Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Carnivorans’ Category

The beast of the shadows

shadow-bear

It was one of those days in June when the days seem strangely endless. The land was verdant and growing. All the trees were crowned with dark, healthy green leaves, and the grass in the hayfields called for its first cutting.

But that would not happen today. About noon, the skies darkened and a hard summer rain fell. It rained for most of that afternoon.

It was a Saturday, and I wanted to be outside. These balmy late June days very quickly morph into the swelter of July, when you feel as if you’ve stepped into some stinking hot jungle in Southeast Asia and forget that this land has ever seen a subzero reading or has ever been covered in a dry, crisp arctic snow. Those are the days when the air makes the clothes stick to your body as the sweat trails down your back.

Most June days aren’t like that. They are one of times when it actually does feel like you live in actual temperate zone. The rest of the year, it is either looming towards Siberia or steaming into Vietnam.

in this way, my time as a dweller in the temperate forest was limited, and it was being limited now in the downpour.

The rain would stop soon. I knew it would. I’d seen the weather map. The rain would stop.

The length of a wet weekend is something that should be measured in eons, but a wet weekend in late June should be measured in eternities.

So when the rain finally did cease, I was more than eager to go out.

There is no other way to describe the air after a good summer rain other than to describe it as “rainwashed.”  It’s like the whole land has had a good scalding bath. There is a crispness to it that makes everything seem as if it’s been renewed.

The torrents of raindrops trickled down from the great tulip trees and oaks, and the sound of rain still filled the air, though the rain clouds had long since departed.  To walk in a forest after the rain is to listen to downpour’s ghost as canopy sheds the water.

I didn’t think to grab the camera or call the dog. I just needed to go out and be in the forest as it slowly drips dry.

I walked along the old gravel road out to the hayfield. Water gushed along the ditches and into culvert pipes, and the hayfield’s access road was a swampy, muddy mess. I was wearing crocs, which allowed the clay mud to enter through their holes and soil my feet. The summer mud feels nice against the toes, as if it calls me to a time when my kind walked barefoot over the mud, grounded in the soil with every step.

A cottontail rabbit spooked and charged long into the tail grass. I assumed it was a doe with a litter in tall grass below the road, and she was working her way down there to nurse them. My approach spoiled her plans, and I knew she would just hide out in the grass until I was long gone. Then she’d approach her nest and gently uncover the crumpled covering grass blades and stems to reveal the nest. The little rabbits would resting in a bowl of grass lined with their mother’s fur, and she would stand over the bowl while they nursed. Then, she would cover the nest again and go her merry way to graze in the dusk.

If I’d been a little more curious, I would have hunted around the tall grass in search of that nest, but I wasn’t in an exploring mood. I wanted to get to the woods.  Maybe I’d hear the barred owls calling on the opposite ridges or perhaps come across a box turtle out on a worm-hunting expedition after the rain.

Hunting for a rabbit nest in the wet, tall grass just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

So I walked on.

As I entered the woods, the rain kept dripping down the trees. It was almost a hypnotic sound. The evening sun was casting its light through the leaves, illuminating the them as if they were covered in Christmas lights.

It was perfection for a June evening.

I followed the logging road up a steep bank and then followed it along  a sharp curve.

And there before me stood the beast.

A massive black bear stood no more than 15 feet from me.

To say I was shocked would have been an understatement. I’d see bears at zoos from the side of the road, and over the years, I’ve come across bear scat on the forest floor and black hairs in the undergrowth. I’ve even caught bears on trail camera, but never before had I walked into one.

The bear was a shocked with my presence as I was of his. His eyes stared hard at me. The tan markings on his muzzle and above his eyes reminded me of the tan points on a doberman or Rottweiler. But he was like a Rottweiler built along the lines of a gorilla, shaggy fur covering bulging muscles.

His eyes were intelligent but clearly showed his terror. The raindrops dripping from the trees had muffled my footsteps, and by accident, I had approached the bear from upwind. He couldn’t have smelled me.

He was in a bad spot. Black bears have been hunted in West Virginia for as long as people have lived in West Virginia. The indigenous people at their meat and used their fat and wore their fur, and the early mountain men turned to bears as a reliable source for red meat.

He had no reason to see my kind as anything but bad news, and as soon as he realized I was a human, he launched himself through the pines. His form was nothing more than a black shadow that seemed float away at high speed. His feet tore through though leaves and twigs in a loud cacophony as the shadow form disappeared from view.

It was only a brief few seconds, but it had a certain magic to it. The Eastern states have been denuded of all our great predators. The wolves and cougars were killed off in these Allegheny foothills long ago, but the bears remained. West Virginia’s DNR protected the bears. There were only a couple of hundred of them in the state when I was born. Now, there may be as many as 10,000.

The black bear is a survivor, a living relic of what was once wild country filled with great predators. No more dire wolves or Smilodons. No more American lions.

All that remains is this shadow of a beast, which shuffles through the undergrowth on cautious feet.

