Friday, February 26, 2010

In the Wilds of the Great North Woods....

February 26, 2010

The place I hike each morning with my two goldens is a large block of woods. The part I visit is about 140 acres, and it is a ‘nature reserve’, given to our town by a generous benefactor. It is part of a much larger uninterrupted woodland, however. A couple of years ago I decided to go ‘bushwhacking’ and managed to get turned around. Like Daniel Boone was supposed to have said, “I ain’t never been lost, but I been confused for a week or two.” I finally put the sun on my left shoulder and kept it there until I came to a trail and found my way home. Of course, I could have just asked the dogs to go home at any time and they would have known exactly what direction to move. True. They do not get lost. Did you hear about the German Shepherd that found its way home from Arizona… OREGON?

So, I went up there a few days ago, to see if I could call in some coyotes and see these fabled ‘little wolves’, finally. I took a trail that led down to the edge of a frozen and snow-covered bog, set myself next to a cabin sized boulder and was about to start my caterwauling that would hopefully generate some predatory interest. Suddenly, I heard voices, very faint, but as I listened they grew louder…and louder. Finally, I could hear the actual words of semi-shouted conversations, and then I saw a single-file parade of people on X-country skis moving through the forest on the far side of the bog. As they passed by they seemed oblivious to their surroundings, all of them yakking away at the top of their lungs. It was like watching a gaggle of geese waddling across a farmyard, but decked-out in L. L. Bean’s finest and honking away.

Things quieted down as the skiers faded into the distance, and just as I was about to start calling, I heard more voices. They were behind me, and not quite so raucous. I realized that some folks were headed down the trail I had used, so I moved around the big boulder and hunkered down, not wanting to have some innocents scared out of their wits by the sudden appearance of some old codger all dressed in camouflage. As they came down the trail I saw that a rather large, boxer-mastiff looking pooch was leading the way. And, I knew that if he was startled by my presence that it would be a big scene….lots of barking, shouting, “Down, Bubba!”, and he might even feel compelled to protect his humans, by putting the clamps on me. So, I remained motionless and this little party passed by oblivious to my presence. I believe they were discussing the stock-market as they hiked.

So, I up and found another spot, much more remote…I thought. I started calling and suddenly heard, “Bap! Bap!, Bap!”, looked up and saw a male hairy woodpecker hammering away on a dead white birch. He was really going to town and the chips and flakes of bark were raining down right in front of me. He had probably a thousand acres in which to find a tree and he chose the one I was standing under. At this point, I smiled to myself, thinking, “Ah, Mother Nature and her wiggy sense of humor.” And, just at that moment I heard another disturbance, accompanied by an odd clattering sound. Then I heard a distinct, “Ompf! Sh*t!” and saw a fellow come into view. He was wearing a nice blue coat (yes, from Beans) and a sports-car type ‘touring cap’, as he skied—or attempted to—along what was essentially a solid ice path. The ‘Ompf!’ I had heard was the sound he vented when he hit a tree.

He saw me and smiled, “Hope I didn’t interrupt your walk.” I said that it was already way too late for that, and marveled at his willingness to ski on the ice. He said that aside from hitting the occasional tree, it wasn’t too bad. I smiled and headed back towards the car. There would be no coyotes in my day….probably because they were too busy laughing their asses off, watching the two-legged comedians throwing themselves around the woods.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Killer Whale......kills.

February 25, 2010

I have a deep connection with Orcas. I saw them at Sea World in Orlando, and I just knew that it was the equivalent of meeting a prisoner of war and trying to imagine what he’d be like if he was at home, being a human being. So, twice in as many years, I flew out to Sea-Tac, rented a car, drove to the north end of Vancouver Island, and hired Dennis Richards to take me out to meet wild orcas. Dennis is unique. As a kid, he used to climb out of a window at school and go out on Johnstone Strait in a small boat. He mostly guides groups of kayakers, but I hired him to go out in his Zodiac, just the two of us.

When I arrived at the Port McNeill marina, I telephoned Dennis. A fellow in a tiny aluminum boat stood up, turned and waved at me. I walked down the dock and we shook hands. Then he explained that some British soldiers had borrowed his Zodiac and torn it badly on a rock…so we would be using the cockleshell of a dinghy he was standing in. And, he was struggling to get the little Merc motor to work. How reassuring. It was also on the very end of the season, being the first week in October, and he informed me that most of the resident pods had already left for the winter. Great!

Next day, I awakened in my motel room to the sound of roaring wind. I called Dennis and he reassured me we were going nowhere near the water as long as it kept up. I explored and at one point, I visited Telegraph Cove, where I was able to get eyes on a view looking down the strait. I saw 50 foot salmon boats taking green water over their bows as they bucked heavy seas to get to places where they would begin a fishing season the next day. FYI: in B.C. and Alaska, wardens open seasons over the radio, and close them again as soon as they feel the feeding frenzy has scooped up a suitable haul.

The following dawn brought sunshine and calm winds. The little Merc sputtered to life and we headed out into the wilds of British Columbia. It was an awesome feeling. And, we searched…and searched….and searched…for a pod. Nothing. We camped that night at Dennis’s ‘float camp’, an actual house that had long ago been plopped on a huge raft made up of logs about five feet in diameter. It was anchored in a cove on the back side of Hanson I. and Dennis warned me that things would get noisy when it settled on the mud at low-tide during the night. He was right; it sounded like every joint in the house was being flexed when that happened.

Morning found us out on the strait again. We found a cliff near Robson Bight—the famous ‘rubbing beach’ where orcas come to use the black stone gravel as a massage tool—and we settled in to glass the strait. Half an hour later, at the very limit of visibility to the south, I saw a spout….then another, and another. It was a pod, still miles away, but coming up the strait. When they were about a mile away, we got in our doughty wee craft and headed out into the middle of the crystalline jade water. As they came closer, Dennis chided me to put my camera away. I knew he was right; I didn’t want to spend the next minutes looking at these creatures through a lens. He positioned us in the path of the pod and as they approached, breathing at regular intervals, sending clouds of spray with each ‘WOOSH’, a large male took a breath and submerged, passing directly under the boat. As he did so, he turned on his side and our eyes met, at a distance of about 8 feet. I could have jumped right out of my skin. It was an intentional meeting. He wanted to see me as much as I wanted to see him.

Despite the fact that I had looked into the eyes of the largest carnivore and predator on the planet, I felt nothing but a powerful sensation of awe. It even brought tears of joy and a swelling feeling in my chest. There was no fear, no “Holy Sh*t! He could flip the boat if he wanted to,” moment. He was magnificent and he was benign. Prior to that trip I had read all I could find about orcas. I was especially impressed and amazed by the research findings of Paul Spong. He had a research lab not a mile from where this stunning encounter happened, and I would meet him that afternoon. I am also privileged to know Roger Payne, one of the top cetologists in the world and the man who discovered that humpback whales compose 30 minute songs that they then sing, verbatim, again and again. And the following year they use those songs as the bases for the new composition for that year. Both men have made cetaceans their life-long passions. Both men are utterly convinced that we DO NOT know what cetaceans use their huge brains for.

Roger will tell you that this is the all-time leading question for anybody who studies whales. He will also remind you that evolution does not provide such massive brain-power unless there is a reason to do so. It is a response and an adaptation….but to WHAT?

Orcas—and all Odontoceti, toothed whales-- have a pro-limbic node in their brain that utilizes both auditory perception and conceptual input. Some suppose that it indicates that they can send pictures—yes, like television—with their sounds. At any given moment in a burst of sound, a dolphin or whale is sending about 20,000 times as much information as can be transmitted by the human voice. Apparently, they can distinguish a cod from a salmon, sixty feet away and in the dark. Hmmmmmmm.......

Believe this: WE ARE NOT SMART ENOUGH OURSELVES TO KNOW WHO THE WHALES REALLY ARE. They are 30 million years older and a lot of evolution has taken place in them that we cannot comprehend at this point. Neither will we find out who they are by putting them in tanks and pretending that we are their masters. When you see a pod of orcas swimming free, and you begin to understand how complex and refined their society is, you might also begin to believe that we cannot actually capture any orca that doesn’t volunteer to be captured. They could easily jump out of the pens that have been used to transport them in most cases.

So, in the wake of an orca killing a trainer at Sea World, what I really want you to understand is this: if somebody put you in close confinement, in what constitutes essentially an ‘echo chamber’ and kept you there indefinitely, treating you as if you were stupid, asking you to perform inane tricks that mostly served to demonstrate their complete mastery over you……about how long to do you think it would be before you were insane?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

More on Coyotes, er, uh 'Coywolves'

In response to my post on coyotes, a friend sent this link:

It is a story that ran in the Boston newspapers just the other day, and it cites research that has firmly indicated that most of the coyote population in New England are the descendants of animals that slowly spread across Canada...and inter-bred with wolves as they did.

