Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dryocopus pileatus, Part One

I'd like to preface this entry by thanking my friends. Over the past few years, I've gotten a lot of support from them, whether it's been in the form of reading this blog, complimenting me on my photography, teaching me new things, or giving me tips on how to improve. There's also a handful of friends who go above and beyond all of that and have created what I like to jokingly call the Dead Animal Alert System. These amazing people happen upon deceased critters in their day-to-day activities, and go the extra mile to let me know. Some of these folks even hold onto the animals for me, until I can retrieve them! This project would be much smaller if I didn't have such awesome people in my life: a good portion of the critters I photograph are found by others. So, thank you!

Last week, a friend presented to me something pretty incredible. It was an animal I've usually only seen in fleeting moments, a shy creature that is synonymous with the North Woods: a Pileated Woodpecker. A female, she had been found as roadkill along US 2 near Brevort. So recent had she been struck, her body was not yet stiff when retrieved from the side of the road.

With the exception of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (which is considered by most to be extinct), the pileated woodpecker is the largest of its kind in North America. It's about the size of a crow, but it's at that and their shared black backs where the resemblance ends. Pileated woodpeckers have a long, pointed beak and reptilian, almost dinosaur-like eyes. Their toes end in large, curved talons, perfect for grasping bark, and their black wings are adorned with a broad, white bar. Most recognizable is the bright, red crest.

Dryocopus pileatus

Female pileated woodpeckers are distinguished from the males by their smaller crests, as well as the lack of a second red mark, which runs from the corner of the beak to the neck.

The white markings on the wings are visible only when the bird takes flight.

Dryocopus pileatus

To hold a pileated woodpecker is a humbling experience, and an emotional one. They are majestic birds, and although they aren't threatened, they certainly aren't the most common creature in the woods, either. I relish the times when I see them in our yard, for they are few and brief. In life, pileated woodpeckers are fast and loud. Their drumming and laughing call resonate through the forest; more often they are heard, rather than seen. To hold one, very still and very silent, is surreal.

This pileated woodpecker will soon be a part of the bird collection at the University of Michigan's Museum of Zoology.

There is still much portraiture to be taken of this extraordinary bird! I will soon follow this entry up with another set of photographs.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Coyote Check-Up

It's been a weird winter along the Chocolay River. We've had the bitter, cold days characteristic of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but those have been few and far-between. Snow has been lacking – so much, in fact, that the UP 200 had to be re-routed for the first time in its 22-year history. The past several weeks have been warmer than Februaries tend to be around here, and the animals seem to be taking full advantage of it. More specifically, raccoons are becoming active again, searching for mates and food – and our backyard has become a destination.

Yesterday, we received a very small dusting of snow, but it was enough to reveal the tracks of a handful of raccoons. Their footprints weaved around trees, beneath the birdfeeders, and finally in the direction of our compost pile – and our resident Coyote. I was a bit shocked to discover that not only had the raccoons removed the brush that had been concealing the body, they had also attempted to drag it away! Of course, the coyote was tied to the base of a tree, so the raccoons didn't make too much progress – but they did chew through one of the cords holding the body in place.

Colder temperatures have mummified the coyote's face, but warm and rainy spring weather will likely change this.

 The coyote's ribs. At least one is broken, likely when she was hit on the road. Frost clings to bone, flesh, and plant matter.

I do find it amazing that it has taken this long for scavenging animals to notice the coyote. The neighborhood fox(es) won't touch it, but raccoons seem to be a little less picky. Judging by the state of the coyote this morning, the raccoons preferred its ribs and intestines. This evening, I'm sure they will be back for more.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

An Insectivore

There are several species of shrew in Michigan, the most widespread and visible being the Northern Short-Tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda). Primarily nocturnal and active year-round, they can sometimes be seen darting across snow or shuffling through forest leaf litter. Due to their small size and secretive habits, however, shrews are more often seen as "presents" on the doorstep, thanks to a hunting cat or dog. Because shrews emit a foul odor, predators don't usually eat their them once they've been dispatched.

Despite being similar in size and appearance, shrews are not rodents. They are insectivores, primarily eating small invertebrates, though their diet includes mice and amphibians, as well. A rarity in mammals, short-tailed shrews secrete a toxin that paralyzes their prey.

Thanks to a friend's dog, I picked up a short-tailed shrew today. It's the first time I've seen one in several years, and I'd forgotten how soft and silky shrew fur is! Since this shrew was dead, its miniscule eyes were closed, which made locating them near to impossible. One of the most striking features of the shrew was its sharp, black-brown teeth:

In shrew terms, short-tailed shrews are pretty large – they're about the same size as a deer mouse. Still, everything about them is very tiny. Their relative, the Pygmy Shrew, is one of the smallest mammals in North America, and I can't imagine how small they must be. I used a macro lens to photograph this animal – any other lens wouldn't have done a proper job.

Shrew feet are actually kind of scary when viewed at a size several times larger than life! Their front paws are very strong, and are good for tunneling.

A shrew's nose is very sensitive, and is used for detecting prey. Because their eyesight is so poor, shrews also use their nose for finding their way. Helpful too are their long whiskers.

Read more about the Northern Short-Tailed Shrew here.