Special Visitor Comes to Naked Mountain

I had a very special visitor come to Naked Mountain last week:  Lara Gastinger, the principal artist for the Flora of Virginia.

Flora of Virginia artist, Lara Gastinger, on my deck on Naked Mountain.

Lara has received a commission from a friend of mine, a 65th birthday gift, to paint a watercolor portrait of a plant of my choosing.  Since I have so many wonderful plants to choose from on Naked Mountain, I asked Gary Fleming to help me decide.  Gary, senior vegetation ecologist with the Natural Heritage Program within Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, has visited Naked Mountain several times and knows its flora well.  Gary suggested I choose Phemeranthes teretifolius (Fameflower) because it only grows in the Piedmont on mafic barrens.  Naked Mountain has many of those and several support this unusual plant.  The plant is unusual because each flower only blooms for one sunny afternoon and then progresses rapidly to fruit.  Lara wanted to visit the plant in person to help her complete her portrait.  I can’t wait to see it.  Lara is a truly fabulous botanical artist which a peruse of the Flora will immediately evidence.  You can read more about Lara and see her exquisite work on her website here.

During our visit, Lara and I took a short hike up to the summit of Naked Mountain.  She was interested in seeing the flora that were blooming in the thin, mostly Quercus prinus (Chestnut Oak) woodland that grows in the sparse soils between the lichen-covered rocks.  Below is a sampling of what we saw.

Gerardia laevigata (Entire-leaved False Foxglove). Photo by Lara Gastinger. Click on photo to enlarge.

Campanula rotundifolia (Harebell). Photo by author. Click on photo to enlarge.

One of the tasks I have been engaged in for two weeks is pulling literally thousands of Ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima) seedlings.  I first realized the problem when I checked the area around a tree on the ridgeline that had blown down in the July, 2012 derecho. I found 50-100 Ailanthus seedlings sprouting.  I then began checking all the blow down sights near the summit of Naked Mountain and began pulling dozens up to hundreds of seedlings in each site. Clearly, the damage from the derecho and this summer’s record rainfall has created excellent conditions for the Ailanthus seed bank to explode.  This is very discouraging since my husband and I killed probably 10,000 mature Ailanthus trees over a three year period from 2004-2007.  A check last summer (See the August 12, 2012 post) revealed almost no Ailanthus trees or saplings growing on Naked Mountain and the few that were found were treated with Garlon 3a via a hack and squirt technique around the base of each stem.  To now find that thousands of seeds are sprouting is overwhelming as I must try and monitor infested sites over nearly three hundred acres, much of it on very difficult, steep and rocky terrain.  But I am trying very hard to do this.  

 

One benefit of this lonely task is that it forces me to go out into tough terrain and so I see some interesting and completely new parts of the mountain.  I discovered, for instance, a second drift of Eurybia macrophylla (Large-leaved Aster).  This one is smaller than the one right at the summit that is about 20 feet by 20 feet in size.  Here is a photo of a selection of probably 100 plants in full bloom tucked in and around an old log.

Aster Macrophyllus (Large-leaved Aster). Photo by author.

I also discovered a rock cliff, covered with beautiful plants – grasses, ferns, flowers. on the top of the Northwest slope near the summit.  Several Fringe trees grew on top of the cliff. Here are a couple of photos from that discovery today:

Rock cliff on Northwest slope of Naked Mountain. Photo by author.

 

Rock cliff and Aster divaricatus (White Wood Aster). Photo by author.

 

 

 

Sunflowers and Nodding Wild Onion Greet My Return!

Woodland Sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus) and Nodding Wild Onions blooming on Naked Mountain

I returned to Naked Mountain after a three week absence spent visiting family and friends in New England.  What a welcome I received!  The small barren that is just a short walk from my house up a foot-tramped path is ablaze with masses of blooming Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus) and Nodding Wild Onion (Alluim cernuum). What a show!  Tucked in along the edges of the rock were a few dozen Fameflowers (Phemeranthus teretifolius).  They were mostly already in fruit, but a few had pink buds that will open only on a sunny afternoon, and only for a few hours for exactly one day —  that’s it until next year.  Also blooming were a dozen or so Orange-grass, or Pineweed plants (Hypericum genitanoides).