Coyote DNA proves beyond any doubt that wolf genes are present. And, it goes on to say that this accounts for the rapid up-sizing of coyotes in the northeast. I had erroneously supposed that it was a rapid adaptation taking place. Biologists believe that without the hybridization this would never have been able to happen as rapidly as it has.

It is not rare to find coyotes in the northeast that are over 70 lbs. This is absolutely GIGANTIC, when compared to their western relatives, who average in the 25 to 40 lb. range.

The scientists go on to state that these coyotes are actually a new hybrid species that is so different from pure western coyotes that they should be called, "coywolves". They also exhibit a distinct color shift, towards russet shades in their coats.

Just thought you might find this as interesting as I did.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Little Dog that Sings....

February 16, 2010

When I mentioned to various people, almost in passing, that I was learning to call coyotes, they just assumed that it was in order to kill them. After hearing from many people how the coyote has decimated the deer herd here in Maine, and after having some people almost beg me to do my part, I briefly considered doing that. BTW: the deer herd is considered a commercial asset in most states, generating millions of dollars in revenue from hunters each year. But, I have re-considered.

In truth, I am not so sure that the sharp down-sizing of the deer herd is the coyote’s fault. Sure, they play a part in it, but, we have had two very severe winters in a row, and I believe that has had a much greater impact on the deer. The deer that congregated behind our house last winter were near starvation. We put out hundreds of pounds of apples, but it was obvious that food, not predation, was their biggest problem. My original impulse was that I wanted to see the animals that I so often hear. On a moonlit night last winter they were so close to the house that our retriever, Holly, would only growl very quietly, as if she was afraid that the coyotes might hear. She just looked at me as if to say, “Hey! There’s something out there and it is CLOSE!!”

When I lived in New Mexico I did see coyotes, even watched them team-hunting jack rabbits. They may play the fool in the Roadrunner cartoons, but the real Wiley is a very astute and clever animal. I saw them set-up ambushes and drive the jack bunnies right into the jaws of a team-member. I had the feeling that all coyotes know how to cooperate and that hunting that way was not exceptional.

Then there is the fact that they sing. One of my favorite names for them is ‘song dogs’, and to hear a pack of them let loose in the moonlight brings a broad smile to my face. Occasionally, I even hear them in the middle of the day, and I suppose that they have some reason for celebration, perhaps a turkey or a snowshoe rabbit has been caught. A few months back the news carried the story of a young Canadian woman--a folk-singer in fact--getting killed in a provincial park by coyotes. I would dearly like to know the whole story, but the only person who could tell it is dead. I don’t doubt that—like all dogs—coyotes are consummate opportunists. In a situation where it is obvious that they have the upper hand, I have no idea that they would fail to press that advantage. They are, after all, WILD predators, and making a living is imperative, like it is throughout nature.

I have been collecting photographs and painting prints of coyotes. Their gaze, out of keen yellow eyes, pretty much tells you who they are. It is intense and has that quality that you will never see in the eyes of a dog. It is the essence of wildness, and there is acute intelligence there too. Sadly, Wiley and co. have a bit of a rep. Whether you are in Montana, New Jersey, the burbs of any major city, or here in Maine, there is a general attitude that coyotes are our enemy. People shake their heads when coyotes come up in conversation. You might guess the consequences of this: there is an ongoing coyote Progrom in place…everywhere. There are even ‘tournaments’ and contests to eradicate as many of them as possible. Because of this an industry has emerged selling everything a hunter, or trapper, needs to bushwhack these little dogs. It is actually pretty amazing that any of them survive. But, in fact, they are thriving.

Coyotes are so adaptable and intelligent that they are able to suffer even the most persistent predations of the Ultimate Predator…….us.

I decided in the end, that I did not want to become one of the ‘eradicators’. I want to see them, and, yes, I carry a pistol, just for safety’s sake. But, I cannot imagine myself squinting through a telescopic sight with the crosshairs on a wild animal that I admire, that is also beautiful, and just struggling to carve out a niche… like all the other species out there.

