Springtime in the Woods

The world’s favorite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May.

~Edwin Way Teale

The trail cameras have been sort of slow lately, mainly capturing the usual suspects of deer, squirrels, and raccoons. They have also seen a few birds including an Ovenbird and a Wood Thrush gathering nesting material. There have been two Coyote captures including a rather rare daytime one (videos best viewed full screen).

-The cameras rarely capture Coyotes during the daytime on our property

But the stars of the trail cameras recently have been the Virginia Opossums. I put a couple of cameras at the base of a large tree that blew down in a storm a couple of years ago because it looked like something was using a hole under the root ball (a favorite type of burrow for an opossum). Indeed, I got some very quick clips of opossums coming and going (at least two different individuals), Raccoons also stopped by occasionally and sniffed around and there is a mouse and a chipmunk going in and out of some of the holes.

Another camera nearby on the now dry creek bed caught something I was hoping for – an opossum with a very large pouch, obviously carrying some babies.

-The large belly means there must be baby opossums in her pouch

I decided to move the camera at the root ball to a better location and after viewing the next two clips, I added one on the giant log on the other side of the root ball. The tree was on a slope and when it fell, it created an angled bridge about 5 feet off the ground at its highest point. These new camera positions paid off.

-This was what I was hoping for – a video clip of a mother opossum carrying a young one on her back

If you watched closely on that clip, you saw another young opossum make a brief appearance at the hole. The next day this happened…

-Two young opossums are trying to kill or are playing with a small animal – I think it is a toad

And a third young opossum makes an appearance above the two that are so engrossed with their find. I’m surprised there was not any additional footage of this encounter, but they may have wandered just out of the field of view of the camera.

After setting up a camera on the log on the other side of the steep root ball, I was rewarded with several clips of an adult opossum and some young opossums walking across. There was also a lot of footage of a very active mouse on the log. And one instance where a young opossum encountered the mouse.

-Great interaction between a mouse and a young opossum

Notice the mouse just comes up behind the opossum and moves on its way. Opossums remain in their mother’s pouch for about two months. They stay with her for another couple of months, often riding on her back. The number of babies (called joeys, by the way) an opossum has varies, but 8-10 in a litter is typical. I’m hoping the camera will capture more images of multiple young ones out and about before they disperse and are on their own.

Squirrely Behavior

…for all the motions of a squirrel, even in the most solitary recesses of the forest, imply spectators…

~Henry David Thoreau

Yesterday I posted about deer communication through scent at a community scrape. Are the other animals in our woods communicating to one another with scent? Do they have their own “social media sites”? I placed a trail camera on a very rotten log along one of the forest game trails on our property as it looked like something was actively digging or rubbing in the log debris and enhancing its conversion to fine sawdust. The camera revealed that Eastern Gray Squirrels frequently stop by this log and dig and roll around.

— A squirrel rubbing in the fine debris of a very rotten log

It appears that more than one squirrel is using this log. Is it for a dust bath (they are known to roll in dirt or sand to help rid their fur of parasites)? Is it communication through scent-marking (squirrels do leave scent marks, especially by rubbing their faces on objects and depositing scent from their oral glands)? Or could it be a combination?

— One squirrel displaces another from the rotten log

I have seen similar behavior caught on a trail camera in one other location about a year ago. A squirrel (or multiple squirrels, not sure) was frequently rubbing on a patch of bare ground down by the creek. As in some of these videos, there was a lot of face rubbing, pawing, rolling around, and occasionally pausing to chew or scratch. Though ridding parasites is certainly possible, there is often some erratic behavior much like our goofy deer video from a few posts ago, with random jumping and twisting and turning. A good friend that saw the deer videos told me he also has a squirrel(s) that “goes to a spot where a gutter drainage comes out of the ground, sniffs, and then does all that leaping about in a haphazard way.” This kind of behavior may relate more to chemical cues and some sort of communication it seems.

— A squirrel acting a bit goofy after rubbing/smelling the debris at the community rotten log

I haven’t stuck my nose in the sawdust to see if I notice anything (squirrels also apparently urinate as a means of communication), but I am betting there is a lot of information exchanged between our squirrels at this site. More mysteries to try to solve or simply ponder and appreciate about our wild neighbors.

Woodland Social Media

Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.

~Ken Liu

I recognize a buck scrape in our woods when I see one. It is a bare patch of earth with lots of hoof scrapes and deer tracks under an overhanging low limb (usually an evergreen). One or more twigs are often broken from the buck thrashing about. This behavior and the commonly seen bark rubs on tree saplings are two important ways that bucks communicate with one another. It is like a bulletin board in a storefront, one loaded with local business cards. The bucks leave their calling card through various glands on the head and through marking and urinating on the now bare ground beneath the overhanging branch. While any deer passing the area may stop to check it out, most buck scrapes appear to be created and used primarily by male deer, and mainly in the time leading up to and during the rut.

