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.

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