Sunday, November 25, 2012

Outrageous Cruelty to Coyotes for No Reason at All

One of our beautiful coyotes, photographed during the summer
In New York State, hunters are allowed to kill Coyotes –day or night; there are no “bag limits”, which means that someone can kill as many as they want. The season goes from October 1st to March 31st. No pelt seal is required, nor are hunters obligated to submit any information to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Now that’s freedom for you.
The most typical view of a coyote -- running away at top speed

There’s absolutely no good reason for anyone to be shooting coyotes in our area, but many deer hunters do it routinely. They also seem to show great pride in ridding our communities of the non-existent menace that the wild dogs pose. Their stated justifications for coyote extermination are unscientific and often burgeon on the ridiculous. They paint a picture of coyotes menacing people, killing domestic dogs and even stealing cats from people’s back porches (The hunters’ sudden concern for the welfare of our domestic cats is enough to bring me to tears.) Of course, there’s practically zero evidence backing up these claims in the entire Northeast, let alone in our own region of New York State; still, the coyote killers always act as if they are doing the community some great favor.
Another brief look at a coyote, before he turns and runs away
Some deer hunters will occasionally tell the truth and say that they kill coyotes because they don’t want them to kill any of their deer, and in this one case, I think they actually believe what they are saying. In some regions, like the Adirondacks, coyotes are known to regularly take deer, while in other regions, including our own, they have very different food preferences. In fact they mostly concentrate on easier and more plentiful prey like rabbits and other small mammals. They also eat a fair bit of fruit and other vegetable material, which would be all too obvious if these “outdoorsmen” would take a few minutes to study the animals that they are persecuting.
A very rare sight -- a coyote kit, seen here crossing a log over a creek
Ironically, even our coyotes feed on deer this time of year, and that's because the hunters leave gut piles all over the place from their own deer kills. The hunters are in effect, baiting the woods with the equivalent of hundreds of cans of dog food, only to kill the dogs when they come to partake. Baiting deer is illegal –baiting coyotes, not so much.
A mother Coyote with her kits
In reality, Coyotes are very shy animals. In 20 years of spending the majority of my time outdoors, I've never seen or heard of any instances of them menacing anyone. When a coyote sees a person, they invariably turn around and run away at top speed –and obviously, they have good reason to behave that way.

We are currently in the midst of the rifle season for deer, and so we are being treated to a glut of camouflage clad hunters swarming all over our neighbor’s lands, trying their best to kill something or other. Each year I patrol our well-posted nature preserve to make sure no one is turning our land into the killing fields –and believe me, they would if someone wasn't watching them. A few days ago, as I was going through one of our gates, I heard a loud rifle shot from the land just beyond the property border. I then heard a terrible agonizing scream –which lasted for about a minute. I thought for a moment that some hunter had shot himself, but then I realized that it was a coyote that was the source of the cry. Evidently, the coyote had wandered too close to a tree stand were some brave sniper was perched. Judging by some subsequent barking sounds I heard, the coyote wasn't alone, but had a companion –probably a relative that was with him at the time of the atrocious act. Some low barks of sympathy from a friend were probably the last thing the unfortunate wild dog heard.

A nervous mother bounces up and down in a the field to try to see an intruder over the tall grass
Well at least some dude who was out to shoot something this morning wasn't disappointed. Bear in mind the coyote’s body will just be left where it fell. No one wants it.
One of the most popular arguments in favor of deer hunting is the idea that the population of nuisance deer are kept low, but then if they all believe that coyotes are thinning the deer herd already, then aren't they undermining their own justification? In areas where deer are regularly taken by coyotes, farmers and land owners should be made aware that when they allow deer hunters to shoot coyotes on their land, they are in effect cancelling out all of the deer population control implemented by those coyotes. In other words, those hunter guys aren't doing you any favors, Farmer John.
Even in areas where coyotes take deer, the chances of them taking down an adult buck are slim to nil
I've been lucky enough to hear the way some hunters talk about coyotes when they think that no one is listening. I heard one guy last week referring to a coyote that he shot at and missed, as a "Mother F##ker". Realize, this is coming from an expert hunter that typically wounds about 6 deer for every one he kills each year. These are the types of heroes that our New York State Department of Environmental Conservation entrusts to provide wildlife population control services in our great State.
Once our region had a much greater diversity of mammalian predators; we had Black Bear, Gray Wolves, Cougar, Wolverine and more. In the colonial period, all of them were exterminated based on fairy-tail ideas of the threats they posed to people. Well those fantasies were wild exaggerations then and they are especially not true now in regards to coyotes, so please tell your New York State legislators that our coyotes should be allowed to live in peace, and to rescind the DEC's outrageous extermination policy.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Beaver Logging and The Lone American Pipit

