On Monday of last week, I posed a question on Twitter: “Hey everyone, do you pronounce the word ‘coyote’ with two syllables or three?” I’ve been in the habit of saying all three syllables – “coy-yo-tee.” But a lot of people generally only give it two, “coy-yote,” and I wondered which was more common. Of course, a lot of the answers were less straightforward than I expected.
(I swear this is not an April Fool’s Day post. I tried and failed to think of something clever for April Fool’s Day. This is just the continuation of Part 1 and Part 2 of last week’s snowshoe adventure.)
Okay, so we maybe, possibly found evidence that there have been Black-backed Woodpeckers hanging around Inkpot Lake this winter. Did we see anything else worth mentioning? Yes. Yes we did.
In February I wrote about a previous expedition to Inkpot Lake and included a photo of a tunnel in the snow that, judging by the tracks leading to it, had been made by an otter. This time we found the edges of the lake heavily crisscrossed with more otter tracks and belly slides. Clearly this is a popular spot for them.
So, as we left the boggy area behind and worked our way back around the canoe launch, I kept pausing to examine every dark dot on the far side of the lake with my binoculars. I found a lot of stumps and bushes, but finally I found a dark dot that moved. Ready for a really terrible photo of an otter?
Actually we counted three otters total, frolicking around on the opposite side of the lake from us. It was pretty great. After I commented “Wow, it’s a whole pile of otters,” Leanna wondered what the collective noun for otters really is, so I looked it up and according to Wikipedia one word that gets used is “romp.” A romp of otters! Perfect!
We declared this adventure to be a huge success.
I wrote a couple previous posts about a beaver lodge being constructed on a lake near my house. Unfortunately, the beaver seems to have abandoned the site; I haven’t seen it around in ages, and no more progress has been made on the lodge. Today I climbed down the bank to take a closer look at what it had done before it left.
I’m disappointed that I won’t get to see it completed and coated in an insulating layer of mud for the winter, but oh well. Here’s my interesting fact about beavers for the day: you almost never find their scat. Why? Because they poop right in the water.
Anyway, I’m camping in the Porcupine Mountains again for the next two nights, but unlike last time when I was leading a wilderness trip for teenagers, I’m going with a couple friends and we’re staying in a yurt and bringing chocolate chip cookies and a board game. Yay mini-vacation!
After consulting my copy of Tracking and the Art of Seeing, I’ve concluded that this is probably coyote scat, based on its size and shape. It was a lot softer and wetter than a lot of carnivore scat I’ve found (sometimes it’s nothing but compressed hair!) and contained grass as well as hair. According to the book, dark, wet scat means the animal has probably been eating organs from a fresh kill.
Further along, the edges of the trail were littered with the evidence of a foraging red squirrel. To efficiently harvest black spruce cones, a squirrel had been snipping off the ends of its branches, which it can then collect off the ground. Porcupines do this too, but they have (much) bigger teeth, so you’d probably be able to see the gnaw marks on the chewed-off end more clearly.
I went for a walk around one of the lakes early this morning, along a trail that follows the top of a steep bank at the lake’s edge. At one point I stopped to watch the Hairy Woodpeckers working the dead snags above me, and while I was standing there I realized there were soft bubbling and splashing noises in the water below. Glancing down, I saw a pile of large sticks on the shore I was sure hadn’t been there a couple weeks ago… and a beaver, swimming slowly back and forth.
I’ve seen beavers a number of times before, but usually when I do they’re swimming away at top speed or slapping their tails on the water to express their irritation at being disturbed. This was the first time I’d had a good vantage point to watch one without scaring it off, so I crouched down at the side of the trail and spent about twenty minutes observing its behavior.
After completing several lazy figure eights, it wound up next to a fallen birch tree that was partially submerged in the water. As I watched, it dove repeatedly, for about ten seconds at a time. Each time its head would disappear, its tail and butt would waggle around on the surface (it’s hard to get a sense of what a big animal a beaver is when you just see its face sticking out of the water, but its big butt gives you a better idea), and I would hear a deep gnawing sound. Then it would pop its head up to scan the surface before going under again.
Eventually it came up towing one end of a large birch limb in its mouth. Maybe it saw me at that point, but if so, it wasn’t overly concerned – it placed the stick near the edge of the pile that was already there and then took off at a sedate speed for another part of the lake.
If you’re looking for the beaver in the photo above, it isn’t there, I took that picture of the spot after it swam away – I didn’t get a good one of the beaver itself. But it was a good way to start my Wednesday.
Especially now that the weather’s warmed up, the feeders at work attract as many mammals as they do bird. The red squirrels were there all winter, and now the chipmunks have come out of hibernation and joined them, and there’s one big fat gray squirrel that sticks out like a sore thumb among its small hyperactive cousins. And best of all, there are a couple of these:
Not the greatest photo in the world – these guys are pretty shy, so I had to take this photo through a window and then crop the heck out of it. But this is a thirteen-lined ground squirrel, Ictidomys tridecemlineatus. The only place I remember seeing them before this spring was in Saskatchewan, and I find their pattern of polka dots and stripes incredibly cute. Some people consider them pests for their habit of digging holes in yards and gardens and fields, but too bad. I think they’re adorable!
It’s very, very hard to be dignified while chasing a tiny butterfly around the forest floor with your camera, but it’s worth it when the butterfly finally gives in and poses for photographs.
(The second photo shows the detail better, but I like the light shining through the edges of the wings in the first one.)
I hadn’t seen a blue butterfly with a central dark spot in the hindwing like this before, so I thought it might be something new, but it turns out it’s another variant of the very common Spring Azure – actually the very first butterfly that I actually got a live photograph of. It’s a bit early for these guys to be out, but with last week’s unusual warm weather I guess it doesn’t surprise me that they’re ahead of schedule. Regardless, it’s always a treat to see the woods enlivened with these tiny fluttering patches of blue. I love their zebra-striped antennae.
Special bonus photo… check out the cheeks on this greedyguts who’s been raiding our birdfeeders!
My coworker at my assistantship this semester just finished editing this video featuring both of us (and our friend Bob) for her web series, Cool Things in Nature.
In addition to the return of my raspberry-colored coat and dorky hat, this features me talking (again) about fisher predation… and Julia telling you more than you ever really wanted to know about porcupine mating rituals.
The following exchange happened on Twitter this morning:
I love words, and “subnivean” ranks up there ranks up there among my favorite winter-related vocabulary, despite the fact that as I type this my computer is giving it a squiggly red underline to insist that it isn’t a real word. (You’re wrong, computer. It is.) It simply means “under the snow,” in the same way that subterranean means “under the earth.” The reason it’s significant to winter ecology is that many small mammals excavate subnivean tunnels to move about more easily, hide from predators, insulate themselves, etc. I posted some photos of subnivean tunnels created by mice or voles last fall, although I didn’t use the word at the time.
I tried to take video of the squirrel that was entertaining me so much this morning, but it wouldn’t cooperate, so all I have to offer is a photo of some of the tunnel entrances themselves. I suspect that if I excavated one of these tunnels I’d find it full of sunflower seeds from the nearby feeders.
The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac