All posts by Blake

GIANT Clams

 

ClamIVAt 4,000 feet above sea level near Green River, Utah, two USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum personnel were searching for marine reptiles last summer and stumbled upon prehistoric giant clams strewn throughout the landscape.

Dr. Kenneth Carpenter, paleontologist and director of the museum, joined colleague Lloyd Logan, director of education and exhibits, for a hike near Green River searching for signs of ancient life.

The two were walking across the hot, dry and desolate landscape when they spotted what looked like giant clam fossils. Carpenter said, “Stumbling upon those giant three- and four-foot clams was a real surprise. In places, they were so thick we could literally walk from clam to clam. These clams lived 85 million years ago, during the Age of Dinosaurs, when this part of Utah was under the ocean.”

The clams were found eroding out of the Mancos Shale, the soft, gray rock that lies at the foot of the Book Cliffs. Although smaller clams and Nautilus-like ammonites have been found in the Mancos Shale in the area, giant clams had never been reported before. According to Carpenter, there are no reports of giant clams ever being found in Utah, and only a handful of giant clams are on display in museums throughout the country. Thus, the find was a serendipitous moment for the museum.

These giant clams look like large dinner-plates, hence the scientific name Platyceramus means “flat clam.” Today, giant clams are nowhere near the giant four- foot clams in size. The modern pip-squeaks are only two feet or so across and are native to the shallow coral reefs of the South Pacific and Indian oceans. They have also been found off the shores of the Philippines and in the South China Sea. They have never been found in Utah, let alone near Green River.

The areas where the clams were found was once a flat, muddy seafloor and that is a key to understanding why they grew to such monsters. The large clams could spread their weight over a large area to keep from sinking into the seafloor. “These clams became the home to oysters that grew over the shells, as well as the home to small fish that lived within the shells,” Carpenter said. “Numerous fish bones were found within the shells during the excavations.”

After finding the clams, the two secured the site and returned to it later with museum personnel and volunteers to retrieve the giant clams. Because the clams are so thin, a wooden frame was built around the shell, and then Plaster of Paris was poured directly on the shell. When dried, the plaster-covered shell was flipped over and taken to the museum, Carpenter said.

John Bird, paleontology technician for the museum, worked with Carpenter for several months to prepare the clams for display at the museum. While Carpenter and Bird were working on the clams, Logan was creating and designing an exhibit to house the fossils for the public to view. The giant clam is 44 inches by 48 inches, but in life might have weighed 50 pounds. Their average life span might have been 100 years or more.

Located in the Hall of Paleontology, the giant clam display is open and ready for the public to view at the museum located at 100 North and 100 East in Price. The hours are Monday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (general admission rates apply).

 

Chipmunks and Chipmunk Ecology

chipmunkIAmong the most common kinds of wildlife observed by backpackers, campers, picknickers are smallish member of the squirrel family called chipmunks. These inquisitive and handsome animals often entertain family members during forays into natural areas. Chipmunks range throughout the U.S, and into Canada and Mexico. They have stripes (usually white) lengthwise along their brownish bodies, from their tails to their noses. They commonly sit upon their “haunches” (rear feet) with their somewhat bushy tails waving and jerking as they vocalize, or chirp.

Chipmunks are not true hibernators, but rather store up food in the summer times for wintertime use. They may sleep for a few days at a time while holed up in their dens, but intermittently wake up and feed upon their stored food. Dens may be located in rocky cliffs, underground in burrows, or other places offering relative security. They are quite adept at handling food with their forefeet as they sit. They are herbivores and mainly feed upon seeds, but also consume other plant parts.

The Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) species has the largest areal presence in North America. It ranges from southern Canada through most of the southern U.S. states, and from the Mississippi River east. I count 39 additional chipmunk species* belonging to the Genus Tamias (formerly Eutamias) scattered mostly west of the Mississippi River, some extending well into Canada. There are a number of locations where ranges of more than one species overlap. Scientists call this “sympatry,” as opposed to “allopatry” (which means that ranges do not overlap).

Perhaps the chipmunk with the most extensive distribution west of the Mississippi into much of Canada is called the Least chipmunk. I have encountered this small member of the squirrel family in many unlikely habitats including in sagebrush stands, ditchbanks, roadsides or other disturbed habitats. One often hears a “chattering “ call as the chipmunk streaks away to safety, with its tail high in the air. Chipmunks are found in a variety of different habitats. They are seen on cliffs to pine forests to aspen stands to other natural habitats, even including disturbed habitat such as old strip mining areas, clearcut lumbering areas, abandoned roads, etc. The ways in which chipmunk species are differentiated from one another includes: differences in coloration and stripes, skull measurements and skull shape, bacular differences, etc.

I am particularly fond of chipmunks. I researched the ecology of the cliff chipmunk (Tamias dorsalis) as a thesis requirement many years ago in Logan Canyon, Utah. Unlike its sister species, cliff chipmunks have dark rather than white striping. In the canyon, cliffs contour the mountainsides high above the river in the bottom of the canyon. The cliff chipmunk is aptly named as it inhabits these perpendicular cliffs; some cliffs are up to a hundred or more of feet in vertical height. This chipmunk with its unique toes and toenails is able to navigate over the face of vertical rocks with impunity.

My study consisted of capturing the chipmunks in the springtime in live traps, marking them with dye, recording locations of capture. Then I traversed the mountainside rock slides below and above the cliffs to identify my previously marked animals. With binoculars, I kept track of their locations and the kinds of plants they were feeding upon. My objective was to determine the size of the area in which they travel about (called home range) over time. Also, I identified and compared the different kinds of plants they fed upon as the seasons progressed. It was also quite intriguing to observe these small animals carry seeds in their cheek pouches and then bury them in the dirt in small surface “caches.” Later in the fall, they would return to these caches and retrieve the seeds, carrying them to their individual den areas within the rocky cliffs for wintertime use.

I published a small 45 page soft bound booklet ** entitled, “How to Study Chipmunks – Ecology,“ that I am making available FREE for ordering; cost is only $2 for U.S. (residents) postage and handling. Send to “Chipmunk,” 11 East 500 North, Orem, UT   84057.

May you, as I have, find immense enjoyment from watching and interacting with these small and attractive wild cretures.

*Hall, E. R. 1981. Mammals of North America. John Wiley, New York.

**Hart, E.B,  1971. How to Study Ecology  —  Chipmunks

What is a Wildlife Notebook?

Have you ever been in the out-of-doors and seen something that pricks your curiosity?  Then, later, you wish you had taken better notice of it because you cannot remember some of the details? This is one of the purposes of the wildlife field notebook.

A typical wildlife notebook may consist of a small 8 inch binder filled with loose-leaf paper. Waterproof paper is better. Also, the pen or writing instrument should be permanent such as an indelible pen or permanent ink pen. Writing should to be legible, but may be either cursive or printed. Nowadays, computers have made the old traditional process of applying ink or lead to paper somewhat obsolete —for especially younger people. For those of us old timers who often cling to the traditional and familiar ways of recording wildlife field observations, some ideas are presented below. For those of you who are wed to your electronic device, adapt this to your own specific situation as you wish. Video cameras and recording devices may be substituted as per your situation. Remember, “Wildlife” includes plants as well as animals.

The purpose of the wildlife notebook is to record anything of interest while outside or, “in the field” as some would say. Some seemingly unrelated observations may become of value later on. I had a good friend many years ago, James Bee, a complete naturalist who thrived in taking nature walks in the environs of Kansas University in Lawrence and in eastern Kansas—he filled 80 + field journals with his observations and insights; no details in nature were too small to escape his sharp eye and pen. He was the consummate naturalist.

Especially before and during the last century, natural scientists focused on studying wildlife directly in the out-of-doors.   Skin and skulls of animals were kept and carefully measured, along with sex recorded and localities documented. Museums were established with thousands of specimens maintained in permanent collections. Individual scientists who were studying single species would regularly visit different museums to evaluate collected specimens and compare them, often to determine naming or nomenclature (genus, species, subspecies, etc.). Botanists collected plants, dry pressed them and then preserved them in herbariums in an orderly and systematic manner for later reference.

In your nature walks, such items as color patterns in an unrecognized bird, dust bathing by a ground squirrel, antler abnormality in a whitetail buck, paw print of an unknown mammal, an abandoned nest, colored eggshell pieces, and/or the flowering color, shape and pattern of a bright newly blossomed plants—all are acceptable field book journal entries. Scientists and naturalists fixated on specific kinds of wildlife need to be aware of all aspects of the local environment. A single observation may lead to the unraveling of a previously erroneous understanding in scientific knowledge. It is not true that science already knows everything about all plants and animals. New knowledge of the natural world continues to come forth regularly, often from unlikely sources. Your observations might solve one of nature’s heretofore unknown riddles. When anything arouses your curiosity, write it down, sketch it, photograph it. You can research it out later on in the library. Time spent in nature is valuable and should be used 100% of the time observing and recording. Carry a camera and photograph interesting wildlife sign and/or make drawings along with writing or recording.

Hall and Kelson (1959)* described field notebooks that mammalogists (scientists who study mammals) use a number of years ago that still apply. They suggest notebooks be divided into three parts: 1) the Catalogue, 2) the Journal or Itinerary, and 3) Accounts of Species. For your purposes, the journal alone will probably be the one you will want to use.

The Catalogue is a summary of measurements of collected field specimens, sexes (for animals), along with collector name, exact location and date. The catalogue will probably apply to only a very few of you reading this piece.

The Accounts of Species consists of observations of anything about only a single species. The name of the species should be placed at the top of the page, with date and exact location at the beginning of each entry, and the author’s initials, surname, year on the next line—this is to be located above the lines on the upper far left margin. Write and underline the date and location which precedes written observations. Always write full notes, even of information you may consider trite. Again, one never knows when a snippet of information may become very useful later.

The Journal or Itinerary will probably be the most useful portion of your field notebook, so write “Journal” in top center. At the top left, place your first name initials then last name and underneath, the year. At the top of the page, write exact location (such as 0.2 mi south 8 mi. west of Courthouse, Paris, Bear Lake County, Idaho) and altitude. The date extends out into the right margin. Every entry should have this basic information–underlined; update every time you make an entry if either location or date change. Location information is very important, so be very careful to be as exact as possible. GPS coordinates are okay, but in the past, geological Sections, Townships and Ranges have been the preferred locality descriptions. If you are not sure of the exact location, estimate it to the best of your knowledge based on nearby road distances using primary directions of north, east, south, and west of the local courthouse or other permanent landmark. Many of the same kinds of things written in the Accounts of Species are written here, with no separate page for each animals or species observed; all observations of any number of different plants/animals are recorded all together in this section. Remember to note weather conditions at the time of writing.

Write such things as vegetation description (identify plants by keeping leaves/flowers), nature of ground, slope exposure, drainage, underground burrows—possibly noting burrow contents, burrow height, width, and length, overhead drawings of burrow meanderings, especially following floods, fires, overgrazing, tree cutting, road building, etc.

There is no limit to what you may write. Just begin now!

 

*1959. Hall, E. R. and K. R. Kelson. The Mammals of North America. The Ronald

Uninvited Invasive Pests

Each year invasive pests destroy cropland and forest. Some are new, some we’ve been fighting for decades. To fight them, a change in how we interact with our environment is starting to take place.
  • Invasive pests cost billions each year in destroyed crops and forest
  • Americans are becoming used to the restrictions required to keep these pests at bay

A snail as big as your foot, an insect the size of chocolate sprinkles and a mold related to the one that caused the Irish potato famine are on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s list of the top pests that threaten America’s crops and forestland.

Some of the 15 are new, some we’ve been fighting for decades. To attack them, “a sea change” in how we interact with our environment is starting to take place, says Scott Pfister, who directs the pest management department at the USDA’s plant protection and quarantine division in College Park, Md.

To stop insects like the Asian Citrus Psyllid or the Light Brown Apple Moth, it may no longer be OK to pick apples or oranges from a backyard tree and drive them to a friend’s house if the fruit comes from a quarantine area. Bringing firewood from home might get you turned back at a campground entrance if you live where Asian Longhorn Beetles have taken up residence. Fear of Khapra beetles means if you carry rice from India across a U.S. border, you could pay a $1,000 fine.

“We need to get Americans to start thinking about how these pests are moving around the country,” Pfister says. “April’s the time of year when people start to go camping and hiking and work in their gardens, so it’s a very appropriate time to address this national problem.”

The USDA says April is Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Awareness Month.

The nasty 15 includes moths, flies, beetles, ants, a louse, a snail and two pathogens. They range from the Asian Citrus Psyllid, which threatens to destroy the U.S. orange crop, to the Giant African Snail, which will happily munch on plaster and stucco when it can’t get to one of the 500 plants it prefers. The Asian Ash Borer threatens the northern white ash trees used to make the famed Louisville slugger baseball bats.

“People don’t always take the threat posed by these pests seriously, says Ken Gilliland, director of international trade and transportation for Western Growers. His trade group represents farmers in Arizona and California, where much of the nation’s fresh produce is grown.

“It just takes one or two people” carrying infected fruit or vegetables to an uninfected area to start an infestation, he says. “They don’t see the direct impact they might have, but in the long term they’re going to pay for it in higher prices,” because of the costs involved in treating crops and inspecting them.

The Asian citrus psyllid, which has caused $4.5 billion in losses to Florida orange and grapefruit growers, got established in California when one person brought a cutting from a citrus plant home from a trip to Asia, Gilliland says: “They shared it with their neighbors, they all planted them, and it ended up resulting in a quarantine of the whole area.”

In wilderness areas, bugs are a huge threat and can change forests and tree cover in just a few years, says Chris Martin, Connecticut state forester.

When the Asian Longhorned beetle arrived in Massachusetts, “It’s been dramatic. You used to have tree-lined streets, and now these neighborhoods are just devoid of trees,” says Martin, who chairs the science and health committee of the National Association of State Foresters.

When regulators started telling people they couldn’t take firewood outside of quarantine areas because of the threat of transporting larvae, people balked, Martin says. Many private and state campgrounds in areas where beetles and borers have taken hold no longer allow outside firewood.

“It was like with recycling and seat belts. The government was telling us how to live our lives,” he says. “But over time reasonable folks came around.”

That’s the message the USDA wants to get out: Ordinary Americans can help stop the spread of pests, Pfister says. The USDA website HungryPests.com has suggestions on how to stop the spread of invasive pests.

Gardeners, hunters, campers and hikers are the eyes and ears of state agriculture programs, he says.

“We have citizens all over the country calling us and saying that they’ve seen something,” Pfister says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s nothing, but we want those calls, because citizens are our first line of defense.”

The most threatening pests:

Asian Citrus Psyllid and Citrus Greening Disease. The size of a chocolate sprinkle, it carries Citrus Greening Disease, which turns fruit bitter. Found in California, Florida.

Asian Longhorned Beetle. Infests and kills hardwood trees. Found in Massachusetts, New York and Ohio.

Emerald Ash Borer. Iridescent green insect destroys ash trees. Found in 18 Midwest and Northeast states.

European Grapevine Moth. In caterpillar stage eats grape flowers and grapes, causes rot. Found in California.

European Gypsy Moth. In caterpillar stage defoliates 300 species of trees and shrubs. Found in 21 states and D.C.

False Codling Moth. Feeds on and destroys fruit trees, plants and field crops. Eradicated in Ventura County, Calif.

