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Archive for the ‘Carnivorans’ Category

Bobcat poo turns chalky white when it gets old. There is a lot of calcium carbonate in the feces, which means they turn chalky when left exposed for a few days.

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Too cute fox!

Look at that face!

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This week we had several visitors on the trail cameras. Keep in mind that one of these cameras has a messed up clock, so the time stamp reads that the video was taken in 2068. These cameras are pretty good technology, but they aren’t that good!

Let’s start small.  Here’s a white-footed mouse or a deer mouse:

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I can’t tell whether it is a white-footed mouse or a deer mouse, which is hard enough to do in the broad daylight. These animals are in the genus Peromyscus, and although we call them mice, they aren’t closely related to the mice that originated in Old World.  New World rats and mice are more closely related to voles, hamsters, and lemmings than to house mice and Norway rats.

Then we got a light-colored opossum:

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A good close-up of a melanistic gray squirrel:

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And a large raccoon:

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Because of the size of the raccoon, I am assuming that this one was a male. He was coming to inspect a pile of sticks and logs that I have anointed with weasel lure.

 

 

 

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The uploader of the video describes the fox as a “silver fox.”  This isn’t correct at all. This is a gray fox, genus Urocyon, which is not a true fox at all.  It is actually the most genetically distinct species of dog still existence today. It last shared a common ancestor with the rest of the dog family 9 to 10 million years ago.  Gray foxes are known for their tree-climbing behavior, which is one of their hallmarks. Indeed, another name for this fox is the “tree-climbing fox” or “tree fox.”

Silver foxes are actually a phase of red fox. When I first watched the video, I was expecting to see a silver phase red fox, but the shrieks very quickly told me that this uploader had misidentified the species. This is pretty common. Silver and normal phase red foxes do interbreed, but you might as well try to cross a red fox with a hamster than try to cross red and gray foxes.

A fisher is a large North American marten. North American martens are not closely related to Eurasian martens, but they look similar to them. In fact, both North American marten species are more closely related to wolverines than to pine and beech martens which they superficially resemble. The term “fisher” comes from a mistranslation of the French word for polecat, which is fichet. French trappers sold fisher pelts as polecat pelts, and the name just sort of got stuck with them. They don’t fish at all. They hunt porcupines and squirrels and have been known to take white-tailed deer fawns on occasion.

The fisher’s range is currently expanding. They are now becoming more and more common in the Eastern US, and in my state, where they were extirpated, they are now making a strong comeback.

They live in pretty much the same habitat as gray foxes and hunt a lot of the same prey, so I have actually been thinking how these two species would interact. My guess is they would be hot competitors, and this video suggests that I might be right. I don’t know if there are any studies on fisher and gray fox interactions, but as fishers expand their range deeper in the gray fox’s core range, there will be lots of interactions like this one.

The “lesser” carnivora don’t get much attention as the big ones do, but their behavior and ecology are every bit as fascinating.

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Bounding weasel

Weasels bound, so they make tracks that look like two little feet. But what really happens is they put their front feet down and then move their back feet into the same place where their front feet were as they bound forward.

My guess is this was a least weasel, because it was awfully small.

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This weasel likely came through just before it started to snow yesterday, because its tracks are nearly filled in. There was a whole line of tracks just like these going from one side of the access road to the other.

 

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In late October 1999, my grandpa, also named Scottie Westfall, was out squirrel hunting. While staking out one of his favorite stands of hickory,  he heard brush cracking and a rabbit screaming.  Suddenly, a cottontail rabbit came running down a game trail. The rabbit stopped at little copse of brush, just a couple of yards from where my grandpa was staking out the squirrel trees.

Usually when one sees a rabbit running down a trail, something is pursuing it.

In this forest, the rabbits get pushed hard by the red and gray foxes, and the coyotes do take more than a few.

So my grandpa waited with his eyes trained on the trail from whence the rabbit came.

Just a few minutes later, something small and white came jumping along. It followed the rabbit’s trail perfectly and then went into the brush where the rabbit was.

The rabbit bolted before the creature could come near, and after white beast sniffed out the little copse of brush, it began to sniff around to see if it could pick up the rabbit’s trail again.  It soon did and started hunting again, and as it came along it happened to raise its head above a log.

