the contents are hair and bones. The shape and size are similar to dog scat, but the difference is obvious. Coyote scat--for those of us with an artsy background--is a cool tone color: almost bluish. Dog scat is a warm tone: a brownish yellow. Appetizing discussion just after breakfast.
But this is how Carrie can conduct a dietary analysis on our park's coyotes. Pick up scat, put it in baggies, take it to the lab, dry it out, pick through it (yes, the stinky part of science) and presto! You have in front of you what the coyote has been eating the day before it came out the other end. Hair is compared to a collection on hand--individual hairs from different species mounted on slides: deer, mouse, rabbit, skunk, opposum, beaver, muskrat....hopefully a slide for each mammal on the park. Match the hair from the collected scat with the hair on the slide, and you have preferred coyote chow. Tiny bones and bone fragments can also be identified. Part of a mouse mandible. Hmm. Good breakfast.
All traps are empty. I head home and hope for less rain.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

10 March 2009

The Multipurpose Trail is popular with runners, bikers, and in-line skaters. But this morning while driving to the trailhead, I spotted a black blob moving at a quick pace. A turkey! There was a turkey running down the Multipurpose Trail. He stayed on the trail for about a half mile before veering into the woods near the Great Horned Owl nest. Be careful, there--you just might be breakfast!
As I pull up to the trailhead, I spot three more turkeys across the street. Binoculars up. Three males, one noticeably larger than the other two. His beard nearly touches the ground. He fluffs his feathers in a half-display. Spring really is coming.
The trail's sandy portions reveal fresh turkey tracks--they must have come from here and then crossed the street. Strange marks in the sand tell that the tom must have been displaying here as well: his wing feathers left lines in the sand. 
I carry signs and a staple gun because the wind from yesterday tore our signs off of the posts. Fenris is not with me this morning so I move a little faster without his constant investigation. Due to all the rain, all the sets need rescenting--so Carrie did that last night. We hope the upcoming warm temperatures will give us some more luck.
I find all six sets empty, and make the return hike.
On the drive back, four deer cross the road in front of me at Beach 8. Three are about the same size, and the fourth clearly a yearling. I hope for luck tomorrow, and drive home.

Monday, March 9, 2009

9 March 2009

Fenris (my 7 month old pup) and I pull up at the trailhead. Besides our regular walking route at home, everything is a new smell to him. Even the flocks of waterfowl and songbirds overhead are a curiosity to him; he watches as they fly overhead. The rain is slight, but the 15 mph winds make it an unpleasant hike. It's in the low 30s, and the sandy portions of the trail are thoroughly soaked--perfect for seeing fresh tracks despite the snowless ground. 
Fen first finds turkey tracks. I wonder what he thinks of the smell, because he's never seen one. Turkey are everywhere on the park--last fall there was a flock of 20 in this area and you couldn't drive around the park road without seeing at least two groups of five or six. Clearly, the park's coyote population isn't affecting the turkeys. 
We're not more than 50 meters down the trail when we see the first set of coyote tracks. They are the same size as my pups tracks, but I know for sure that they're coyote for several reasons. Coyotes typically track in a straight line, where dogs prints are side-by-side. Coyotes also double register when they walk--that is, their hind foot goes exactly where their front foot was. Individual coyote prints have an oval shaped outline, while dogs are typically circular. This is because of how they hold their toes: dogs tend to spread their toes, while coyotes hold their toes close. There's also one last obvious give away: there are no fresh people tracks on the trail.
We continue to the first set of traps, climb up over the dune and find both sets empty. Back down the dune to the trail and continue on to the second set. The wind has really picked up by now, and my glasses are speckled with raindrops. 
Fenris bounds through the grasses, and we find the second trap sets empty. We return to the trail and find three sets of coyote tracks. Their curiosity piqued by the scents at the trap sets, and they have probably begun to investigate the area thoroughly. All we need is for one to move in a little closer...
The sand is punctuated with more and more coyote tracks as we get closer to the third set of traps. Back up over the dune, and two empty sets stare back at us. We quickly turn around and hike back to the car. 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

