Most people celebrate our national day for giving thanks with a feast that centers on the Turkey. Naturally, the turkeys have other ideas, and seek refuge on this holiday. Just as naturally, my friends and I seek Refuge to see turkeys and other birds, by spending our Thanksgiving weekend at National Wildlife Refuges. Continue reading
Well, hel-loooo to all you birds, bugs and beasties out there in Critter Land. You’re tuned to KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. I’m Opal White, that’s right, white hot and bright. So glad you could join me tonight for the Guest Request Fest.
Yes, boys and gulls, it’s time for you loyal listeners to let us know what you want to hear. Don’t wait, don’t hesitate! Call, text or tweet now with your requests. Miss Opal will make all your dreams take flight, that’s right.
Monarchs taste bad, Viceroys don’t, but most butterfly gourmets will shun both. Viceroys are big copycats, and more than once that has saved their silly little – oh, excuse me, family show, that’s right.
Let’s get back to their song, “Me and My Shadow”, shall we?
He wants to hear “Your Lying Eyes”.
On the other side of town, someone is lonely tonight. Jeremiah Bullfrog feels he’s lost his only friend. Here’s a little ditty for his melancholy blues as he contemplates the vastness of the pond – “It’s Not Easy Being Green”.
Miss Opal could cheer up this sprite, that’s right.
Oh, my, my, Miss Opal hears her theme song; it’s always too soon to leave you. Another splendiferous edition of the musical petition, the Guest Request Fest, has come to a close.
Until next time, I’m Opal White, that’s right, white hot and bright, and this is KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. I bid you farewell with Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, like me, doing it “My Way”.
Don and I didn’t go to the Appalachians for the wildlife. Well, I did, as you’ll see later. But our main interest was in exploring habitats vastly different from what we are used to in our little corner of the Piedmont. Appalachian mountains, coves, boreal forests, balds – we wanted to experience it all.
It’s not that critters weren’t on our radar; it’s just that we were trying to cover too much ground to spend a lot of time in one place looking for birds and such. What wildlife we saw would have to find us.
And it did. A Pileated Woodpecker on the banks of the Little River, a Black and White Warbler near Laurel Falls, a Cooper’s Hawk on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Hummingbirds on the feeders of our cabin porch. There were lots of Wild Turkeys and lots of Turkey Vultures. A few gray squirrels. Several very tame deer at Cade’s Cove. Nothing we hadn’t seen before, but all enjoyable to watch. Especially the Pileated.
We did see three species new to us, and none of them were birds. All were exciting. And all were found by somebody else first, and we just followed the crowds.
On the Laurel Falls Trail, it was the children who led the way. We came upon a father and some kids staring intently at the rocky cliff rising above us. “Look!” they said “it’s a salamander!” Sure enough, basking in the warm sun was a six-inch striped long-tailed salamander.
We saw three of these critters, and for two months I thought they were salamanders. No warning bells went off in my thick skull. Despite the fact that the animal we saw didn’t look like any of the salamanders in the Reptiles and Amphibians of the Smokies book. Despite the fact that this little guy had scales. Despite the fact he was basking in the sun, which no amphibian in its right mind would ever do. No, despite all these obvious signs, I stubbornly persisted in believing that I had found one of the Smokies’ famous salamanders.
And I call myself an amateur naturalist? This was amateur hour at its finest.
Finally, upon reviewing the photographic evidence I saw what I should have known in April. This was no amphibious salamander, but a lizard, a reptile. In fact, it’s one of the skinks that call the Smokies home. The scales are one clue; reptiles have them, amphibians don’t. But it’s the behavior and the habitat that should have tipped me off. Salamanders are moist skinned critters, and stick to shady, damp places, like under rocks at the edges of streams. Skinks, like all reptiles, are cold-blooded, and like to sunbathe to help regulate their body temperature.
Properly identified at the time or not, these were cute little animals. We saw two that first day on the Laurel Falls Trails, both found by kids.
