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Wildlife

otter-1

This time of year, there isn’t a lot of wildlife to see and photograph. So when Lil said there were several eagles and otters showing up every day in the open channel in front of her mum’s place, it didn’t take me long to decide to make the drive, have a visit, and tote along my camera gear. I’m glad I did.

When I arrived, there was nothing to be seen, but when Lil started to think about preparing lunch, eagles started to fly in, followed shortly by a pod of otters. A number of eagles showed up, mostly adults but one juvenile as well , and five otters.

I first tried shooting from the house, but the floor was constantly shaking (people moving and the fridge running) and even with a tripod and a lens with vibration reduction, I had a hard time getting tack sharp photos.

So I went down into the basement and out the door, and had much better luck, although some of the eagles took off and that was a bit of a bummer.

But the otters, especially two of them, were very cooperative.

I didn’t get any photos of them eating. Lil said that on a couple of occasions on previous days, they had been chowing down on clams, and once or twice I did see one of the otters chewing on something. They might also have been after fish, which could be what attracts the eagles, although this time they didn’t do any fishing as far as I could tell.

The eagles and otters for the most part stayed out of each others ways, although one day Lil said they had been chasing one another. I would have loved to have seen that!

I have been seeing a lot of otter sign while out hunting,  so I would have to say the otter population is doing well here. They are usually associated with water, but especially in winter, they often travel long distances over land.

Otters are trapped for their fur, but Ontario’s registered trapline system, whereby trappers are restricted to a specified geography (so it’s not a free-for-all), encourages trappers to manage their trapping area on a sustainable basis. There are also seasons, and limits can be imposed by the government. For a variety of reasons, trappers here don’t pursue otters with the effort they put out for other species, particularly marten.

While otters have from 1-4 pups a year, these weren’t necessarily a family group, as otters like each others company.

I hope the otters stick around. They’re nice to see and fun to watch.

note: I saw later I forgot to turn on the main switch for vibration reduction (VR). The lens has two VR switches, whereas the lens I had been using all fall ( a smaller, lighter, but less powerful telephoto) has only one switch. Oh well, I still got some great photos.

tinybuck-1

The deer season (and moose, for that matter) locally closes here on Dec. 15th. As I’ve been saying, I’m not likely going to shoot a deer, but I have been hunting with friends, who would very much like to fill a tag, as they don’t have any moose or venison in the freezer. For them, time is running out.

We haven’t been seeing much, and most of the deer we have seen have been what we first assumed to be does and fawns. But are they?

This year, I’ve seen some of the smallest antlered yearling bucks I’ve ever come across in my life. I had heard and read of very small antlered deer, but usually ‘button bucks’ are fawns with nubs that have not broken through skin. These deer, though, have tiny, polished, hard antlers. And I do mean tiny. The photo says it all (taken in our yard). At a distance, one would never guess such deer were bucks.

I’m almost positive this is a yearling buck because in August, I saw a yearling buck (it wasn’t a fawn – it had no spots) with what I believed to be its sibling sister in our front yard. It had tiny antlers; they were still in velvet and I recall thinking that they would have to do a lot of late season growing to be even on the small side of what most yearling bucks in this area sport. Seems they didn’t grow.

This isn’t the only deer I’ve seen or heard of with tiny little antlers this year, although the others are not quite as minuscule as the one in the photo. I saw and photographed one in town the other day that might have had an inch of antler on each side, and a good friend told me today he has one hanging around his house that also has antlers that likely measure around one inch. All tiny buttons for sure.

Antler growth on yearling bucks is often used as a measure of the health of the deer herd and the quality of the range.  While the range quality at the landscape scale is in decline mainly owing to the decline in logging activity, all the deer I’ve seen or heard of with the little antlers are from areas where the habitat is still good or, as in the case of the ‘town buck’, where there is ample access to supplemental food. So I think the tiny buttons are mostly a reflection of the severity of the previous two winters.

