Sunday, June 20, 2010

Science documentary film seeks financial support

Over the past two months I have been reviewing and cutting raw footage recorded over the past two years. We've moved forward with our current project by purchasing a 2TB hard drive to dump all of this footage onto, and begin the long, arduous task of cutting, trimming and categorizing each and every clip.
Doing both shooting and editing gives much more experience than just shooting alone. By seeing what I've shot, I immediately see my own mistakes and am able to grow as a cameraperson much faster as a result. In addition, I am able to spot shots that would tie each sequence together, and if necessary, shoot additional footage to fill in the gaps. This is of utmost importance, and while I do enjoy editing--this process has left me feeling quite empty. I go back in time and review each and every moment: a weasel family working together to kill a chipmunk, two bucks bursting through a flock of turkey, a coyote barking madly at my presence, radio collaring a coyote in the middle of the night, examining coyote scat contents in the lab, pinpointing a den location as a result of radio telemetry, canoeing out to an old den site, finding pups in the den...all of these moments will make for a great film--but it's all frozen in time. All of the stories I told last year as a result of getting out into the field each and every day have come to a complete halt. As I stare at the computer monitor and relive each moment: a tom fanning his feathers, a Brown thrasher foraging for food, I cannot help but agonize over the things I have missed and am missing right now.
This science documentary was meant to be three years in the making--not just because--but due to the difficulty of gathering Eastern coyote natural history footage in the wild. We wished to produce a film of likes had never been seen before--and we still could! But we need financial support. This is not my hobby, and I am not independently wealthy, so working for free is simply out of the question. The economy has hit us particularly hard because of the nature of our work. We survive on and exist because of grants. No one is giving out grant money--so our fieldwork has ceased.
One grant in particular, the Department of Environmental Protection Environmental Education Grant, was to support teachers who would write science education curricula to go with the film for Northwestern Pennsylvania schools. I had already given a presentation to the Northwest Tri County Intermediate Unit #5 in order to begin the recruitment process. We had several interested science teachers. The DEP grant would also have supported additional field work necessary for the film production. However, we were notified last week that we were rejected for this grant.
I don't really know where to go from here. I've started going through my 80+ list of granting agencies. Some of which no longer exist, others have changed their focus, but mostly grant agencies have tightened their purse strings and are no longer giving out financial support.
My husband and I have a vision for the theatre at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center. We wish to produce films for the theatre about scientific research taking place right here in NW Pennsylvania. There is so much going on that the general public has no idea--and we want to share it with everyone. Educational opportunities are being missed as time goes on. We have such a rich heritage at Presque Isle, in wildlife and ecology. We hope to celebrate that via means of taking the visitor right there, through the viewfinder of a documentary lens. Very few have this capability, and our six time award winning company only needs a point in the right direction. I have an existing proposal that is outstanding, we can write grants, do research, write scripts, shoot, record natural sound, edit and finish a project. To top it all off--we have a venue! We have the Big Green Screen Theatre to showcase our work! I just don't have the ability to search for grants. I don't have access to a grant search engine. We are even eligible for non-profit grants through the Regional Science Consortium. I've spent time writing a business plan to find investors, working with Gannon SBDC. We've networked with the Erie Regional Chamber, etc. etc. etc. I am spread far too thin! And did you know I have a day job? My time would be much better spent making educational science films. There is so much possibility at TREC's theatre, so much potential that is not being taken advantage of, so much that is not being considered. Somehow this filmmaking idea isn't working--so I ask you: what would you do? Where should we ask for help? Is science education important? Is awareness of our natural world important? Should our children find a spiritual connection to nature? Only with film will you reach thousands of people with a message.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cemetery Coyote