I found our third skink myself at the base of a farm building in Cades Cove.
There were no such identification issues with our next new species. I knew these magnificent animals frequented this particular area of the park, had almost been expecting them, but did not dare to hope. Yet at the end of a very long day, there they were. They stood out, big and dark in the light green grass of the open field.
Elk used to roam the Smokies and the southern Appalachians, but they were eliminated from the area by the mid-1800s. In 2001 the National Park Service began a program to restore elk to the park. Here’s proof it’s been successful!
One of the places the elk like to hang out is Oconaluftee, at the eastern end of Newfound Gap Road, which is where we came upon them that late afternoon. I quickly pulled the car onto a side road and Don and I joined the small crowd of visitors and NPS volunteers watching the elk do basically nothing.
Eleven elk all lying down, placidly munching on grass. What entertainment! One got up and walked across the field, which stirred the crowd into a tizzy.
While Don and I went to the Smokies for the mountains and varied habitats, I was secretly hoping for bears. The American black bear is my all-time favorite animal – let’s be honest, it’s the cute factor. I’ve never seen one before, though. There are an estimated 1800 black bears in the Smokies. That’s two bears a square mile, so my odds of seeing one must have been good, yes?
No. Bears are shy creatures who avoid contact with humans at all costs, unless there’s food involved.
Early in our tour of Cades Cove, Don asked a local what our odds of seeing a bear were. “About 1%”, he replied.
Five minutes later we had our first bear.
Bears in the Smokies frequently cause “bear jams”, carloads of tourists on the side of the road looking at bears. So when we came upon a lot of parked cars and lots of people standing around, all supervised by a ranger, we knew what was going on. Don, being the gentleman that he is, jumped out of the car to see before I could get properly parked.
Our bear was about 200 yards away, and disappearing into the trees by the time I could get my camera on him. I only got a few shots, all blurry.
It wasn’t long before I got another chance. This time, a bigger crowd was watching not one but three bears about 300 yards away. A mother and two yearling cubs. We got a longer look, and I tried hard to get good shots, but once again distance led to fuzzy photos. Usually I wouldn’t show photos this bad – and believe it or not, this is my sharpest shot.
Don and I had one other encounter with a black bear, and it happened too fast for either of us to get a photo. We were driving home from the Smokies on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mt. Mitchell. It was pouring rain, and the fog masked everything but the trees lining the road.
Suddenly a bear appeared from the woods on the right, maybe 10 yards away, crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the woods on the other side. We only had time to point and start shouting “Bear! Bear! BEAR!” before it was gone. Not more than 5 seconds, but by far the best look we got at a black bear on the trip.
That quick but exciting view of a black bear was an apt metaphor for the wildlife Don and I saw on our two week Appalachian excursion. Every brief sighting was thrilling, but in the Smokies the wildlife was…
Thundering hooves pound the grasslands. Over the rise the herd appears, horses with manes flowing in the wind of their own passage. Their varied colors of chestnut and sorrel, palomino and pinto mirror the reds, tans and golds of the canyons and mesas that edge the Plains.
Say “wild horses” and this is the image that springs to mind, mustangs roaming the deserts and prairies, an echo of the Old West. Coastal salt marshes and maritime forests are not where you would expect to find these wild creatures. Yet the southeastern coast is dotted with small herds of ponies. One of the most famous of these herds lives in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of Assateague Island National Seashore in Virginia and Maryland.
Local legend says that the Assateague ponies are descendents of horses that struggled ashore from a shipwreck. More likely they are the offspring of tax-evaders! Farmers in the 17th century would turn their animals loose on the island to avoid the taxes levied on free-roaming mainland livestock.
Today there are two herds on Assateague Island. The northern Maryland herd is owned by the National Park Service, and roams free in the Assateague Island National Seashore. The southern Virginia herd is privately owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. Once a year, on “Pony Penning Days”, they are driven across the channel to Chincoteague Island. Many of the young foals are auctioned off before the herd is swum back to Assateague. This helps keep the horse population at a healthy level, and proceeds benefit the fire company.