I suspect the does were in very poor shape when these bucks were born, as the winter of 2013-14 was one of the most severe in terms of snow depth (and cold) since winter severity records started to be kept in this region, which was 1955. To tell the truth, I’m amazed that any fawns were successfully raised following that brutal winter. Last year wasn’t as harsh, but it was still brutally cold and there was enough snow accumulation to spell trouble for the deer, especially fawns.

So even though these deer have tiny antlers now, I think they could still have quite the crown in a couple of years. The fact these deer are even alive (and they do look healthy) tells me they have good genes.

In some circles, the thinking might be that yearling deer with such tiny buttons should be culled, especially if the management goal was to produce large antlered bucks. Given the circumstances, I’d say that in this situation, such a strategy would be a mistake. However, that’s all simply speculation, as there is no management plan for trophy bucks in this area.

But it would sure be interesting to be able to track antler growth of these tiny buttoned bucks in the years to come. Definitely a research need.

yardbuck-1

Now that the freezer is full of moose, there’s little to no pressure on me to harvest a deer. So I haven’t, and likely won’t. But I enjoy the hunt, so have been out quite a bit.

I haven’t been seeing a lot. The last few years have been hard on the regional deer population; hard winters, lots of wolves and lots of hunting pressure. Plus there’s little logging going on anymore, so the quality and quantity of deer habitat is rapidly declining. When all those factors are combined, I would estimate they’ve resulted in ‘our’ deer herd being reduced at least 80% from what it was 7-8 years ago. That’s a big reduction.

And it shows in terms of what I’ve been seeing. Back in the glory years, I’d see on average 5-10 deer every day I spent in the field. This year, most days I haven’t seen any deer at all. I have seen some, but only one buck, the one in the photo. A nice buck for sure, but certainly not a monster. I suspect it’s a 3 1/2 year old. I let him walk, as I have with the does and fawns I’ve seen.

It’s been a strange rut, based on my personal observations as well as what my hunting friends and acquaintances are telling me. Except in the city, where deer are still relatively numerous, there’s little sign of bucks chasing does. Maybe it has something to do with the weather, as it’s been unusually mild. Years ago, most of the ponds and smaller lakes were frozen by the middle of November, and there was almost always at least a few inches of snow on the ground.  Nothing is frozen as yet, and it’s raining today – although snow is predicted later this week.

My friend Deryk thinks deer numbers are just so low that the usual frenzy of the deer rut just isn’t apparent. There are deer rubs and scrapes, but in many areas nothing that would get a big buck hunter too excited.

Then there are the wolves. I had cut the antlers off the moose head, leaving the head in the driveway to be hauled away later. Well, that night, when Lil let the dogs out, all hell broke loose. Dory started going apoplectic and ran down the hill barking her head off (Neva was also barking her face off, but she was tied up. Dory is crippled, and seldom strays more than a few meters from the deck, so usually she doesn’t get tied up). Lil managed to catch up to Dory, grabbing her by the tail before she disappeared into the darkness down the road.

The next day, it was apparent it was wolves that caused the dogs to go off. There was the moose head, dragged down the driveway, but abandoned no more than 8 meters from the basement door, which is where they must have been when Lil opened the main door on the back deck to let the dogs out.

Later that night the wolves were back, howling away around our house, with one of them no more than a couple of hundred meters distant. They howled off and on for hours, still at it by noon the following day.

I wonder if the white wolf we saw earlier was one of the howlers and part of the pack that tried to run off with the moose head. Probably.

Needless to say, the deer made themselves scarce, and vanished from our property to parts unknown. They have yet to return.

At the end of the day, I think the rut has yet to get into full swing. The next full moon is near the end of the month, and coupled with cooler weather, will, I think, change deer behaviour and trigger the rutting frenzy usually associated with our local white-tails.

I guess we’ll see.

