King of the Road

[Here’s an oldie but goodie from back in 2010, with minor updates.]

There’s a wonderful word—one of my favorites— to describe creatures that are active at dawn and dusk. Crepuscular. It’s a popular time of day for many species, so the great outdoors gets lively when the light is low, and it’s a great time to see wildlife.

That is, unless you’re in a car.

Challenging light conditions can conceal an animal near the road and reduce a driver’s response time when something darts out. While driving at twilight, it’s important to scan the shoulders for movement or for the telltale shine of eyes reflecting headlights. Vehicles are a constant threat to wildlife, and my time running a large urban rehabilitation center provided more than enough evidence to support that claim.

Of course, I should know better. But, lost in thought on my way to the mall, I didn’t see the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) until he had sauntered into the middle of my lane. It wasn’t a major thoroughfare so I had the road to myself and, luckily, I wasn’t going very fast. I had time to cede the right of way. Good thing, too, because I knew better than to expect this black-and-white tough guy to blink. Fact is, he stopped and turned to stare down my Subaru.

The great horned owl is a striped skunk’s only one serious predator. Everyone else makes a wide detour, at least after being sprayed the first time. Since this particular crossing guard was a kit, the whole world has maintained a respectful distance—why wouldn’t he expect an automobile to follow suit?

If there’s enough time, skunks will usually give those who cross their path fair warning. According to mephitologist (skunk scientist) Jerry Dragoo of the University of New Mexico, a whole series of threat behaviors may occur before Pepe le Pew resorts to firing the big gun. Striped skunks will stomp both front feet, charge forward a few steps and then stamp, or back up while dragging their front feet before spraying the object of their wrath. They can discharge their weapon while looking you in the eye, using an over-the-shoulder stance or even a handstand.

I’ve heard stories in which a skunk was taking his or her time crossing the road, or was dining on some previously flattened wildlife, and clearly saw the car coming. Drivers have reported observing the kind of threat posturing described by Dr. Dragoo, although they did not recognize it as such. As their vehicle drew closer and closer, they wonder why the animal just stands there. Surely it will scurry off the road… any second now!

Instead, the skunk holds its ground, takes aim, and fires… and in the process becomes another scavenger’s meal.  Gone, but not forgotten.  Not until the fragrance fades, at least.

I’ve got good skunk karma, I guess. Either that, or this particular stinker was feeling mellow. Thirty seconds of holding my breath… then he decided to continue on his way and I escaped getting doused. My luck ran out a few minutes later at the mall, though. Still thinking about my skunk encounter, I swear I never saw that perfume saleswoman stamp her feet.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Desert MuseumTJ Gehling, and USFWS Mountain-Prairie.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Roadside attraction

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitat

Roads are both a blessing and a curse for wildlife (Photo: Colleen Greene, Creative Commons license)

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Ever dreamed of going on a safari? Then fasten your seat belt, start the engine, and hit the road. Any road. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts—take the time to look and you’ll spy enough wildlife to satisfy, Bwana.

Sure, some of the creatures will be easier to spot than others… for the simple reason they’re no longer moving.  But I’m not proposing a road-kill road-trip. Trust me, the city streets, shady neighborhood boulevards, highways and byways offer plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching. Naturally, the species on display depend on the size of the road, its location, the season, time of day, and the speed limit.

wildlife and roads, vultures, wildlife watchingLet’s say your motoring down a divided highway, a conduit to and through the all-American suburbs. The big stuff (aka megafauna), such as deer, elk, moose, bears, and even coyotes, can be seen at 65+ mph (although not always in time to either admire or avoid them). Certain birds of prey, red-tailed hawks in particular, can be seen at both speed and distance due to their habit of hanging out high on handy utility poles to scout for snacks. Anything more petite will be visible only if it’s on the shoulder or trying to cross the road. Scavengers looking for a free lunch can be seen out on the open road day (crows, ravens, vultures) and night (opossums, coyotes). That meal ticket can quickly turn the diner into dinner for someone else… and so on.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, groundhogBeyond mowed blacktop borders, in the woods and taller grasses, you’ll find rabbits, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and groundhogs. Based on my own non-scientific observation, to improve your chances of seeing these meso– (medium-sized) species as well as small but brightly colored male songbirds in situ you’ll have to ease up on the gas pedal and let the speedometer drop to 35-45 mph, tops.

