Thursday, July 14, 2016

Where the Bear Stood

I stood where the bear stood and fully experienced a very short moment in a bear's very interesting life.
We'll talk more about what the bear was doing and why, in a later post or discussion.

For now, enjoy the photo!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Building My Own

With the help of other photographers, hunters, and trail camera users, I am beginning to build my own trail cameras with DLSR cameras.  

It's tricky. It's challenging. It's exciting!

Here is one of the first decent pictures of mine to come from a "home-brewed" DSLR camera trap. The animal isn't centered and the focus is a bit off, but still, I'm new at these homemade ones.

It's going to be challenging to get all the best shots with this new device, but tomorrow, I am planning to put it where bears are known to show up almost daily.

We'll check it next week.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Paige and the Bears

If there is anyone who knows how to get Northern Virginia's bears on camera, it is Paige.

Mother bear and cub. Photo: Paige Critchley
Paige Critchley contacted me over a year ago about trail camera advice.  At that time,  she was taking on the task of using a trail camera to help a person locate a missing dog in her area.  I forwarded her some tips and told her to keep in contact with me.  What she probably didn't realize then, was that she was at the beginning of a new hobby and an addicting habit called camera trapping (using remote-sensored trail cameras).  It's a very healthy habit, and one that she has become an expert in.

Critchley is a local entrepreneur, a horse enthusiast, and a wildlife lover.  To me, she has also become a great friend and someone who shares the passion of photographing wildlife with trail cameras.  She spends a lot of her free time with her dog outdoors and with friends, but always seems to have trail cameras in the back of her mind.  "Using trail cameras always builds excitement," Critchley says "It's an activity that takes my mind off work."

She volunteered some of her time to run cameras for me in Loudoun County, Virginia and I got to see her interest rise.  Growing with her passion for this, is the number of cameras she personally owns and uses.  It started as one but has grown to 12 cameras now.
Black Bear.  Photo: Paige Critchley

While she describes coyotes as being her favorite animal to capture on camera, Critchley has gotten an incredible amount of bear photographs lately.

Bears aren't rare here in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, but they exist mostly in western Loudoun, parts of Fauquier, and parts of Prince William Counties. During certain times of the year, bear activity may greatly increase in more suburban areas, leading to problems in traffic.  This is due to an interest in new territory and mating habits of young males. With these trail cameras, we are able to keep records on bears and do small population surveys based on the photos.

"I have about 7 or 8 bears coming through 2 different trail camera locations, at the moment." Critchley says.  She adds "I even captured two bears in combat, possibly a mating ritual or territorial fight."

These black bears are not something to be fearful of in our area, but rather something to be aware of. They are omnivorous, meaning that both plants and animals make up their meals. Right now, black bears are feeding on ripened raspberries, wineberries, roots, and insects.  Throughout the year, their diet changes, but usually keeps with a mostly plant based diet, mixed in with a few animals.

Capturing an image of a bear tells a lot.  It can tell researchers where bears are, how many are in a certain area, and daytime patterns of an individual.  Capturing behavior is another thing, and tells a whole story.  The trail cameras have captured the combatting bears, young bears ripping down Critchley's cameras, different bear postures, and even bears stealing her cameras and using them to take their own selfies.
Every time another black bear touches this log, it adds a tiny bit of scent.  The scent draws in more bears and the cycle continues, sometimes for months.  Photo: Paige Critchley.
Critchley's fondness of wildlife doesn't just stop at bears.  In just over a year, she has captured a plethora of images, recording everything from deer to coyotes, and even bobcats.  All of her images are from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and people are sometimes astounded by the fact that these animals are so close to our Nation's Capital.
A bobcat of Northern Virginia.  Photo: Paige Critchley

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Baby Foxes - Finally!

Not all nature is cute and fluffy, but these fox kits are!

Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) have some of the most well-loved babies here in Northern Virginia.  Their playfulness captures the hearts of all of us, their big eyes are adored, and watching them becomes an activity, as well as an opportunity for a lot of families in the suburbs.

I had the opportunity to enjoy watching some of these baby foxes with Derek and Liz Smeds this year. They watched them from their house and I watched them from my computer screen, as I placed a trail camera right at the den entrance after they had notified me about the location of the den.

Derek had shared some photos of fox kits playing in the neighbor's yard a week or so before I had a chance to get out to them.  I was hooked immediately when I realized that the foxes were playing there very often and were occupying an old groundhog den.

It was exactly what I was looking for.

I met up with Liz at their house and quickly got in contact with the landowner a few doors down, where the den was.  Permission was granted for us to start a small camera trap survey of the animals. Everyone's excitement showed tremendously.

A camera was set up and we waited patiently for the first photos. In the mean time, Liz and Derek messaged me often about any behavior they were seeing.  They texted me every few days when they'd see them, sometimes explaining how close the foxes were. Liz says "We have always had wildlife in this neighborhood and enjoy seeing it."  I could tell.  The Smeds family was as enthusiastic about this as I was.