Over a week ago, I received an email from a concerned citizen--the creator of the above Facebook page--about a coyote living in a local cemetery. While it is not unusual for coyotes to live in cities, I've taken a stance on this issue because I truly believe that the reaction is extreme and unwarranted.
The cemetery is private property--so as a citizen of the City of Erie I guess we don't have a say in the outcome of this animal's life. Because a few people have complained about the coyote living there, the Cemetery Manager has decided that the appropriate reaction is to hire an animal control professional. The problem is--relocation is not part of the plan. In fact I don't believe relocation is even legal. This coyote, if trapped, will be killed.
Ben and I visited the cemetery yesterday to have a look for ourselves. Not because we "had to see it," but rather because I'm doing a documentary film on coyotes, have been working with them in varying capacities over the past eleven years; and quite frankly I wanted to assess the situation myself. From what others had posted on the Facebook site: Save the Coyote, it almost sounded as if this animal had become habituated--no longer afraid of people. But luckily this was not the case. Our first look was of this animal running from groundskeepers mowing the lawn. Much too quick to even get a millisecond on film, or even to snap a photo. We tried again, walking quietly around the cemetery grounds--trying to be respectful of those there to tend to their loved-ones graves. Ben and I were very uncomfortable--not because of the coyote but because we were there for our own reasons.
Ben sees the coyote again--running in the opposite direction. This animal is clearly being bounced around by all the human activity in the cemetery. But there are plenty of places to hide: behind gravestones and under Rhododendron. Fox squirrels are everywhere: so there's no lack of food either.
The media has attracted a lot of attention to this animal--which would be a good thing if people realized that the traps are there to kill this coyote. But I don't think this point has been made in the news. Because there has been so much hoopla, I've written to the Erie Cemetery Manager and the Erie Times News to try and make a plea for this coyotes life:
"Dear Erie Times News,
It is disappointing to me to learn that a "solution" to finding a coyote living in the Erie Cemetery is to trap and kill it. This animal is not hurting anyone by being there--on the contrary it has eaten mice and other small mammals that are found there in abundance. Coyotes are naturally curious about people and will often stand and watch before running away. Seeing a coyote during the day is not cause for alarm, particularly this time of year. Where coyotes are not hunted (such as in cities), they are active more during the day. Coyotes are also raising puppies this time of year--so they have much more hunting to do to find food to feed their young. Both male and female coyotes help raise puppies, and both parents are critical to the litters success.
I find both the public's and the Erie Cemetery's reaction both ignorant and disappointing. We can and do live beside these creatures every day--most of us just don't know it. These are not evil creatures who are out to get you. Life should not be as disposable as killing something to get rid of it. Coyotes are amazing creatures with fascinating natural history and a complex Native American mythology. Coyotes are here to stay: we might as well get used to living with them. The more we hunt them, the more puppies they produce: "compensatory reproduction."
I encourage anyone who fears or does not understand these animals to attend one of my public lectures on coyotes. I have been researching them for over 11 years now: both at Presque Isle State Park and in Yellowstone National Park. I have given over 40 public lectures about them, and will continue to educate everyone I meet about these much maligned creatures."

"Dear Erie Cemetary Manager,
A concerned citizen from the Erie Area brought to my attention that a coyote in the Erie Cemetary has been the cause of some complaints. I am directly involved with the coyote research taking place at Presque Isle State Park, and have been involved in coyote research to varying degrees over the past ten years. I would like to offer a few alternative solutions put together by myself and fellow coyote researcher:
1. Post "do not feed wildlife" signs -- hand feeding coyotes is the only documented cause of attack. Coyotes are naturally curious about people, and will often stand and look at passersby before running away.
2. Removal of the current inhabitant will only cause another coyote to move in. Coyotes are ubiquitous. They are found in major cities across the US, and have adapted to living alongside people. They're in downtown LA, Chicago and New York. Erie is not unique.
3. Seeing coyotes during the day is NOT cause for alarm. Coyotes are active any time of the day--espically in places where they are not hunted (such as in cities). They are active when their prey is active, and will change their habits accordingly.
4. Public education. I would be happy to hold a public lecture about coyotes. I have completed 3 films on them, and have worked with them in the field for ten years (and have given over 40 public lectures). We are currently in production for a fourth film that will show at the Tom Ridge Center. The biology graduate student involved with the current research project is also open to giving public lectures.
5. Using deterrants.Try shooting the coyote with paintball, rocksalt or pellet gun. This will give the coyote a clear message that people are not friendly and he/she will quickly learn to stay away from humans.
Please feel free to write back to me if you have further questions. Thank you for taking the time to read my email.