A bicycle (or even a horse if you have access to one) would probably set the right pace for a rider to notice mice and voles, lizards, turtles, frogs and toads, as well as female songbirds (who tend to have less flashy wardrobes than their ready-for-the-disco menfolk). The truly diminutive critters—insects, spiders, snails and slugs—are hard to spot at more than arm’s length so it’s best to set off on foot and plan for a leisurely pace if spineless quarry is your goal.  A general rule: the slower you go, the more you’ll see—that’s what makes the backroads more appealing for this kind of trip than a superhighway.

In poetry, novels, song, and cinema people often speak of the allure and romance of roads—the ones that calls us, the ones less traveled, the ones that go on forever, choosing between high ones and low ones. Wild animals rarely have access to books and mp3 players and RedBox kiosks, though, and I’ve never found them to be all that interested in popular culture… so what’s the attraction?

To build a road through a previously undeveloped area, the first thing that happens is clearing a swath of the existing plant community, be that trees and shrubs or grasses or cacti. Once the project is completed (or even while it’s still in progress) new plants begin to colonize the bare soil, creating a plant community that’s different from the surrounding landscape along with an edge where new and old meet.  Disturbing the soil stimulates the germination of seeds that may have sat dormant for a long time waiting for the right conditions. Soil may be brought in from somewhere else as part of the construction process along with seeds from plants that are completely novel in this setting.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitatSince the plants predict what kind of animals will be found in any ecosystem, the new habitat creates opportunities certain wildlife species will exploit… but in most cases it won’t be the species that were living happily in the pre-construction habitat. Edge species will colonize the area, often using the right-of-way as a travel corridor before and after the road is completed. Some organisms will hitchhike to their new home on and in the bodies of larger animals or even motor vehicles. Birds, bats, and flying insects will drop in from above. Wild things are always jockeying for space and there’s no such thing as a vacant lot in nature—at least, not for long.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, pronghornMake no mistake—roads are a significant cause of habitat loss and their presence is detrimental to many types of wildlife. For others, though, the resulting edge provides exactly what they need to thrive. This includes our most familiar next-door nature species. In fact, the reason blue jays, robins, white-tailed deer and other edge-loving species are so common in human communities is because Homo sapiens is also an edge-loving species. Our roads are simply one very conspicuous example of that fact.

The natural world is never static; it’s always in flux and each day there are new winners and losers.  Are roads good or bad for wildlife? It depends on the species. But there’s no doubt they are a boon for wildlife watchers.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Colleen Greene (black bear); e_monk (black vulture); Matt Reinbold (groundhog); MoDOT Photos (edge habitat); Allan Harris (pronghorn).

Running start

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American Coot Takeoff (Photo: Matthew Paulson, CC license)

Some birds, including the American coot, need a long water runway to get airborne (Photo: Matthew Paulson, Creative Commons license)

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Hard landings. Anyone who’s a frequent flyer has experienced a few. Always disconcerting, occasionally dangerous. My most memorable touchdown was a trip from College Station, Texas, into Albuquerque on an Embraer ERJ-XXX. I forget which number, but it was one of those 3-seats-across models. One by one, passengers ducked through the doorway and tried to return to their full upright position, only to be temporarily twisted by the low ceiling into a fair approximation of Dr. Frankenstein’s personal porter, dragging themselves down the narrow aisle behind carry-ons in an ungainly but oddly synchronous choreography until each Igor found his or her assigned row.

I crammed my gear under the seat in front of me and strapped myself in right above the left-side wheels, although I was unaware of that fact at the time. It was an uneventful flight with no turbulence to speak of and a clear, bright blue sky. We made our approach, descending slowly as we grew closer and closer to the runway… then over the runway… then

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BAM!!

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Well, I guess the pilot got impatient, or maybe the end of the landing strip was coming up faster than expected, but we dropped to the pavement like a bowling ball falling out of the back of an unzipped travel case. I thought the landing gear was going to come up through the floor and imagined the plane careening along the concrete on its belly in a shower of sparks.

Instead, after a long, pregnant pause, the flight attendant simply welcomed us to New Mexico as we taxied to the jetway. But the cabin, previously humming with friendly chatter, went completely silent and stayed that way until the captain turned off the fasten seat belt sign.

Eared grebe glance (Photo: Jack Wolf, CC license)

An eared grebe in winter plumage.

