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?

Living in the Wet Woods

Nana always said the rain was nature’s way of adding sparkle to the outdoors.

~Mehmet Murat Ildan

Surely the woods are sparkling now after what seems like weeks of rain. We actually have had some occasional nice weather, but the past few days have been soakers. Our clay soils have added some slickness to our woods walking and the usually intermittent stream below the house has been running at full capacity for several weeks now. Yesterday, there were two small waterfalls providing a wonderful soundscape for a walk in the woods. I have left the “real” camera at home this week and used my iPhone for recording what I see (plus a couple of trail camera images at the end of the post).

The unnamed creek below our house (maybe we will call it Buckeye Bottoms for all the Painted Buckeye that thrive in the creek bottom?) (click photos to enlarge)

Perhaps the raindrops do provide a certain sparkle to the woods when you stop and look closely.

Raindrops on a skeletonized leaf

Rainy days definitely hep me walk more slowly and take notice of (and appreciate) details of our woods.

American Beech leaf still hanging on. This is a characteristic of this wonderful tree (especially the younger ones) – it hangs onto its leaves longer than any other species in our woods and provides a golden brown patchwork to the forest in winter
Beech trees also provide a beautiful canvas for crustose lichens
A single Heartleaf Ginger leaf in a mossy embrace at the base of a tree trunk
A fallen branch reveals the patterned underside of a fungus

I have a dilemma with the trail cameras out now. I love checking them to see what surprises they unveil, but I hesitate to walk our woods too much for fear of disturbing the wildlife I am trying to record. But, the woods provide such a peaceful and fulfilling setting that I’m sure we will find a balance. I set one camera on still photos mode for the first time this week just to see how those images compare to the video. I put it on a small tree facing uphill on our south-facing slope where the deer have obviously been digging through the leaves for acorns (and maybe hickory nuts). Below is one of a series of images the camera provided. There were six deer in this herd and four of them were bucks with 6 or more points!

The trail camera on our south-facing slope captured a herd of deer foraging for acorns

This week I started placing one trail camera on a specific spot of interest in the woods rather than along a main game trail or the creek. I’m hoping to learn how some various small woodland features are utilized. On one walk, we discovered a stump hole that had a smaller well worn hole in it. The camera shows a mouse running in and out after dark. This mouse seems to have a longer tail than most of the other mice I have seen, so I am not sure what species this is. If anyone has ideas, please drop me a note.

A mystery mouse caught by a trail camera as it runs in and out of a stump hole near the house

While we enjoy walking in our rainy woods, I am looking forward to that thing called sunshine returning this weekend. I believe the woods will start to explode with signs of spring over the next week. Stay tuned…

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

Wood-hen in the hood

The bird already possessed a common name; and it is a pity that Latham did not know it. In its native land it was, and still is, commonly called, the log-cock…and because of its cackling cry, “wood-hen,” “laughing woodpecker,”…

~in Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, Arthur Cleveland Bent, 1939

My father called them wood hens and taught me to pay attention to their distinctive call when we were out deer hunting. When they called, it usually meant something was moving in the woods nearby, maybe a deer. Their most accepted common name is Pileated Woodpecker, and I have enjoyed seeing and hearing them ever since those days as a kid prowling the woods. We are lucky to have several that make our slice of forest heaven their home and we see them frequently, often very close to the house. The scientific name, Dryocopus pileatus, means tree cleaver with a crest, a great summary of its distinctive looks and habits. They are creatures of the forest, and prefer tracts of large trees, for both nesting cavities and foraging.

A male Pileated Woodpecker perched on a snag (click photos to enlarge)

They are our largest woodpecker, from 16-19 inches in length (about the size of a crow). The Birds of the World Online compendium describes them as a keystone species as they play a crucial role in many forest ecosystems in North America by excavating large nesting, roosting and foraging cavities that are subsequently used by a diverse array of birds and mammals—for shelter and nesting. They typically excavate nest holes near the tops of large standing dead trees which are later used by a variety of other woodland creatures like Wood Ducks, Southern Flying Squirrels, and Eastern Screech Owls. Their large size and stout, chisel-like bills enable them to break open tree trunks and fallen logs in search of their favorite prey, large ants (like Carpenter Ants) and beetle grubs. This incessant chipping away at forest pillars undoubtedly helps speed the process of decomposition and forest recycling of nutrients and provides access for a variety of other woodland creatures that might feed on invertebrates associated with decaying trees and logs. I have watched deer, robins, and squirrels scratch in the wood chips and poke into holes created by these woodpeckers as they search for a tasty morsel.

The chisel-like bill can blow apart a tree trunk like a shotgun blast

As we walk our woods, we find plenty of evidence of their presence even when we don’t see or hear them. We have many large dead trees and a substantial crop of fallen logs that provide feeding sites for our woodpeckers. I have recently found numerous big branches, stumps, and logs that look like someone took a hatchet to them and splintered them into hundreds of pieces with some of the wood chips measuring 4 and 5 inches in length.

A large branch on the ground splintered by woodpecker activity
A small tree trunk has been chipped away by a Pileated Woodpecker

When I got my second trail camera (we have two Browning Strike Force PRO XD trail cameras), I was eager to set it up on a large log down slope from our house that had recent woodpecker activity. I left the camera up two days, attached to a tree about 6 feet from the log. When I retrieved it, I could tell the woodpecker had been there as there were new chips scattered along the length of the log. The camera captured over two hours of feeding activity by a male Pileated Woodpecker along with day-time visits by a few other species (American Robin, Dark-eyed Junco, and Gray Squirrel). I have included two clips that highlight some of the more interesting behaviors (view full screen with sound up)…

Pileated Woodpecker pounding on fallen log and calling
Slow motion clip of woodpecker eating a large beetle grub

At night, the log continued to draw the attention of forest neighbors including a Red Fox, White-tailed deer, Raccoon, and a very energetic mouse.

The nocturnal log is also active

The first few clips after dark showed nothing, but the next in the series revealed a very fast mouse was the culprit. In some clips it was triggering the camera but disappearing before it was recorded. And all this is happening on just one log in the forest. I can’t wait to see what else the cameras reveal.