Close up of Nodding Wild Onion Plants (Allium cernuum).

This little barren is such a pleasure – just steps away and a continuing display of gorgeous Virginia native plants.  The trees you see in the background are mixed Chestnut Oak (Quercus Montana) and (I think) Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra).  The small tree that is growing right out of the rock is a Persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) and it is covered with fruit. Also plentiful, but hard to see in this photo are Fringetrees (Chionanthus virginicus).  They put on quite a display in May, but I will wait until then to show this to you. The grasses include Poverty Oatgrass (Danthonia spicata) and other species that I have not yet identified.  I also know nothing yet about the various mosses and lichens that are plentiful in this barren – more fun discovery work!

I checked on the bluebird box and, as expected, it was empty:  The nestlings had fledged.  I took the box down and cleaned it out, disposing of the nest.  Under the nest I found hundred of tiny ants that probably made life pretty unpleasant for the little baby birds. That sort of insect infestation is a common occurrence in nest boxes.  I scrubbed the bottom and sides of the box with a wire brush.  Then I scrubbed it with a sponge dipped in mild bleach solution to disinfect.  I let the box dry thoroughly in the sunshine and then remounted the box – all ready for another brood.

Last evening, while I was dining on my deck as the sun set, a little flock of bluebirds flew over my head. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the little family that had its beginnings a few steps away in the nest box in the small barren where the sunflowers and nodding wild onion are now blooming….

 

Baby Bluebirds Have Hatched!

Five eggs found in Naked Mountain Bluebird nest box on May 31st.

Since the May 29th post updating you on the Naked Mountain bluebird box alot has happened. When I took the May 28th photo, only two eggs were in the nest. On May 31st, three days later, I found a total of five eggs in the nest. I didn’t check the box again until June 20th, three weeks later.  This is what I found:

Baby bluebirds found in nest box on June 20th.

Do you count four baby bluebirds, or five?

Then today, June 27th I checked again.  Here they are:

How many do you think there are?  While I was taking the photo, one of the parents perched in a nearby tree was chip-calling quietly, but persistently.  Earlier in the day, while crouched in my spying spot about twenty feet away from the nest box, I could hear the babies crying for attention when a parent arrived with an insect in its beak. But when I opened the lid on top of the box to take the photo, they were still and quiet.  I think the parent’s warning chip-calls were well understood and heeded!

I will not return to Naked Mountain to check on the box until July 23rd.  According to my Bird Behavior guide by Donald and Lillian Stokes, if everything goes ok, the nestlings will be gone.  They will have fledged.  This is what my book says about this phase:

“On their first flight, the nestlings are often capable of flying seventy-five to a hundred yards, often landing in the lower branches of trees and then working their way up to the higher branches. They usually start to give the Tur-a-wee call as soon as they leave the nest and this may help the parents locate them during food trips. Both parents will usually continue to feed the young for three to four weeks or more. However, if the female starts in on another brood, the male will do all the feeding of the fledglings.”

Stay tuned.

Bluebird Update: Survival Challenge Ends Well

It is time to give you an update on the progress of the Naked Mountain Bluebird nest box.  The new box was erected and discussed in the February 18th post, “Bluebirds Need Your Help.” On May 1st I took a picture of the beautiful nest and five very blue eggs that I found in

Naked Mountain bluebird nest with eggs. Picture taken May 1st by author.

the box and published it in the post, “The Birds Have Arrived on Naked Mountain!” I had planned to screw a protective cage onto the front of the nest box the day I had my car wreck on Naked Mountain – see the May 11 post.  I was waiting to do this until I knew the eggs would be about to hatch so that the mother bluebird would be less likely to abandon her eggs due to the new, possibly frightening, addition to the nest box entrance.  The cage has bent-back prongs on the ends to discourage snakes from trying to enter the box; they will avoid the prongs to prevent injury.  But, the tow truck arrived more quickly than expected to haul my wrecked vehicle off the mountain. And, I was scheduled to be in New York City for five days very shortly, so I drove to Northern Virginia in a rented sedan and did not get back to Naked Mountain, in my nicely repaired all-wheel-drive Subaru Outback, until May 23rd.