Julia wrangles an Aspen log

This week at the Beaver Pond was much like last week, and like the week before. Food storage is just about the only thing that the colony is concerning itself with. In recent weeks, it has not been unusual for there to be ice on the ponds –at least in the mornings; and I think that the ice has provided an even more powerful incentive for the beavers to get their winter food reserves into shape.
Beavers can actually move logs twice as big as this one
The other day I watched Julia working on an aspen log, which was around 18 inches in circumference. The branches had been mostly stripped from the trunk already, and presumably taken back to the pond. Now she was sectioning the trunk into pieces small enough for her to transport over land. Amazingly, it took her less than 6 minutes to cut completely through this thick log. With each bite, her huge incisors pried off a long blonde chip. After every few bites, she would re-angle her jaws and bite down again to extract another chip. If I only had a pair of loppers like that!
Julia sections the log
Now with the log cut in roughly 2 equal sections, she was ready to use some muscle. With her mouth, she grabbed a hold of one of the pieces and jerked it upwards –angling it so she would be able to drag it lengthwise down the trail. After switching sides, she took hold of it again with her teeth –lifting up the front half and then using her weight to lunge it forward. Once Julia got going, the log slid well on the beavers’ slick logging trail, but then it got hung up in a low honeysuckle bush. But, no fear, Julia knew just what to do; she got her snippers out and took care of the impediment in less than a minute and then she was off again towards the pond with 4 feet of log dragging behind her.
5 minutes into the job, she's nearly finished
Once she made it back to the water, it was smooth towing for a little while, but then she tried to dive with the thing. The combination of the log’s buoyancy and the fact that it was getting hung up on branches already in the food cache, presented Julia with another challenge. The log popped back up to the surface, and the large beaver emerged right behind it. With renewed determination, she grabbed onto the log –gripping it very close to the end; and then using a combination of momentum and brute force, she plunged back underwater with it. The water was clear enough so that I could still see the log as it moved like a guided torpedo along the bottom of the pond. This time it was pulled clear of all obstacles, and was securely stowed at the bottom of the food cache. Wasting no time, Julia climbed back onto shore and headed out to retrieve the other half of her tree.
Julia readjusts her grip
Its times like these that I’m particularly glad that the beavers are friends of mine; If they weren't  I could easily imagine myself being stowed at the bottom of the pond just as easily as that log was. This is yet another good reason to coexist with beavers!
She makes it to the water with the second log
The American Pipit - an unusual visitor for us
An unexpected visitor to the nature preserve was a single American Pipit. Pipits are rarely found alone, so I wondered if he may have been injured or sick and fell out of his flock. Normally, the species is found in flocks along beaches and in large agricultural fields. Their call is very recognizable –in fact, their call, which sounds a lot like “Pip-pit” is what gave them their common name.
The Pipit looks rather thrush-like from the front
The Pipit has a barred chest, which makes it look somewhat thrush-like from the front. Its tail is dark, but edged with white feathers. Also, the Pipit is a tail bobber. Almost constantly, the bird pumps its tail up and down as it goes about its business. So far for the last several days, the Pipit is making due in our largest field. I keep hoping that a flock of his fellow kind will fly over and he’ll be strong enough to join them.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Yes, For Some Reason There is an Archery Season for Deer

Every year at the nature preserve, during the 3 months of deer hunting season, we can always count on a certain number of wounded deer coming over our border. In most of these cases these animals are tracked but never found. They may die of their injuries in a few hours, or they may linger for months and die during the course of the long winter. Undoubtedly, some survive beyond that and may even recover to some degree, but in my opinion, it all comes down to large amount of unnecessary suffering.