Monday, February 15, 2010

NPD...and Sarah Palin

February 15, 2010
First thing this morning, Abby walked into my office and put a clipping on the light-table next to me, saying, “He thinks like you do.” Well, that could go either way, depending on to whom she was referring. So, with some trepidation, I picked it up and read it. This time I feel redeemed. Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald. He is often acutely insightful and uses words with the skill of a Olympic fencer wielding an ├ępee. In this case, his subject is Sarah Palin and here is the link to the full piece:

If you have your doubts as to whether the previously mentioned ‘idiocracy’ is in full flower, please make the effort to read this. Heretofore, all the proof I need to rely on will be summed-up in two words: Sarah Palin. Ever since she bounced out of obscurity onto the national stage, I have been alternately amazed, amused, and outraged, even infuriated. Her methods of attacking her opponents are so repugnant, her tone so sarcastic and condescending that I can barely stand the sight of her. She not only reveals the vapid nature of her miniscule intellect every time she opens her mouth, but she practices hypocrisy on a monstrous level…the most unforgiveable transgression of all. And, she does it all in a state of complete oblivion, apparently. She seems to think that being a hypocrite, a liar and just plain ignorant is all just fine. What matters is that, …people love me and my message. And, infectious as it is to some people, she has every reason to believe we are entering a new age of populist politics in which Truth is irrelevant, intellect is over-rated, and acting in an honorable and respectful fashion is out-dated.

I was doing some research and found the following excerpt from a psychological evaluation: “His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”

I was researching a concept known as ‘the Big Lie’. It seems to have a peculiar resonance with what is going on in the far right in this country. People like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly are now making up the ‘truth’ as if it were a relative concept instead of something based on actual facts. The “Truth” as they see it, is what they declare it to be. Palin is given to doing this also. For instance, when she says she didn’t quit the governor’s office. She vacated the position for the good of the state and the country. Right. It so happens that the above quote is referring to none other than Adolf Hitler, and is from an OSS report that was published internally during WWII. Ironically—and disturbingly—it could easily be applied to all the aforementioned pundits, INCLUDING PALIN.
I also have been looking at information on something referred to in the mental health profession as NPD, Narcissistic Personality Disorder. As I look down the following list of symptoms and traits, it also seems to be alarmingly applicable to this short-list of pundits…right down to the last one.

• Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
• Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
• Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
• Requires excessive admiration
• Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
• Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
• Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
• Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
• Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Hitler was obviously a deeply deviant sociopath, but he also evinced all these symptoms, and he practiced—indeed perfected--The Big Lie…just like the entire Fox News political punditry staff does. They are often making up the truth out of whole cloth and putting it on the air as being ‘true’ somehow, just because they say it is. This is true of the Birthers, the Truthers, and the Tea Partyites. All of them feel absolutely free to make-up ‘facts’ and claim their skewed version of reality is THE TRUTH. There is a complete disconnect from the idea that anything referred to as being true needs to be based on actual facts. When a birther is confronted by the fact that Obama was born in Hawaii—simply TRUE, folks—their reaction is: “Well, that’s your opinion,” as if it were something unable to be grounded in the actual fact of his birth. It goes waaay beyond just being stupidity at work, and well into a form of delusion, in which the truth becomes just what you WANT it to be.
Sarah Palin wins my nomination for the position of POSTER-CHILD for the IDIOCRACY, largely because of her stance that being intelligent, having a decent education, and relying on sound judgment more than knee-jerk emotions….are all irrelevant, out of synch with ‘the people’. If we want to put another idiot in the White House, having barely survived eight years of the last one, here she is, and it will tell the entire world that we apparently learned nothing from the past.
For the present, I am going to hold onto hope—with a palpable sense of dread, however—that we will not go down that path. But, as Leonard Pitts opines, if we do, at least we will have a clear sense of the direction we are headed as a nation. And, if we choose the path that has been paved by Beck, O’Reilly, Limbaugh….and Sarah Palin….we will most certainly reap what we have sown, and I would NOT be willing even to ask God for help, when we are so clearly unwilling to help ourselves.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Of Ceiling Wax....and Fisher Cats

February 11, 2010

On my morning walk yesterday, I came on some tracks in the snow that immediately got my attention. They were medium dog-sized, but rounder and set too far apart for a coyote or dog. There was also a touch of tail drag between the tracks and it was easy to see that this animal propelled itself by ‘humping’ along. I knew that I was looking at the tracks of a fisher.