8 March 2009

My alarm goes off at 7 am. Last night was Daylight Savings Time, so I'll be running on four hours sleep. The drive to Presque Isle is always quick on a Sunday morning. 
Last night, Carrie discovered the coyote while posting signs around the trap area. She was only able to post two before the surprise. 
I carry a trap setting bucket stocked with supplies, and a plastic bag full of lures. It's not raining yet, but I decide to grab the umbrella. Getting wet again is not high on my list.
The first two sets are empty, so I continue down the trail to where Carrie left four additional signs, and even her sledge. I check the next two sets, and post two "please keep out" signs. 
It begins to rain again, and although I feel silly, the umbrella goes up. 
The last two sets are empty: one is still set and the other is sprung from last nights coyote. Some trappers take advantage of this, and others avoid it. But Carrie requested that the set be remade, so I begin the task of resetting. I employ some of the old tricks Marshall reminded me of, and all of the new ones he demonstrated just yesterday morning.
The walk back: it's still raining and cold. Fog devours most of the tree line from my view. I hear Red-wing blackbirds far in the distance, each claiming their lek in anticipation of the female flocks to arrive.
Carrie has at least one more collar, maybe two. I don't think it'll be long.

7 March 2009, 7pm

A knock at the door: our friends Doug and Pat who will join us at the St. Patrick's Irish Hoolie. It's BYOB, so we all drive to fill up three growlers at a local distributor. Let the party begin! The auditorium is filled with over 300 people gathering to hear Shamus Kennedy sing the tried and true Irish favorites. The four of us meet up with no less than 15 of Ben's (very Irish) family members. Our spread is impressive: cheese squares in three flavors, every junk food imaginable: cookies, chocolate, cheese dips, salsa; the list is endless. So much for my diet.
I left my cell phone in the car, and procrastinate going back out to get it. At some point around 9:45, Ben slips out to the car without me noticing. I hadn't even noticed he was gone, when he plops down in the chair next to me and says "Carrie just called, you have a coyote."
"What?" I look at him with confusion. Ben repeats "A coyote...we have to go." The information is perplexing to me. A coyote? A coyote! Okay...we make quick arrangements for our friends to hitch a ride back home with Ben's parents, for Chayce to stay where he is--at his Aunt's house with his cousin, and leave the huge annual Irish celebration.
State Street is impossible on a Saturday night. Every light is red. We get home and Ben packs the car with animal handling equipment while I go in, get the puppy out of bed and take him outside to his dad.
In the house is a half-dead camera battery from this morning. Who would have thought. Less than twelve hours ago we were setting traps. Guess I need to take this more seriously. My thoughts are a little fuzzy. I change into warmer clothes, hiking boots and a rain coat. It is raining--hard. Sorry, Fenris, back to bed.
All the camera and sound gear back into the car, we zoom to where we were just hours before. We meet up with Nick, a DCNR Park Ranger at the Ranger Station. Carrie is not far behind.
I had called and left messages for Samantha. She calls, and I encourage her and Mike to join us. At this time of night, no one else is around and we need all the help we can get.
We park at the trailhead, and begin the difficult task of setting up the camera gear in the rain. High-tech gear is the best: a black garbage bag goes over top of the camera and tripod. It is still pouring down rain, and the temperature has dropped into the mid-30s.
Samantha and Mike are en route, but we begin down the trail without them. It's dark, but we hike in silence without flashlights or headlamps. It's about 3/4 mile to our destination.
Samantha calls, and I try to explain where we are. Ben hikes back to our cars to guide them back to us. Meanwhile, Carrie, Nick and I huddle under our make-shift hut of golf umbrella and tarp. I make all the necessary camera adjustments: mount the light to the camera's top, connect the external stereo mic to the boom pole, and to the camera. My hands are numb from holding the cold, now wet metal tripod.
We wait.
Finally, a small twinkle from a flashlight. Ben, Samantha and Mike are close. When they arrive we try to make a game plan. Filming in the dark is one thing, but this coyote is probably soaking wet and it's cold.
Nick brought a huge, super-powered spotting light. This turns out to be the only reason why I can shoot at all. Sam holds the light, Ben the umbrella and I hoist the tripod and camera onto my shoulder. It's dark and disorienting. We begin our short hike up and over the dune.
At first we think she's gone, but we're looking in the wrong direction. More to the right...there. Beautiful! Ben, Sam and I creep in close set up the camera and begin rolling. What a beautiful creature. This coyote doesn't panic as much as the last one. Sam holds the umbrella steady. The camera is dressed with a rain cover, but it's still pouring so Sam holds the umbrella over the camera and the external microphone. Ben holds the mega-spotting light on one shoulder, and
the boom pole in the other. Mike will record Carrie's data as she reads it off.
We sound bird calls to let Carrie and Nick know it's time to move in. Calmly and slowly they approach the stuck-coyote, put the noose around her neck, and tighten the line to snug. Carrie tosses a blanket over the animal and it instantly stops panicking. A rope-muzzle is tied around the coyotes long snout, and a hat over it's whole head to cover the eyes. First, remove the paw from the trap. No injury. Healthy...and yes, it's a she! Teeth reveal an adult. Onto the blanket, and draw the four corners to make a sling. Eyelets hook onto the spring scale, and it reveals a
32-pound coyote. The collar is fitted, and double checked. The nuts are difficult to manuver with cold fingers and are protesting being tightened. The receiver beep, beep, beeps.
We move the camera 90 degrees from our current shooting location. I'm hoping that she might run somewhat in this direction when Carrie and Nick release her. Carrie pulls off the muzzle first, then the eye cover. Green eye shine reflects back our artificial light. I quickly get a full-face shot. Then signal that I'm ready. Nick releases the tension on the dog-catchers noose, the coyote runs into the darkness and is gone.
On the hike back Carrie states that she's probably pregnant. Her belly looked a little larger than normal, and it is now the time when she would be with pups. And 32-pounds is a nice sized female. It's very possible that we've caught the Alpha. We both hope so.
Everyone is sodden. My pants are soaked. We gather at the Ranger Station, warm up then head home. By the time we get to bed, it's 2am.