BTW, I took this photo when it was almost dark, shooting with the ISO cranked up to 16,000! In RAW format and a Bit depth of 14. Modern photography equipment is awesome.

 

rail-1

With the moose at the butcher shop, there’s time to relax some from the intensity required of the annual hunting ritual. It’s nice to reminisce and look back at some of the notable events and sightings that took place during the late summer and early fall, when internet headaches seemed to be a dominant force in my like (internet is still not up to par. Many urban dwellers seem to take internet for granted and demand never-ending faster and better service. Us rural folk just want reliable access . .  . .).

The pond and associated marsh in front of the house is, as always, the focal point of much of what goes on around here. Lil and I spend a lot of time staring out over the pond, and we’ve come to the conclusion it’s one of our major sources of entertainment. There seems to always be something new and exciting happening out there.

One day we were watching and photographing a common snipe probing the muck with its long bill, when another bird appeared on the scene. At first glance, it looked like a sora, a number of which spent the summer in the marsh, but smaller, and not as dark. It was a bird neither of us had ever seen before. A quick look through an ever handy field guide to the birds told us it was a yellow rail, “rare and extremely shy”. Turns out it was the first sighting ever confirmed in the Kenora District, although one other sighting had been reported a few years back and Lillian had once heard one (two, actually, but one was in another geographic district). The call, according to the guide, is “imitated by tapping two pebbles together”. The rail hung around for several hours, but after that , we never saw it again.

Well, turns out it wasn’t a yellow rail after all, but a juvenile sora. We didn’t pay attention to the white undertail coverts, which can just be seen on the photo, but are quite apparent on another photo I took. Oh well, everyone can make a mistake . . . .

But there’s always stuff to see,

Just the other day I was in the kitchen and glanced out over the beaver pond and saw a hawk trying to take down a smaller bird. It wasn’t successful, and in what looked like a bit of a pique, it alighted on a log on the same rock where we’d seen the lynx and the wolf a few weeks earlier. I didn’t have my biggest telephoto lens at the ready, so had to take a few snaps with a less far-reaching piece of glass. At least it was enough for us to identify it.

The hawk, a Cooper’s, was another ‘good sighting’, according to our local government ornithologist. Cooper’s hawks are uncommon everywhere, and here in northwestern Ontario they are close to the northern extension of their range.

Finally, there’s a ruffed grouse that hangs out close to the house that has some interesting markings on its back. Many of the feathers are white, which is quite unusual (I’ve never seen one like it). Lil watched it for a while one day and believes it suffers from an old injury, as she said it seemed to have difficulty walking. But it’s obviously getting by as we have seen it several times, and it flies well. No success yet with respect to getting a good photo.

There’s a skiff of snow on the ground today and the pond is partly frozen, although the next couple of days are said to be mild. But winter is coming, and soon the pond will be frozen over. Still, the pond is a wildlife magnet, frozen or not.

As such, we are looking forward to more interesting observations over the next while.

moose-2

Moose season, when firearms can be used, opened on Saturday, October 10. Lil and I had set up camp the day before and proceeded to hunt daily from Saturday through to the following Friday. October 10 is on the late side of when the season opens (for years now the season has opened on the Saturday closest to October 8, meaning it can open as early as Oct. 5, or as late as Oct. 11. The earlier it opens, the better the chance of getting in on the tail end on the rut, which means it’s possible to call a bull in.

That is how moose managers planned it – let hunters occasionally have the opportunity to hunt moose during the tail-end of the rut, when they’re susceptible to being lured in by a call. Even so, most of the cows will have been bred, and the moose that do respond to the call near the end of the rut are young bulls, who often don’t get a chance to breed because they can’t compete against more mature bulls. To further help in the management of the moose herd, the number of adult validation tags for adult moose are limited.

Starting next year, the season opener is going to be delayed by a week, so for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be next to impossible for gun hunters to call in amorous bulls. Archers are still going to be able to hunt the rut. I don’t like the rule changes, but it is what it is (see my previous posts on changes to the way moose are going to be managed in Ontario).

