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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