Monday, January 24, 2011

Snowshoe Here

"Having a wider heart and mind is more important than having a larger house" - Venerable Cheng Yen
January 12th, 2011. The snow along the roadside was a good two to three feet deep. Few people were driving this back road in East Lyme Connecticut because the season's first major snowfall was just wrapping up. The people who were driving were going slowly and trying to avoid sliding off the road. Not me. When I approached the forest road that leads into Nehantic State Forest I gunned it and pointed my truck at the snow bank. With a soft but solid thud I buried my truck in the snow. Then I reached for my snowshoes.

Buried in the snow. My truck "parked" in a snow bank.
 It is rare to have enough snow to use snowshoes in southeastern Connecticut. During most years here I have seen snowshoe tracks on snow that was so shallow that hiking boots were more than enough to keep the walker warm and dry. Evidence that someone owned snowshoes and wanted to get some use out of them even if they were unnecessary. Understandably human of course. I also own snowshoes, but mine are designed for narrow trails on mountainous terrain more than for wide open flats. I did not ever really expect to use them in Connecticut where we are now experiencing milder and milder winters. Still that was short sighted of me. Climate change is resulting in more moisture in the atmosphere, and consequently, more significant storms. So here I was, in East Lyme Connecticut, strapping on my snowshoes that I thought I would only ever use in the mountains. Over the coming week or so I would snowshoe three different times in the unusually white forests of my home state.

The entrance to the East Lyme unit of Nehantic State Forest. In summer Cerulean Warblers can be heard here. Now a cold stillness blanketed the forest.
As I adjusted my gear at the entrance, I once again was struck by the stillness that pervades a northeastern forest after a deep snowfall. Much like how the soft edges of an owl's feathers kill sound and allow the bird to silently approach its prey, snow that covers the forest floor and clings to trees and undergrowth also deadens sounds. The result is a silence and solitude that is more perceptual than real. But humans are creatures of perception, so the solitude felt very real to me, though I knew I was not far from roads and houses.

Self portrait showing snowshoe gear. Mountain trail snowshoes, trekking poles with snow baskets, gaiters. The cotton jeans are a clear indication I'm not dressed for backcountry but more for a stroll.
As I headed into the forest my snowshoes sank deeply into the soft powder. We had about 10 to 12 inches of new snow, and it was too dry and too new to really support my weight on my narrow snowshoes. That was okay with me today because I really just wanted to enjoy the forest and get a little workout to prepare for a planned 15 mile hike in the White Mountains later in the season.

The snow clad forest seemed silent and bereft of life. Silent it was but bereft it was not.
 I plodded along in the snow and each time my snowshoe came up its tail threw powder on my nether region. I soon adjusted my stride and pace to eliminate that uncomfortable occurrence. There is an old saying in mountain lore, "cotton kills." It is a reference to cotton quickly absorbing moisture and losing all insulating properties. Wool on the other hand, actually increases in insulating value when it gets damp. Maybe that's why sheep have wool instead of cotton. As I was wearing cotton jeans, I did not want to end up with a cold wet butt, so I adjusted my stride accordingly.

As I walked through the deep snow, at a blistering pace of about 1 mile per hour, I listened to the forest. It seemed nearly birdless. Many of the wintering songbirds would now be clustered around feeding stations at human residences. I did hear a few though. The call of a Red-bellied Woodpecker rang distantly. I can not help but compare the stark differences in spring and summer deciduous woodland noises against the winter. So much life can be heard in the warmth and so little in the cold. That doesn't mean life isn't there, it just means much less of it is avian.

Watching the snow for tracks I saw abundant sign of the seemingly ever present Gray Squirrel. These tracks often start and end, not surprisingly, at the base of trees. I did not see or hear a squirrel during my walk, and by that, one could be forgiven for thinking they were not here. But the myriad trails of their prints spoke in silent eloquence of their numbers. At one point I found ridges poking up out of the snow like the bulging veins on a body builder's arms. These were tunnels of a small mammal, perhaps a Short-tailed Shrew or a Masked Shrew. Shrews are voracious little predators eating their own body weight or more every day, and the Short-tailed (Blarina brevicauda Say) has the unique adaptation of a neurologically toxic saliva. Yes, that would be poison spit. Not to mention it emits ultrasonic sounds for echolocation. Good thing they're not the size of a dog, they'd make a Black Bear look like Winnie the Pooh.

