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.