FIELD NOTES: CRITTERS KNOWN AND UNKNOWN – December 2016

By Jack McShane

There is what I call a “mystery beast” out there in the forest. Although enticed to a trail cam site it somehow evaded photographic capture. Others, the likes of coyotes, raccoons, and even the wary and elusive fisher, have been captured while scavenging for the bait. This was set out both for their indulgence and in hopes of recording their activity. Somehow a large and strong critter is capable of removing a large leg bone of a deer, which incidentally was taken with bow and arrow and butchered by my son and me, nailed and wired securely to a tree. This extraction took place without setting off the camera that had previously taken numerous shots of a coyote indulging in scraps on the ground and only occasionally gazing longingly at the secured bone. It also included the usual shots of myself approaching the cam to exchange the SD card. This proved it was working normally. Even with Halloween close at the time, I am very confident that trick or treaters were not near this setting deep in the forest. So what was it? As of now I do not know, but I do have a strong suspicion that it was that old dowager sow bear, with her two cubs, caught on the cam earlier and this time working under cover of darkness. She somehow evaded the infra-red of the cam incorporated for shots at night. The tricky thing about our natural world is that its wild inhabitants are not always happy being photographed! If in my continuing surveillance, along with some luck, I do discover the identity of the “mystery beast” I will let you know.

A number of creatures have been spotted in the wild by friends residing in nearby environs. My friend Susan domiciled up on Dingle Hill reported a river otter cavorting in her pond. I interpret that as a hungry river otter, as they seem always hungry and seeking sustenance. Or to put it simply, harvesting any available resident fish, frog, or crayfish. Those fun-loving otters must eat to survive and seem very much to enjoy their very active foraging. These apparently happy-go-lucky mustelids range far and wide in their search for ponds and waterways flush with foodstuffs. When they are satiated and the number of critters runs low, they quickly move on. Many of you might recall that a few years ago I had one that I named Ollie that worked my ponds, depleting the population of sunfish and gave me a number of photo ops before heading out. With luck they can be relatively long lived, and I wonder if Susan’s otter was Ollie from years back! Will he pay me a visit? Will we meet again?

Another friend, Ev, living up in the Roxbury area, emailed me that she had very delightedly observed a beautiful cock pheasant strutting by her place. I had seen one along the Tremperskill road a couple of years back and reminded myself that it was, so far, a very lucky bird as they are not native and generally not resilient enough to survive our winters and numerous predators. These birds are raised by the DEC or surrogates and are mandated by law to be released on state lands where they can be legally hunted. There are also private landowners and hunting clubs that raise their own pheasants for hunting purposes. In all these cases there are always the few that escape the shotgun, only to face the treacherous vagaries of our Catskill mountain environment for which they are not well prepared. In the end they almost inevitably perish.

So what of my own recent critter encounters? One was almost a road kill on one of my forest trails. A small painted turtle had apparently decided to switch to a different pond, maybe bored with his buddies and surroundings. Lucky for him I am a very slow and observant driver of my UTV.  I stopped, captured him and placed him in his target pond. Enjoy your new friends pal!

A critter I have not seen in a number of years, as I am no longer in the habit of lifting flat rocks to see what interesting critters lie below, was a beautiful green snake, basking in the sun, that slipped away on the grassy trail before I could get a selfie with him. A dapper pair of wood ducks—somehow I had a premonition would be there—rapidly took off upon my arrival from a log in a pond that has been their favorite roosting site for quite some time now. They will disappear to join their kind on the annual sojourn south to warmer climes. Watch out for the waiting shotguns, my friends! By the way, you will be reading this in December; the above sightings took place at the end of October and beginning of November.

A slow and quiet jaunt, upon a leafy trail, I spot some vivid white, between the trees not natural, I back a bit to better see, a deer is down, bow season open, a kill from adjacent lands? A quiet move for a better look, another nearby, bedded but not happy, watching me intently, the vivid white is mom, unconcerned with me, chewing her cud, alive and well! I move on to not disturb. A good day begins, and I have just waxed poetic. And broke every rule of poetry.

“Study nature, love, nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

Frank Lloyd Wright.

P.S. “Mystery Beasts” exposed: big momma bear and three very big and active cubs just doing what they are supposed to do, fattening up for hibernation!