Tunnels in the new snow, Short-tailed Shrew?. A little difficult to see the tunnels in this un-enhanced image.
Here, by enhancing the image's contrast, you can clearly see the meandering sub-surface movement of the foraging animal.
  The trees were plastered with the wind driven snow. Each species of tree seemed to take on the snow in accordance with the texture of its bark. Birches and Beeches grabbed the snow in solid blankets while Ashes and stately Tulip Trees only held the snow in the deep grooves between their ridges. Even fallen logs were heavily blanketed in the new snow. Very soon this snow would fall or be blown off, indeed as I walked I was occasionally showered by mini avalanches as this process was already underway.

The bark of the Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), or Yellow Polar, held the snow in the recess while the ridges were mostly scoured clean.
Simple winter beauty.
The light was fading and the snow hadn't completely stopped when I finally returned to my truck. I experienced a new life first by shoveling snow while wearing snowshoes to extricate my truck. It had been a very enjoyable walk, with the benefit of physical exertion. I drove home on the still very snowy roads. I managed to only slide off the road and bounce off a snow bank once on the way.

On January 17th I headed to Pleasant Valley Preserve in Lyme for another bout of Connecticut Snowshoeing. I didn't know what the trail conditions would be so I also packed my cross country skis. I figured the snowshoes would still be preferable at this point but one never knows. I timed my hike to extend into the night as the sky was clear and the waxing moon was nearing full. I love the forest at night and frequently hike in the dark.

Pleasant Valley Preserve sign and map in Lyme, Connecticut.
Once I parked I scoped out the snow/trail appearance and decided that indeed it snowshoes and not skis today. Once geared up, I headed in and quickly was reminded just how many seldom seen animals are present in our deciduous forests. In a small field a large brush pile has been built up, presumably for wildlife. It certainly was working. Around this pile, in the snow cover, were the tracks of Cottontail Rabbits that clearly showed the entry holes into the brush pile that the rabbits were using for shelter. These were either the tracks of the introduced Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), or the greatly diminished New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis), but I could not be sure. You can separate the species in a number of subtle ways but field researchers are now heavily relying on DNA determination in the droppings. Yup, you are what you poop. The New England Cottontail needs transitional habitat, cleared land that is reverting to dense brush. The Eastern Cottontail is able to exploit a larger variety of habitats, and thus out-competes the native New England. The State of Connecticut is doing studies to try and help the remaining populations of New England Cottontails, one of which is at Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in Groton. Some individuals of both species have been out-fitted with radio transmitters to better understand their dynamics. A rabbit with a white waistcoat and pocket watch has nothing on a bunny with a transmitter. Apologies to Lewis Carroll. In addition to the rabbit tracks, White-footed Mice tracks also abounded, not to mention the searching tracks of the Eastern Coyote (Lupis latrans).

Cottontail tracks around brush pile and at rabbit hole entrance. White-footed Mouse tracks can be seen at upper left.
There is a nice stand of Red Cedar in an open field on the preserve. I wanted to search for Saw-whet Owls in the stand before dark so I continued on. You need to walk under each tree and look up into it to find these diminutive little owls. I spent about a half hour doing so to no avail. I could easily have missed one of these winter visitors though, they can be tough to spot when properly tucked into the tree.

Northern Saw-whet (Aegolius acadicus). Photo by AJ Hand
 Feeling I had given it the ole college try, and by ole college try I mean a half-hearted quick look, I followed some White-tailed Deer tracks down to the Eight Mile River which borders the preserve. The river was largely frozen over and the snow, ice, and moonlight were gorgeous on this marvelous stream. A winter's stream frozen in crystal and white under a silver disc.

The nearly full moon over the Red Cedars of Pleasant Valley.
The frozen Eight Mile River in the moonlight.
The day had nearly ended and night was falling on Pleasant Valley. I love being in the forest at night, did I mention that? Now was time to just walk and enjoy. I climbed back up to the Cedar field and as I prepared to hike the forest I noticed the tracks of what I believe was a White-footed Mouse crossing the snow. White-footed Mice will cross the snow surface and then dive into the snow and tunnel. Here was clear evidence.

The tracks of what was likely a White-footed Mouse end at a hole created when the Mouse decided to return to tunneling under the snow.
I had brought a headlamp with for when the daylight failed. However the nearly full moon on the snowy forest floor was more than enough light to see my way. The rest of my hike was in the silence and the dark. It was superb.

Beauty, silence, cold, a nocturne most wonderful.
January 22, 2011. It was time for a more serious walk. The weather had produced another snowfall on top of the unusually deep base here in southeastern Connecticut. But it also rained briefly during the storm. So I knew there would be a layer of crust, wet snow that had refrozen dense and hard. This meant little compression under the snowshoes. So a long hard walk was in the offing. And another night walk. This time I headed for the Lyme Unit of Nehantic State Forest. The last night hike I had done here had been during the summer and I had the sound of Flying Squirrels to accompany me throughout the walk. None of that tonight.