– Bare ground under a low overhanging American Holly branch is a sure sign of a buck scrape (click photos to enlarge)

– The only scrape on our property not under a holly branch. This large patch of bare ground is under an American Beech branch and comes with a bark rub on a nearby sapling.

But now I have found something that may qualify as a so-called community scrape. This is a location that has significance to all the deer in an area and is a major communication sign post – a social media bulletin board for the deer. My first connection with this site was last year when I placed a trail camera on it. It is a part of our creek that is just upstream of a huge log jam created when a large hickory fell and took a few other trees with it. I recorded what I thought was an odd phenomenon of a doe pulling on holly leaves on a low branch. During the couple of weeks the camera was there it caught a few deer doing this same thing. I was puzzled because I didn’t think anything would eat those spiny leaves.

Last month, I put another camera in that same location and started seeing both bucks and does stopping and interacting with the same holly branch. But this time, I could tell they were mainly just rubbing their heads and faces on the branch, not trying to eat the leaves. Below are a few of the videos.

A large buck rubs his scent on the overhanging holly branch

— Another buck checking in on holly media

It is hard to tell in these videos, but a behavior that is described in research is deer using the “licking branch”. They chew or lick a particular branch as part of the ritual. I certainly have seen a broken twig or two at these various scrapes and have seen photos of bucks using their tongue to touch branches at a scrape, but I can’t tell for sure if there is any of that going on here.

— Two bucks interact with the holly

— More checking in at the holly station

There were a couple of times that deer interacted with one another at the holly station. Here’s a quick clip of one.

— This is what happens when you send a mean tweet on deer social media

You may remember the crazy deer from an earlier post that ran around, jumping, twisting, and pawing in the creek. I think this last clip is that same deer. One reason I didn’t notice the significance of this holly branch is that it is over the creek, so there is not the usual sign of bare ground underneath (when the creek dries up it is just the dry ground line anywhere else along that stretch of stream bed). Here is that deer interacting with the holly several times and acting a bit goofy again. I wonder if part of the reason for its antics is the chemical messages at this site?

— Our exuberant deer spends a lot of time on social media. The camera has recorded other individuals standing up at the holly branch (perhaps to to get better reception?)

I stuck my nose into this branch to see if I can detect any odors, but it seems that I just don’t have the right receptors. It stands to reason that if I don’t understand some of my species’ social media messages, I wouldn’t understand those of our neighborhood deer. But I’ll keep watching and trying to figure out what they are saying.

More Bang for the Buck(s)

The life of the wood, meadow, and lake go on without us. Flowers bloom, set seed and die back; squirrels hide nuts in the fall and scold all year long; bobcats track the snowy lake in winter; deer browse the willow shoots in spring. Humans are but intruders who have presumed the right to be observers, and who, out of observation, find understanding.

~Ann Zwinger

I am familiar with the behavior of male White-tailed deer (bucks) during the breeding season (the rut) – they don’t eat much, they are challenging (often with antler to antler struggles) other bucks in the area for dominance and the opportunity to mate with the females that come into estrus, they chase females, and they tend to lose much of their wariness. All this generally occurs in the Fall, usually peaking in early November in our woods. There is a phenomenon called the second rut that can happen when some females that did not mate successfully come into estrus 30 days or so after the first rut is complete, usually in January.

But my trail cameras picked up a spate of antler testing behavior running through the month of February. I’m not sure what is happening, but maybe it is just “boys being boys”. They have formed some bachelor groups that hang out together through much of the day and night and it seems that after dark they like to test their strength by pushing and shoving a bit. The more evenly matched they are, the better the show, but I do admire one buck that just has nubs for antlers that tries to enter the fray to show his toughness.

I have not seen any of this activity during daylight hours (though the cameras do pick up buck hanging out together) and there seems to be a preference for performing these feats of buck showmanship at the cameras located on the creek. Here are some highlights of bucks doing their thing (volume up)…

— When the largest local buck is involved, it is usually a fairly short display of buck fever

— Two bucks pushing each other in the creek

— Two bucks really going at it

— A third buck with barely any antlers wants to join the fray, but the other two bucks seem a bit tangled up

— Three nice bucks strutting their stuff

They seem to have tired of this showmanship with the onset of March. Perhaps it is related to the fact that the first week of March caught the first image of a buck that has dropped an antler.