Please call the Erie Cemetery Manager and request that the coyote traps be removed, and for them to leave the animal alone. His name is Clark and he can be reached at: 

814-459-2463. Please be respectful, and express your concern in a polite manner. You can also email the Erie Cemetery Association at:

Monday, April 26, 2010

Natal den site

Last year Carrie was able to locate the natal den with radio telemetry. When we found the pups, they were four weeks old or less--eyes barely open and bright blue. Getting to them was horrendous. Pushing through endless Phragmites in thigh deep, tea colored water for over an hour was exhausting to say the least. This is the kind of mud that steals your shoes. And it stinks--literally. Tussocks make the landscape a mini mountain range and footing very uncertain. We grasp at the dead Phragmites stalks for balance. It's hot, and I'm carrying my tripod, camera and pack--about 40 pounds of gear in all. To top it off we wear waders. Too bad mine leak. The rush of cold water is welcoming--but again it stinks--really badly. The natal den is on a tiny island. Adult coyotes would certainly have to swim to reach the pups. Absolutely amazing!
There were four pups in all: probably two male and two female. Far too young to be playing outside the den. We return to this site to investigate it a year later. Could it be the home of this year's litter?
This time, we have a different mode of travel. Ben and I heave our canoe off the roof of my car, and begin to pack our camera equipment into our boat: camera, extra lenses, batteries, tapes, tripod, sit-upon, trash bags (in case it rains!), still camera, video camera and finally paddles and pfd's. It's about 55 degrees and I wear sandals on purpose--remembering the deep, thick mud from last year.
We push off--or at least try to push off. The first 50 yards or so are completely matted with vegetation and it's a struggle to get to open water. We force our paddles to the bottom and leaver our way forward.
Carrie travels separately--in her own kayak. This allows me to get some beautiful shots of her paddling through the spatterdock. The only landlords are pairs of geese -- each spaced out along the shoreline in preparation for the coming clutch. A beaver lodge sits seemingly inactive: no new vegetation on the top of the mound. We pick our way around more dense vegetation across the pond: probably covering twice as much distance than if the water line was high like last spring. We arrive at the opposite shore of the pond to find a familiar site: deep, thick, smelly mud. Out of the canoe to sink right in up to my calves. Heave the boat way up on the shoreline, and push through sawgrass, thorns, and more mud for a mere five minutes.
There is fresh dirt at the entrance so we are hopeful. Carrie peers in only to find it empty.
I'm not surprised that the same natal den was not used a second year in a row. Even though the deep water has subsided, we're missing one important element: the collared female. Towards winter, her signal was intermittent at best: often times after a hard rainstorm the signal would disappear for a couple of days. The damage to her collar could be an indicator: the battery chewed into, and the antenna completely gone.
Surely the resident male could have found another mate since she left at least four months ago. But we don't know.
A nearby siren wails in the distance as we begin to push our way back to the boats: no response. Only time in the field will reveal if there is a new female here with pups.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