Which created the perfect shot opportunity.

My grandpa shot the animal and realized it was some kind of weasel. However, it was quite a bit larger than the common least weasel that he knew so well, and what’s more, the weasel was almost entirely white.

My grandpa thought he knew all the animals of these woods pretty well. Weasels were the bane of the chicken coops when he was a boy, and he told me about trapping a few of them for their fur.

He also told me of how he illegally ferreted with an albino ferret, using him in groundhog dens and abandoned pipe to drive out cottontail rabbits that sought refuge from extreme cold or barking dogs.

But he’d never seen a white weasel before.

I vaguely knew that there were white weasels in the United States. I had read all about ermines and something called “Bonaparte’s weasel” that turned white in winter.

But teenage me just decided it was an ermine, and we left it at that.

He did a informal survey of all his hunting buddies, and none of them had ever heard of an ermine or a white weasel.

It’s been in the freezer ever since. I knew there was something odd about it.

I’ve written about it on the blog before.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it was a long-tailed weasel.

I don’t want to make this confusing, but in the Eastern US, there are two weasels that turn white in the winter. The ermine or short-tailed weasel is the one that Old World readers might know as a stoat. Most stoats from the British Isles don’t turn white in winter. This species is found throughout Eurasia and North America, but it has never been recorded in West Virginia. It comes only as far south as Pennsylvania. An old name for this weasel is Bonaparte’s weasel.

The long-tailed weasel is found in North and South America.  It does turn white in winter, but not all of them do. The Maryland/Pennsylvania border seems to be the geographical separation between weasels that turn white in winter and those that don’t. And in Pennsylvania and Ohio, not all weasels turn white.

Last week, I was contacted by a researcher from North Carolina State University, who is working on a study of snowshoe hares in the High Alleghenies. One of their research questions involved West Virginia’s long-tailed weasel population and their perennial brown pelage.

If you look up white weasels in West Virginia on Google, you wind up at my blog.

So I met with this researcher in Elkins, and it turns out that this weasel is a real weird one.

If you look at the logic of the two potential winter white weasel species I suggested, there are two main possibilities about what this animal could be.

It’s either an errant long-tailed weasel that doesn’t realize that just happens to have the genetics to turn white or it’s the first documented ermine in West Virginia.

I think the former is more likely.

But that’s not where it gets really bizarre. This weasel was not killed in the Allegheny Highlands, where the snow cover lasts the longest every year. It is certainly true that some of the higher elevation places in West Virginia are more like Maine or Eastern Canada, and one would think those places would be full of weasels that turn white in winter.

This weasel was killed in the Allegheny Plateau, and in the late 90’s, the winters were so mild that there was virtually no snow cover at all in this part of the state.

So why would a weasel turn white?

These woods where this weasel roamed are full of barred owls and red-tailed hawks that would love nothing more than have weasel to eat. A white weasel on the forest floor would just be advertising itself to the winged predators.

So this weasel raises many questions.

Soon, I’ll be setting out weasel gland lure with my trail camera to see if there are other weasels like this one in the area. Maybe there is an anomalous population of weasels in this part of West Virginia.

Or maybe this one was just a fluke.

Whatever it was, this weasel is a mystery. Some may give my late grandfather hell for shooting this weasel, but if he hadn’t shot it, we wouldn’t have this specimen, which might be the first record of a weasel molting to white in a population south of Pennsylvania.

Charles Darwin got into natural history as a recreational shooter. He traveled around the world on the Beagle killing unusual animals left and right.  He killed the South American fox species that bears his name with geological hammer.

If Hornaday had not killed the “big old ‘gator of Arch Creek,”  we wouldn’t have known that crocodiles lived in Florida.

My grandfather was pretty well-versed in natural history, and I think that if he were alive today, he would be impressed that this animal he killed while squirrel hunting would raise so many questions– and be such an anomaly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Visiting raccoon

raccoon visitor

A raccoon came by to inspect my new trail camera set-up.

I took the squirrel head and guts and buried them six inches deep. Then I piled some logs on top of the burial site. I topped it off with a bit of red fox urine to make it really interesting.

The location is just off a well-worn game trail. I’m not really trying to get raccoons on the camera, but once they start coming the more wary carnivorans should come soon.

That’s the hope anyway.

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