Author looking into the bluebird nest box on May 23rd. Photo by David Hopwood.

 

 

The day I got back, I hurried up to the small barren where the nest box is and looked inside.

 

 

 

 

 

This is what I found:

As you can see, the nest is not disturbed at all as it would be if a raccoon had predated the nest, and there are no feathers, or fluff from nestlings and just some fecal droppings on side of the box that was likely left by adult birds.  It has all the markings of a stealthy snake attack on the eggs with all of them consumed.  The big concern I had was whether the mother bluebird was consumed as well, trapped while sitting on her eggs.  Yikes!

I was very sad about this.  But in the hope that the mother survived and would just try again, I left the nest in place and screwed the protective cage on tight. Then, a few days later, on May 28,  I checked the nest box again.  This is what I found:

Eggs found on May 28th.

 

Hurray!! The drive for survival within these beautiful, seemingly fragile, little birds is really impressive! I’ll keep you posted on the progress of this nest box throughout the season

 

In the meantime, here are some wildflowers in bloom now on Naked Mountain.

Tradescantia virginiana blooming on Naked Mountain. Photo by author.

 

Can anyone identify the species of Penstemon in this photo?

Penstemon ?subspecies, blooming on Naked Mountain. Photo by author.

I am guessing either canescens or hirsutus, but the leaf matches the Flora of Virginia’s description for hirsutus perfectly, while the flower matches the description for canescens.  Can you help?  If you click on the photo, the enlargement allows you to see all the pubescence.

UH – OH; Car Wreck on Naked Mountain!

 

Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) blooming on Naked Mountain in 2011. Photo by Gary P. Fleming.

I was traveling back to my home on Naked Mountain last Tuesday after 24 hours of soaking, drenching rainfall as well as a hailstorm that left piles of icy pellets here and there. The rain was still coming down as I started up my 2.4 mile long road.  The road was a mess — gullied as deeply as ten inches in many places and with numerous sizable puddles in low spots. But I kept on. As I started up the steepest portion, I was a little unnerved by a torrent of water coming down the left side of the road, so I erred on the side of caution and steered the car closer to the right side of the road. I failed to see a large, dark log we had

Log that I hit trying to avoid rushing water on the left side of the road.

carefully positioned there during our road work last fall. (See  November 13, 2012 post.)  I hit it pretty hard and came to a crunching halt.  I got out to assess the damage and could see right away that the car could not be driven. The right front wheel was pushed against the back of the structure that houses the whole wheel casing.  I gathered up essentials in the car – twenty pounds of just bought groceries and a few other items – into sturdy bags and hiked three quarters of a mile straight uphill to my house.  Once I had put away the food, I called my insurance company and put a rescue in motion for the next day.

Smashed right bumper and wheel.

The worst thing about the accident was missing a hike down into the barrens to see the Shooting Stars in peak bloom – 10,000 of them!  I had to cancel a visit planned for Friday with Lara Gastinger, lead artist for the recently published Flora of Virginia, who wanted to see the Shooting Star show.  Too bad!

The car was towed to Charlottesville the next morning and I drove a rental car to Arlington, Virginia to spend time with a friend while the car is being repaired.  It will take two weeks.  By the time I get back to Naked Mountain, the Shooting Stars will be done.

One positive note was this:  I wait anxiously every spring for the return of two nesting pairs

Cerulean Warbler. Wikipedia photo.

of Cerulean Warblers from their wintering grounds in South America. Cerulean Warblers are listed as a species of concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because of lost habitat in the U.S. and on their wintering grounds. As I walked down the mountain to meet up with the tow truck, I heard Cerulean Warblers singing in two different spots. They are back from South America! It is extremely gratifying to be able to offer these beautiful creatures good habitat that is protected, in perpetuity, under Naked Mountain’s conservation easement held by the Division of Natural Heritage within the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.  You can read more about Cerulean Warblers here.

 

The Birds have Arrived on Naked Mountain!