I was reminded of this experience last month, when I heard reports that 3,500 migrating eared grebes (aka black-necked grebe, Podiceps nigricollis) mistook a snowy Walmart parking lot in Cedar City, Utah, for a lake. The grebes came in prepared for a water landing and, as anyone old enough to walk (and to fall) knows, asphalt isn’t as forgiving as H20. For over 1,500 birds it was a fatal error—some died immediately upon impact, others shortly after. For some who lived long enough to be found by wildlife rehabilitators and good Samaritans, euthanasia was the only humane option.

Even the ones who escaped injury needed help. They were found rowing across the landscape using their wings as oars, getting nowhere fast but too aware of their vulnerable position to do nothing but wait for a predator or scavenger to spot a dark bird struggling against a snowy white background.

6 of 6 Pacific Loon in Distress (Photo: Mike Baird, CC license)

The Pacific (Gavia pacifica) and other loons are true water birds, diving and swimming after fish with speed and grace. But out of water they are unable to take flight, and find walking difficult.

There are a large number of bird species associated with water who need a running start across a watery runway to become airborne, even for short flights; they include grebes, loons (Gavia spp.), rails (Rallidae), diving ducks (Aythyinae; aka pochards or scaups), and many sea ducks (Merginae).

The Utah stranding was unusual primarily for the number of birds affected, but similar groundings happen with some regularity during both the spring and fall migration as well as other times of the year. When I was the director of a wildlife rehabilitation center in Houston, every now and again an American coot (Fulica americana) would be ushered through our doors in a cardboard box. A single bird, usually, or at most two or three. In this case, it wasn’t snow that caused the optical illusion but heat. During Texas summers, hot asphalt roads apparently shimmer like water, at least to avian eyes, so a highway looks like the perfect place to stop for a little lunch and a quick dip, not to mention a long, straight liquid launchpad when it’s time to wing away again.

Canceled flights are such a pain in the neck… and other places, too, at times.

Merganser taking flight 2 (Photo: Mark Dalpe, CC license)

Under the right conditions, some species of waterfowl such as this female common merganser (Mergus merganser), can mistake fields and even roads for water.

Surprisingly, most of these water-walkers did survive their fall to earth. Once grounded, however, they had to hitch a ride to our center. There, we would tend to their cuts, scrapes, and bruises and then give them a helping hand back into the sky by dropping them off at an appropriate body of water. A quick look around to get their bearings and they were on their way, pedaling across the water as furiously as the pilot of a Gerhardt cycleplane but with much better results.

The snow that seduced so many birds into a making a pit-stop in Utah may actually have lessened the devastation by providing a bit of slip and slide to cushion the crash. Happily, International Bird Rescue reports that approximately 2,000 grebes were rescued and released the same week—that’s about as good as it gets in these situations, I suppose.  With any luck at all, they’re now enjoying some R&R and a little southern hospitality.  May they have friendly skies and tail winds for their return flight.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Matthew Paulson (American coot); Jack Wolf (eared grebe); Mike Baird (Pacific loon); and Mark Dalpe (common merganser).

Pole-sitters

Red-tailed hawk on a power line.

Red-tailed hawks incorporate power lines and poles into their hunting strategy (iStock/BirdofPrey, used with permission)

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Great-Uncle Al was a creative man. A resourceful non-conformist.  That’s a euphemistic way of saying he was a hustler.

Al never let logic or credentials stand between him and the chance to earn some cash. His resume, so to speak, read like a script from the popular movie and radio serials of his day in which, week after week, the hero would undertake some preposterous adventure.  For example, Al worked for a time as a pharmacist during the Great Depression. Creativity, in this case, included spinning a fictional tale about his educational background—he never attended college and I’m not sure he even completed high school—and a tragic fire in the hall of records at his fabricated alma mater. It wasn’t a dangerous job for Al, but I shudder to think of the risks taken, unknowingly, by his customers. Every prescription must have been a cliff-hanger.

I hadn’t thought about Al for a long time, but while traveling by car from the edge of the continent to the middle for the holidays, I found myself reminiscing about the stories my dad and his siblings used to tell during gatherings of the clan.

I think it was the pole-sitters.

I must have spotted over a hundred red-tailed hawks during my 650-mile drive. Finials perched atop lamp posts and utility poles. Hoping for a meal, just like Uncle Al.