The wild horses live rough, no cushy stables for them. Cold stormy winters find them in the shrub thickets and woods. The moderate months of spring and fall are spent in the marshes. In summer, heat, humidity and hordes of biting insects drive them to the beach and into the water.
For the ponies, too. Most of my photos were of headless horses, their faces buried in the grass. They graze constantly. I thought their rotund appearance meant the ponies ate well. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Their diet of salt marsh cord grass and salt hay is abundant but poor in nutritional value. It’s also salty, which leads the horses to drink twice the amount of water a domestic horses would drink. Those round tummies are the result of water bloat.
Like many children, I grew up on Marguerite Henry’s 1947 book Misty of Chincoteague, about Pony Penning Days. Little did I dream I’d someday get to see those wild ponies, grazing peacefully at sunset.
They look like a smaller version of the native White-tailed Deer. But they are a non-native species introduced from Asia by an Eastern Shore man named Clemment Henry in the early 1900s. He released a half dozen elk onto James Island in Chesapeake Bay, and from there the population grew and spread.
We encountered several Sika Elk on a walk through the woods. They regarded us with much curiosity, coming closer to us to get a good look when we stood quietly. See the spots on the white rump? They remain throughout adulthood, unlike the native White-tails. This elk demonstrated an unusual way of bounding away that I can only describe, poorly, as a stiff-legged bounce. Watching it hop had us in stitches.
Yes, like the wild horses of Assateague Island, these little Sika Elk are quite “endeering”!
Once upon a time, there was a handsome frog. He sat upon the edge of a pond, waiting. But not for the kiss of a human lassie to change him into a human prince, for he was happy and proud to be a bullfrog. So proud that he soon burst into robust song. His skillful bellowing quickly drew a pretty female frog to him. All around him that spring, frogs and toads were staging similar little romantic dramas in ponds and bogs throughout the land.
And just doing what tadpoles do, eating and growing. Tadpoles are exclusively aquatic, and breathe through gills like fish. Dinner is algae and water plants. The length of time frogs and toads spend in the tadpole stage varies according to the species; in bullfrogs it may be up to two years. Eventually tadpoles begin the amazing transformation from aquatic larvae to terrestrial adult. Legs appear, and then arms. Their bodies change shape, the tail shortens, and gills are replaced by lungs.
Young bullfrog, finding shade from the hot August sun in the lily pads. The tail has been absorbed into his body, and he’s fully mature, but he will continue to grow in size. Adult bullfrogs rest during the day, and hunt at night. Anything they can catch becomes prey – insects, fish, birds, even small mammals.
The small pond is home to a surprisingly tame group of young bullfrogs. The presence of humans with cameras doesn’t seem to bother them much. Bullfrogs will remain near water much of the time, as they must keep their skin moist.
Another pond finds a green frog amidst the cattails. Green frogs are also primarily aquatic. See the ridges running along the frog’s back? That’s the best way to tell green frogs from bullfrogs; the latter lack these dorsolateral ridges.
FUN FACT: The roundish circle behind the frog’s eye is the tympanum, an external “ear” of sorts. It transmits sound to the frog’s inner ear. In females, the tympanum is about the same size as the eye; in males it’s twice as big. An easy way to tell the boys from the girls!
A wood frog sports a robber’s mask as he lingers on the leaves scattered across the forest floor. Wood frogs live in low moist woodlands and forested swamps. In the winter they migrate to nearby uplands, returning in the spring to the vernal pools, to search out a mate and begin the cycle anew.
Getting my daily dose of wildlife while visiting family on vacation can be frustrating. At home I know when and where to go to find cool critters. Heinz Refuge and Cape May in early May for warblers, the Delaware Bayshore in late May for horseshoe crabs and red knots, Hawk Mountain in the fall for raptors. When I go away to visit family, it’s an excellent opportunity to visit new places. But the timing of the visits isn’t always conducive to wildlife spotting.
