Wildlife Neighbors

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.

~Linda Hogan

I recently bought another trail camera and have been putting them out in our woods the past few weeks trying to document who shares our 14 acres. I look for game trails and natural junctures (like our creek bed), placing the cameras on trees for a couple of days, and then retrieving the images. It is always a thrill to see what triggered the cameras and when. I’m also starting to look for places where there has been obvious recent activity, like the pileated log from my last post. Of course, the photographer in me wishes the images were a higher quality, but the naturalist in me is delighted with what the cameras are recording when the woods are on their own.

By far, the greatest number of captures have been of Eastern Gray Squirrels. Our woods seem extra full of them this year, perhaps due to the extraordinary mast year we have had that produced an abundance of acorns and hickory nuts. There have been many trips that did not record any animal as there is a delay between when teh camera senses movement and when it starts recording. The mouse on the pileated log from the last post is a prime example. During the day, a quick moving squirrel or a bird flying in front of the camera can leave me with nothing but guesses as to what set it off.

Below are some of my favorite captures from the last four weeks of trail cameras (best if viewed full screen) with notes on each…

One of the mystery visitors (what do you think it is?)
I think one of these guys is the culprit from that first clip (I have recorded 4 raccoons at one time on the trail cam, possibly siblings?), Notice the interaction of the two in the background
The second most recorded animal has been White-tailed Deer, with as many as 5 in the field of view at once
I have seen this buck on a couple of cameras, both day and night
This buck is an 8-pointer, but has 5 points on one side and 3 on the other. I have seen this one and the one above bedded down near our fence during daylight recently
This was the first time a coyote was caught on camera. He looks up toward the house before running, so I assume I made some noise like splitting wood or chainsawing a log. The cameras have caught one coyote on several other occasions this past week at night and once have recorded two. We hear them on occasion but I have only seen one on our property with my own eyes..
This is the wildlife neighbor I have enjoyed seeing the most. It has been caught 3 times now on camera. Before this, we had only ever seen tracks in the snow. The black legs (especially front legs) and lack of a black tail tip is characteristic of a Red Fox (Gray Foxes have black tail tips). This one seems to lack the usual white tail tip of Red Foxes (or it is very faint).

I usually take my camera with me when I go check the trail cameras, but earlier this week I was in a hurry and just wanted to make a quick trip. As I headed down slope, I noticed something through the gray tree trunks. I pulled up my binoculars…it was the Red Fox staring at me. It looked at me for a few seconds and then trotted off down toward the creek. Suddenly, three deer, apparently startled by the fox, came running up toward me. It was a doe and two beautiful bucks (the 6 and 8-pointers shown above). They stopped, looked at me, and may have realized I was without camera, so they gave me a nice pose. I decided to wait another day to retrieve the trail cam footage. I hope the other wildlife neighbors will reveal themselves “in person” some day. In the meantime, I’ll let the trail cams tell me who is out there.

Here is a complete list of species recorded this month:

Eastern Gray Squirrel, Eastern Chipmunk, mouse (species unknown), Dark-eyed Junco; American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, Virginia Opossum, Red Fox, Coyote, unidentified moths

Canid Chaos

I am back home in NC now after a great two weeks in Yellowstone. I will post a few more blogs about my trip in the coming days but wanted to start with what I witnessed on my last morning through the park.

sunrise

Sunrise on my last morning in the park

The day started with an expletive when I realized at 4:30 a.m. that the power was off in Silver Gate. I had enjoyed my stay at the Log Cabin Cafe cabins but was bummed that I would need to finish packing by headlamp and, worse yet, might have no shower for my long day of plane rides home. But, there was enough hot water to get the shower, and as I got into the car, I was greeted by a spectacular sunrise. It was going to be a great morning after all.

Bull Moose browsing on aspen saplings

Bull Moose browsing on aspen saplings

As I approached Round Prairie I could see a car pulled off the road so I slowed and saw a beautiful bull Moose browsing on some aspen saplings. The visitor had been watching the bull feed for about 30 minutes (and it was only 5:30 a.m. when I arrived). I got out and watched for a few minutes as the bull slowly worked its way into some thick tree cover and disappeared from sight. Such are the vagaries of wildlife watching – one minute a great view and the next an animal as large as a horse can vanish for hours by moving only a few feet. Luck was with me this morning.