To everyone's amazement, the first time the camera was checked was a very successful one.  A lot of footage of the foxes appeared. Again and again, the camera provided phenomenal photos of the local foxes, each time providing better results than the last.

It was awesome!

Like human children, the fox kits played, fought, ate, and pooped a lot. These behaviors are typical of fox babies, and will continue until they turn into adults when a lot of their life is hunting and taking care of their own young.

The images were from only a few weeks ago, and since then, the camera has been removed to start a new project in the area with local beavers.

The foxes will grow up and move on too, patrolling our woods and eating undesired rodents.

I would like to personally thank Derek and Liz Smeds, their neighbors, and the community of Countryside, VA for allowing me to work on this little project.  It is much appreciated!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Amphibian High-5!

It's that time of year again!  Amphibians are crossing roads to go to their breeding pools.

This American toad wanted a high five, as I moved it to safety from a road to the side, in the direction it was travelling.

High-fived a toad a few days ago.  Photo: Brian Balik
I'll be counting amphibians again this year and assisting other researchers when I can.  We're getting ready for fox kit season soon, so look forward to some results and photos from that in the next few months.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Eagle Transport

Bald eagle, one of America's most majestic creatures sitting in a crate in my vehicle.

I've transported some really interesting creatures in the past few years, as I work in places where wild animals are kept as "animal ambassadors", have been trained to transport wildlife, and volunteer and work with projects that allow me to handle these animals.

Just when I think I've "seen it all", some really interesting opportunities always seem to arise.

One of the most recent examples of this happened a few days after Thanksgiving this past year.  

I heard through the "wildlife biologist grapevine" that an injured bald eagle from Virginia needed to be transported to a wildlife rehabilition center.  The eagle was reported injured by fishermen in central/Eastern Virginia and a Conservation Police Officer was tasked with restraining it for its own protection and getting it to a rehabilitation facility.

The logistics of this made it difficult, as a lot of mileage and time would be needed to get this eagle to the care it needed. A "middle man" became necessary to meet the Officer, intercept the eagle, and chauffeur it to the rehab center.
Carrying crate with eagle inside.

I quickly became this middle man.

Now, I've had a lot of precious cargo in my RAV4 before, but never a bald eagle, so this was a first, even for my standards.  I didn't have much in the way of plans for the evening and I knew it would only cost a few bucks to make the drive, so I was pretty excited to be able to not only help the animal, but all parties and agencies involved as well.

The Conservation Officer arrived promptly to my house with the injured eagle.  We exchanged hellos and some "how to's" and "do nots" were respectfully given to me, after all this was a federally protected bird. I agreed to make the drive one final time and was basically left to my own devices as long as this eagle made it to where it needed to go.

Also in my car were some members of the Sweeney family.   They are good friends of mine, and I wanted someone else to be there in case something went awry. I figured that the eagle would be fine for most of the ride in the very back of my SUV, but it wouldn't hurt to have some others checking on it once in a while, so that I could concentrate on driving.  They agreed to join me and their eyes lit up when they first saw the mature eagle.  It would be a good experience for everyone involved.

The first part of the drive went very smoothly.  We made our way westward and ultimately southwest to Waynesboro, Virginia.

As the Sweeney-filled, Brian-driven, bald eagle carrying Toyota Rav4 made its way down Route 340, a surprise almost stopped our vehicle completely.

A large black bear sprinted right across the road and my car came no more than 1 foot from hitting it. The passengers all screamed "BEAR!"

It was alive and well, running full speed through the road's lanes.

We saw the beast hurtle down into a wooded area off the road and eventually it was just a blur in the darkness.

After about 15 seconds of our bodies pumping adrenaline, we all exchanged laughs and agreed that this kind of experience would only happen to someone like me.

I'm glad we avoided having to take two animals to the Wildlife Center that evening.

The eagle arrived at the designated destination, hurt from its reported injury, but still breathing.  We meet with staff at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, people who came into work that late, just to intercept the eagle from me.  They do some amazing work at that facility and I highly support what they do and share.

I was happy that I did my part in this and am thrilled to have friends that also enjoy this type of adventure.

It was good to give back to wildlife, as it gives me so damn much.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Owl Banding in Maryland

One of the joys of being in the wildlife biology and naturalist community is being invited out to other people's projects and seeing what interesting endeavors they've been taking on.  It's a great way to network, learn about different species, and of course, enjoy each other's company.

Kerry Wixted, a professional biologist and friend, invited a few people (including some of us Virginians!) out to something really special that she works with a few hours away in Maryland.  She does some interesting work with Project Owlnet, a research project that is focused on Northern Saw Whet Owl (and other owl species) information, banding, and data.  

I couldn't say "no".  Really, this stuff is right in my wheelhouse, and I agreed to come and help her out for a night.

With us, we also had other D.C. area naturalists and biologists, including Natalie Sutton who is a good friend and works with me in Virginia.