Giant African Snail. Up to 8 inches long, it eats paint, plaster and stucco when it can’t get any of 500 plants. Can carry a parasite that can cause meningitis in humans. Found in Florida.

Imported Fire Ants. Sting repeatedly, causing blisters. Can kill small animals. Feed on crop plants. Found in 14 states and Puerto Rico.

Khapra Beetle. Eats grain crops and packaged foods. Not found in the United States.

Light Brown Apple Moth. Attacks 250 crops and garden plants. Found in California and Hawaii.

Mediterranean Fruit Fly. In Caterpillar stage, it feeds on nuts and vegetables, making them unfit for human consumption. Found in Hawaii.

Mexican Fruit Fly. Damaging to 50 plants, particularly citrus and mango. Eradicated in California and Texas.

Oriental Fruit Fly. Attacksmore than 230 fruits and vegetables. Found in Hawaii.

Sudden Oak Death. Kills more than 75 plant species, especially oak and California Bay Laurel trees. Found in California, Oregon.

 

From Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY  April 1, 2013

 

 

Tracking Part II

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Becoming an expert tracker requires close attention as it often is a rather complex process.  Some basics were mentioned in the former Part I tracking article, but there are still a number of additional items to consider.  Again, Lord Baden-Powell’s (BP), the father of modern Boy Scouting, writings will be referenced.*  He was incredibly expert in  many facets of outdoor campcraft skills.

English “tracking” is called “spooring” and in India it is called “pugging.”    In days before modern transportation, when most rural travel was by horseback, tracking was much more pertinent to one’s daily life than currently.   Nowadays, not many of us are impacted by stolen livestock or criminals making their getaway on foot or on horseback.  War scouts rarely need to rely on tracking due to all the modern technologies under their command.  Hunters, however, still find tracking useful as they carefully observe sign or “spoor” to eventually encounter their quarry.

In tracking humans (barefoot), measure the footprint of the target person, draw a line from the tip of the big toe to the tip of the little toe, then key on where the other toes come in regards to this line and record it in your field notebook.  In my own family, I have noted that several of us have toes with different ratios to the big toe, making each one’s footprint rather unique.  When you encounter a confluence of footprints, it only takes a few measurements to identify the one you are following.

To ascertain the pace of tracks being made, remember that a walking person puts the entire flat of the foot on the ground, with strides a little under 36 inches.  A running person digs his toes more deeply into the ground as dirt is kicked up—strides more than 36 inches apart.  A backwards walking person can be known as the strides are shorter, the toes more turned in, the heel marks dug deeper.  Fast moving animals dig their toes more deeply into the dirt and their paces become longer, kicking up more dirt.  When walking, a horse makes two pairs of  prints.  At a trot, the track is similar, but the stride is a little longer.  Hind feet are often longer and narrower in female horses.  The state of the soil or ground (mud, sand) and weather (snowing, raining, stiff winds) can greatly affect the value of the “spoor” over even a few minutes or few hours.

In some cases, age of tracks becomes quite important.  If I am hunting mule deer and see an older track, I will likely look for another more recent track—I generally have little or no interest in a track made several days ago.  I would much rather find a fresh track to follow with the possibility of a large deer jumping out in front of me than an old track where there is very little possibility of surprising its maker.  Sharp edges of a newly made track in the sand become rounded the longer breezes turn the outlying edges to dry dust.  In damp ground and under trees, tracks will appear much crisper and fresher as the sun likely will have only partially dried up the edges of the print.  Prints with small cavities made by rain drops will have been made prior to recent rainfall.  Older prints made in the snow may be partially obliterated by drifting or melting.

If you are following really fresh tracks, you must avoid following too closely, as the pursued animal will frequently look back to see if it is being followed.  In such cases, the tracker makes a circle and comes back to where he would expect to see the tracks again.  If he finds it, he continues to make circles until he finds no tracks.  Now he knows he is ahead of his quarry, so he gradually circles nearer and nearer until he finds it, taking care not to get upwind of the animal within scenting distance.  If tracking over hard ground or in grass, where sign is difficult to see, remember the direction of the last print and look in the same direction 30 or so yards in advance.  Careful observations may show small displaced stones or soil scratchings or blades of bent grass in a line, one in advance of the other, giving the tracker the general overall direction of travel.

Expert tracking is fast becoming a lost art, especially among non-hunters.  Likewise being less common is the art of astute observation.  Practice the latter in the city, at home, or wherever you are and your skill and interest in tracking will greatly increase!

*Scouting for Boys–A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship Through Woodcraft.  Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, World Brotherhood Edition.  Copyright 1946 by the (British) Boy Scouts Association.  Published by Boy Scouts of America.

Effective Wildlife Tracking Requires Careful Observations of “Sign” — Part I

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How well do you observe things around you?  Do you remember the kind of car that just passed, the color of shoes of the lady who waited on you at the restaurant where you dined an hour ago, or how many stories high was the apartment building on the left side of the street two bocks past?  As you walk through the woods, what is the significance of the black and white feather in the path, the earth alongside that looks like it was plowed up, or the huge cat-like footprints in the path?  Each “sign” has special significance to the cautious nature observer and/or “tracker.”

In his book, Scouting for Boys*, Baden-Powell (BP), the father of modern Boy Scouts,  teaches about “observing”—its importance in tracking wildlife.  This present article will incorporate some of his expertise on the subject.