So this was the last chance to get in on at least having a chance to call in a bull, and we gave it a good go.

Nothing.

A lot of sign from a week or two earlier , when the rut was on, but it was obvious the rut had ended at least a few days before the season opened. And as often happens immediately following the rut, the moose were laying low. It didn’t help that it was hot and humid with a big hatch of black-flies and mosquitoes. We hunted hard, but I didn’t see or hear a thing. Lil actually saw one late one evening; it ran across the road close to our RV but it was late and she didn’t get a good look at it. Seeing it go into heavy conifer cover, there was little we could do to roust it out.

Following the week of moose hunting, I went bird hunting in Alberta. Managed to bag a few pheasants and sharptails, and young Neva performed admirably. But on the last day of the hunt, she got tangled up with a porcupine. That wasn’t much fun for anyone. Luckily I was hunting with Michael, who was a great help in the field in the pulling out of a couple of hundred quills from Neva’s face, nose, lips, mouth, tongue and throat. Ten days later, quills are still poking out on various parts of her face.

Back in Ontario, Lil and I decided to give the moose another go (the season stays open until December 15, but deep snow and cold can make late season hunting totally miserable).

On Wednesday, Oct. 28, we hunted half the day in a light rain.

Nothing. Very little fresh sign.

Friday, Oct. 30, we tried again. Conditions were good; damp, but no rain, a light breeze, temperature just above freezing.

Almost immediately we came across fresh sign. Lil and I split up and the further from the road I went, the more moose sign there was. Mostly fresh browsing on willow and red-osier dogwood. The area was logged more than 10 years ago, and has regenerated into ideal moose pasture. That’s both good and ‘bad’. Good because there is lots for moose to feed on; bad because there is so much feed the moose can be anywhere, and it’s also so thick that one can only hunt by walking trails, or calling, when calls work . . . .

At one point I heard our dogs Neva and Dory (which we left in the truck) barking furiously, and I thought they must have seen a moose, or maybe the Canada lynx we had seen there on an earlier hunt. Turned out it was a moose they saw.

Seeing there was nothing I could do about the dogs – who eventually stopped their barking – I stayed on the hunt. About a mile in I heard a noise to my left and knew immediately it was a moose feeding. It was hard to see much, as the bush in this area is a thick, twiggy nightmare. But I spotted movement, and there it was, a young bull less than 40 m distant.

So I got a moose. Lil had also seen one, but it was further back in the thick slaplings and she couldn’t make it out well enough to ID if it was a bull (our tag was for a bull), although she did hear what sounded like twigs on antlers. Shortly after she lost sight of the moose, the dogs started to bark.

It was many days of hard hunting but in the end great success, with a young and hopefully very tasty moose to fill the freezer. We are especially grateful as the tag we had was one of only 6 bull tags issued this year for the management unit in which we were hunting.

Now all I have to do is find myself a deer.

wolfed-1

The morning after the lynx appeared on the rock across the beaver pond, I awoke to the sight of a white wolf on the rock. It wasn’t an albino, nor was it completely white, as a close examination shows some streaks of light brown on its back. Still, there’s little doubt it’s a white wolf of the species now called the gray wolf, which used to be called the timber wolf. Wolves are very variable in size, colour and other characteristics and as a result, up to 24 sub-species have been recognized in North America.

The species scientific name is Canis lupus, and they are very common where I live. Too common, in my opinion, as there’s little doubt they are a major factor (not the only factor, and perhaps not even the most important factor, but nonetheless, a big factor) in the decline of moose over much of a large swath of central Canada and states like Minnesota. They also are a leading cause of mortality for many herds of woodland caribou that are in danger of disappearing.