Bluebird eggs in the Naked Mountain nest box.

What a day for the birds on Naked Mountain!  This morning I sat out on my deck with a mug of coffee and listened to a very intent Scarlet Tanager singing in the top of trees about 50 feet away right in the middle of the fabulous view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can see that view on the blog header.  The oak and hickory trees are about halfway leafed out so their color is a fresh, yellow-tinged green. I looked through my binoculars to find the bird and there he was – sitting amongst the new leaves, brilliant red with striking black wing feathers against the backdrop of blue mountains.  What a picture!

Also singing and announcing their presence were several very loud Ovenbirds, a Yellow-throated Vireo, Rufus-sided Towhee, my favorite singer — a Wood Thrush and a new singer and song I wasn’t familiar with. The bird was working the brushy growth around the deck. It was easy to see in my binoculars – beautiful bright yellow throat and chest with black stripes curving back toward the wings and black markings around the eyes.  The olive green back had rusty colored streaks on the upper part of the back and neck. What was it?  I grabbed my Sibley Guide to Birds and flipped through the warbler pages.  And there it was – a Prairie Warbler!  I think this is the first time I have seen a Prairie Warbler on Naked Mountain. As I watched the bird in my binoculars, I picked up views of two other birds working the brush – a Worm-eating Warbler and a Yellow-rumped Warbler.  Those are common on Naked Mountain, but it was great fun to see all three of these warblers feeding together!

Then I checked on the Bluebird nesting box I erected in February (See the February 18th post.)  I took a step ladder with me so I could peer down into the box from the top opening.  When I opened the box, the female Bluebird was there, sitting on her eggs, but before I could get a picture, she flew out.  I quickly snapped the picture you see above, latched the opening, and scrammed out of there.  I later saw the pair feeding on crawling bugs in my yard, so I am sure she went back to the nest and is still incubating her eggs.  I will have to disturb her again next week when I will attach the protective cage to keep snakes from eating the hatching babies.

Firepink blooming on Naked Mountain.

I also snapped a few photos of wildflowers that are blooming now on Naked Mountain.  The Firepink blooms in ten small patches in the dappled woods right next to my upper road.  The Bluets

Bluets blooming on Naked Mountain.

bloom along the middle and sides of the lower road, and the Perfoliate Bellwort blooms in many locations on Naked Mountain, but there is an easily viewed two acre patch of it about half way up my road.   I love the bellworts; the stem pierces the leaves so they move in the wind like little, fringed yellow church bells. I imagine I can hear them ringing!

Perfoliate Bellwort blooming on Naked Mountain.

Spring Finally Arrives on Naked Mountain!

After a dump of two feet of wet snow on Naked Mountain on March 6th, spring finally showed up, as expected, on March 20th, the day of the spring equinox (at least in the Northern Hemisphere.) Here is how Wikipedia defines the phenomenon of the equinox:

“An equinox occurs twice a year (around 20 March and 22 September), when the tilt of the Earth‘s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun, the center of the Sun being in the same plane as the Earth’s equator

On the day of the equinox, the center of the Sun spends a roughly equal amount of time above and below the horizon at every location on the Earth, so night and day are about the same length. The word equinox derives from the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night).”

When the sun came up on Naked Mountain on March 20th, I timed its arrival, and its departure for equality. Indeed, the sun showed up right about 7:15 a.m. and set right about 7:15 p.m give or take a minute or two. Impressive!

In between the rise and setting of the sun, I checked on the progress of spring on Naked Mountain measured in other ways—wildflower blooms!

Spring 2013 has seemed much colder than last year, but whether this is normal for March is hard to know any more with the confounding effects of global warming.  At any rate, the

Emerging Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) in barrens on Naked Mountain on March 20, 2013

wildflowers are taking their time. On March 20th, I hiked down into the outcrop barrens to check on the progress of thousands of Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) that bloom there in early May. The barrens, which are comprised of seeping amphibolite rock and associated plant communities, occur all across the southeastern face of Naked Mountain at about 1700 feet. On March 20th, The Shooting Stars were just coming up; most were poking up about three to four inches above the ground.