If you are tracking wild game, one has to be especially observant.  Small, obscure items such as a broken twig, tramped grass, footprints, a hair, drop of blood, scratch marks on a tree—all have special meaning to a seasoned tracker.  BP emphasized the importance of not allowing a single sign to escape one’s attention.  First, the sign must be noticed, then, secondly, the meaning must be discerned.  All four of our senses need to be constantly alert—sight, hearing, smell, touch –in being prepared to make observations.  However, sight and hearing are most often used during the daytime.

Scientists carry a field notebook when engaged in field research.  This can be a small notebook (waterproof paper is good) or binder and writing utensil with permanent ink.  It is wise for the tracker or observer to also have a similar method of recording observations at hand.  Memories often play tricks with the mind.  Be sure to write down date, exact time and wheeabouts, number pages, note weather conditions (at the top of the page), then record observations.

Practice is important in learning how to be a good tracker.  Most of us aren’t normally inclined to be good observers, so special attention needs to be paid to practicing.  One’s eyes need to be continually moving in every direction, near and far, noticing everything that is going on.  This can be done anywhere, even in city and town, especially noticing people—their faces, their dress, their boots/shoes, their way of walking.  Try and make out from their appearance whether they are rich or poor, what is their probable business, whether they are happy or ill.  Care should be taken so as not to be too obvious in observing.  Also, keep your eyes on the ground.  I have found trinkets and coins and tools by observing the ground while walking, even though many others had already passed over the same ground.  A fun game is to quiz one another about recent observable peculiarities of persons recently encountered, architectural qualities of buildings, store window displays, or interesting and unusual actions of city animals or humans.

BP tells the Sherlock Holmes experience of meeting a stranger and noticing that he was looking fairly well-to-do, in new clothes with a mourning band on his sleeve, with a soldierly bearing, a sailor’s way of walking, sunburnt, with tattoo marks on his hand.  Holmes guessed, correctly, that the man had recently retired from the Royal Marines as a Sergeant, that his wife had died, and that he had some small children at home.

It may happen as you are traipsing through the woods some day, that you find the remains of a forest animal or even a dead person.  In the latter event, authorities should of course be notified immediately.  However, sometimes important sign may be lost before authorities arrive, such as falling or melting snow or severe rainstorms.   In such a case, even the smallest sign should be noted and recorded—a small and inexpensive camera is invaluable in this instance.  Indeed, one may take 20 to 30 minutes just standing still, photographing and writing thoroughly every conceivable detail when encountering a dead human body:  position of hands, feet, lay of body, any unusual marks or wounds on head, face or arms, evidence of a struggle, footprints (measure, sketch/photograph),broken or tramped vegetation/shrubs/trees, blood and its location, etc.  Record or sketch the exact original position of the body on a map.  Carefully examine the ground around the body without treading on it any more than is necessary by spoiling existing tracks.  Record every possible detail surrounding the scene.  In natural settings, take note of landmarks or other objects that will prevent getting lost such as distant mountains/hills, church towers, rocky formations, trees, gates, etc.  If you need at some future time to exactly describe your way, directions would need to be given unmistakenly and in proper sequence.  Every by-road and foot path needs to be noticed and remembered, perhaps recorded.  Any information so gathered should be offered to authorities for review.

BP suggests that smaller signs including nearby birds taking hurried flight or rising dust may be indicative of some other nearby person or animal.  Tracks of smaller animals, birds, wheels can be suggestive of valuable information.

At night, small details become vital.  Listening is chief among senses employed, sometimes by feeling and smelling.  During night stillness, sounds carry further than during the daytime.  The human voice carries for a great distance, even speaking low.  Putting you ear to the ground or placing it against a stick, one can hear the shake of horses’ hoofs or the thud of a man’s footfall from a long distance off.

The keys to effective sign observations and tracking are:  practice, practice, and more practice—then, be sure to record details in your field notebook or if you are very good, memorize!

*Scouting for Boys, A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship Through Woodcraft.  Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, World Brotherhood Edition.  314 pp.  Copyright 1946 by the (British) Boy Scouts Association.  Published by Boy Scouts of America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stalking Wildlife

English: Front cover of the second installment...

Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of scouting in England in 1907, wrote a book called Scouting for Boys.*  The book was based on his outdoor boyhood experiences and later in the Army in India, Africa and Canada.  Baden-Powell wrote “I knew every true red-blooded boy is keen for adventure and open-air life, and so I wrote this book to show you how it could be done.”

Most wildlife are very shy and reclusive in their behavior.  They have learned over time that their most dangerous predators/enemies are often humans.  So, since wildlife rarely wins in a direct confrontation with man, avoidance is the best means of defense and survival.  Animal species each have their own “avoidance mechanisms.”  Some have several.  For example, coyotes and foxes and elk have acute senses of smell.  Others, like deer, have highly developed senses of hearing.  A misstep on a dry twig may serve as a red flag warning and results in the stalked animal fleeing rapidly away.  Some animals have highly developed visual acuity such as owls and hawks and eagles.

Stalking, then, involves creeping up on wild animals without them smelling or hearing or seeing you.  It requires considerable skill and patience to observe animals in their native habitats.  This ability is necessary, not only for hunters, but also to those who like to photograph and even just observe wildlife.