7 March 2009, 6:15 am

I jolt awake from the sound of my alarm. I switch it off, roll over and close my eyes. But only for a moment. Getting out of bed is easier with wildlife as an agenda. Spring is coming: a flock of Red-winged blackbirds flies over our house, and an American robin serenades us as we haul some gear out of the garage. Ben and I pack all the camera and audio gear into the car, and eat our breakfast on the way. Fenris is being puppy-sat by his grandparents today because what we are doing won't be a good activity for him.We pull in at the Stull Interpretive Center shortly before 8am. The recent weather has been warm, and only the deepest snowpiles remain as dirty memories of their former whiteness. This is a great relief because clear ground and above freezing will give us much better chances for our catch. Samantha arrives, quickly followed by Carrie and then a fourth vehicle pulls in.
A couple of weeks ago, Marshall contacted Carrie as a result of the newspaper article in the Erie Times. He's a self proclaimed hobby trapper with the Pennsylvania Trapper's Association. Some hobby--90 traps makes our operation seem miniscule. He's here today to help us set our trapline, teach us some new tricks, and probably increase our trap success. I'm thankful for his help because it's been almost ten years since I set traps before the beginning of this project and I'm sure I've forgotten some details.
Marshall focuses on trapping Canines: fox and coyotes, so he certainly understands and appreciates the difficulty of our task ahead.
We drive to the trailhead and begin hauling all the necessary gear out of the backs of our cars:
me camera and sound equipment plus a precautionary umbrella, and Carrie and Marshall their trapping gear. We don't have the benefit of even a slight amount of snow to enable loading up a sled, so everything is carried: camera, tripod, microphone, boom pole, camera packs, traps, rebar stakes, bucket, lures, shovels, sledgehammer, cotton balls, gloves, rain gear, and the ever important umbrella.
It's a slightly misty morning, warmer than it has been in a long time. But the threat of rain is in the sky, and the warm, damp air hints a chill now and then. Dark clouds are overhead. We have about two hours before the forecast says it will surely rain.
Marshall makes quick work of six traps. He spreads the line out longer than we had done prior to this, but puts the traps in groups of two. Two here, there and at last, about the halfway point down the trail. He reminds us to surround the trap set with 'decorations' to encourage the coyote to step exactly on the trap pan. Sticks and grasses make mini-fences to encourage good footwork on the curious-coyote's part. Marshall reminds me of other small details that I had forgotten, and does do some things differently than how I was taught; an important point in switching up sets when trapping starts to dry up.
We begin our hike back to the cars, and Carrie finds fresh scat on the trail: still warm! While
she's taking her measurements, GPS point, and collects the specimen for later analysis, it begins to rain. We plan to focus our efforts on one end of the park for now, and try setting at the opposite end again sometime later. Our emotion is optimistic, excited, and the knowledge that it is just a matter of time.
We celebrate at Panera with lunch. Just in time, it's pouring!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