Arriving at the forest road I found it unplowed, so dropping my truck into four-wheel drive, I plowed through to the parking area. From this small gravel (now snowy) lot I have started many a walk in the forest. Tonight I saw that someone had already been both snowshoeing and cross country skiing here. As part of my hike would be on forest trail and not just forest road, I chose snowshoes.

Someone had beaten me to it. I was not the first to snowshoe the forest road.
This was to be a roughly three and one half mile jaunt. Once again the night was still and beautiful. The moon was now passed full and would not rise till I was done. So I had my headlamp with me, but as usual I would resist using it till the last possible moment. As I traversed this now very familiar hike, I was struck by the plethora of tracks in the snow. Distantly a pair of Barred Owls called. First the deep "Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all," of the male, then shortly after the higher pitch of an answering female. I have never failed to hear these wonderful birds in Nehantic at night, though oddly I have not succeeded in seeing them here. I have seen a Chuck-wills-widow in this forest, a very uncommon night bird from the south, related to a Whippoorwill, but I just haven't laid eyes on the common Barred Owl in this forest. Life is chance, is it not? 

Barred Owl (Strix Varia) in Connecticut. By AJ Hand 2002
As I cruised along my mind wandered, as it usually does on long hikes, though this wasn't really a long hike. However tonight I kept being brought up short by tracks in the snow. Gray Squirrel, White-footed Mouse, shrew tunnels, White-tailed Deer, Coyote, Red Fox, human, and dog. The forest floor spoke of many passages while the silence suggested otherwise. Silent does not mean empty, clearly. At one point a pack of Coyotes howled and yipped briefly, and yet again I felt the thrill of hearing these wild carnivorans.

The trail of a White-footed Mouse showing tail prints as well.

A closer look

The tale of the tracks. Old showshoe prints overlaid by new snow and then cross country skis on top. To the right is the straight track of a Red Fox.
Tunnels, probably shrew, Short-tailed most likely but possibly Masked? Gray Squirrel jumping through.
The night was getting very cold as I hiked, nothing better illustrated this than the energy bar in my pack being frozen solid when I stopped to eat it. It was the better part of two and a half hours when I finally returned to the parking area. One more exquisite night hike in a forest. As I paused before stripping off gear, I looked at the night sky. My breath turned to silver mist that swirled and twisted upward like a dissipating spirit. The stars shone intensely bright and clear with shreds of wispy clouds stretched between. How bereft of romance, how dead to the beauty of the world, how soulless must a person be, to be able to look at the night sky bespeckled with the countless points of light from our galaxy on a still winter's night, and not be left in awe?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tweed Wolf, The Eastern Coyote

Many years ago... Across a grassy meadow on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona, a single hunter loped. I watched this carnivoran from a distance through my spotting scope, and momentarily I thought I was watching a fox. Then I realized the solitary predator was a coyote. I was on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and I was watching my first western coyote while a sky blue Mountain Bluebird watched me in turn from a nearby perch. Why did I momentarily mistake this creature for a fox? Because it was noticeably smaller and daintier than the coyotes I was familiar with in my native New England. But why would this be?

"The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders." Edward Abbey

Western Coyote (Canis latrans) Photographed by Jim Zipp in New Mexico
Eastern Coyote In Connecticut by Paul Fusco
Canis latrans. Eastern Coyote. "Tweed Wolf." Now common in New England, this icon of the wild is a relatively new arrival here. There are many people still living who were born before the Coyote came to New England. Before Europeans came to settle northeastern North America, the landscape of the region was mostly forested. This was not the habitat of the Coyote, a species that had evolved to prey on small mammals in the open grasslands and deserts of the west. The forested landscape of New England was the habitat of the White-tailed Deer and the Moose, and it was the home of the Wolf. Wolves once roamed virtually all of what is now the lower 48 states and nearly all of North America. Generally speaking, two species of North American wolf were historically recognized, the Red Wolf (canus rufus) of the southern and southeast United States, and the Gray Wolf (Canus lupus) in the west and northeast. It was long recognized however that the wolves in New England and southeastern Canada were smaller than the Gray Wolves of the west. These eastern wolves were considered a subspecies of Gray Wolf, and as such they were identified as canis lupus lycaon. Now the genetic evidence strongly suggests otherwise, that the eastern "Gray" wolves are a separate species, the Great Lakes Wolf (Canis lycaon.)