“If you go out in the woods today. You’re sure of a big surprise,” goes the children’s rhyme about the Teddy bear picnic.

On that June evening, a bear surprised me, and I surprised him. The shadow beast was revealed to me in the clear evening sun just before the solstice.

And just as soon as we met, he slipped off into the world of thickets and shadows and deadfalls. He was hidden again to live the mysterious life of a bear.

In their mystery lies their magic, their allure, their mystique.

And thus it always should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Raccoon picnic

This family of raccoons came by to eat some deer pellets and nibble on the feed block.

Read Full Post »

black panther hoax

Trail camera photo of a black leopard in Africa, but often claimed to have been photographed in lots of different places in the US!

I am in the minority.

To an outsider, it might seem weird that I am in the minority, but I most assuredly am in a minority.

Here’s what gives me minority status:

I live in West Virginia, and I don’t think there are black panthers of any sort roaming the forests here.

If you go to any little town in West Virginia– or just about anywhere in rural America east of the Mississippi– and ask the first ten people you see if they’ve seen a black panther. You will most often hear either an affirmation that the person has seen one or they know someone who has seen one.

It doesn’t really matter that melanism hasn’t been officially documented in North American cougars or that cougars haven’t even been confirmed in this part of the East yet.

They’ve seen a black panther.

Maybe it’s a black leopard let loose on the countryside. That’s usually the claim when we hear the British talk of alien big cats:

Someone had a black leopard. The laws changed against their ownership. The leopard was turned loose, where it met other leopards who met the same fate.

In West Virginia, the panther casts a shadow long into the psyche.  West Virginia is a place where the land was cleared and stock was run and crops were raised.

That world has largely disappeared as new industrial opportunities expanded in neighboring states. Those who remained got jobs off the land, where could afford to buy things that were grown or butchered out of state.

The old fields grew in with brush. Then the trees returned.

If you look at densely-forested hillside long enough, you can imagine any number of fell beasts residing in the thickets and brush.

The great Appalachian writer Joe Bageant wrote of seeing a “panther” when he was only 5 years old. He saw it in a meadow near his family homestead in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Whether he saw such a creature is certainly up to question. Bageant died in 2011, and this writing is but a distillation of a childhood memory.

In the meadow sycamore, a panther so black it is almost blue. Neither Nelson nor I have ever seen a panther. Never expected to in our lives. But there it is. Big as life. Nelson’s face shows almost holy amazement in the red light. He takes his pipe away from his quivering lip. Not that fear was a part of it, only awe of this beast. The panther drops weightlessly to the ground and glides into the loblolly* pines with all its lithe power. We let out our breath. We gesture at each other for a minute, then trot for home. By the time we reach the house twilight had settled.

“Maw,” I blurt. “We seen a panther down by the big sycamore. Black as night. Long and black as night.”

Maw turns away from the hand pump by the galvanized sink where she had been drawing dishwater. “Never been a panther in these parts I know of,” she says. But the set of Nelson’s wide dark face tells her this is a true thing. “Hear that Pap?” she asks. “The boys seen a panther. A panther is a sign of war and troubles of war.”

My grandfather frowns, says nothing in reply. Then he raises up his lanky frame from the kitchen chair, picks up the kitchen slop bucket and heads for the hog pen.

What about the sign of war? I wanted to know. Silence from Maw. Well, if it was a sign, I figured, Maw would sure as hell know about it. Maw knew her signs. Maw knew what poultices cured chicken pox, how to plant and reap by the almanac.

“If talk was corn that old man couldn’t buy grain,” Maw grumbled at Pap’s non-response.

And that was all I ever got in the way of answers about the panther and the sign of war. I would one day learn that panthers were among the first beasts killed off by the English and German settlers in our region, along with red wolves [sic] and the eastern woodland bison. And that black is just one of the color possibilities of panthers anywhere on the planet. But in that day and in our world on Shanghai Road along the drains of Sleepy Creek panthers inhabited their place alongside witches, wolf trees, milk drinking snakes and other such creatures as prowled the subconscious and gave explanation to the greater unknown.

Even though I’m actually only removed by three generations from people who lived much like this, it doesn’t change the fact that I am indeed removed from it.

When I was a child, I had a blowhard relative call up everyone in the family that he had killed a bobcat while deer hunting.

It certainly captured my imagination, and I was really thrilled that he was going to have his trophy “stuffed,” so that I could see when we went visiting over Christmas.

Even now I can remember my great disappointment, when I was brought into the room where the trophy cat had been set up for display, only to discover that he’d shot a tortoiseshell Manx cat. The taxidermist had done a good job polishing up this fake bobcat, but it didn’t change anything.

By then I’d learned to keep my mouth shut, and I let everyone bask in the glory of a dead house cat. I remember someone asking how such a little cat could kill such a big thing as a deer and just cringing.

West Virginia is a place that needs its panthers. It doesn’t matter if they are real or not, any more than it mattered whether my relative had killed a bobcat. This is a place that needs its folklore, its animism, its spirits in order to commune with a great unknown that becomes more perplexing every day.