But after being wiped out over much of the lower 48 and parts of southern Canada, the once much reviled timber wolf is now epitomized as a symbol of the wilderness and its presence a signal of a healthier ecosystem. In other words, a majority of the human population these days views the wolf much more than just favourably. And there are a lot more of them to love than there were 50 years ago.

I like wolves too, although that doesn’t mean I’m against managing their populations, even if that means allowing hunting or, dependent upon the circumstances, engaging in culls.

The white wolf was lucky in that it appeared on the rock the day before the wolf hunting season opened, and I haven’t seen it since.

I think the local wolf population is poised to collapse. There are few moose left in the area and after peaking at unbelievably high numbers around 2007, the white-tailed deer population has also collapsed. There are still deer around, but nowhere near the numbers there used to be. A few years ago it was not uncommon to see more than 20 deer on the 20 minute drive to the edge of town from our house – these days it’s a rare day to see even one. The deer decline didn’t immediately result in a similar wolf decline, but over the past year wolf sightings by everyone I know has been down. That’s the typical predator-prey lag all wildlife biologists are taught.

I suspect this winter will knock the wolf population down even further, as a wolf has to catch and eat a deer about every 20 days during the snowy season in order to survive. In other words, a pack of 7 (a medium-sized pack around here) needs to catch and kill about 50 deer over the course of a normal winter for all to survive. That’s just not going to happen.

The photos I took of the wolf aren’t as sharp as the ones of the lynx, mostly due to poorer lighting on the morning the wolf showed up. Still, when I examine the photos carefully, it looks like there are a number of scars on the face of the wolf. Lillian believes they were likely the result of an encounter with a porcupine. When you’re hungry, any food is better than no food.

I suspect the wolf was on the rock looking wistfully at the beaver house that is mere meters away. But the two beavers in our pond aren’t dummies and have not been venturing into the adjoining forest to gather their winter food supply. There seems to be enough speckled alder and balsam poplar at the ponds’ edge to keep them happy – and safe from wolves. Beavers are the preferred summer food of wolves and while beavers are common in some areas, their numbers are down too.

It’s a tough world out there. Definitely not akin to ice cream and lollipops.

lynxed-1

The internet continues to be problematic, not giving me reliable access since the end of July. I’m planning on giving MA Bell the boot and switching over to Xplorenet, but apparently that will have to wait until sometime in October or November. That’s when either a new satellite or more bandwidth becomes available. Until then, I’ve been told, it’s not worth switching, as there are so many internet satellite users already in our area that service is S-L-O-W. Better slow than not at all, but I’m thinking what’s another month or so after all this aggravation? So I’ll wait.

Meanwhile, there have been a lot of things going on in my neck of the woods with respect to wildlife world.

Let’s start with the two Canada goose goslings Lil received from people earlier this spring. Both were orphans, from different broods, and both were only a few days old when she received them. Lil has raised goslings before, with mixed results. Some grew up and integrated and eventually left with wild birds, but others did not and ultimately fell to predation when they insisted on staying ‘home’.

These two grew up and imprinted on a goose decoy, or as Lil called it, their dummy mummy. Unfortunately, this year wild geese seldom visited our beaver pond, and the pair that nested on the pond left with their three young shortly after they hatched. They did not return. The end result was that the orphan goslings stuck around the front of the pond, mostly on the lawn with dummy mummy and seldom ventured out on the water.

One morning not long ago Lil checked on the goslings, as she did every morning, and announced one was missing. After a search, she was pretty sure a predator had gotten it, as she found a pile of feathers.

Later in the afternoon she asked if I’d go with her to the other side of the pond as she had a feeling she’d find the remains. So I went with her and sure enough we found the remains of the missing goose.

But first we saw a lynx. After the lynx snuck off, we looked around and saw that it had buried what it didn’t eat.

The next morning the other goose was gone.

Then, the next morning, the lynx was lying on the open rock on the far side of the pond, close to where we had seen it when it had absconded with the first gosling. Perhaps it was to gloat, or maybe to give thanks.

Strange.