Great Lakes Wolf (Canis lycaon) USFW Photo
A predator's evolutionary course and success is based on the prey it hunts. In the northeast, the Great Lakes Wolf evolved to hunt the White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). This was a species of the eastern deciduous forest. North of the White-tailed Deer's range, where the larger ungulate the Moose (Alces alces) dominated in coniferous forests, the Great Lakes Wolf range ended and it was replaced by the larger Gray Wolf. The Great Lakes Wolf is not large enough to hunt Moose efficiently. Its head and jaw are too small and lack the musculature to bite and hang onto the larger more powerful ungulate. This predator prey size relationship acts as a biological barrier against a predator species' range expansion. The predator can not expand into areas where reliable prey doesn't exist. So before Europeans came to America, The Great Lakes Wolf roamed the northeast, the Coyote loped across the southwest, the Red Wolf hunted the southeast, and the Gray Wolf howled throughout the west and the far north. The distribution of these carnivorans was determined by prey, habitat, and biological barriers in a natural balance.

White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) Prey of the Great Lakes Wolf. Photo by Paul Fusco

Moose (Alces alces) One of the primary prey species of the Gray Wolf in eastern North America.  Photo by Jim Zipp
With the coming of Europeans came great and sweeping changes in the landscape and fauna of the northeast. The forest was felled and replaced by agriculture and grasslands. The wolf was feared and reviled and hunted relentlessly. Eventually no wolves were left alive in the northeast. The numbers of Moose fell as well, and the species' range withdrew northward. The predator prey balance was destroyed and the faunal diversity of New England plummeted. The wolves were gone. The predators that remained, Black Bears in small numbers in rugged mountain retreats, Gray Foxes in declining numbers, adaptive Red Foxes in increasing numbers, and Bobcats in small numbers, were no threat to White-tailed Deer that remained. The ecosystem of the northeast was forever altered.

Bobcat (Lynx rufus) in Connecticut. Photo by Paul Fusco.
The anthropogenic changes wrought on the northeast by the early Europeans were not to last unchanged either however. The open grasslands and agricultural lands slowly gave way to reforestation as farming and herding dwindled as major components of human land use. With the patchwork reforestation, and without a predator of ungulates, the White-tailed Deer flourished and expanded farther north than it had historically existed. Where once Moose fled before Gary Wolf packs, now White-tailed Deer existed untroubled by hungry carnivorans and soon the Deer population was larger than ever. The northeast was ripe for a large predator. But which one could exploit this open niche? By the twentieth century, wolves were greatly diminished or extirpated from much of their former ranges across North America. Not only had the wolves been been subjected to an organized slaughter by man, they had also starved as their prey dwindled. The survival of the Gray Wolf requires large numbers of Bison, Elk, Black-tailed Deer, Moose, and other large ungulates. These species's numbers also crashed as the new "Americans" moved westward. But one North American carnivoran could succeed in the now fractured and battered ecosystems of North America. The stage was set for the great success of the Coyote.

Coyote in Connecticut. Photo by Jim Zipp
 The combination of an altered landscape and the removal of the Wolf allowed the Coyote to expand its range. The Coyote preys primarily on smaller mammals than the Wolf. While large wolves do eat small mammals as well, the species can not survive without large prey animals. The wolf packs were gone, and Coyotes, though persecuted by man as well, moved in. The expansion was rapid. In the late 1800's and early 1900's the species reached Ontario west of the Great Lakes and then continued to rapidly expand eastward north of the lakes. It is believed that the expansion north of the lakes was pioneered by just a few individuals. While this northern route was being pushed rapidly eastward through Ontario, a slower expansion was also occurring south of the Great Lakes in the United States. This was partly due to a greater density of human occupation south of the lakes but there was a more ecologically significant factor in the disparate rates of expansion. The rapidity of the expansion along the northern route was greatly aided by a key factor, the Great Lakes Wolf. This species still existed north of the lakes and the pioneering Coyotes came into contact with them. One result of this contact was crucial to the Coyotes rapid success in the northeast, hybridization. But why should this happen now, why didn't it happen where Coyotes and Gray Wolves were sympatric in the west?

