Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 19, 2013

A Not-So-Secret Skunk

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:01 am

I broke one of my own golden rules recently (rules fractured and mended many times). I try to take my camera everywhere I go, no matter how trivial the venture. Well, it doesn’t go with me when I cross the road to the mailbox, but that is only because of the fear that the thing would be destroyed if I ever got hit by a passing car. My camera-as-body-part concept stems from the fact that I am a lousy photographer and that I can make up for my inadequacies in this department by catching unusual things using digital magic. Call it serendipity or luck, but my camera and I have seen some great things together.

When I drove my daughter, Katelyn, to the University of Michigan for her Masters program interview I opted not to bring my magical digital camera. We were going to be zooming into and out of campus and there would be zero opportunity for any extended photographic endeavors. How was I to know that a very tame wild skunk would be out wandering around one of the dorm units in broad daylight. And what premonition could have told me that the thing would allow me to approach within a few dozen feet. Also, it is important to note that it was Spring Break and that there were no students walking about and that the campus was virtually abandoned. Did I mention it was in broad daylight?

I, without my good camera, finally convinced Katelyn to allow me use of her cell phone in order to capture some “record” of the occurrence. What you see here on this blog are from her camera phone. They are not bad, but…..o.k., I won’t say anymore about the camera or lack of. So, you are probably wondering, why this skunk was such a great opportunity?

Skunks, those black and white members of the weasel clan, are very nocturnal beasts. They come out under the cover of darkness to forage for lawn grubs, peer into trash bags, or sneak about under grandstands. Caught in the edge of a car headlight beam or spotted as a ghostly white “V” slinking through the inky blackness, they are like ghosts themselves.  Daytime sightings are limited to motionless (and odoriferous) roadkills or sick individuals who should not be approached under any circumstance. Healthy daytime skunks are a rare sight. My U of M skunk (some odd phraseology for a Michigan State Grad such as myself) was a rare beast for a rare day. It was prime for photograph….o.k., I promised not to say any more about this.

No two skunks are alike. This individual had a narrow white pattern and a mostly black rump and tail. Our little stinker was actively engaged in grub hunting. Stopping every now and then to dig small craters with its long front claws, he then probed the excavations with his flexible snout and extracted unseen morsels for a satisfying chew session. Often these circular holes are the only sign we daytimers have that our yard was visited by a black-and-whiter. The lawn around the complex was riddled with these holes.

The skunk ignored me until I was within 50 feet or so. They have poor eyesight but excellent smell – that is they can smell excellently as opposed to smelling good – and I am confident he knew that the creep with the cell phone was there all along. Upon my reaching his appointed “worry” zone, he paused to lock his gaze on me, sniff the air, then began to waddle along the building wall towards his den. The waddle became a see-saw gallop when I decided to keep up with him on a parallel track. My daughter kept up with me, although she didn’t confess until later that she was more than nervous about chasing a skunk. The thought never occurred to me.

Upon reaching his den, a hole under a concrete slab supporting the electric box, the skunk hesitated as if to see what I would next. I, of course, approached (at that point I don’t know what Katelyn did). About the time I reached 15 feet I did start to crunch the numbers in my head about spray distance. Later I found this distance to be up to 12 feet. Fortunately the skunk decided to duck into his hole at this point.

He didn’t retreat deeply, however, and remained just inside the entrance to peer out at the two interlopers. Scraping in a few leaves, he kept fairly nonchalant about the whole thing until backing in out of sight.

That, as they say, should have been that.  I returned a few days later with my magical digital device to see if I could get a second chance. It was the same time of the morning, and the campus was still in quiet spring break mode. Of course, the skunk was nowhere to be seen and I was skunked. On top of this disappointment I discovered that his den hole had been thoroughly plugged with bark chips and dirt by the grounds maintenance staff.

The skunk story, at least my part in it, was over. There was another secret entrance on the other side of the slab which leads me to believe our skunk will continue to operate. Perhaps he’ll revert back to night mode so that he will be undetected. As a University animal he should have been a bit smarter. I too will be smarter about my golden rule from now on.

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