5 March 2009

Yesterday, I presented to the Friends of the Tom Ridge Center Board for our grant application. This is the second time I'd made the presentation, but I was still a little gittery. I received an email from the Director today stating that they wish to continute to support our project with a grant! I am so very happy and excited that Ben and I can continue to focus on this project throughout the summer. By receiving the Friends support, it enables me to take the summer off of my day-job and crawl around in the grass with the ticks at Presque Isle instead. Hooray!Sometimes I think my love for coyotes maybe goes too far, and that my willingness to do yet another film about them may seem redundant to others. However, they are a wonderful vehicle by which to deliver science education to children and adults. And with this being our first truly large project, it doesn't hurt to focus on a topic that I know so well. This will, hopefully, be the first of many film projects we produce for the Big Green Screen Theatre. So, with all my heart, Thanks Friends, and thanks Ann!!!

Monday, March 2, 2009

2 March 2009

Carrie called this morning to say that a Pennsylvania Trapper's Association member is going to lend us a hand this Saturday resetting. I look forward to learning new techniques in our attempts to catch additional coyotes. They are quite clever, and any new tricks will help us succeed.
The animal we collared over a week ago seems to be staying on the park, and is utilizing the same area over and over for cover. Yesterday, he went out onto the frozen lake and headed North, but has returned to his 'favorite' spot as of this morning.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

28th February 2009

Carrie arrives shortly after 10 am for what will be a marathon-trap-prep. She brings a new propane stove which should boil the trap dye much easier than the camping stove we used before. A large pot goes on the stove and we wait until it simmers.
It's only 20 degrees out, and windy. Ben makes a wind shield out of tin foil to block the breeze and protect the flame. We wait. After about twenty minutes, we put half of the traps into the simmering water. 
To speed up our process, I take the stock pot full of wax inside and start to melt it on my stove. The traps need to boil for an hour, and the wax will take just as long to melt. Not too hot, or the wax will ignite. 
By now, it's lunchtime and we order pizza. Wait some more.
Carrie fishes the traps out of the boiling water
 with metal hangers, and they are placed on the clothesline to dry. Five all together. The next five traps go into the black, bubbling water.
Dying and boiling traps does a few things. Traps are supposed to be rusted so that they are porous and will accept the dye. Trap dye is dark brown to black and has a woodsy odor to it. Trap shy coyotes have learned the smell of metal and associate it with their experience of being in or dealing with a trap. The entire process seems more ritualized to me, because I hear of trappers that don't bother with this process at all. 
Boiling traps removes any oil from the fabrication process on new traps, and takes away any scent that the trap may have acquired from trapping animals. Old wax is also removed when boiling the traps. We do this process every time a trap has been sprung or has been in the ground too long because we want to prevent catching non-target species. We only want to catch
 coyotes, so by eliminating other animals scents from each set, we narrow the chances of trapping a skunk or raccoon or heaven forbid, an opossum. 
Once the traps are dry, Carrie quickly dips each trap into the hot wax and hangs it back on the
 clothesline to dry. Wax seals the trap up, hopefully impairing the metal scent and also lubricates the trap to make it faster when closing. After they've dried completely, they go into a plastic bin and a lid seals out any human scent.
We're now ready to reset our trap line.