Some of Baden-Powell’s* teachings on stalking follow:

War scouts and hunters who stalk game always carry out two important things when they don’t want to be seen:  1)  They make sure that their clothing is the same color as the background where they are pursuing wildlife; and 2), They use wisdom and good sense to remain completely still without moving. An example of the latter is an experience I had a couple of months ago while hunting for buck mule deer.  As I was cautiously and quietly making my way through the woods, I suddenly came upon several female mule deer (does) within about 50 feet.  Although I was in plain sight, I froze.  The does at first were very alert looking suspiciously in my direction—however, after a few minutes, since I was downwind and perfectly immobile, they resumed feeding.  It was only when I consciously began walking in their direction that they bounded away.

In regards to clothing, consider color.  If you are dressed in light colored khaki, stay away from white or dark backgrounds.  If you remain perfectly still while in khaki-colored sand or grass or rocks, it will be very difficult to see you, even from short distances.  If you are dressed in dark clothes, stay among dark bushes, in shadows of trees or rocks.  If you are in a lookout situation, such as on a skyline, be very careful not to show yourself as a silhouette against the sky.

Slow Motion—At night, stay as much as you can in low ground—ditches, creek beds, ravines, etc.  One advantage of this strategy is that if an enemy comes near you, you will be able to see him first–outlined against the stars.  Of course, dark clothing is usually best for night reconnoitering or stalking.

Silent Walking—Another key point in keeping hidden while moving, especially at nighttime, is to walk quietly.  Walk on the balls of your feet, not the heels. It may take everyday practice to subconsciously learn to do his, as most people walk on their heels in a heavy-footed manner.  You will find that your endurance over long distances will grow as you learn to walk in this manner.  Recent snow or rain dampens the terrain and makes moving about noiselessly much less of a challenge.  Walking on wet leaves is surely less audible than walking on dry leaves.  The same goes for small branches and dry shrubs, as moisture makes them more flexible and less likely to snap or crackle.

Keep Down-Wind—Always sample for wind direction, even if it is so slight as to make leaves barely tremble.  Always work against the wind.  Wind direction can be sampled by licking a finger and holding it up to see which side feels the coldest.   Throwing some dust or dry grass or leaves in the air and watching which way they drift is another effective method.

Disguises—Especially during scouting games and even during actual enemy situations, disguises may become useful.   Baden-Powell tells about Indian scouts wearing wolf skins in prowling around enemy camps, mimicking wolf howls.  They sometimes wore wolfskin heads when there was possibility of being seen against a skyline.  In Australia, natives stalk emus (ostrich-like birds) by putting emu skin over themselves and walking with body bent and one hand held up to mimic the bird’s head and neck.  Scouts may tie a string or band around their heads and stick grass or small branches, through it, some upright and some drooping, camaflaging their faces.  When hiding behind a big stone or mound, look around the side of it, not over the top.

Stalking is a learned skill.  Practice sneaking up and photographing small animals.  The quality of your photographs will be an indicator of how far your stalking skill has progressed.

 

*Scouting for Boys by Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, World Brotherhood Edition, Copyright 1946 by the (British) Boy Scout Association

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Are We Abandoning Nature?

IMG_5578-Version-2-11-272x300Declining attendance at national parks, lessened interest in college laboratory classes and field trips, and a general malaise about nature, especially among young people, seem to indicate movement away from the natural world.

Dr. Peter Weigl, a prominent biologist, weighed in on the question of apparent national declining interest in nature*.

Home is where it should all begin.  Experiences with the out of doors is important in early childhood education.  How many parents encourage (or require) their children to mow the lawn, trim hedges, shovel snow or weed the garden?  How many families enjoy local hiking where all can observe the changing seasons, identify plant life, keep a check list of birds identified, or look for wild animals in native habitats?  How many vacations are taken to national parks or national monuments where nature is unavoidably the focus of attention?

As a parent, I have personally noticed in the raising of our own eight offspring, that most children, especially at early ages, willingly and enthusiastically follow their parent’s lead.  When I would get out the canoe to explore an unfamiliar pond, or fish for trout in the nearby creek, or pick fresh peas or raspberries in the garden, almost always no invitation was needed for our children to query, “can we come too”–even before being invited.

Behavioral scientists have indicated that childhood experiences without exposure to the natural world markedly influence later life preferences and educational choices.  This affects physical and mental health as well as learning capabilities.

Dr. Weigl suggests three major processes as critical to developing minds:  First, is for “time and opportunity for unstructured, unforced exploration of surroundings.”  These would be times to touch, play, observe and wonder about what is being experienced outdoors—a learning from within.  Second, learning from the example of caring and enthusiastic relatives, teachers, mentors and peers.  Fewer of the latter seem to be available these days.  Third, is information transfer from reading, personal experiences, teaching, and from an array of electronic sources.  This requires sufficient time for personal contemplation, meditation, thought and synthesis.  Often in our lives, we tend to “overbook” our own abilities; that is, we jam too many things into too little time.  This defeats the premise of allowing ourselves time to think, to sort newly gained knowledge out, and to make connections between observations and value systems.  All of these three can be critical to gaining an appreciation for nature–especially early in life.