The fisher, Martes pennant, is a member of the family Mustelidae, aka the weasel family. This includes minks, ermines, polecats (European), wolverines, badgers, martens and even otters in addition to weasels and ferrets. They all have the same style of body: elongated, with short legs and a medium length tail. And, they have a very distinctive gait, humping along, using their spine as a means of extending their stride and gaining speed. With the exception of perhaps the playful otter, most mustelids are of ferocious disposition, the wolverine being infamous for its foul temper. This fierceness serves them well, in fact. A wolverine can drive a mountain-lion off of a freshly killed deer, convincing the big cat that finding another prey would be preferable to tangling with the specter in front of him with bared fangs and a spine-tingling snarl. Unfortunately for mustelids, most of them have luxurious winter coats and this has made them preferred species for the fur trade. The first mink I ever saw was wound around my mother’s shoulders, three full skins, heads attached, the mouths having been made into clasps that allowed her to join the ends of this macabre ‘scarf’ together.

Here in Maine, fishers are more common than weasels, minks or any other family members, and are commonly referred to as ‘fisher cats’, although they are no relation to felines. I have no idea how they came to be called fisher cats, but they are, and not just in New England. In fact, the reason most Mainers have a palpable dislike, even hatred, of fishers is because wandering house cats often find themselves on the fisher’s menu. Despite the fact that a large fisher tops out at about 12 pounds, no house cat—regardless of size or temperament—is a match for a fisher. Period. Not a contest. So, when cats disappear in this neck of the woods, the fisher immediately comes to mind as the reason.

When you think of a fisher, imagine a mink on steroids, bigger than a Pine marten, and utterly fearless and fierce. I was told by a woodsman that a fisher will chase a squirrel up one tree after another until the squirrel is so exhausted that it falls trying to jump to the next tree. I don’t know if he actually watched a hunt of this nature, but the fact that he was passing on this bit of north woods lore is significant in itself.

So, this morning I came across the tracks of a Snowshoe hare. I call them ‘funny bunnies’, because they seem almost magical in their ability to remain invisible and survive in a forest populated by coyotes, foxes, fishers, bobcats…..and people. They do this, in part, by being evolutionary masters of camouflage, changing colors to match the seasons. I have only ever had eyes on one snowshoe, but I’d bet that I have looked right past dozens. They know how to position themselves and to remain stock still, so seeing one is difficult under most circumstances. And, of course, they multiply rapidly to off-set the predation of all those hungry predators.

Just another day in the Maine woods.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Remarkable Peckerwood

February 10, 2010

As I walked in the woods yesterday, I saw a large bird wing silently away from me through the trees. I thought it was a crow; certainly it had mostly black coloration. But, on the way back past that spot, I suddenly heard a loud “….kak, kak, kak, kak” call that told me the bird I had seen was a Pileated Woodpecker. BTW: it’s prounounced ‘pie-le-ated’, not ‘pill-e-ated’. I don’t know where this biggest of woodpeckers lives in these woods, but I do know where his job-site—or at least one of them—is. Last summer I marveled at a pile of wood-chips over a foot deep and about three feet wide at the base of a dead spruce tree.
One morning we were even scolded for interrupting the work in progress. The tree is pictured above and is about a foot in diameter. The chiseled cavities are at least 8 inches deep and run up the trunk for about 15 feet or so. Think about it: this crow-sized bird did all of that, in search of grubs. And, he/she did it with a chisel-tipped beak with a cutting edge not much wider than ¼ inch. It gives me a headache just to imagine that much hammering with a tool that also has the bird’s brain contained within it. Of course, evolution—that creator of slow-moving miracles—has provided woodpeckers with a special cushioning around the brain, to help it withstand that kind of punishment.
Where I lived in Center County Pennsylvania, during my college years, Pileateds were plentiful. Locals called them “Indian Hens”, and it was a common occurrence to hear their distinctive call. One old boy told me that I could call them within eyesight by rapping on a tree with a stick. I tried it, using the familiar rapidly increasing tempo, and, sure enough, I soon had a Pileated scolding me from about 30 yards away. I would guess he was annoyed by my trickery because he could certainly see that I was not another rival woodpecker.
A close cousin of the Pileated, the Ivory-billed woodpecker is now thought to be extinct,. In 2004, someone claimed that they had captured images of a fleeing Ivory-billed on video, in a swamp in Arkansas. It triggered a vibrant local industry in all manner of catering to visitors who came in search of the next glimpse of the ‘holy grail’ of birding. In 2006 there was another claimed sighting in Florida, along the Choctawhatchee River. But Cornell University offered a $50,000 reward to anybody that could lead one of their ornithology field teams to a living bird…and there were no takers.
And, there you have it. One more beautiful and amazing denizen of the forest. This morning I saw Fisher tracks. I will tell you about this critter Mainers call the ‘Fisher-cat’ next time. The name is spoken with a mixture of hate and admiration….you will find out why.