I also found some Spring Beauty (Claytonia Virginica -see photo above)) and Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata)in bloom.

Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concantenata) blooming on Naked Mountain on March 20, 2013

Later that day, I took a walk with a friend along a roadway within the Dutch Creek Agricultural-Forestal District near the base of Naked Mountain. An Agriculture-Forestal District is a rural zone that prohibits housing subdivision and any development that is not agricultural, or forestal in nature. It is designed to protect open spaces, rural character, water quality and other natural resources.  Here is a benefit of living within a Virginia AFD and having many neighbors who have gone even further and placed their properties under a conservation easement: 

Hepatica blooming in the Dutch Creek Agricultural-Forestal District on March 20, 2013.

So, spring is definitely on its way! I will keep you updated on the progress of Shooting Stars and other special denizens of Naked Mountain.

 

Bluebirds Need Your Help!

It’s time to put up the bluebird nesting box. It’s still winter, mid-February, but the bluebirds will begin checking out housing in a few weeks.

Bluebirds are one of my favorite bird species. They are about seven inches in length and the males have bright, truly blue heads, backs and wings, an orange-red throat and breast and white belly.  The females have a grayish head, back and wings, but edged with blue. They are members of the thrush family, the finest singers in the woods. Their song is a soft, melodious warble that finishes on a slightly lower pitch and with just a hint of sadness to the tone. I love the sight and song of bluebirds so much that I can pick out just a fragment of a song, or a call note, a quarter mile away.

Bluebird Photo from Wikipedia

There are three kinds of bluebirds in North America – the Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird and the Eastern Bluebird which inhabits areas East of the Rocky Mountains. Once plentiful,  North American Bluebirds were in decline through much of the 20th century and their numbers  had dropped by an estimated 70 percent by 1970. The reason was largely due to the proliferation  of nonnative bird species that were cavity nesters like bluebirds. These species, the European Starling and English House Sparrow, outcompeted bluebirds for nesting sites by aggressively attacking them, driving them off their nests, destroying eggs, killing nestlings and sometimes even the adults.  

To reverse the decline of bluebirds, in 1978, Dr. Lawrence Zeleny, founded the North American Bluebird Society to promote the preservation of bluebirds. The main focus of Dr. Zeleny’s efforts was the provision of nestboxes and managing of bluebird nestbox trails. He designed a nestbox that had a small enough entrance hole to keep the larger starlings out, and a hinge on the top so the box can be viewed. The English House Sparrows can still get in the boxes, but Dr. Zeleny stressed monitoring of the boxes and removal of English House Sparrow nests and eggs. The combination of educating the public about the needs of bluebirds, providing them with nestboxes and information for monitoring them has had positive results. In 2005, the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory reported sitings, once rare, of bluebirds all across the southern United States as part of its Backyard Bird Count conducted by thousands of citizen scientists. You can read more about providing and monitoring bluebird nesting boxes here.

Yesterday, I erected a bluebird nesting box on a six foot smooth, round metal pole, attached a baffle designed to keep raccoons from reaching up and destroying eggs or nestlings, and will later affix a metal cage with sharp wire points to keep out snakes. I tried it out on the box, but will screw it in place only after the box is being used by a bluebird, or

Author shows snake guard for bluebird nesing box

other native cavity nesting bird. The birds may be scared away by the cage, but once eggs are laid and nestlings hatch, they will not abandon the box.

I placed the pole and nestbox on the edge of a natural opening in the woods near the summit of Naked Mountain. It is not far from my house and deck, so I can spy on activity, using binoculars, from a distance. I will also monitor weekly to ensure English House Sparrows do not use the box. The spot I picked is exactly the spot bluebirds themselves chose twenty years ago. There was a hollow tree on the edge of the clearing with woodpecker holes on its south-facing side, the preferred direction. The clearing provides the birds with an open area to locate and pounce on crawling bugs. It also provides an intermittent drinking and bathing water source via a bowel effect in the rock formation. A shallow puddle forms there and stays for a few days after a rain shower. I have secretly spied on many kinds of birds, including bluebirds, bathing in the rock puddle. It is totally fun to watch this!  I also provide additional water in a birdbath near the house for those hot, dry weeks in July. 

