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.