13 April 2010

It's mid April and in the coyote world that means one thing: puppy time. Carrie gets the male's signal in the same area a lot of the time, so we decide to try and find the den based on her telemetry data.
We push through brush where there is no trail--except if you are something the size of a rabbit. Thin branches spring back and whip at our eyes. Thorny vines and bushes grasp at our clothing, and are almost successful at stealing my bandana. Over and under, forcing our way through almost impenetrable weaving of branches--and then there is a familiar sound that must surely mean good luck.
In Yellowstone, we were fortunate to film two different coyote dens with pups running about and playing with each other and the adults. For almost a week, I would wake up in my tent well before first light and make the beautiful drive from Lamar Valley up to Mammoth Hot Springs to claim my 3' square part of the pavement on the roadside. Over the course of each day, about a dozen photographers and filmmakers would come and go--all of us lining the street and acting as interpreters as park visitors would stop and ask what we were watching. At the Mammoth den, a ruby crowned kinglet sang every day in the morning and evening--it's song dominating my sound track. Later, while editing this extensive amount of footage, it was hard not to associate the kinglet with coyote pups.
Carrie, Ben and I come to a narrow runway created by a grouping of fallen down trees. Coming from above us I can clearly hear a ruby crowned kinglet singing. I tell Ben of the good luck that this means. He probably has no idea what I'm talking about, so I explain. When you edit your own footage you become intimately familiar with each little bit, and funny associations pop up now and then. For me, the kinglet's song will always take me back to filming coyote pups in Yellowstone.
The set of logs all lay parallel to one another and are almost piled on top of each another. Ben immediately climbs up to the top: over the broken base and along the log which is almost 5' off the ground. Coyotes use this path of least resistance too, and have claimed it as their own: there is all sorts of scat along the log. In a realm of thorn and brush, logs become superhighways. We all end up on the log just to have a look around. Ben walks to the opposite end first: traveling along the 40' cottonwood trunk toward the more narrow end. But some bark is apparently loose, and Ben crashes down through the layers of tree trunks and is swallowed up to his shoulders.
There is no apparent way to go once we reach the end of the log, so we turn around and begin to push through the brush again. We must crawl on the sandy ground which is littered with last falls leaves. And we come to another log. This time it leads us to a more welcome site: the edge of a swamp. Pushing through dried cattail stalks is much easier than the lattice of branches we forced our way through. Over one more log and Carrie quickly turns around. "I'll wait for you--you'll want to see this." Ben and I hurdle ourselves over one final log and back into the brush ahead. There, at the base of a fallen tree and very beautifully excavated is the coyote den.
With Presque Isle's soil being almost exclusively sand, it is almost impossible to think of a den existing in any other circumstance. The tree roots are mostly still in tact and act as a support system for the rather large holes that have been dug into the tree's former base.
Carrie, on all fours, peers down into the den with her night vision camera. She takes several photos only to see that the tunnel takes a sharp turn not far beyond the entrance and it is impossible to see down in any further without disturbing the structure. It appears empty--no one is home. Naturally, the adults would have fled upon our approach. Coyotes do not defend their pups in the den, but will return after any disturbance is gone. Had there been pups, Carrie would have weighed them, sexed them, and recorded their apparent age. All very important data points as Eastern coyote pups are developmentally a little different than their western cousins.
Gestation is about 60 days in coyotes. So, depending on when the two alphas mate predicts the puppies birth date. It is possible that the female is still pregnant and has not yet given birth. Younger animals tend to breed later in the year--but just by a few weeks. With our luck this morning, and the ruby crowned kinglet's song, we're hopeful that in a short time we can return to a den full of puppies.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