Recent genetic research is painting a clearer taxonomic picture of the canid species in North America. It is now believed that the Great Lakes Wolf and the Red Wolf may be more closely related genetically to the Coyote than to the Gray Wolf. Where the Gray Wolf and Coyote both existed, there appears to have been no successful hybridization. Hybridization often occurs where closely related species exist in contact with one another and one of the species occurs in small numbers while the other species occurs in larger numbers. An example birders will readily recognize is the decline of the scarce Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) as it hybridizes with the more numerous Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera.) But this interbreeding does not seem to happen with Gray Wolves and Coyotes. The reintroduction of Gray Wolves to Yellowstone National Park and the slow natural repopulation of Gray Wolves in the northern Rockies in Idaho and Montana has not led to hybridization but rather seems to highlight the genetic and phenological differences between the species. The story was different with the contact of the few Coyotes among the Great Lakes Wolves in Ontario. Successful hybridization did occur. One result of this was a larger, more powerful Coyote, the Eastern Coyote. A "Tweed Wolf." This new form of Coyote came with new skills and advantages that were to prove very useful in the anthropogenic landscape of the northeast.

Wolf and Coyote in Yellowstone National Park. Photo from the blog Ecobirder.

The Coyote evolved to hunt small mammals in semi-arid and desert habitat. It did not hunt ungulates and it did not enter forests. It's head and the musculature of its jaw were not up to tackling White-tailed Deer. But with the hybridization with Great Lakes Wolf, the Eastern Coyote now is larger, shows sexual dimorphism (males are larger than females), and has proportionally larger and stronger jaws. This new jaw size and strength allows the Eastern Coyote to grasp a White-tailed Deer and hang on while the ungulate fights for its life. New behaviors were exhibited by the hybrid as well, it acted more wolf-like and readily entered the reforested habitat of the northeast. This northern hybrid expansion to the east far out-paced the southern route below the Great lakes, which was being carried out by essentially unaltered Western Coyotes. Eastern Coyotes reached Quebec in 1945, New Brunswick, Canada, in 1958, and Maine in 1970. It continued to expand eastward and then southward eventually wrapping around the Great Lakes and heading back southwestward. This expansion met up with the non-hybrid Western Coyotes moving slowly eastward forming a contact zone in western New York and Pennsylvania. The void had been filled, a large carnivoran had resettled the northeast.

Eastern Coyote in Guilford, CT. Photo by Bob Gundersen.

There remains a distinct fear and loathing of Wolves and Coyotes in some people. This is despite the fact that our most loved pet is the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), which is the descendant of domesticated Wolves. When the Eastern Coyote showed up in the northeast, people recognized they were bigger and acted differently than Western Coyotes. They called them "Coydogs," assuming these Coyotes had hybridized with domestic dogs. Genetic research has proven this to be untrue. While dogs and Coyotes can interbreed, the resulting hybrid has behavioral and biological disadvantages that create an evolutionary dead end. These hybrids (shown by genetic research to be extraordinarily rare) do not reproduce successful young in the wild. It was also thought that it might have been phenological plasticity that caused the larger Coyotes. Phenological plasticity is when an organism develops in different ways in different areas based on environmental conditions, such as Blue Jays being larger in the northern part of their range. Now we know it isn't "Coydogs", it isn't phenological plasticity, it is the Wolf within.

Coyote. Photo by Jim Zipp.

It is paramount that we strive to understand the natural world. Despite what some would have us believe, our survival depends on a healthy functioning environment. I also believe that our natural world has worth beyond any price. The howling of the Wolf once struck fear in us, and there are many who still would kill all the Wolves and Coyotes. This hatred of Wolves and Coyotes seems in some ways primal, and is certainly in no way rational in today's world. Why do humans see such malevolence in these predators, these progenitors of our dearest companions? Is it that some see in the Wolf all that is deplorable in our own nature? I don't know the answer. But I do know that the howling of Wolves and Coyotes is a most welcomed sound to me personally, and if these voices were no longer to be heard in the wilds of North America, it would be an incalculable loss.

"If the wolf is to survive, the wolf haters must be outnumbered. They must be outshouted, out financed, and out voted."     L. David Mech

Truly the call of the wild. Coyote in Connecticut. Photo by Jim Zipp.

References used in preparing for this entry include:

"Rapid Adaptive Evolution of Northeastern Coyotes via Hybridization with Wolves" Keys, Curtis, Kitchman. 2009.

"The Cranial Evidence for Hybridization in New England Canis" Lawrence and Bossert. 1969.

"Hybridization Among Three Native North American Canis Species in a Region of Natural Sympatry" Hailer and Leonard. 2008.

"Genetic Nature of Eastern Wolves: Past, Present, and Future" Kyle, Johnson, Patterson, Wilson, Shami, Grewal, and White. 2005.

"Legacy Lost: Genetic Variability and Population Size of Extirpated US Grey Wolves (Canis lupus)" Leonard, Vila, and Wayne. 2004.

"Widespread Occurrence of a Domestic Dog mitochondrial DNA haplotype in Southeastern US Coyotes" Adams, Leonard, and Waits. 2002.