Lessons from the road, the back woods and the neighbor’s yard

 Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Mostly mummified star-nosed mole

November is a tricky month for a nature observer in Maine. The problem is that you are supposed to wear orange because it is hunting season. Wearing bright colors in the woods does not allow for a close, calm approach to wildlife. But you know it’s only for a month, right? So what’s an observer to do? Hit the road of course!

Bicycle rides are full of natural history lessons year-round. And you know it’s fall in St. George when multiple preying mantii bodies are encountered on a single ride!

A few warm, non-windy days this month found this observer on the road and learning from some road kill. A dead ring-necked snake in November felt unfortunate­—how many days could there have been until it was to hibernate? It may have even been on its way to an overwintering burrow (so close!). The score of the day though, was a mostly mummified star-nosed mole! With long claws and short arms for digging, it was easy to see it was (had been) a mole, and upon closer inspection I could see a few remaining “fleshy tentacles” on its snout. I don’t cross paths with moles too often (dead or alive), so a find like this increases “mole awareness” dramatically. I often carry bags on my bike and needless to say this star-nosed mole is now on display in “the clubhouse” museum. No two bikes rides are ever the same and we like that!

Coyote claiming the compost

A simpler strategy for November nature observations, and one that requires minimal time in orange, is through the use of motion-triggered game cameras. These are the cameras that you put up in the woods where you find signs of wildlife, let the camera do the work for a couple of weeks and then come back to retrieve the memory stick and see what’s turned up. A basic ethical consideration, of course, is that it is a good idea to place cameras away from human trails (people don’t like being spied on in the woods) or anywhere hunters may pass. For this hunting season I focused my camera on a bucketful of compost I dumped just off our backyard field—an unlikely spot for hunters to be. It was no surprise to see photos of skunks and raccoons making repeated visits to the pile. One deer was so curious about the smell (or sound) of the camera that she stood in front of it, staring, seemingly forever. (That’s what deer do and that’s why they are prey). The highlight though, was a series of photos of a coyote (or ‘coy-dawg’) that took interest in the small heap. In the earliest photos, coyote eyes and silhouettes were limited to the background, but over time this one coyote couldn’t fight the temptation and urges that the smell of eggshells and coffee filters inspired. It took a while but the coyote completely overcame its initial shyness and marked the compost for its own! He just strolled on up, hunched his back and left a pile himself, essentially claiming vegetable bits as his own! So glad I put the camera up­—he can have the pile all he wants!

Muskrat at home in the neighbor’s pond

There also are times when wildlife comes to you, even when not attracted to discarded food bits. The other day I was backing up the truck when I spotted a brown lump across the street in the neighbor’s pond. I pointed it out to my son Leif at which time he exclaimed, “it’s moving!” And with that the lump went from stump to muskrat in a matter of moments. There is a healthy population of muskrats nearby in the Tenants Harbor marsh, especially in the northern stretches of the wetlands. But sightings and observations are few and far between. So now we keep a close eye on the pond, ready to observe whenever this “brown lump of a critter” appears, which happens a few times a day. No orange is required when using a spotting scope in your own driveway, and fortunately the pond is off to the side enough so it doesn’t appear that the scope is pointing at the neighbor’s house! That wouldn’t be very neighborly now would it? What is downright neighborly, however, is to provide muskrat habitat so my family can watch the chunky rodent’s activities! Thanks neighbors!

There is so much life to see throughout St. George that essentially giving up the woods for one twelfth of a year seems like a small sacrifice. We don’t stop observing though, we just change how and where we look a bit. We’ll see you out there!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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