Author puts up bluebird nesting box on Naked Mountain

The bluebirds fledged two broods for two consecutive summers in that old hollow tree. Then it blew down in a storm. That’s when I started putting up the nestboxes. But two summers ago, my resident pesky bear that I have nicknamed Chobani because he seems to prefer Greek yogurt, predated the nestbox. You can read more about Chobani in the January 28th post on “How To Be Bear Smart On Naked Mountain.” I didn’t put a nestbox up last spring, but Chobani didn’t bother me all last summer, so I am going to try again.

We’ll see what happens this spring. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

How To Be Bear Smart On Naked Mountain

Chobani was not done with his (or her) visits to my house on Naked Mountain.  A few weeks later, early on a Sunday morning, a strange sound woke me up.  I opened my eyes to see a big black head looking in my bedroom window and two black paws pushing on the screens.  I jumped out of bed and ran toward the bear yelling at the top of my lungs.  Chobani scrambled back down off the Gravely mower that he had used to climb up to get up to the level of the window.  But then he just hung around in the yard.  My stepdaughter, who was visiting at the time, heard my yelling, saw the bear in the yard and raced out onto the screen porch yelling and waving her arms. That finally scared him (or her) and he ran into the woods.

Chobani’s claw imprint on porch screen

This incident frightened me enough to contact a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The biologist told me the bear’s behavior was not normal since I had removed all enticements in and around my house months ago, including all bird feeders and bird seed containers. The bear had destroyed my bird feeders and a blue bird nesting box, in addition to invading my screen porch.  He encouraged me to warn my neighbors not to “feed” bears by leaving bird seed and pet food around.  He also encouraged me to get a small gauge shotgun which would stun the bear, but not seriously harm or kill it.

I had no intention of doing that.  I have never owned or operated a gun and never wanted to do so.  Naked Mountain is a rocky place and I am very sure I would simply injure myself with ricocheted gunshot. Not to mention that the kickback would probably knock me over.  I would also want any gun safely under lock and key to prevent accidents through mishandling by visiting friends or family.  Guns are dangerous, especially in the hands of amateurs.

Instead, I did this — got a slingshot and practiced, located my can of bear spray given to me by an Alaska-dwelling relative, and readied a very loud air horn for use.  But Chobani never showed up again that season.

Ten months later in early June, I went out for a walk down my long road and left every one of the bear-protection items at the house.  This, of course, was the day I met Chobani walking up the road!  He (or she) was bigger than the last time we met, probably by a good thirty pounds.  I stopped in my tracks.  I was a quarter mile away from the house and safety.  Chobani was about 150 feet down the road. I started yelling, loud, low, and angry!  Chobani stopped, looked and looked and looked.  I kept yelling. Chobani kept looking.  Finally, I started backing up… uphill, still yelling.  Then I flapped my arms up and down. That seemed to do it.  Chobani probably decided this was that, crazy woman from last summer – “I don’t want to mess with her.”  He turned and scrambled up the mountain into the woods. I never saw Chobani again all summer.

I intend to run a “bear smart” home on Naked Mountain which means I only feed birds between November and March and then remove all feeders and seed.  I also keep my recycle bins in the house and empty them frequently. In the summer, I keep my screen doors and windows open during the day to allow breezes through, but close and lock all of them at night and turn on the air conditioning (yuck.. but no choice; I miss the night sounds of cicadas). I avoid using the charcoal grill.

All of this is annoying, but I have chosen to live in the middle of a natural area preserve which means I am fortunate to see bears up close and personal now and then.  This is scary, but also very rewarding.  Bears are on Naked Mountain because I am ensuring they have good habitat for their survival.

So, Chobani, go out there and enjoy it and leave me alone!

Chobani

 Does anyone have other ideas on how to be bear smart and prevent adverse bear encounters?

 

 

 

Coyotes — Boon or Menace?