7 April 2010

Yesterday I received a phone call from Sara Sargent of PA Audubon. She was calling from her cell phone from Gull Point out at Presque Isle State Park--the very tip of the peninsula.
"There's a dead coyote that's washed up on the shore" she told me. She asked that I please notify Carrie as well. Two minutes later, I'm leaving a message on Carrie's cell phone. Not more than 10 minutes later, Carrie is en route to have a look.
Some time later she calls me back and explains the condition, age and sex of the animal. We make plans to go out the next morning for a more thorough investigation.
Ben, Carrie and I meet at the Gull Point trail head at 11am to make the now disorienting hike out to the very tip of the peninsula. So much erosion has taken place that the old trailhead, including much of the former trail, is now gone. Park staff carved a new trail out to meet up with the remnants of the old trail system. So, at the beginning of the new trailhead we are flanked by Phragmites rather than bayberry--a disappointing change. My dislike of Phragmites goes way back.
Thunderstorms lurk on the horizon. Bursts of cool wind ruffle our clothing. We walk quickly.
Two cutbacks in the shoreline traverse the new hiking trail. Each are about 5 feet deep, drop steeply to the waterline, and back up again: mini ravines. The mixture of heat and cool wind is nauseating. All of us carry packs: me with the camera, lenses, and various camera parts, Ben with the tripod and still camera, and Carrie with her pack containing sample vials, dissection kit, measuring tape, scale, ground cloth and GPS. Anything is heavy when hiking across sand dunes.
We arrive to an audience of cormorants and gulls. Coyote tracks meander across the shoreline and stop short of the one lying in the open on the water's edge. Ben and I approach the coyote first, setting up the camera in a way to help tell our story. A shallow sand spit curves sharply around to our right and the wind begins to blast. Surely the water will be pushed into the inlet and begin to rise. Carrie approaches, and swings her pack to the ground. Photos first. The coyote looks as though she's running on her side: but completely still.
She is not small nor large. It looks as though she may had suffered from mange at one time, but coyotes can survive being exposed to this tiny mite. Her paws are black as tar, and her tail has a potentially identifying characteristic: the tail spot. Every coyote I have seen has a spot on it's tail that coincides with the tail gland. It's about 1/3 of the way down from the base of the tail, and you can often identify individual animals by looking at the tail spot's shape, size and position. Some are larger, some are bigger, some are off-center. We may just find out if we'd photographed this coyote in the past on the park.
It's hard to know where this individual came from. Not more than a week ago there was still ice out near Gull Point, and coyotes certainly take advantage of this seasonal way to travel off and on the park.
Blood drips out of her nose. Her eyes are still in tact. This animal has not been dead long. Our guess is that she'd drowned. No broken limbs, no wounds of any kind to speak of, and thankfully bloat has not set in yet, either.
Carrie measures her total body length, and tail length: two standard measurements in field research. Next is the scale. Carrie's ground cloth has four grommets on it: one at each corner so that when gathered up makes a sling from which the coyote can hang in from the spring scale: 30 pounds! About the same size as the female that we collared. But there is no collar on this girl. There is a coyote-shaped depression in the sand where the coyote once rested.
Carrie then collects a few tissue and hair samples for the USDA, and we are done. It begins to rain.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

27 March 2010

Carrie called me the other night and said "Can you hear that?" I listened carefully. Very faintly, I could hear static and the familiar beeping of a radio collar signal on a receiver. I said "Yes, where are you?" "That's Jack's signal! I'm on the park."
Obviously I'm confused at this point. We were just told hours earlier that Jack, a male collared coyote, had been shot in Ohio over the weekend. But that couldn't be Jack's signal.
I told Carrie that ten years ago a hunter tried to tell me he shot three coyotes on Presque Isle during deer season. (This would have been illegal, of course, because coyotes are protected on Presque Isle.) It obviously drove me crazy, until rumor flew around so much that finally I found out who the prankster was, and confronted him face to face.
But my hopes for trickery were dashed when Carrie explained that, no, it had been the collared female's signal that had disappeared only a few weeks ago. I had hoped that the female was preparing her den and maybe Carrie wasn't getting a signal because she was underground. But the way things were sounding, it was the interior resident female who is now lost to us.
I must say I am very impressed with the individual who shot the coyote. Not for his trophy, but rather for his honesty. He bothered to call Edinboro University's phone number that is listed on the collar. Today, we make that journey to collect the collar and to trade stories about the coyote research for his experience of hunting them on his property.
This is one of the main stumbling blocks of doing radio telemetry with coyotes. They are protected in very few places. And like any wild animal, they don't recognize our boundaries--they regularly go in and out from the area where they are protected into the vast area where they are not. In Pennsylvania, a hunter can shoot as many coyotes as he wants any day of the week (with the proper license, of course). So this makes keeping your research animals alive more a game of chance than prevention. All in all, though, an entire year of data is far beyond anything we have had on Presque Isle's coyotes yet. I'm hoping that "Jack" now decides to stay.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