Black panthers dreams must be real, for it is only in their possibility that gives the land its magic, its mystique.

As much as I’d like there to be black panthers in the forest here, I know they really don’t exist here. But I still look into woods in hopes I might be wrong.

________________________________________________________________

*He probably means same tree that my grandpa called a “jack pine,” which is more properly known as a Virginia pine. True jack pines grow well to our north, while loblollies are the common pines of Eastern North Carolina and also grow in coastal Maryland and Virginia. But not in the land west of the Blue Ridge.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Otaries

otaries

It’s funny how some words fall out of use when they actually do have some great clarifying utility.

One of the hardest concepts to understand is that the creatures we call “fur seals” and “sea lions” aren’t actually “seals” in the same way we understand harbor or gray seals.

In modern English, these animals get called “eared seals,” which is confusing term in itself. The other seals do have ears, of course, but only fur seals and sea lions have external ear flaps. The eared seals can also pull their hind flippers under their bodies and walk, while the “earless” seals are forced to drag their bellies around on ground with their front flippers.

We currently classify the earless seals as “phocids” (easy to remember if you know the French word for seal is phoque). The eared seals are called “otariids,” which is easy to remember if you think that otters have ears and these are the seals that are most like otters.

But I have wondered where this word came from. Obviously phocid came from Latin by way of the Ancient Greek word “phōke.”  I don’t see much use in using this word in English, though in the Romance languages, some variant of this word is the actual word for seal.

The name for the eared seals is otariid. If you know your Greek, ōtos means ear, and ōtaros means “large-eared.” Because these animals have external ear flaps. they have larger ears, which is also another way to remember the two groups

The French use the word “otarie” for these animals, and as I was going through some of the nineteenth century naturalist accounts of these seals, I noticed that an Anglicized word “otary” was used for them.

The term has since fallen into disuse, but it might be necessary to revive it. A fur seal or a sea lion really isn’t the same thing as a seal in my mind. They swim and move so differently that they really aren’t in the same ball park. To me, a seal will always be an animal made up of blubber into a sausage that can barely move on land, while an otary is an animal that can run and swim.

Using otary for these animals divides them better cognitively from the seals.

But then I don’t think most people would lose sleep over calling a sea lion a seal, even if it’s not really a seal.

The English language first evolved in a place where there are no otaries, but when these animals were noticed by English-speakers, there was attempt to classify them as being like the gray and harbor seals that they knew so well.

But I think this leads to a confusion of two quite different families.

Maybe this is me being a nerd.

But I think it’s time to use the term “otary” in our common language.

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

I saw several sea otters on my cruise, but I saw them from the ship while it was in motion.

So this is my best photo:

IMG_0047

Read Full Post »

DSC02535

Steller sea lions on a buoy just off from the Point Retreat Lighthouse. This body of water is called the “Lynn Canal,” which is actually fjord. It was named by George Vancouver, and it was supposed to be called “Lynn Channel,” but transcription error led to it being called a canal. But glaciers made it, not canal diggers.

DSC02679

.

 

Read Full Post »

DSC02532

This is Admiralty Island, which is not far from Juneau. It is known by the Tlingit as Xootsnoowú, which translates as “Fortress of the Bears.”

It is home to 1,600 brown bears, which I didn’t see while whale watching. This island has one the highest densities of brown bears anywhere in the world, and it is the highest for North America.

These aren’t just normal brown bears, however.  This is where things get really interesting.

About ten years ago, it turned out that many brown bears from Admiralty Island and the neighboring islands of Baranof and Chichagof had mitochondrial DNA that is similar to the polar bear.  This caused quite a bit of a sensation, because if these brown bears really were closely related to the polar bears, then we might have found the place where polar bears evolved from brown bears. This was also at the time when there was a growing body of evidence that polar bears evolved very rapidly and relatively recently from brown bears.

A later nuclear DNA study revealed that the similarities between these brown bears and polar bears were the result of ancient hybridization. The genomes of these brown bears is roughly 1 percent polar bear, but 6.5 percent of the X chromosomes come from polar bears.

These islands and Ireland are both places where polar and brown bears hybridized at the end of the last glacial maximum. Polar bears got stranded on islands, which became great brown bear habitat. Male brown bears mated with polar bear sows, and the offspring were fertile. However, they bred back into the brown bear population in such a way that they are almost entirely brown bear in ancestry.

As the arctic is warming, polar bears are finding themselves stranded on land for longer periods during the mating season, and brown bears (mostly grizzlies) are wandering north. Several hybrids have been killed in recent years, including one from this year.

Polar bears could very likely become extinct as a result of climate change, but their genes could still live on in the brown and grizzly bears that manage to hybridize with them during this transition period.

I wish I had been able to see one of those bears on Admiralty Island,  but I am just glad I got a photo of the island itself.

Whales were calling. Not bears.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: