A Winter outing

Please consider all images to be copyrighted and ask for permission to use them in any way. Thank you. DEClapp

In one of the last posts I sort of apologized for doing so many bird posts and mentioned that I did see mammals as well as birds at this time of year. This time of year is winter here in the northern hemisphere and though it is nothing like when I was a boy, winter is still colder, snowier, and more blustery than spring, summer or fall. A great percentage of our birds migrate south as winter approaches and there are many fewer birds from the far north that arrive to replace them. It is a bit more stark that usual. There are no leaves on the deciduous trees and there is no insect fluttering or bird song to catch your eye or to entertain your ear. But nonetheless, there are birds that didn’t migrate and mammals that didn’t hibernate.

The North American Gray Squirrel is now an “invasive alien” problem animal in Great Britain and elsewhere. It is a smart and self-sufficient animal and adapts and reproduces in many habitats. In the USA it is seen as vermin by many and a smart opponent to outwit at bird feeders. It was a food staple for early American country folks and was found in great abundance until the early 1900s when the American Chestnut died off and a great percentage of the forest mast crop disappeared. Squirrels may have suffered some but they were happy to continue on eating acorns, beech nuts, walnuts, and many other nut crops. They are still very common. As you might tell from their dietary choices they are largely creatures of deciduous forests.
The cone forests; those of pine, fir, spruce, hemlock, and other evergreens have the Red Squirrel as their primary mammal. This guy is smaller than the Gray Squirrel and is known to be a bit feistier. They are also seed eaters but typically will eat the seeds from cones rather than from nuts. In many forests the presence of Red Squirrels is marked by mounds of dismembered cones that have been left in a midden heap where an animal eats day after day.
There is another whole category of squirrel type and most of these hibernate, or at least sleep, through the winter months. These are the ground-squirrels or chipmunks. In the eastern part of North American we have only one form but the western states have many types that have adapted and evolved to survive at different elevations and in some pretty harsh mountainous habitats. The one pictured here is from Oregon and is the Golden-mantled Ground-Squirrel.

On the land, and in the trees, we may see Gray Squirrels regularly and Red Squirrels less so. There are not many diurnal mammals, so most of them might be best seen at night – if we could see at night that is. (our night-time squirrel is the small grayish Flying Squirrel). The smaller mammals are hiding under snow or dead grasses and the larger mammals are bedding down throughout the day and saving energy. Thus we see fewer mammals at this time of year.

The small Flying Squirrel is a cavity dweller. Usually the old hole of a woodpecker will do, but a nice bird house, unused in the winter, works just fine. This bird box is on a tree just off the back of the house and I am sure that the resident Flyers partake of sunflower every night from the bird feeders nearby.

But here is this posts real story. — This is mid-winter and it is the time for an annual bird census program called the Christmas Bird Count. The CBC has been in place now for well over 100 years. It consists of birders, feeder watchers, and others out looking at birds within a specific circle. The circle is created by establishing a spot and then scribing a circle around that has a 7.5 mile radius (15 mile diameter). The circle is then assigned to as many birders as you can gather and the birds are counted – as many as possible for the 24 hours of the count day. I will post a few blogs on the activities and sightings from this year but there is a mammalian story that starts off the season.

The first of several all-day, tiring, counts that I do is one that connects Cape Cod to the main land. My section is on Cape Cod but I am looking west toward the continent. This year we had a bit of a snow cover that fell just before counting day. So this was to be a bit of a slog but no where near as bad as it would have been a couple days earlier. One of the places we go when there is no snow, and as we are creatures of Christmas Count habit, a place that we go each year whether it is cold, warm, snowy, or sun dappled. This place is a small field, maybe four acres. This year we pulled in and we were about to make a plan for the next hour or so as we were preparing to count in this locale. It was a bit of a surprise to all of sudden see that we had parked, in the snow, about thirty feet (10 meters) from a large Eastern Coyote in rich winter pelage. It was just laying belly-down in the snow looking past us the way that animals do when they are in their worlds not ours. The next few images will tell the story.

Many coyotes look their weight; maybe 10-15 kilograms; 22-35 pounds. In the winter they have a thick and luxurious fur coat and they often look quite a bit larger and bulkier. This individual was regal. The Eastern Coyote has the DNA signature of wolf in it and it is quite a bit larger that the western coyote. I have watched them hunt over the years and generally they just sort of walk or slow-jog along and try to catch whatever catches their eye; very opportunistic and not much of a planner. They will try for a duck moving off a nest or the eggs or ducklings if the timing is right or they may pounce on Microtus as they encounter them in a field. Because they move a lot and don’t tire easily they will almost always bump into something to eat. Picking up road kill in the very early morning seems to be a new procedure, but one that produces regular meals.
But they can think and plan.
Well, our fellow seemed a bit bothered that we interrupted him but not upset in any real way. He stood, stretched, yawned and moved past us toward a White-tailed Deer that he had been watching, and an animal that we had not noticed. A single coyote and a deer are not really predator-prey as the deer would be pretty large for a single coyote to take down; but maybe he was dreaming, or waiting, or hoping. Incidentally that lead image where the coyote looks to be snarling is simply one of the photos snapped as he was stretching and yawning. Did you ever switch the TV channel and catch an odd facial expression on the person who was speaking as you changed channels? That’s sort of what happened here – he is not really snarling.
We sat in the car as he gathered himself to move off and it was a great two or three minutes. We were not any trouble and the animal was not scared or aggressive at all. Animals that live in urban or suburban areas see people and the trappings of our lives every day and learn to move among us keeping a low profile. The Eastern Coyote is very widespread now (the past 30-40 years) and it is well established throughout the northeast in all sorts of habitats and situations. When I first began to notice coyotes in eastern Massachusetts I would seek out the night-shift policemen as they were the only people out all night who might see nocturnal and secretive animals.
On its way into the rest of its day the coyote passed just a few feet from the vehicle and we exchanged glances.
I have no idea what he was thinking, but we were thinking how lucky we were to share that quiet moment with one of nature’s most successful animals. it was our pleasure for sure.

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