— Antler shedding has started. New growth will start soon.

The cameras picked up this behavior on several nights, with these bouts often lasting many minutes. There was lots of maneuvering, some pawing of the ground, and plenty of head fakes and false starts to go along with the energetic pushing and clacking of antlers. There is so much happening in our woods after dark. As of this week, the largest bucks are still holding onto their complete antler set, but it won’t be for long. Now, if only I can find some antler sheds.

Deer Play

White-tailed deer were observed throughout 1,711 hours on the Welder Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Only 11 events considered to be forms of play were witnessed, seven by fawns and four by adults. It is concluded that white-tailed deer are not typically playful animals.

~Edwin D. Michael, 1968 publication

I did some research online after looking at some recent trail camera footage to try to explain what I was seeing. The quote above is the abstract from a paper published in 1968 in The American Midland Naturalist. Maybe Texas deer are more serious than ours, or maybe the deer you about to see has been eating some funny mushrooms…you be the judge (turn volume up and view full screen).

— This young buck seemed to enjoy having water in our wet weather creek last month. He also seems to like an audience based on his reaction when the other deer enters the picture

— The buck continued this behavior for several minutes.

I first thought that the pool of water was the big attraction since most of the creek is very shallow and narrow. But a few days later when the creek bed dried up again, the buck was back (I think it is the same deer anyway). Note the attention paid to the overhanging American Holly branch from time to time (you can also see this to a lesser degree in the other videos). My next post will have some more clues to this mystery.

— The deer acts goofy even in a dry creek bed

Maybe deer are more playful than we think, but only act up when we aren’t around. The lesson here may be to live life to the fullest and splash in every puddle, and keep on playing even when things dry up.

Opossum Afterlife

Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.

~Lao Tzu

One day earlier this month I discovered a recently deceased Virginia Opossum out by one of the wood piles. No idea what might have happened to it though it was not long after some severely cold weather. I decided to take it down into our woods and place it in front of one of the trail cameras to see what might come along. I waited several days before checking the camera and discovered a lot of the woodland creatures had stopped by to investigate, dine, or perhaps pay their respects. Here are some of the highlights (best viewed full screen with volume up)::

The first animal caught by the camera coming to the opossum scene was another opossum. Wonder if they had met? I am guessing they had.

— Another Virginia Opossum comes to the scene the first night after I placed the dead opossum near the camera. This camera has seen this live opossum before so this may be a regular evening route.

First on the scene on the day after I put out the carcass was a Turkey Vulture (not surprising, really). Turkey Vultures have an excellent sense of smell and can locate carrion from great distances and heights (unlike Black Vultures, which rely mostly on vision). Turkey Vultures have an extremely large olfactory bulb (the area of the brain responsible for processing odors). Recent research has shown that they also have more mitral cells than any other bird that has been studied. Mitral cells, found in all animals, help transmit information about smell to the brain.

— The carcass is on a slope, so I aimed the camera slightly downhill of it, figuring it might move down slope if an animal fed on it. Naturally, this first vulture eventually pulled the carcass uphill and out of sight of the camera!

Thirty minutes after the first vulture arrived, another one landed and some threat displays ensued. The second bird took off shorty afterward. It reappeared off camera a couple of hours later in the afternoon. Soon there was a scuffle…

— Two Turkey Vultures arguing over who goes first in the possum buffet line

Turkey Vultures appeared on camera for 3 days from February 5-8, although the carcass had been pulled slightly out of view on the other two days. Other visitors in those first couple of days seemed mainly driven by curiosity rather than hunger and included a Raccoon and three deer.

— A rare daytime appearance at the carcass by one of the local Raccoons

— The largest of the White-tailed Deer to check on the dead opossum

All three deer that have stopped at the carcass have gingerly sniffed the area near the dead opossum and then walked away.

This next clip is a very short one – a screech owl flying off with something from a couple of feet away from the carcass. Was it a piece of meat from the dead animal, or did it catch something like a mouse that was investigating the site?

— The owl flew off so quickly that I cannot tell what it has picked up

Nine days after I placed the dead opossum on the hillside, a Red-tailed Hawk shows up and picks at it. Raptors are frequent visitors at carrion, though few are as efficient in our region as the Turkey Vulture.

— This juvenile Red-tailed Hawk picked at the carcass and drug it a little ways before flying off after just a few minutes of activity

If you looked and listened closely, some of the video clips had flies buzzing through near the carcass, probably one of the first things to arrive at any dead animal when temperatures are much above freezing. Nothing is wasted in the forest, death brings life, and other animals either take advantage of the new food source or seem curious or at least interested in the passing of a fellow woodland creature. It will be interesting to see what else visits the opossum as the days go on.