The clouds thickened as I headed into Lamar Valley. About a mile down the road I could see a gathering of cars on a hill so I stopped to glass the valley to see what was happening. I quickly noticed some ravens and magpies far out across the Lamar River and when I stepped out of the car I heard the alarm barks of a coyote. That probably meant wolves were nearby. After looking near the raven activity I finally saw canids including the unmistakable black color of a wolf. It appeared that the wolves were digging and that was probably bad news for the coyotes. I drove on and found out that the three wolves were digging out a coyote den. As there was no place to pull over I kept driving with plans to check on several things I wanted to see in the area known as Little America before heading for the airport.

Black Wolf out in valley

Black wolf out in valley

The dark skies were not great for photography, so, after spending some time watching a bison herd, I decided to drive back to Lamar one last time to check on the wolf-coyote saga. From the highest pullout I could see a black wolf a mile or more away headed down the valley. A half mile beyond me were about 50 people out watching. I drove beyond the crowd hoping the wolf would continue down the valley toward the den site a couple of miles beyond. When I stopped I could see the wolf was carrying something – a coyote pup. I later found out that this black wolf is a two year old female and is a persistent animal – she did the bulk of the digging at the coyote den (for over 45 minutes) while the other two wolves stood guard. She killed this pup and was carrying it back toward the wolf den with pups a few miles away.

Wolf running close to us

Wolf running by me as I wait for black wolf

I, along with two other people, had positioned myself down the road ahead of the crowd in an area where I anticipated the black wolf heading. While I was setting up my camera, I saw a blur out of the corner of my eye – it was a wolf running full speed between me and the river! The black wolf was far across the river so we were all startled by this close animal – and this wolf was being pursued by two coyotes.

Coyote chasing wolf 2

Coyote chasing wolf

I quickly spun the camera and fired a few shots and managed to capture a couple of somewhat blurry images before they were all out of sight. The three of us looked at each other and appeared stunned at what had just happened. I am guessing this wolf was being chased by the coyote pair that had just lost their den in a somewhat unusual turnabout of roles with the coyotes being the pursuers instead of the pursued. The images here of the other wolves are heavily cropped – these of the running wolf and coyote are not cropped at all, showing how close they were. Apparently the wolf had crossed the river far downstream beyond our view and was being chased along our side of the river when she blew by us.

Black wolf with Coyote pup 3

Black wolf with Coyote pup

After catching my breath I turned my attention back to the black wolf who was approaching on the far side of the river carrying her prey. She moved quickly down the valley and then dropped the pup, looked back, and began wagging her tail.

Black Wolf and Big Gray 1

Two wolves across Lamar River

I looked up from the viewfinder and saw a big gray wolf approaching ( I think this is the male of the group). After a brief greeting, the black wolf picked the pup up again and they moved on down the valley. The male turned and headed over a knoll and the black female continued on toward the river in the direction of the den.

Black wolf with Coyote pup crossing river

Black wolf with Coyote pup getting ready to cross river

From my vantage point I saw the wolf approach the river and come out on the other side. By this time, many of the cars from down the valley had come down to try to see the wolf so there were people and cars on both sides of one of the mile-long no stopping zones that the park created along the road to allow the wolves to safely travel to and from their den site. When the black wolf finally crossed it did not have the pup carcass. I imagine it  cached it somewhere amongst the willow flats along the river to be retrieved at a later time. I saw this same pack do that earlier in the week with a Pronghorn fawn they killed – the gray female carried the fawn’s body several hundred yards and buried it in an aspen grove.

Such is the cycle of life in Yellowstone. I heard people commenting on what we all just witnessed – most felt some sorrow for the coyote pup but were still thrilled at what we saw. This is part of the drama that is played out every day in this incredible place and awaits you if you simply take the time to observe. It is hard to put into words how it makes you feel – a mix of emotions and awe. But the drama of nature happens all around us every day if we only stop and look. As I am writing this, there is a Gray Squirrel out my window, perched precariously on a thin branch and reaching up and grabbing some Viburnum berries to eat. Granted, it is not a wolf with prey, but it is special nonetheless. One thing I have noticed over the years is that trips to places like Yellowstone, where we can more easily witness the behavior of wild creatures, helps us to better observe and appreciate the small wonders of nature back home. And that may be the most important lesson we can learn from this magical place.