Saturday, January 3, 2009

Coyote Highways

January 3, 2009

     I returned to my favorite place today, this time with a group of 15 or 20 on an organized hike led by Moreau Park naturalist Gary Hill.  Another gorgeous blue-sky day, much milder, temp in the high 20s.  It was fun  joining a group of fellow woodswalkers, and I learned a few things from our guide, who led us through the woods as far upstream as the intake site for the county water line -- a terrible disfigurement of the river bank, but today blessedly blanketed with snow.  I hope as the ground sprouts new plants this summer the site will not be so brazenly awful.

     I learned that what I  thought was a coyote den was more likely an otter den, and the coyote prints all around probably meant the coyote was trying to snag the otter.  Otter sign included several piles of otter poop near the den, thinner than coyote scat and containing no fur.
     Coyote tracks were everywhere; I could imagine the forest just teeming with them at night.  When I camped near here a few years back, I could hear them barking during the night.  And one winter day some years ago I saw one out on the ice-covered marsh in bright mid-day -- a large golden-grey animal (a dog, I thought at first), very wolf-like, not like the scrawny little western coyotes caricatured by Wiley in the cartoons.  I have since learned that genetic testing has shown that our eastern coyotes contain the DNA of red wolves and are strong enough to actually bring down deer.  Gary told us that the coyotes sometimes chase the deer out onto the ice, where they lose their footing and go into a split -- literally:  splitting their bodies as their legs splay out to the sides, making them easy prey.
     Other tracks our guides identified for us today included fisher and mink.  I have seen mink as I paddled here in the summer, slipping silently close to the water's edge and Whoa!  There was this little black weasel face quite surprised to see me and Whoosh! up the bank it sped, carrying its black furry tail straight out behind.
   We also found lots of red squirrel and mouse tracks, just one grey squirrel trail, and then, as we bushwhacked through a stand of baby white pines, there were piles of rabbit scat and many tracks meandering about under the saplings and leading to a den.   It was rabbit happy hunting ground here:  lots of baby trees to graze and the greenery protecting them from descending owls or hawks.  

Near this stand of little pines was a thicket of striped maple trees, branches and twigs colored a bright pink-red, lit up by the lowering sun's golden light.  This radiant pink of the striped maple twigs is one of the marvels to me of the winter woods.  Are they this color only in winter?  Or do I just notice it then, blazing against the white of the snow?  

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