Flagpole-sitting was a fad during the Roaring Twenties and the early days of the Great Depression, a popular test of endurance for someone who would attempt to roost on high for weeks or months at a time. The sitter would negotiate a fee prior to the attempt, or an assistant on the ground below would collect money from spectators. To Al, it must have looked like a much easier way to earn a stake, or a steak, than working as a day laborer.

The hawks I saw along the highway were also looking for an easier way to earn a living, but they were hoping to collect their meal ticket in the form of pocket gophers, not pocket change.  Just as well. I didn’t observe a single gawking crowd. I did spy several birds diving for dinner although, at 70 mph, I wasn’t around long enough to tell if it was Hard Times for the predator or the prey that day.

Some other birds of prey will hover and soar, taking a proactive approach to grocery shopping. But unless they’re quite hungry red-tailed hawks use a wait-and-see strategy. They have keen vision so a telephone pole provides an excellent vantage point to watch for the movement of small mammals below, and standing uses fewer calories than flying. Laziness or efficiency? I guess it depends on your personal work ethic. I know my great-uncle would have admired those raptors.

Al’s days as a pole-sitter were brief, and I doubt he set any records. From what I can tell, he was a man of action and a distinctly social animal. Not a sitter by nature… unless you count a barstool. Besides, flagpole-sitting was a short-lived craze.

For people, anyway. Next time you’re out for a drive, stop texting long enough to scan the telephone wires along the side of the road and you’ll see it’s still as popular as ever among red-tailed hawks, who tend to be a bit less gregarious and a lot more patient than Uncle Al. Besides, hawks aren’t songbirds. They have too much dignity, and the cars speed by too quickly, for a chorus of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.

Have a question about wildlife and other next-door nature? Send me an email and the answer may turn up as a future blog post. And don’t forget to “Like” NDN on Facebook!

© 2011 Next-Door Nature — no reprints without written permission from the author.

King of the Road

Striped skunk

Striped skunk (© Jerry Dragoo, used with permission)

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There’s a wonderful word—one of my favorites— to describe creatures that are active at dawn and dusk. Crepuscular. There are plenty of them, so the great outdoors gets lively when the light is low, making dusk and dawn excellent times to see wildlife.

That is, unless you’re in a car.

Challenging light conditions can conceal an animal near the road and reduce a driver’s response time when something darts out. While driving at twilight, it’s important to scan the shoulders for movement or for the telltale shine of eyes reflecting headlights. Vehicles are a constant threat to wildlife and my time at a rehabilitation center provided more than enough evidence of that. I should know better. But, lost in thought on my way to the mall, I didn’t see the striped skunk until he had sauntered into the middle of my lane.

It wasn’t a major thoroughfare so I had the road to myself, and I wasn’t going very fast. I had time to cede the right of way. Good thing, because I knew better than to expect this black-and-white tough guy to blink. In fact, he stopped and turned to stare down my Subaru.

Ever since he was a kit, the rest of the world has maintained a respectful distance—why wouldn’t he expect an automobile to follow suit?

If there’s enough time, skunks will usually give those who cross their path fair warning. According to mephitologist (skunk scientist) Jerry Dragoo of the University of New Mexico, a whole series of threat behaviors may occur before Pepe le Pew resorts to using the big gun. Striped skunks will stomp both front feet, charge forward a few steps and then stomp, or back up while dragging their front feet before spraying the object of their wrath. They can discharge their weapon while looking you in the eye, using an over-the-shoulder stance or even a handstand.

I’ve heard stories in which a skunk was taking his or her time crossing the road, or was dining on some previously flattened wildlife, and clearly saw the car coming. Drivers have reported observing the kind of threat posturing described by Dr. Dragoo, although they may not recognize it as such. As their vehicle gets closer and closer, they wonder why the animal just stands there. Surely it will scurry off the road… any second now!

Instead, the skunk holds its ground, takes aim, and fires… and in the process becomes another scavenger’s meal.  Gone, but not forgotten.  Not until the fragrance fades, at least.

I’ve got good skunk karma, I guess. Either that, or this particular stinker was feeling mellow. Thirty seconds of holding my breath… then he decided to continue on his way and I escaped getting doused. My luck ran out a few minutes later at the mall, though. Still thinking about my skunk encounter, I never saw that perfume saleswoman stamp her feet.

Have a question about next-door nature? Send me an email and the answer may turn up as a future blog post. And don’t forget to friend NDN on Facebook!

© 2010 Next-Door Nature — no reprints without written permission from the author.