Coyotes are a growing presence, and some would say menace, in the Eastern United States, including Virginia.  While I have never seen one on Naked Mountain, I have seen signs that may indicate their presence – scat like a dog’s, but unlike dog scat, full of hair.  Neighbors have also heard coyotes calling and yipping.  They sound like a cross between a wolf and a dog alternating with a high-pitched howl and yip-like barking.

Coyote – photo from Wikipedia

Friends who live in southern Albemarle County, about seven miles away, told me an amazing story verifying rumors of coyote wiliness.  One day last summer, Will walked out to one of the barns on their 1200 acre farm accompanied by the family’s young bloodhound, Missy, and a visiting pet, a small mongrel named Riley.  The whole way out to the barn, the dogs ran at each other playfully.  When the threesome got to the barn, Will saw that a coyote, standing on the lip of the “slash,” or swampy area, behind the barn, was intently watching the dogs.  Will and his wife Ti knew that a family of coyotes had moved into the slash establishing a den there.  Will watched as the coyote trotted up to the playful dogs, who were unaware of its presence at first, and then engaged them in active play.  He was astonished as the coyote played with the dogs like it was one of them.  But then, the coyote ran a little distance away, turning back to glance at the dogs in a kind of invitation.  Missy froze and just stared.  Riley chased after the coyote who then led him down the sloping field toward the slash.  When Will turned his glance to the slash he saw two other coyotes standing there, intently watching the approaching pair.  Will saw the developing danger for Riley and called frantically to him.  Finally, in the nick of time, he got his attention and Riley ran to Will, leaving his strange new companion behind.  If he hadn’t, the threesome pack of coyotes would have made quick work of poor little Riley.

 Deer hunting season has just concluded in Virginia and many hunters in the Naked Mountain area are reporting that the number of deer are significantly down.  Some hunters believe the influx of coyotes are responsible.  Many wildflower enthusiasts, like myself, would cheer this possibility.  On Naked Mountain, deer browse on many native plants including beautiful wildflowers like Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis),

Bloodroot — Photo from Jennifer Anderson @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

which I have watched decline since my husband and I purchased Naked Mountain in 1988.  

I called Matt Knox, one of two deer project coordinators with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) to ask him if he thought coyotes could be responsible for a decline in the deer population. He told me that coyotes used to be rare in the state twenty years ago when he started work with the VDGIF, but now they are commonplace.  Over the twenty years Matt said the population of deer in the state has been stable.  Some years the number of deer killed by hunters is down as in 2010, the year after a winter when a foot of snow was on the ground in most of the state for 60-90 days. Many deer starved and did not reproduce in the Spring.  He also said they would be easy targets for coyotes who can walk on top of crusty snow, while deer punch through, slowing them down. But in 2011, the deer population was up.  This year, Matt has had many reports that hunters have killed many fewer deer, but the numbers from the state’s many check points will not be available for several months.  Matt noted that the deer population in the Western United States has long co-existed with coyotes and their numbers have not suffered.  He then told me about an interesting research project that is investigating coyote behavior.

 I called Mike Fies, wildlife biologist with VDGIF, who is directing the “Ecology of the Eastern Coyote” research project.  It is being carried out at Virginia Tech by a professor there and two graduate students.  The project is designed to answer questions about whether or not coyotes are impacting the deer population in western Virginia where the numbers of deer on public lands, like the George Washington National Forest, are down. Mike said this may be due to many factors including expanding poor habitat as trees are not cut and forests mature.  He noted that the bear population has been increasing quite rapidly and that bears, in addition to coyotes, are predating deer fawns. 

 The research will impart information about the Eastern coyote which is a very different animal than its better known Western cousin.  The Eastern coyote is larger, possibly because it has interbred with the Canadian Red Wolf  in its migration East, and it has different habits.  The project traps coyotes and fits them with radio collars so their movements and denning behavior can be tracked.  Researchers are also collecting and analyzing coyote scat to determine what the animal has eaten.  The scat is subjected to DNA analysis to ensure that it is coyote and not bobcat or bear scat.  The DNA analysis also allows researchers to identify specific individual coyotes providing  a rich database of ecological information. 

 The three year project is in its second year.  Stay tuned.