We are currently in the midst of the archery season, and deer hunters armed with bow and arrows are busy on all sides of our preserve, trying their best to take down their hoofed prey. Two days ago, I came across one of the casualties of this "sport"; it involved a very young deer that was born just this past spring. She had a deep wound on her shoulder where evidently, an arrow had struck and then fell out. The wound wasn't bleeding anymore, but the area around it looked to be infected. The fawn herself appeared very sick and weak. She was laying down on a small island in one of our beaver ponds. I surmised that she was probably chased by predators and sought refuge in the pond. Once she reached the island, she likely just collapsed from exhaustion.
The wounded doe stands on a small island in the beaver pond
When the fawn saw me, she didn't attempt to run away, but just barely lifted up her head. In cases like this, rehabilitation is not usually a viable option. Very young fawns can be dealt with, but one of this age is most often beyond that type of assistance. All consideration of rehabilitation was academic anyhow, since it was unlikely that the deer could be gotten off of the island. The best I could do was to keep tabs on the poor thing, and see if her situation changed. The following afternoon, she was still there on the island. When I came by, she awkwardly stood up and looked at me nervously, but still didn't attempt to make for the shore. It was beginning to get dark and I had to leave but I vowed to check on her the following day.
Another Doe heads down the trail towards me
The next morning, she was still in the same place and not looking any better. It had been another cold night, and a thin ice was covering the pond. Unfortunately, the ice was too thin to support either of us. The fawn was alert and kept her head up when I was there, but didn't try to stand up.
Deer communicate with each other with gestures like this one that mimics grooming 
As I walked away from the pond and into the meadow, I saw another deer coming toward me from up the trail. I thought that this could be just what the fawn needed; seeing another deer –probably an acquaintance, might be provide the incentive she needed to leave the island. I did my best to act and look as non threatening as possible, so the approaching deer wouldn't turn and run the other way. In my experience, the best way to accomplish this is by acting in a manner similar to the deer. This means bowing down to look like I'm browsing on trail side plants, occasionally nodding by head in the deer's direction, and even pretending to scratch. Sometimes the method actually works and luckily, this was one of those times. The deer, which was a young doe, continued to casually wander in my direction. She made her way past me and continued toward the pond where the other deer was. I had retreated away from the pond by this point, in order to insure that I didn't upset their interaction. So consequently, I'm not sure what happened next. All I do know is that when I returned to the pond several hours later, the fawn was finally off of the island, and nowhere to be seen.
Sometimes deer survive their wounds only to die during the course of the winter
Though I think it unlikely that the young deer will recover from the wounds inflicted on it by some incompetent and quite possibly nearsighted hunter, but at least in the short term, the animal is no longer stranded and alone. It will be able to experience the companionship of its own kind, if only for a short time longer.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Owl Encounters and the Bizarre American Woodcock

Hey, I'm trying to roost in here!

A few days ago, at around 7:30 AM, the fog was so intense at the nature preserve that it seemed like the sun had yet to rise. Apparently, a few of our owls thought this too, because they began calling. At first I was confused about what I was hearing. The cry was in the range of an Eastern Screech Owl, but it lacked the tremulous quality that is so characteristic of that bird's mournful call. The name, Screech Owl, might lead you to believe that this bird gives a "screech" for its call, but that is not the case. The normal call of this small species can more aptly be likened to the whinny of a horse.

An Eastern Screech  Owl waits for mice to walk underneath the bird feeder

After several minutes another Screech Owl chimed in. The second bird had a much more conventional whinny type call. The 2 birds called back and forth for a little while and then stopped. I looked around for a few minutes to see if I could locate the birds, but not too surprisingly, I couldn't find them.

An immature Screech

We've always had Screech Owls around the nature preserve, but since they are nocturnal, most visitors see little evidence of them. Maybe a small regurgitated pellet of compressed mouse hair and bones will be all you can hope to find. What we euphemistically refer to as "white-wash" is another classic owl sign. Usually, white-wash would be located on the truck of a pine tree. 

A Barred Owl peers at me through the fog

Years ago we installed a number of Screech Owl boxes, and out of those checked (the low placed ones), some occasionally harbor roosting owls. Some also hosted nests. In general, owls bring little or no material into the nest cavity, and just lay their eggs upon wood chips or other debris. But sometimes the Screech does decorate the nest with the feathers of songbirds. 2 nests that I found in our boxes contained copious amounts of colorful feathers including those of Cardinals and Blue Jays. One gets the idea that the Screech has a gaudy taste in interior design.

This Barred Owl could barely stay awake

The Barred Owl is only an occasional resident at the preserve. Like the Great horned Owl and unlike the Screech, the Barred is sometimes active during daylight hours. The one that showed up this week in a grove of Hemlock Trees, was not exactly active, she seemed kind of sleepy to me. After the chickadees and Titmice got tired of mobbing her, she settled down on her perch and had a doze. Once in a while, her eyes snapped open to see what I was up to, and then they’d slowly close again.

Owls typically perch very close to the truck of a tree
A rare look at one of our Great Horned Owls 

The Great Horned Owl is a resident species at the preserve, and of all the owls, this one is that is most frequently encountered, and least photographed. They normally hate to be seen by people. Just about as soon as I make eye contact with one, they are off in a flurry of silent wing beats. The surest way to locate them is by following the crows’ shrill calls. Crows mercilessly mob Great Horned Owls –mostly because of the predators’ nasty habit of raiding crow nests at night.  It’s even possible to track the Owls movements through the forest by monitoring the crows' frenzied calls.

The strange and bizarre American Woodcock sits in the trail ahead of me

Over the last week, American Woodcocks have been hanging around at the preserve. The species breeds here, but I suspect that the individuals that we’re seeing now are migrants from the north. The Woodcock might be the craziest looking bird that we have in the region. They are classified as sandpipers, but they are much plumper than the average shorebird. The have short legs, really long bills and disproportionately large eyes which are located high on their heads. The long bill allows the Woodcock to probe very deep into the soil. They have a small flange toward the tip of the bill which can effectively snap shut on a worm so it can be drawn out of the ground.