I go to Texas in the winter. Except at White Rock Lake (where there’s always something happening) I pretty much have to take what I can get.
That means a lot of landscape and plant photography, and accepting that brown is the color of the day.
Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge was no different when I visited; lots of neat habitat, not a lot of wildlife.
Except for the prairie dogs!
The Nature Center has a prairie dog town. It’s a large area of fenced prairie; I’m not sure whether the fence is to keep the prairie dogs in, or the humans out. The sign above would seem to indicate the latter.
Inside the enclosure, a good number of the little rodents go about their lives. Yes, they are rodents, related to squirrels. The “dog” name comes from their high-pitched bark. Prairie dogs are highly social. They live together in family groups, sometimes called a coterie; a number of groups comprise a ward, and a number of wards make up a town.
The land is peppered with the entrances to their burrows. Weather is harsh in the prairies, and burrows offer protection from floods, hailstorms, fires and temperature extremes. Below the ground are a number of separate chambers for sleeping, raising babies, food storage and elimination. There may be as many as 6 entrances to a burrow. The craters serve as lookout posts and ventilation.
FUN FACT: Burrow holes have different shapes and heights. When the wind blows, air moves into the burrow through the lower, more rounded dome craters; it passes through the burrow and exits through the higher, sharper-edged rim crater.
Prairie dogs dance! Nuzzling and grooming is common among family groups. It’s ridiculously cute when they do this. Call it the Texas Two-step.
CONSERVATION PIECE: Not everyone thinks prairie dogs are cute. They feed on grasses, sedges and roots, keeping the vegetation short and churning up the soil. This benefits the habitat by enriching the plant life and attracting other wildlife. Their burrows can provide homes for other critters as well. Because of their importance to the plains, prairie dogs are considered a keystone species.
Despite this, farmers and ranchers often consider them pests, and eliminate them where possible. This has contributed to a population nose-dive, which has had a ripple effect across the plains. The endangered black-footed ferret, which relies on prairie dogs for shelter and food, has been driven to near-extinction by their eradication.
Prairie dogs have a number of predators besides humans, including raptors, coyotes, snakes and ferrets. So they need to be wary. Living communally affords them safety in numbers. One or more prairie dogs will be on lookout duty at all times.
FUN FACT: Things get interesting when a threat is detected. Prairie dogs have a large repertoire of barks and calls. Years of study have revealed that these calls are capable of indicating not only which species of animal is threatening the colony, but can describe the individual animal. A prairie dog call for a tall human is different than the call for a short one!
Always on the lookout, a lone sentry stands guard.
And off we go.
I went to Michigan hoping to come home with lots of amazing wildlife shots. Last year I saw minks, for gosh sakes. And this year I have this great new long telephoto zoom lens. Confoundingly, Michigan critters are quite camera shy. No mink, no deer, only one chipmunk.
Birds – oh, yes, there were birds. I could hear them all around me, nattering away constantly. But they insisted on playing hide-and-seek with me, teasing with brief flashes of black and yellow, but never settling down long enough to visit.
Here are some of the animals I did manage to capture, mostly of the winged variety. Above is a Northern Pearly-eye Butterfly in Ludington State Park. Check out the natty striped antennas.
To the victor goes the spoils.
Looks like fish for lunch today.
Sometimes dragonflies, butterflies and birds of the same species come in different colors. Usually it’s a male/ female thing. For instance, here’s a Ruby Meadowhawk female. Not particularly Ruby, is it? But here’s the male Ruby Meadowhawk, and now it’s obvious where the name came from. Mitchell State Park.
Near misses: Occasionally along the Mitchell Heritage Nature Trail I would hear “shish-shishhh-shish” as a small snake slithered off into the grass. I rarely actually saw them. I also heard the distinctive banjo-like “twang” of a Green Frog a few times.
Coming up: Mich-mash