20th February 2009

Ben and I drop my step-son, Chayce, off at school and make the short drive to the peninsula. We park at a small pull-out, and drag the sled out of the trunk.
Very little snow remains, and I think finding the traps should be easy. The two-day rain, however, has been followed by freezing temperatures and snowfall. As I jab the end of a shovel into the ground to spring the first trap, it closes in slow motion. The traps have been frozen despite our best efforts to mix antifreeze in with the sets. They've been in the ground now for about a month, so it's time to pull them and start again.

The second and third traps are the same--they barely close around the shovel handle when I stab the ground. Ben helps me dig the stakes out--quite a process because in sand we use two stakes, crossed in the ground to prevent any animal from dragging the trap and all away from the trap site. Sand makes everything more complicated. The stakes are 24 inches long, so we dig down into the sand a ways, and then loop a small piece of rope around the top of the stake and pull. The stakes come free, and we load everything into the sled.

The fourth trap set, despite its location being marked by orange flagging, is missing. I know it's there, somewhere under the snow--but the tell-tale mouse hole is missing. We dig, and dig, and dig, and still nothing. Maybe it was stolen. It's happened already with this project; not a trap, but a game camera.

In early fall, Carrie and I headed out to the field to set up game cameras. These are the kind you leave strapped to a tree, and it takes photographs if anything passes in front of the camera's sensor. We had a little luck, until one of the cameras came up missing. Each camera was in a metal security box, and then cable-tied to the tree with a lock. Each security box fitted with a combination lock, and then each camera inside has an eight digit code to access the controls and photos. So, whoever the thief is-- the camera is useless to them.

We return later that afternoon with my nephew, Andrew, who has a metal detector. Good thing children still have hobbies. The trap is steel, and the stakes are rebar metal, so a metal detector should easily locate the trap for us under the snow.

Andrew is eager to help. We return to the park, and make the short hike with Fenris and Chayce in tow.

A few passes over the snow, and beeping reveals a large piece of siding--probably put there by researchers trying to determine which snake species exist on the park. In the summer, large flat objects are perfect hiding places for snakes--so if they are provided a hiding spot scientists can monitor who takes up residence under the foreign object.

Scanning, scanning, scanning...I really don't want to report another theft for this project. I have Andrew widen his search area. I was the one who set this trap, so this is my fault for not remembering it's location. I vaguely remember the orange flagging not being right on target because there was nothing to tie it to. Andrew continues to search.

Just as we are about to leave, beep, beep, beep. Something else metal in a pile of dirt and snow. Andrew nudges it with his shoe, and it immediately becomes apparent to us that this is the trap! But it has been set off, and there is no sign of what or who was our visitor. No hair in the jaws. It's been here so long, that any tracks have long since been erased by wind, rain and snow.

We dig the last trap out, pull the stakes and head to reward ourselves with milkshakes. Jamoca for me please.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

19 February 2009

My phone rings at 8:30, my first thought is that we've trapped a coyote. I hop out of bed to see that it is just my mom calling. It's a cold, windy, snowy morning. One of those days that is good for sleeping in. And because my day job is in the afternoon and evening I tend to stay up later than most, but sleep later than most, too.

Ben returns from taking my step-son to school, and we join each other for breakfast. Coffee and toast--nothing complicated. By 10 am I find myself lounging in my pajamas a little too late. Ben answers a call to my cell phone, and it's Carrie.

I fly upstairs to find...what do I need? What am I looking for? Well, I need clothes for starters. Do I need warm clothes? Is it really cold out? Does it matter--should I just put on whatever? Or just go out the door in my pajamas? Wool pants, where are my wool pants? Fleece top, long underwear--yes that's a good idea--winter coat...Okay, the camera...where's the camera? Thankfully, where it belongs of course, on the dining room table!

