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Archive for the ‘wildlife’ Category

When I was a little boy, my grandmother once told me that one of her childhood dogs killed a civet cat.  I was old enough to know that civets lived in Africa and Asia, so when I got the chance, I asked my dad if grandma had ever been to Africa.  He said “No.” And the whole discussion ended.

I always wondered what grandma was talking about.

When I first started this blog, I was a little confused about the existence of spotted skunks in West Virginia. I asked if anyone had seen a spotted skunk in West Virginia, and of course, I got no response.

But it turns out there are some. It turns out that they are found only in the High Alleghenies, where the snow falls hard every winter.

This perplexed me.  I had always thought of Eastern spotted skunks as being a more or less “Southern” species, and although I often saw range maps of the species that included almost the entire state, I had never knew anyone who had seen one.

But maybe I did.

It turns out that one of the vernacular names for the spotted skunk is “civet cat.”

And that’s when the little anecdote my grandmother told me made a bit more sense. Her childhood dog had killed a “civet cat,” but it had most likely killed a spotted skunk.

As for that broad range map I linked to earlier, I think the reason the range appears to be so truncated now is that the spotted skunk was reviled in much of its range as a vector of rabies. Another common vernacular name for spotted skunk is “phoby cat”– “phoby” is short for “hyrdophobia” (often “hydrophoby” in some dialects)– it is very likely that there was massive persecution of spotted skunks in the lower elevations of the state.

It was just too hard to settle and farm in the higher mountains, and those mountains provided some sort of refuge for what is really a more subtropical species than one would typically find in such snowy country.

My grandmother’s childhood dog likely killed one of the few spotted skunks left in the lower elevations of West Virginia.

But I liked to pretend that she had gone to Africa.

Boyhood flights of fancy are tough to beat.

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Outer Banks gray fox hunt, 1930s

Outer Banks Gray fox hunt

In the 1930s, the only fox on the Outer Banks of North Carolina was the gray fox, and this is a photo of the Goosewing Club on a mounted hunt in an attempt to be subtropical English.

Red foxes did not become fully established in most of the South until well into the twentieth century, so when you read accounts of fox chasing south of Virginia and Kentucky and outside the Appalachian Mountains from an earlier time period, they are almost certainly running hounds on gray fox.

The gray fox is less suited for this type of pursuit because it doesn’t go to ground when pressed to hard. Its usual defense is to shoot up the nearest tree, and this behavior makes for a rather poor mounted hunt.

The Eastern Canadian red fox is much better suited to this sort of thing.  The red fox of the Eastern and Midwestern US is derived from that animal. It is not an import from England as was once commonly believed. The red fox came south after the clearing of the forests created better habitat for this more open land species.  They were the first canids to expand their range dramatically after European contact and colonization. The coyote was the second.

Gray foxes are the most divergent species of canid still in existence. Their exact lineage split off from the rest of the dogs some 8-12 million years ago, and they are the only species of dog still in existence that has a fully North American evolutionary history. Everything else, including the coyote, has derived from Eurasian ancestors that came back into the continent.

They are truly America’s most special dog, one that really doesn’t get much attention, but the history of foxhunting in what became this country was largely based upon this animal in the early years.

If I were to choose my own animal totem, it would be a gray fox.  It lurks in the deep thickets on far distant ridges. It lives in defiance of our world, unsullied and unfettered by our desires.  A wild dog that is truly out on its own journey, one that began millions of years ago in the ages before their were truly things called wolves or modern humans.

Remote and distant goes the gray fox.

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Final monarch of the year

Summer’s final grasp on the land is slowly but surely being released.

We had a bit of frost at the end of September. Then we had a few weeks of balmy weather.

But the weather is about to change again.

And this monarch butterfly will soon be on its way to Mexico. The leaves will be off the trees, and the deer will be in full rut.

Snow will  soon be on everyone’s mind.

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Licky licky

This doe just walked up to have me take her photo.

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She almost looks like some kind of antelope in the tall grass of Africa.

You can also see her long whiskers, which aren’t very obvious unless you’re very close up.

 

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Dead venomous mammal

Back in West Virginia, a dead northern short-tailed shrew:

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This one was very dark in color, but they often come in silvery gray as well.

Their venom isn’t that powerful, but we have a family story of a dachshund that had a bad reaction to a shrew bite.

In my part of North America, this is the only venomous mammal, but there are four species of shrew in this genus (Blarina), and they are distributed over most of North America east of the Rockies.

I initially thought this was a young hairy-tailed mole, but the smaller feet gave it away instantly.

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Big five-lined skink

5-lined skink

Not an easy photo to take!

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Running into poults

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I went out on a late June saunter with camera in hand. It is that time of year just as the gloriousness of high summer begins its slow slide into the muggy doldrums of the the dog days.  It is the time before the mowing machines and the hay tedders and bailers come and denude the meadows of their tall grass.

It is the time when rabbits run through the tall grass. Furry paws hiss through the weeds as they course away from my treading advance, and the stalks bend with each contact, making it seem as if the grass sways to the haunting of some apparition as it slinks between the Netherworld and here.