The Forest Unseen

Forests will always hold your secrets, for that’s what forests are for.

~Victoria Erickson

We’ve been gone for a couple of weeks (more on that adventure in the next post) and the trail cameras were busy keeping up with the goings-on back home while we were away. Lots of the same sort of behaviors we have seen before, but some heavy rains filled our ephemeral stream and that area became more attractive to many of our woodland neighbors. Here are a few highlights from the last couple of weeks that we would have not known about save for the eyes of the trail cameras.

— I put a camera on one of our wildlife pools and this little mouse appeared almost every night, scampering all around the edge. Somehow, it managed to avoid the four outdoor cats that have become a nuisance on our property.

— The Raccoons also enjoy the wildlife pools. You just never know what you might find (the first Spotted Salamander eggs of the season appeared while we were away!).

— Prior to the rains, the dry creek bed was a playground of sorts for the local squirrels. It appears as though we need some squirrel predators…where are the Red-tailed Hawks when you need them?

— The resident bucks are tolerating each other better now that the rut is over. Is this akin to a couple of bros doing a fist bump?

— At the other side of our property, some very nice bucks hang out at the local acorn bar

— After the rains, the creek is a popular stopping point to quench your thirst and check out your reflection

— This log by the creek is a busy highway for Gray Squirrels, various species of birds, Raccoons, and…

— our Bobcat makes a return visit and strolls down the busy log path, stopping to sniff who else has traveled that way

Critter Condo

Be as useful as a tree! Give life to others; be shelter to everyone; grant fruits to all! Be good like a tree!

~Mehmet Murat Ildan

Just beyond our deer fence is a huge old Tulip Poplar with a split at the base forming a hollow that stretches up 20 feet or so. This is the second largest tree on our property behind a giant old White Oak on the south slope across the creek bed. The Tulip Poplar is on our north slope where that species is the dominant tree. In spring, the large fragrant flowers provide an important nectar source for many types of pollinators. In autumn, the seeds are eaten by numerous bird species, especially the Purple Finches that fly south most winters from their boreal forest summer range. And the leaves are the primary food source for caterpillars of our most abundant butterfly, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (along with many other species like the magnificent Tuliptree Silk Moth). But this particular tree is important in another way – the hollows provide shelter and a forest touchstone for a variety of critters.

A giant Tulip Poplar on our property is home to a number of our wildlife neighbors (click photos to enlarge)

A large split at the base provides access to hollow spaces within this tree. But the Raccoons that use itr as a den tree climb higher and squeeze through a relatively small hole about 30 feet up the trunk

Unlike Raccoons at some of my favorite wildlife refuges, I rarely see ours sleeping out on limbs of this tree during the daytime. The one exception was many years ago when I spotted a young Raccoon out on one of the large outstretched arms of this forest giant.

-A young Raccoon that was sleeping out on a limb one day several years ago checks me out when I went out into the yard for a photograph. When I went back inside, it curled back up and went back to sleep.

Most of my knowledge of the importance of this tree to the woodland wildlife comes from a trail camera that has been watching it off and on for a couple of years. The tree has been home to a variety of wildlife including multiple generations of Raccoons, Eastern Gray Squirrels, and Southern Flying Squirrels. And, perhaps because of the comings and going of its permanent residents, it is also visited by many other forest dwellers. The camera has recorded several species stopping by in hopes of a meal, a sniff to see who has been there recently, or perhaps just to pay respect to this towering monarch of the woods. Visitors have included White-tailed Deer, a Gray Fox, many Virginia Opossums, a Cooper’s Hawk, and, unfortunately, my neighbor’s outdoor cats. The Ground Hog that wandered through our property for several days last year also sought shelter in its hollow base between raids on our garden while we were out of town.

Currently, there is a family of four Raccoons, a bunch of squirrels, and at least one Southern Flying Squirrel that call that tree home. Here are a few highlights of recent trail camera captures.

— A Virginia Opossum that frequents the base of this tree takes a selfie at the trail camera

— A squirrel spent 30 minutes one day recently carrying leaves up into the hollow for a suitable drey (a nest)

— The Tulip Poplar seems to be very “poplar” with the local squirrels (and there are too many…where are the hawks?)

— A different type of squirrel, a very active Southern Flying Squirrel, takes over at night (although I do have a clip of an Eastern Gray Squirrel out at 3:20 a.m.!)

