Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 3, 2009

The Coyote’s Shadow

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:03 pm

It was Groundhog Day and I was up in the air again. By that statement, I don’t mean that I was un-decided about something, but that I was literally up in a Raven Helicopter looking for deer. I was taking part in our annual aerial deer survey for the Metroparks and the opportunity to do this task is definitely a job perk for which I offer no excuses. We conduct the population count in order to determine the health of the deer herd and to assess their potential impact on the limited resources within our boundaries. Our team spotted around 200 deer wandering, bedding, running, (and at least one doing absolutely nothing) inside the borders of the four southern parks from Lower Huron to Lake Erie.

This is necessary work, but I’ll be the first to admit that it is also fun. It’s not my intention to detail the deer portion of the survey right now- I’ve done that before – but I will offer up a photo showing what three deer look like from 150 feet up in the air (see here).  As you can see, or not, these things are hard to spot. Your eyes have to be glued onto every feature of the landscape and more than once one of us would declare a sighting and then have admit “No, it’s a stump.”  Apart from sightings of the actual critters themselves, we saw lots of stumps, rocks, and deer-like things along with three bald eagles, twenty some Great Blue Herons, 5 million geese (estimate), a  Great-horned Owl on the nest, a beautiful Red Fox walking the edge of the frozen Huron River, and three pretty cool snowmen. The non-deer aspects of this survey definitely were the  most fascinating.

We did not see any woodchucks, however.  I suppose we could have flown over one or two, since dead frozen-stiff chucks would have looked very rock-like from that height, but I doubt it. Real woodchucks – the live ones – are underground at this time of year. They have no more sensibility than a rock when hibernating and certainly are without any innate ability to read winter weather signs. The rock, in fact, would probably be a better predictor over time but everyone takes them for granite. I just read that the Groundhog weather predictions over time have only been 37% correct regarding the end of winter! So, there you have it.

It was a bright sunny morning, however, and according to tradition this meant six more weeks of winter.  Punxsutawney Phil had already declared this by the time we entered into the frigid air-scape. No one asked the Punxsutawney Pebble, but it’s likely that it would have agreed.

Everything on the landscape was casting a shadow on this morning flight – including our own copter.  The single most fascinating sight that trumped everything, for me anyway, was the coyote sighting. We got a clear view of the canine as he attempted to avoid us while under the trees (see here at upper left). We circled once to get a better angle and this compelled the nervous beast to make a dash for it. It bounded over the clearing at breakneck speed, kicking up clouds of powdery snow with each forward leap, and provided a great shadow profile (see above) in the process.

Seeing a coyote cast his shadow on Groundhog Day certainly has some poetic justice to it. Granted, it’s meaningless poetry, but then again so is a lot of poetry. You can clearly see, even though the photo is a grainy enlargement, that the thing was in mid leap with his feet stretched forward and his pointy ears looking like horns. Coyotes run with their tails down, unlike wolves, so this appendage doesn’t make a shadow impression.

To give you a better idea of what we actually saw, here is a clearer picture of the coyote just as he was in mid-field (see here). He’s nearly lost in the pattern of deer trails with that view, but shows up better upon enlargement (see below). He was a big individual and probably would have wieghted in closer to the 40 pound end of the recorded weights for Michigan coyotes.

Watching the animal cover that piece of ground with such rapidity, I was prompted to wonder just how fast coyotes can run. A little homework puts that speed estimate at around 35-40 mph, with 43 mph being the fastest. Given his reaction to our large rotating metal bird, I would say our individual was performing  at his  personal best speed. Just for comparison, keep in mind that Greyhounds top off at around 39 mph, humans can run 25 mph if they are at their personal best,White-tailed Deer & Cats achieve around 30 mph, mice are clipping at 8 mph, and your average Garden Snail burns up the moss at .03 mph. Rocks don’t move unless pushed.

Winter, beginning in late January and running until early March, is the breeding season for coyotes. The females come into heat for only a few days during that time and this probably explains why this coyote was out and about during broad daylight. A male coyote has to make his “fast moves” before the game is over. It’s a safe bet, based on the coyote’s shadow casting, that winter will still have a firm grasp on our region by the time the mating season concludes. That weather prediction is strictly between you, me, and the rock by the way.

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