Our society and culture has changed dramatically from what perhaps we ourselves experienced while growing up.  One modern parental concern is the possibility of kidnapping as children solitarily enjoy their surroundings, though the statistical chance of this occurring is exceedingly small.  In my own small town childhood, I can remember many times in receiving permission to “go fishing” only to return at the end of the day from experiencing many kinds of outdoor adventures (but usually with no fish); my mother usually had little idea which direction I had gone.

Parents also often seem to have preconceived pathways and lifestyle norms for their children that include mastering verbal, athletic, artistic skills or other avenues of endeavor.  Recreation is often squeezed into indoor activities such as computer video games and watching TV and movies, with little or no opportunity to roam in the out of doors.  Absence of significant teachers, mentors, relatives or peers who provide guidance in natural surroundings is quite likely in the lives of children.  Our educational system has changed dramatically with unfortunate changes in curriculum and additional pressures and paperwork placed on teachers, hampering their efforts. Very often, both parents work and mistakenly have the opinion that “Quality” time adequately replaces “Quantity” time in the lives of their offspring.

Much could be said about the impact of sedentary activities such as electronics in the lives of children.  The constant stimulation arising from the Web or video games translates into “boring” visitations to zoos or wildlife refuges.  Many joggers wear iPods and are oblivious to natural surroundings.  More children are obese than ever before and sedentary lifestyle contributes to this malaise.  Healthy and nutritional foods are often replaced by sweets and “fast foods” and children have little or no understanding or taste for “veggies” and fresh fruits leading to healthy eating habits.

It is my own personal hope that entire families–and it must be family-based–will once again find time to go on hikes together, regularly take a walk through nature, begin to plan well in advance for vacation visits to one of the wealth of national parks available in this country.  At least once a week, families should make a concentrated effort to be together, not only to enjoy nature, but also to solidify family relationships.  Even daily eating a balanced sit down meal together is a worthy family goal.  The general decline of the American family should be of the greatest concern to all of us.  Future government, industry and education leaders will most likely lead in directions dependent upon   childhood and family experiences.

To you kids, get out of doors!  To you parents, lead the way together!

*Weigl, Peter.  2009.  The natural history conundrum revisited:  mammalogy begins at home.  J. Mammalogy, 90(2):265-269.

Wildlife Info Blurb: Do Cliff Chipmunks Actually Live Inside Cliffs Without Wintertime Hibernating–How Do They Survive?

cliffchipThey are sometimes called the “gray ghosts of the mountains.”  Not a typical looking chipmunk (with white stripes along the length of their bodies to the head), cliff chipmunks have dark stripes extending from tail to the neck area, then with typical white stripes on the head.  This elusive critter is somewhat secretive and fairly difficult to observe.  It is quite likely you have never seen one in the wild.  But, yes, these chipmunks do live in and among massive rock formations and cliffs in the Western U.S.  Their tiny claws allow them to grasp minute irregularities in the surfaces of vertical cliffs which facilitates adroit climbing up and over perpendicular rock masses. They emit several kinds of vocal sounds:  One is a “bock” sound, another is a high pitched chirp.

Cliff chipmunks are seed hoarders—they do not hibernate but remain intermittently awake during long wintertimes in their dens within cliff rock cavities.  They “hoard” seeds during the summers, often placing newly gathered mature seeds in their internal cheek pouches, carrying  them to small caches excavated in soil.  Later in the summer or fall, they return and retrieve these seed caches, transporting them to their dens.  During cold winters, they curl up and sleep much of the time, awakening every day or two to consume some stockpiled seeds.  Such “hoarding” of seeds allows cliff chipmunks to survive during cold mountain winters lasting from November through February into March. New green food plants are generally not available until late April or May.  As the snow begins to mostly melt in March, chipmunks search for seeds, new plant growth and other food items among last summer’s accumulation of leaves, rocks and other detritus in the hillsides above and below the cliffs.

One Study* observed various cliff chipmunks collecting seeds from over 30 different plants during a single summer.  Of special interest was the ability of chipmunks to feed upon certain preferred, edible kinds of plants as these mature during the summer–stems, leaves and seeds until depleted.  Then, they would move on to do the same with food parts of another kind of later maturing plant.  It appeared that chipmunks feed freely on various plant parts, stems, leaves, blossoms, seeds, but the latter appears unique as quality high energy suitable for hoarding and storage.   A variety of different food plants occurred randomly in the slopes above and below the rocky escarpments which the chipmunks visited depending upon availability and preference.

An actual strategy of how chipmunks feed  are as follows: on tender leaf buds of Bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum) in May.  Trees nearest the cliffs were foraged upon first.  It was not uncommon for several animals to feed simultaneously in the same tree at the same time.  Towards the end of May, serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) buds were the food of choice with berries eaten later in the summer.  In June, chipmunks were found feeding upon Arrowleafed balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) leaves, stems, and seed heads.  Typically, the stem was cut and seeds eaten, leaving a tell-tale pile of seed hulls.  This plant was fairly widespread over the entire study area.  In June, bluegrass seeds (Poa spp.) and wild carrot stem and seeds (Lomatum disectum) were utilized.  Salsify (Tragopogon dubius) matured in late June and July.  Seed heads and leaves were preferred.  In late June and July, bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) matured and was eaten for the rest of the summer in a number of locations.   Bitterbrush seeds appeared to be a major contributor to the winter seed stockpile.  Elk thistle (Cirsium spp.) matured in late July.  The prickly parts did not seem to deter chipmunks from consuming seed heads.  This plant grew singly and was not numerous either above or below the cliffs.