Ben runs out to clean off my car, turn it around in the driveway, and pack all the camera gear in
 the back.

Where are my wool pants? Ben is still loading the car. Finally! Right where they belong...

I decide to change to a fresh battery and load and stripe a new tape in the camera. As I close the tape cover on the camera and look into the viewfinder--I see a symbol of a tape with a line through it. Ah, Coyote, you're getting the best of me! I unthread the tape, pull it out to find a long black streamer coming out of the camera. Great. Well, at least I'm not trying to do this in the field. I scrap the tape, pull out the head cleaner, then load a new tape and cross my fingers. Seems okay. Color bars recorded, I'm out the door.

Why is it that when you're in a hurry the car in front of you goes 10 mph below the speed limit?

I arrive at the park to find Carrie had just arrived herself. Dave had checked traps this morning, and had made the initial call. We wait only a few minutes for DCNR employees to arrive. Ben has to be at work -- so I enlist my friend Kathleen to hold the boom pole. Okay, now, Ray can you take still pictures? Great.

Kathleen and I head in first to set up the camera for the approaching shot. Our coyote is quite frightened at being so close to people. We set up the tripod at a decent distance so the animal doesn't panic to the point of pulling out of the trap and ruining the entire process. I go through the essentials in my head: level the tripod, check focus and exposure, composition...

We wave the team in, and Brian and Carrie approach the worrisome animal. He pulls at his foot which is held in the trap. Mostly, he cowers in fright. No growling, no gnashing of teeth, no aggression at all. Brian slowly and easily slips the noose over his face and around to his neck, tightens up on the line just as Carrie covers his face.

We work quietly and quickly. It's a boy! The teeth reveal no indication of the animal being less than a year he must be at least 21 months...and because we're well into mating season and even perhaps after...he should be a resident animal. But 20 pounds? We weigh a second time...20 pounds. He certainly looks much bigger than that. I would have guessed at least 40.

Carrie carefully fits the collar, and two others check the tightness. Too tight and the animal can be harmed, but too loose and the collar could come off at any time, and our efforts ruined. The magnet is removed from the battery, and the quiet beep, beep, beep from the receiver can be heard. That's our lifeline into this animals behavior. One, two, three...and he's gone into the brush just moments after we release him. Gone. But now we can know where he spends his time, when he goes and what habitats he seems to prefer.

19th January 2009

It's snowing like mad again, but at least the temperature is in the twenties today. I had hoped to take my step-son with me for the short hike, but I think the deep snow will be too much for him. Fenris will accompany me up to the bottom of the dune, where I will tie him up and then proceed on my own.

17th January 2009

Carrie and I had intended to set traps today, but it's 10 degrees and 15 mph winds. I think, and she agrees, that we need to wait for the temperature to rise and the snow to cease for us to have any kind of success. It's a waiting game for the lake to freeze and the lake effect snow to stop burying our traps. 

16th January 2009

Arriving at the trail-head, I decide to strap on my snowshoes to make the trip easier and faster. It's so cold that my boots squeak under my footsteps. I rush out to the trap site not just due to the cold but because I have another obligation to get to as soon as possible. On Friday nights we host a wildlife film festival at the TREC theatre, and I'm already late. The sunset is beautiful and crisp; bright colors wash the sky.
My chin burns with the cold wind's bite. I'm kicking snow up onto my back and up my legs from running with snowshoes on. I realize that my pants are becoming wet with the snow building up on the back of my legs. My hamstrings are so cold I barely notice. 
There are small flocks of sparrows attempting to forage in the deep snow. Grass stems bow over with the weight making the prized seed-head more accessible to the small birds. They seem to not mind my approach until the last possible moment, and then burst into flight. They don't go far. It's too cold even for them to use excessive energy. Warmth is more important.
I climb the dune and peer over to where we have set four traps. The now must be buried in six inches of snow. So much effort for very little chance of trapping; but we still have to try. They are empty again.

