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…


Woods Watching

I’m always astonished by a forest. It makes me realise that the fantasy of nature is much larger than my own fantasy. I still have things to learn.

~ Gunter Grass

Things have slowed a bit on the trail cameras out back, but we still get some nice surprises from time to time. Here are a few of them from the past couple of weeks.

In all my years here, I have only seen one Wild Turkey in the neighborhood, and that was years ago, walking down our gravel road. But, in the last year, the trail cameras have captured three, two of them in the past two weeks.

Late note – after writing this, Melissa saw a turkey out back late yesterday afternoon, just beyond our deer fence!

Wild Turkey strolling through our woods

— A different Wild Turkey wanders through the same spot a week later

I moved a trail camera to an area with a log on the ground that had a few interesting looking holes along it that might be some sort of burrow entrance. I left it there over a week and never saw anything going in or out of the holes. But, it was a regular squirrel highway, and one day, this hawk dropped in, perhaps thinking it might partake of a rodent snack, but no such luck.

— An adult Red-tailed Hawk surveying the scene

After a few weeks absence, the Coyotes have made a reappearance on three cameras. Here are two clips. Pause this first clip and look at the Coyote – either a big meal or perhaps soon-to-be pups in that belly?

— A quick day-time glimpse of a Coyote – note the full belly

And this guy looks a bit smaller, maybe a youngster from last year?

— A smaller Coyote on the Opossum log

Looking forward to what other hidden gems the cameras show us in our woods.

Camera Captures

These woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

~Robert Frost

The trail cameras continue to capture moments in the lives of our woodland neighbors. Here are a some clips from the past couple of months to highlight some of the mysteries of the forest after dark.

Most of the coyote video captures are similar to this in terms of behavior – very focused, trotting through the woods (unless they see the IR camera, and then they tend to flee). Their purposefulness made me think of the Frost poem above. This is the first time on our property that three coyotes have been recorded in one clip.
Another first for the trail cameras – Gray Foxes. Last year we had several weeks of captures of a Red Fox, but this is the first time Gray Foxes have been seen.
An Eastern Screech Owl landed on a slight mound on the forest floor containing numerous mouse runways and holes. The owl is just inside the field of view on the lower left. Did it catch a mouse?
The owl flies to a nearby sapling. I can’t see any prey…
Two nights later the owl lands on the camera. Was it attracted by the IR lights?
A few weeks later, the owl is back and presumably lands on the branch with the camera. This must be a good hunting spot.

— A beautiful Gray Fox stops by the Raccoon den tree one night to check it out

— It has been a while since we saw a Bobcat on our cameras. This one looks smaller than previous individuals. Hoping it can heel whatever is causing the limp.

Oh Deer

Everything pales in comparison to deer.

~Bill Vaughan

After the ubiquitous squirrels, deer have been the mainstay of the triggers on our three trail cameras. It was a busy fall with deer frequently visiting the vicinity of some oak trees as they searched for scarce acorns. Here are a few other clips showing some behaviors that occur when we are not out in the woods watching them.

— Nothing like a good stretch after spending two hours lounging in a comfy bed of ferns.

— This was back in November, at the tail end of the rut. This buck came through the morning after the deer had been bedded down and he sniffed that spot to check on what was happening in his woods.

— A buck chasing a doe during the rut

— A buck trailing a doe

— During the rut, young bucks do some practice sparring. These two bucks were seen together frequently and seemed to want to test each other every time (remind you of any people in your life?)

— The just can’t help it, here they go again

— And again…by the way, I got another video clip of these guys doing this again this week!

— But these are the guys that probably get the girls

— What’s this?

The cameras reveal differences between individuals and also similarities between all creatures. Knowing more about the lives of our woodland neighbors helps me appreciate them even more.

Things You Might Not See

Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

~ Francis Pharcellus Church

It had been over a week since I checked the three trail cameras, so I was anxious to see what had transpired in our patch of woods without us knowing. There has been a definite increase in deer activity and most of the video clips contain images of some of the many (probably too many for the health of our woods) White-tailed Deer going about their business. With acorns and hickory nuts falling, the deer are visiting certain spots under these trees more and slowly searching the ground for the nutritious morsels. It is also getting to be that time of year when the bucks are paying more attention to the does…it is the start of the rut. There are a few big bucks roaming the woods, often in each others’ company. The cameras have caught glimpses of two six-pointers, one eight-pointer, and a number of smaller males (plus many more females and a few young of the year). This clip shows a young buck rubbing his antlers against a Painted Buckeye shrub, no doubt thinking about what might lie ahead (if he is lucky). A doe and fawn are nearby.

Young buck briefly rubs his antlers on shrub

Another video from the south slope showed something I have never observed – some rather unsightly deer warts on two young bucks. At first, I thought they were a type of warble (lesion) that is caused by a botfly. Warbles are common on squirrels here in the Piedmont and the large skin deformations caused by the botfly larvae can be quite grotesque in appearance. But the bumps on these deer looked different. After searching online, I believe these are so-called deer warts, a type of cutaneous fibroma caused by a virus. There are many types of fibroma-causing viruses in nature but this one is specific to deer and cannot be spread to other wildlife or humans. Apparently, they are quite common in deer and can be transmitted when an area with broken skin comes in direct contact with an infected deer or with a surface that an infected deer rubbed against. Studies show that they occur more frequently in male deer, especially young bucks, and the wart-like growths occur most often on the head, neck and forelegs. Though they can be gross-looking, they typically do not harm the deer and they usually regress and vanish over time.

