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Archive for the ‘wildlife’ 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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Red fox track in the March mud

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This old red fox has been using this trail all winter.  He’s now walking in the mud.

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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:

Source.

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:

Source.

A good close-up of a melanistic gray squirrel:

Source.

And a large raccoon:

Source.

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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I got a better photo of a black squirrel on the trail camera this week.

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Melanism in Eastern gray squirrels does have some advantage in heavily forested environments. I have a lot harder time seeing the black ones against tree trunks and branches, especially if the leaves are on.

However, if one of these squirrels runs out in the open, it is obvious to every hawk that might be staking out the area.

 

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The really cold temperatures must be messing with the time stamp. Neither of these two videos came from 2068.

These are melanistic Eastern gray squirrel, and there aren’t many of them in West Virginia.

Source.

Two of them here, and you can see where black color is an advantage in deep cover:

Source.

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American mink

Consider a river bank.

It is a bank along a wild, relatively undeveloped river in the Allegheny Plateau of West Virginia. Its exact identity is of no importance, for there are several rivers like it. Each has roughly the same cast of characters who are about to unveil their story here, so it makes no difference if I give it a name or not.

Along this river, the wild mallards and Canada geese nest every spring, and instead of the little huts their species is  best known for, the muskrats give birth to their young in bank dens.

And their untutored offspring provide sustenance for the wily mink, the water weasel that wishes it were an otter but isn’t quite there yet.

All spring, our mink has been hunting the young ducks and muskrats, and he has unsuccessfully made a few attempts at taking out a wayward gosling, only to be repelled by one of their hissing, biting, splashing parents.

But now the young muskrats and ducks are wary to the ways of the mink, and hunting is hard.  Three days have gone by without a successful kill, but he’s been able to get sustenance from some catfish offal  and heads that were left behind from trot-liner’s night catch. But now the scraps are gone, and hunger is drawing on in.

A mink must eat, but for a mink to eat, it must kill.

And the prey isn’t likely to sacrifice itself.

But sometimes it messes up.

Just down stream from where our friend the mink was eating the catfish remains is a long sandbar. Sometimes migrating waterfowl stop on the sandbar to rest. Often, the resident mother mallards bring their ducklings there to rest,  but this year, they have become a favorite haunt of our mink.

And they keep their distance.

But on the sandbar now, two male mallards have come to visit. It is now the torrid time in summer when the male mallards are in eclipse plumage. This is the time when they look almost identical to the hen mallards, and as if that weren’t emasculating enough, they have lost their ability to fly.

They are utterly vulnerable.

These two birds have spent the spring fighting and whoring and raping as all good male mallards do. Just weeks ago, they were mortal enemies, and now, with the majority of the hens with fuzzy ducklings following them, they are no longer engaged in such debauchery.  The two birds are brothers out of the same clutch, and now, with all that wild season behind them, they cling to each other.

The mallard’s instinct is that a duck on his own is a duck that is about to be eaten, and when a duck loses its ability to fly,  it is really vulnerable.

That’s why nature has selected for drake mallards to lose their ornate plumage during this period. Otherwise, they are just too conspicuous for predators.

On the surface, choosing the sandbar as a night roost makes some sense for these two comrades. The sandbar is surrounded by water on all sides, and any predator that tries to reach the bar will make a splashes that will alert the mallards to its approach.

So the two flightless brothers make the sandbar their roost. They spend the afternoon preening their drab feathers–

While the mink watches them from the bank.

The mink know that it must make its approach at night.  If he makes his move too soon, the ducks will get spooked and find another place to roost.

But as the afternoon heat drags on, the mallards begin to feel steamy, and both waddle off into the current to cool their baking breasts. They begin to splash about and bathe themselves.

As they enter the main channel, the mink slides off into the water and begins his approach. Mink are weasels that are almost otters, and they aren’t above making an ambush from the depths. There is no need for a night stalk when the quarry does something this stupid.

The mink dives upon his approach to the drab mallard brothers and then surfaces but a few feet from them. One of the mallards notices the bobbing head approaching, but his eyes are all rheumy from the water baths.

The mink dives again, and the resurfaces just inches from one of the mallard’s necks. At that moment both ducks jump and try to flee, but it is too late.

The mink has now fastened his razor sharp teeth into the nearest mallard brother’s neck, and try as the mallard might, he cannot dislodge him. His brother croaks in terror, swimming around and around as if trying to figure out what is happening.

The river water bounces up white with the struggle. For ten minutes, the mink and the mallard grapple in the current.  At some points it seems like the mallard might have the upper hand, and he even manages to throw the mink off four or five times.

But hunger and the endorphins released by the act of preying have made the mink plucky. He sullies forth towards the duck’s neck.

The duck begins to weaken, and the mink finally latches on one last time. Death comes to brother mallard.

But not quickly.

When it is all over, the mink drags the massive bird onto the bank.  It is a Herculean effort, for the drake mallard weighs as much he does.

He plucks away some plumage from the breast and begins to feed.

Hunger is sated another day.

For the mallard, there is no other day, but the spring’s orgy means that his genes live on in some of the fuzzballs floating behind their mothers in slower currents downstream from the sandbar. Most of them won’t make it through the summer, and many of those won’t make it through the duck season.

But if this time next year there is one duck with the genes of our sacrificed mallard, then he will have lived on. By that time, that duck son or daughter should have passed its genes onto the next year’s ducklings, who will also know the harrying of river bank mink.

There is perhaps no more moving drama in nature than that between predator and prey, and on this river bank, this drama has been played out so many times with so many different casts of characters.

One hundred fifty years ago, the mighty elk would wander down from the ridgetop forests to drink from the river, but along the river bank, packs of wolves prowled, ready to burst out from the willows and river birches to give chase.

But the elk and the wolf are now gone.

And the river bank story is that of the mink and the mallard.

Bloody nature. Death sustaining life.

 

 

 

 

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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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