24 March 2010

Working with wild animals seems, from the outside, to be an exciting and exhillarating thing to do. Obtaining the initial permit ten years ago to trap and radio collar coyotes on the peninsula took an entire year. Red tape, upon rejection upon doors being slammed, and "no, no, no!" fell on deaf ears, and blind eyes. I would not take no for an answer, and I still don't.
When Carrie applied for her trapping permit, things went much more smoothly the second time around. I was so excited that this project was again moving forward; wondering what could be learned this time. For there is very little information known about wild Eastern coyotes. Little field work has been done on them.
Last year, with extreme difficulty, we were able to trap two coyotes despite the immense amount of snow we received. Our first coyote trapped this time around was a male near the Stull Interpretive Center. He was an average sized animal--nothing remarkable about his appearance.
Telemetry is a remarkable thing. It lets you monitor an individual animal from a distance. If you are lucky, signals from three different locations allow you to pinpoint the coyote's location. A tremendous amount of information can be collected from just knowing where the animal is spending his time.
So as a field biologist, you spend a lot of time walking around in search of your collared animals. You begin to wonder what exactly they are up to the moment you hear the "beep, beep, beep" on the receiver. All this work carries over into your daily life, and you begin to wonder at other times what your research animals are doing. Just like a parent wondering when their teenagers will come home at night.
Upon the initial release from trapping an animal, I worry about the 48 hour acclimation period. A free, wild animal now has something foreign around its neck and getting used to it takes some time. Many animals spend an excessive amount of time grooming themselves. Can you blame them? They have to get the human stink off somehow! Once an individual passes this acclimation period, most carry on as usual.
Part of radiotelemetry and biology in general is to not become attached to your research animals. Well, you might as well tell a colony of ants to ignore that ice cream cone that just smashed on the sidewalk. Perhaps if I were researching snails it would be different. But coyotes? They look just like a dog! Beautiful, intelligent, and mysterious. When handling these animals, it is clear there is something going on behind their striking eyes. I cannot explain it--I just know there is sentience there. The coyote demands respect. They are highly adaptable--and therin is the key to the coyote's success. And his greatest downfall.
Because these animals are so smart, people take great pleasure and pride in hunting them. Should we or shouldn't we is another matter entirely; and I certainly have my own private opinion about this practice. But when it's your animal that is shot, when it is your coyote, the one you caught, the one you got to know, the one that took ever so long to catch and radiocollar--it's a different story entirely.
"Jack" -- as he was known between just Carrie and I -- was shot along with his mate in Ohio this past weekend. It's hard to know how to feel. Angry. Frustrated. Dissapointed. Sad. Sure, all those mixed together create an ugly feeling inside. You wonder the exact details, which can never be known. Why did this happen? All that work has now ended--quite abrubtly and with great suprise and sadness.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

We have been formally approved to provide Act 48 Credit to Northwest Tri County Intermediate Unit #5 Science Teachers! On Tuesday, April 13th, Tracy and Ben will give a lecture on coyotes at IU#5 in Edinboro, Pennsylvania.
This is a wonderful step forward in our efforts to produce a documentary film on coyotes at Presque Isle State Park. Our working partnerships are what will make this project succeed and help educate area students, adults and tourists not only about coyotes, but scientific research, too.
We have spent over ten years working directly and indirectly with coyotes. From our company's beginning in 1999 we have in major and minor ways kept a finger on the pulse of this wild Canine. I filmed my first coyote on May 1st, 1999 and since then it has been an addiction that cannot be quenched. I produced a short film on Presque Isle coyotes as an undergraduate student, filmed them in Yellowstone National Park as a graduate student, and trapped and radio collared them in 2000 and 2009 on Presque Isle. We hope that the telemetry side will continue as a long term research project.
We are optimistic that our presentation at IU#5 will recruit teachers who will help write science curricula that will accompany our theatrical release in 2012. With educational curricula written, this production has a high educational value!