— The Raccoons usually use the leaning cedar snag as a ladder to their den, but occasionally climb the tree trunk. This was one night recently when it briefly snowed. Note the third raccoon appearing in the lower left at the end of the clip.

Large trees that have broken limbs, knot holes, large cracks or hollow trunks are incredibly important to a forest and its creatures. They provide food, shelter, and a place to rear young and can be a focal point of any woodland tract. I hope this one continues to be the preeminent poplar in our woods for many years to come.

A New Year, and New Happenings in the Woods

Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.

~Vernon Howard

The first days of the new year have brought a few more surprises and lessons from the trail cameras scattered in our woods. Several cameras have remained in one spot for many months because they tend to record lots of activity due to their location along a game trail or creek bed. But, based on some things I have seen over time, I decided to re-position a couple of them and, in one case, slightly alter the landscape around it. Here are some highlights from the first few days (and nights) of 2023…

–The first time I saw this buck on a trail camera, I thought it had broken one antler. But in this closer view, i am now thinking it is just a small spike that formed (the other one has three points and is much longer). Perhaps an injury during antler development caused this?

–A small pool formed in our wet weather creek after a recent heavy rain. Lots of critters have visited, especially the Raccoons and a few White-tailed Deer.

— The family of Raccoons has a regular path through our woods almost every night, rooting around in the leaves as they go.

— The same camera that caught the Raccoons used to be mounted a few feet off the ground on a tree trunk. I decided to move it down near the ground to see what might look different. My first capture was this Eastern Screech Owl (who has been seen on this camera before). I think it may have caught something and gulped a bite or two.

— The owl likes to land on a piece of log sticking up in front of the camera. The problem is it is seems to be a little too close to the camera for a proper focus.

— I decided to replace the close log perch that the owl (and other critters like squirrels and chipmunks) likes to use with a small mossy log that I found nearby. The owl immediately took to it the next night, but appears to be doing some trim work to make it more to its liking.

— Here’s a daylight view of the mossy log perch with a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos feeding all around it. This small mossy patch (probably a root ball from a tree that fell years ago) attracts a lot of bird visitors – the only green open ground in a sea of fallen leaves.

— The new log attracted a lot of attention from the regulars that use this woodland path.

— The young spike buck not only head butted another deer (previous video) but decided to check out the camera as well.

— I moved the camera that was several feet off the creek to a spot with a better view down the now dry creek bed. For the second time in just a few weeks, a beautiful Bobcat made an appearance in our woods It sure looks like the cat is wearing a collar but I think it is probably just a dark patch of fur, what do you think?

Wrapping It Up In Our Woods

Departure of a year welcomes so many new memories.

~Munia Khan

Our woods offer a lot of things to us – a quiet soundscape, a canopy of huge trees that help cool our landscape in summer, majestic gray forms that stretch to the winter sky, and a source of nourishment and shelter for the countless wild neighbors that share our land. I try to observe as much as I can in my wanderings in the yard and on our forest paths, but I am not out there all the time. When I am not present, I have other eyes to record the comings and goings of the wildlife. In the final two weeks of last year, the trail cameras recorded the usual activities of the herd of deer (still munching on the abundant acorns), the scampering of squirrels, the nightly forays of the Raccoon family, and even some neighbors enjoying the woods. But there were also some nice surprises. Here are a couple of new memories from the final days and nights of 2022…

— The bucks are starting to hang out together now that the rut is about over. One of these looks like it has a broken antler.

Less than a minute after the broken antler buck left the scene, another nice buck entered.

— Another nice buck enters from the left while the one keeps chowing down on acorns.

I re-positioned a different camera to a more ground level view and was rewarded with some new camera critters…

— I had seen a chipmunk at this site before so I put the camera down low and captured some close up behavior

— A male Northern Flicker lands and probes a few times for its favorite food, ants, before taking off

The Raccoon den tree had a nice clip of two of its residents during the daytime for a change…

— Two Raccoons head back to their den in the hollow of the giant Tulip Poplar early one morning last week

I am always delighted to see some of the predators that call our woods home (or at least part of their foraging area).

— A nice-looking Coyote trotted by this camera twice, going in each direction, one night

— The biggest thrill is when the cameras see a Bobcat wandering through the forest. This large one angled down off a ridge and then followed the dry creek bed.

— Another camera downstream along the creek bed caught the Bobcat a few minutes later as it trotted through. This is the fourth time my cameras have recorded one of these secretive animals in the past two years (three times at night, once during the day).

That’s a wrap for trail camera adventures for last year. Looking forward to many more glimpses into the lives of our wild neighbors. Now, if only a wandering bear would stop by…