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.