Two young bucks with cutaneous fibromas (deer warts)

The last video clip I’ll share is another thrilling one for us. Earlier this summer, a camera caught a Bobcat walking down our then dry creek bed. That was the first time we have ever had confirmation of these sleek feline predators on our property. Last week, just before sunrise, another Bobcat sighting was made on a trail in the ravine closer to the house. I’m assuming it is the same animal, but who knows! Whatever the case, we are super excited to know this species is roaming our woods. Now, to see one in person…

A Bobcat strolling through our woods just before sunrise last week

Trail Cam Delights

Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.

~Boris Pasternak

The heat of summer seems to have slowed the activity around the trail cameras in our woods, but sometimes, amid all the images of squirrels, raccoons, and wind blown leafy branches, there is is a jewel that really makes me appreciate the 24-hour a day presence of those eyes on the trees.

This first one is from a while back and is a very quick clip showing one of the opossums that uses the root ball den site carrying some leaves back to the ‘possum hole with its tail. Who among us couldn’t use an extra hand now and then?

A Virginia Opossum carrying leaves in its tightly curled tail

One of the things I have been surprised by recently is the lack of trail camera images of deer fawns. I have been seeing them along the roads here in the neighborhood for a few months, but they have not been recorded on a trail camera until this week.

Doe and fawn mosey by the Raccoon den tree

This next one is the video that I have been waiting for…a Bobcat in our woods! The video is cropped a little so it is not as sharp as some, but this is a clip of a nice-sized Bobcat walking down the now dry stream bed in our woods. I have long hoped to see one here in the neighborhood. We have plenty of woods and potential prey, and being near the Haw River corridor, there is ample habitat for these majestic animals.

Bobcat walking down the creek bottom one morning last week

I have admired the mystique of these secretive wild cats for many years. My first sighting was probably back when I worked for NC State Parks and I spotted a Bobcat and her kittens walking down the road at Goose Creek State Park. Since then, I have seen them mainly at wildlife refuges in our Coastal Plain – Alligator River, Mattamuskeet, and at Pocosin Lakes NWR. Most have been quick glimpses of one as it slinked off into the vegetation. Only a few have been recorded with a camera. Here is a brief list of some of those photographed encounters…

A distant view of a Red Wolf (right) tucking its tail and scurrying by a Bobcat at Pocosin Lakes NWR. The wolf was trotting down the road when it encountered the Bobcat in the brush, which assumed the typical cat pose of arched back. The wolf moved to the other side of the road, keeping an eye on the feline as it went past, and then hurried on down the road.
A pre-dawn encounter on a Christmas Bird Count at Pocosin Lakes…a Bobcat carrying a Snow Goose. When we stopped the car, the Bobcat dropped to the ground and crawled across the field to a wind row of trees and disappeared.
I went to the other end of the windrow, assuming the Bobcat would go down and cross onto the woods. As I stood there, some birds flushed out of the trees in the wind row, and then I saw it, sitting there in the thick brush staring at me. I’m not sure how long it had been there, and just as quickly, it disappeared.
I had just photographed a bear across a canal at Pocosin Lakes and was going to do a three-point turn and go the opposite way on the road. When I looked in my rear view mirror, a Bobcat was in the road behind me! I spent several minutes watching this beautiful animal as it eased on down the road and into the woods. More photos on this sighting can be seen here.

Note the white patches on the back of the ear in the photo above. Look at the video clip again and you can clearly see these distinctive white marks on the back of the ears. My only other Bobcat sighting in the Piedmont was one at Mason Farm Biological Reserve in Chapel Hill many years ago. When I returned to the parking lot I saw what looked like a large cat sitting in the adjacent field. It was looking away from me and I saw those white patches and it was then that I knew it was a Bobcat!

My most memorable encounter was when Melissa and I spotted a Bobcat walking down a road at Pocosin Lakes one hot September afternoon. It went into the brush when we drove toward it. We went a little farther, parked, and got out and sat behind the car and waited. The Bobcat finally came back out and walked up, sat down, and looked at us for a bit before walking off into the thick pocosin vegetation…magical! More on this encounter in a previous post.

Though I have been lucky to witness Bobcats in the wild several times, there is something extra special about knowing there was one in our woods. I just hope one day I will be lucky enough to see one for myself in our personal refuge.

Glimpses of Life in the Woods

Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.

~John Muir

There is so much we see when we spend time in nature, but having a few trail cameras set out shows how much we miss. Here are a few of the wildlife happenings our three cameras caught over the past couple of months, vignettes of the life in our woods when we are not there to witness.

A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk sets off a chipmunk alarm call (turn up volume to hear the clucking sound). Chipmunks have different alarms for aerial versus ground predators. I wonder which one it uses for a hawk sitting on the ground?
A pair of Opossums running along the den log. Not sure what is happening here – courtship?; territorial dispute?; practicing crossing a road?
Maybe it is a courtship thing after all, and one party is not thrilled with the idea…
A mother Raccoon teaching her three young about the ways of the woods
Back at the den tree, there may only be two young Raccoons now (not sure)
A young deer escaping the heat with a dash in our wet weather stream after a heavy rain
A Coyote searching for breakfast
Two times last month, the camera caught a quick glimpse of a Coyote carrying something (presumably back to a den). I can’t quite tell what it is (this is the best of the two clips). Can you? A rabbit perhaps?