11th January 2009

Carrie and I reset traps in a different location. We're now using a formerly successful trapping area on Presque Isle, which is currently showing signs of coyote activity. We start off at about 2:30, pulling the ridiculous amount of equipment we need in a sled behind us. I feel better about where we are putting the traps, but am concerned about the amount of snow we are getting. It's not the best weather but trying is better than not. The sled is stacked full with traps, stakes, lures, 2 sledgehammers, setting tongs, trappers cap and fork, buckets, sifter, shovels and trap antifreeze. We decide on the trap site, and Carrie digs the first hole.
We work together--so I set the trap and hand it to her with trapper's fork in place. These precautions are beginners tools: fork, cap, and setting tongs; but it makes the job easier, faster and most importantly, we can work a little bit more confidently that our fingers won't be part of the catch.
She drives the stakes in, and I silently wish that we could skip the noise. At least a dozen cross country skiers pass on the trail below, and although I enjoy talking with people about coyotes, I don't like to be bothered when setting traps.
Two hours earlier, I go through painstaking effort to descent myself. Using special soap in the shower, I wash my hair and body with a liquid that is supposed to make you nearly invisible in the scent world. Coyote's sense of smell is 40x ours, so this step is important. 
Because it's so cold out, I blow dry my hair. This is something I never do otherwise, but keeping warm when it's in the 20s is important. I pull on layers of clothing that were descented in the washing machine with a special soap. All this descenting leaves my skin dry and cracking in places. I can't wait to reverse the process.
Carrie finishes staking the trap, and I hand her cotton balls, the trappers cap, and wax paper. She packs the trap as best as she can with sand mixed with trap antifreeze, and sifts more over the wax paper that sits on top of the entire set. Setting in sand has lots of problems, so using wax paper on top prevents sand from working its way down underneath the pan--which would render the entire set useless. Finally, the finishing touches. She makes a mouse-sized hole and shoves a cotton ball soaked with gland lure to the bottom. A squirt bottle with coyote urine marks the backer and in front of the set. Call lure is placed high in an overhead branch. A stick as decoration in front of the set and we're done. Off to the next set. We drag the sled and start again.
Carrie and I have lots to talk about, and before we know it two hours have gone by and we've only set four traps. We had intended to set more in another area of the park, but it's getting dark. 
As we make our way back to the road, we hear the coyotes howl. They're in the area, not far at all. We plan to set again as soon as we can.

9th January 2009

Carrie pulled the coyote traps this afternoon. The location hasn't attracted so much as a rabbit or deer, despite all the coyote activity at the head of the park. We plan to move them later this weekend.
I think that coyotes are cautious about new smells in confined areas. The traps were in some pretty thick brush, and if I were a coyote, I'd probably not want to go in to a confined area to investigate the smell of an unknown coyote.

2nd January 2009

Well, setting traps is like riding a bicycle. I'm quite confident with what I'm doing, but am slow to remember some important details. It's been almost ten years since I last trapped coyotes, and I'm anxious to focus on filming animal handling this time around instead of dividing my attention.
Carrie and I are joined by my husband, Ben, who takes photographs of us as we set. 
The wind is unbelievable. I'm thankful for what little cover the trees offer. Carrie begins on the first set, and I decide to start on one down a game trail a short distance from her. The cold makes wearing rubber gloves quite miserable, and soon, my toes are just as cold due to standing in one place. 
The most nerve-wracking part of setting is the one that can ruin your entire set. After packing the inside and outside of the set trap with dirt, I tap the pan down until it is level with the ground. A hair trigger is the only thing that'll catch a wary coyote. But one tap too many on the pan and the trap snaps shut and you have to remake the set all over again. 
Years ago, when Tom taught me how to set I always made him nervous with how much I tapped the pan down. He always said he would have stopped one or two taps before me. I just keep an eye on the trap dog edge, and make sure there is as little contact as possible. One tap too many and the result is a face full of dirt.