But on this day of tall grass and sunshine, the rabbits were all in their weedy forms. Being abroad in the sunlight is only going to expose a lagomorph to the watching eyes of red-tailed hawks, which sit with casting eyes on power-line poles and tall trees.  Any furry exposed furry movement will be sure to get a great buzzard’s attention, and down from the trees and the power-line poles will come the winged death.

All that was abroad in the sunlight on that day were little songbirds, like goldfinches and chipping sparrows, flitting above the tall grass like bits of animate confetti. Crows were calling from the early season apple trees, and I could hear the croaking of ravens on a distant ridge, where I knew a farmer had deposited the remains of three Angus cows had succumbed to a lightning strike the week before. I imagined that the ravens and turkey vultures came during the heat of the day and pecked away at their beef buffet, but when the night drew in, the coyotes and foxes came to get their piece. I knew the rank stinking of beef carcasses would likely draw out a bear or two, and perhaps one might be wandering through the woods and meadows while I was out with my camera.

I had all these thoughts going through my mind when I turned down an access road that cuts along the edge of the meadow and the big woods. The meadow’s highest point rises to my right before leveling out, and it was in that leveling place that I saw a small doe standing tawny and russet in her summer coat.  I readied my camera, but she was startled by my presence and bounded off into the forest before I could crack my shutter.

It was at that moment that I noticed something sky blue sky blue in the grass that was growing about half way up the that high point. The blue spot rose above the grass and revealed itself to be a wild turkey’s head. The sun cast a sheen upon the black feathers and the iridescent shine that appears on turkey plumage cast back to me the greens and violets that would be hidden if the sun were not shining so brightly upon her.

I knew from the size and shape that it was a hen turkey. She was svelte and trim, and I couldn’t see much of a “snood” protruding from her forehead.

And I knew instantly why she was there, and I knew I had come across a fine photo opportunity.  I had to play this right, because if I came in too quickly, I would mess it all up.

When the grass is tall, it is a paradise for grasshoppers.  Grasshoppers are little more than bits of protein with exoskeletons, and hen turkeys know this well.  They need to know this fact, not because they need lots and lots of protein to thrive, but because in midsummer, they have rapidly growing poults that need as much easily procured protein as possible.

So I knew that if I approached this turkey calmly, I might get a chance to photograph some wild turkey poults. They weren’t bears or coyotes, but they were pretty amazing.  I knew that by this time of year, the little wild turkeys would have already developed flight feathers, and if I spooked them, they would shoot out of the grass in all directions, heading skyward to the safety of the forest’s canopy.

So I came slowly. The turkey hen glowered at me. She lowered herself into the tall grass, hoping that I hadn’t seen her.  I took slow steps, but her dark eyes never left me.

Suddenly another turkey rose on stilt legs from the grass and ran hard for the woods. I had not seen her, but I now realized I had come onto a matriarchal band of turkeys. During the summer, related turkey hens will band together with all their poults, and they will work together to bring their charges into good foraging spots and protect them from predators. I knew that if there were poults, there would be many, and this was an opportunity that I hoped I didn’t mess up.

I made a few more steps to the turkeys. Two more hens rose from the grass and ran hard for the woods.  I stopped.  I had now seen four mature hens, which meant that the grass was probably full of poults.  Four hens with four clutches of offspring. It was almost too good to be true.

I made a few more steps.  The hen that had been staring at me the whole time suddenly took to the wing.

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A half dozen small brown poults followed her skyward, but one stood around, exposing itself in the grass.

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The photo is fuzzy, because it was the only photo I was able to take. As soon as the shutter clicked, the grass erupted in wing beats. Black-speckled brown poults shot out of the grass in all directions. I had too many targets, and in the fog of all this action, I got no photos of turkey poult shooting out of the grass.

I was disappointed, but I thought if I slinked along the treeline, I might find a poult or two that had taken refuge in a tree that abutted along the meadow. It was my only hope.

Or so I thought.

As I began my slinking approach, I heard a high-pitch cheeping sound from the grass behind me. I turned my head to see the tall grass swaying as something small moved along the bass of the grass-stalks. Before my mind could register that it was a poult, the little beast busted out of its hiding place. Instead of flying away from me, its little wings took it straight at me. It passed no more than six feet from head before it landed on a small hickory tree under which I was standing.

The camera was ready this time.

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The poult stared down with me, perhaps wondering what it was. I couldn’t tell if it had fear in its eyes or curiosity. Perhaps both.

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But I’m sure its main concern was the location of the rest of its band, especially its mother and aunties and their soft clucks and purrs.

It chirped away into the bush, and then realizing that it probably shouldn’t stay in that hickory tree, it took flight again.

It was there only a minute, but in that minute he revealed to me the beauty and elegance of wild youth.

And the camera was there to capture it, so I could share it with you.

Running into poults.  Soon to be jakes and jennys.  A little longer and they will be stately toms and hens. The bobcats and coyotes will stalk them all their days, as will the spring hunters with their yelping and clucking calls. The fall hunters will go gunning for them too.

And they will eat a belly-full of ticks and spiders and the acorns and the wild fruits as they go through their life course, clucking and fanning and digging in the leaf litter.

 

 

 

 

 

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