Various plants utilized for food are scattered throughout the area.  These are utilized as they become viable food sources for chipmunks and other wildlife.

Hart, E. B.  1971.  Food preferences of the cliff chipmunk, Eutamias dorsalis, in northern Utah.  Great Basin Naturalist, Vol 31(3):  182-188.

About Cliff Chipmunks, Tamias dorsalis:

Mature cliff chipmunks are typically the size of a small rat.  Their mannerisms are similar to other chipmunks of the genus.  They normally produce one litter per year (4-6 young) in the northern parts of their distribution.  Gestation is from 28 to 31 days.  Home range may be as much as 4 Ha (9 acres) and less.  Natural predators include small carnivores, avian raptors and snakes. Ectoparasites include fleas, lice, mites, botfly larvae; probably some endoparasites are present in some populations.

 

Wildlife Info Blurb: What is a “Pika?”

How A Pika Saved a Mountain Man

One of my favorite wildlife species is known as a “pika” or rock rabbit.  A member of the rabbit order, Lagomorpha, these small critters inhabit talus slopes and rock slides generally at higher altitudes in western North America– north to Alaska.  Pikas are unique in that they cut green vegetation, allow it to dry, then feed upon it during cold winters.  They do not stockpile seeds and other food as do chipmunks and some rodents.  In the late summer, it is common to see these small animals, perhaps the size of a rat, carrying green vegetation to piles near their den areas within the interior of the rocky slopes.  By the time winter rolls around with dense snowfall and cold temperatures, pikas have accumulated substantial piles of vegetation, now dry and cured “hay” ready for later consumption near their dens.  Come spring, hay piles are greatly reduced or completely absent.

Pikas have unique vocalizations that often identifies their near presence a peculiar squeaking sound.  In the summertimes, they are often seen sunning themselves on rocks near their dens.  Of course, they have to be constantly vigilant due to predators which highly value them as prey.  Coyotes, foxes and hawks especially keep sharp lookout for these small mammals as tasty treats.

A recent article in the Idaho Statesman by Rocky Barker reviewed research on American pikas by biologist Erik Beever, summarized as follows:  Pikas are disappearing from parts of Idaho to California where as they were found as recent as 10 years ago.  Factors responsible for their disappearance are thought to include less winter snow and summer rain although other habitat features still seem adequate.  Apparently there have been major pika distributional losses due to precipitation in the Great Basin over the past century.  Precipitation in the form of insulating snow to minimize exposure to extreme cold and stress is probably an important factor.  Summer precipitation affects food availability.  Over the past ¾ of a century, snowpack has declined and temperatures have slowly been rising.

Unexpectedly, smaller pika populations thought to be more prone to extinctions in 1999 actually increased in numbers in 2003 to 2008.  In Idaho, pikas continue to thrive in the alpine areas of the Sawtooth Mountains, but also seem to have done well in the high desert–Craters of the Moon near Arco.  This area is dominated by lava flows, caves and fissures dating 2,000 to 15,000 years ago.

As in other locals, Idaho typical pika habitats are talus, broken rock slides, steep mountainsides, base of cliffs.  In these habitats, pikas with their thick fur, cannot survive temperatures as warm as 77 to 85 degrees during the summertimes.  However, in Craters of the Moon National Preserve lava, these animals seemed to thrive, probably due to cooler “microrefugia” within the lava deposits which serve as efficient insulation against high temperatures.  In the nearby Crater’s talus fields, pikas known to be present in the 1980’s are now gone.

In my own experience, I have trapped pika’s in Laramie, WYs, Snowy Range, in the Gray’s River (WY) area and observed them at Cottonwood Lake of Star Valley, WY, and in SE Wyoming’s Bridger National Forest, and in the Wasatch Mountains of southeastern (Bear Lake) Idaho.  In the latter areas where previously seen, they are no longer present.  Pikas are a fascinating little creature and are well worth any effort made to observe them in their natural habitats.

About Pikas or Rock Rabbits: 

Ochotona princeps, and O. collaris are scientific names for the two North American species; the former is southern in distribution, the latter northern.  Of the total of 18 surviving species, 16 are mostly in Asia.  Their fur is grayish to brownish and they have no visible tail.  They are diurnal in activity.  Two to five young are born in May-June and in July- August (two litters per year) with a gestation period of about 30 days.  Animals are colonial and each animal has its own territory within the colony, which it defends and lives in throughout life.  Territoriality is maintained due to limited numbers of nest sites and the necessity of defending food hay piles.  Females are monogamous.  Males provide no parental care and are aggressively excluded following birth of litters.  Few live beyond five years, maximum of seven.  Predators include hawks, foxes, martens, fishers, wolverines, lynxs, coyotes, bears, weasels and ermines.  The latter are able to enter pika dens due to their slender bodies.

See Forsyth, A.  1999.  Mammals of North America – Temperate and Arctic Regions.  Firefly Books, Willowdale, Ontario.