Natalie and I arrived at the site after we got off work and the mist nets were already set up.  These nets are put up horizontally on vertical poles.  A wildlife calling device called a FoxPro is set up near the nets.  FoxPros are electronic speakers that people can download wildlife noises and calls onto.  Kerry had downloaded an owl call onto this one.  The FoxPro and net work in combination with each other and owls fly towards the caller, and eventually into the net.
Natalie Sutton holding a Northern Saw Whet Owl.
Net checks are done at certain intervals so that birds are not captured for long at all.  The first net check was happening right as Natalie and I arrived.  Weather and other abiotic factors can have a big impact on the success or amount of owls captured each night, and for the past few days, it had been really warm for the time of year.   We weren't really sure what to expect. The first net check was a successful one though.  Kerry had an owl ready to be observed and banded!

The bird was brought back to the banding station and Kerry worked very patiently and diligently to not only get the required data, but to do it in a way that was good for the bird as well.  She put a metal band around the bird's foot.  This is so that if the bird is captured again in the future, other biologists will know it is a recaptured bird, and they can compare this day's data, with the current data.

Kerry was taking data, as well as explaining to us about what she was doing.  A collection of numbers was being jotted down on a paper too.  We eventually determined that the bird was a male northern saw-whet owl.

Brian Balik (author) with a Northern Saw Whet Owl after banding.
Saw-whet owls are the smallest species of owl native to Maryland.  From what I've seen, they only stand about 15-21 centimeters tall, as adults.  I've never seen one up close before (though I'm pretty sure I've seen one or two from a distance), so this was quite an experience for me.

These owls spend most of their adult lives in trees, looking into the forest for prey animals such as mice and voles.

Once the bird was observed, it was time for us to quickly and carefully release it.  The bird eventually decided it was fine for itself to take off and all of us watched.  We saw the flap of the wings at first, and then eventually the whole body soar into the star-soaked night sky.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Increase Your Chances At Seeing Wildlife

I've spent almost the entirety of the past few years observing animals, studying them, and teaching people about them. One of the main questions people ask me, is "How can I see what you see?". Well, here are some of my secrets. These are my personal tips on how to see more animals while you are hiking or just outside, even for an hour.

  • Look Up.     Birds are the most obvious animals that you might see while looking up, though just over a week ago, a person in my hiking party spooked a roughed grouse from right under her feet, so always keep your eyes all over the place.  Believe it or not, some species that people usually see on the ground can easily be found in trees.  Black snakes and green snakes are animals that can easily "pop out" in your eyesight from above, as they are very good at climbing in trees.  Bears and groundhogs also commonly go up into trees, despite many people's beliefs about them.

  • Look Down.    Looking down gives you the opportunity to see more salamanders, frogs, chipmunks, and even animal tracks.  If you can find animal tracks, identify them, and take a mental note of what is around.  Look for the specific animal while continuing to walk.

  • Walk Slowly.    Some of you might be reading the above bullet points and are thinking "How can you both look up and down at the same time?"  Well, you can't, so walk slowly so you can repeatedly do each.  Walking slowly also can be a quieter type of walk, lessening the chances of you scaring wildlife.

  • Pish!    Pishing is making the sound "pish" with your mouth, repeatedly for a few seconds. This is a little naturalist and biologist trick to scare birds from their hiding places, making them fly out from thick leaves or brush.  This can be tricky though, as some birds will get too scared and fly off very fast and very far.

  • Look for both color differences and movement.   Black bears against a green background and red cardinals against white snow are some really easy examples of color differences you should look for.  It's easy, as a lot of animals stick right out against various backgrounds, even the most camouflaged ones.   Animals move, sometimes extremely slowly, but they move! Even the most camouflaged wildlife will move, providing a better opportunity for you to see them, as they move against these different backgrounds.

  • Get outside.  This one is pretty self-explanatory, but it's one of the most important.  Just walking a mile in your local park a few times a week can provide very interesting wildlife sightings.  Increase your chances and get another excuse to get outside.

  • Use binoculars.   Binoculars really help you hone on the wildlife you have detected using your regular eyesight.  They can also be used to scan large fields and meadows from a distance, limiting the chances of you scaring the wildlife when you first enter a field.

  • Use your peripheral vision.    Most animals that I see are seen first by my peripheral vision. This happens because this type of vision can detect movement very effectively.  Color differences are also picked up easier if you use your peripheral vision more.

  • Protect your eyes while in the woods.   If going off trail or walking on a property with no trail, I highly recommend wearing sunglasses or safety glasses.  I commonly wear shooting glasses, as they are easily accessible to me, and are very effective.  I've both been told this (by other biologists, as well as multiple conservation officers) and learned the hard way to always protect your eyes.  Going into the woods might mean that branches and thorns will be in the way of you.  This very easily leads down to a road of pain and misery.  Also, gnats have a harder chance of getting into your eyes if you wear sunglasses.  Protect those eyes!  You'll be glad you did, besides, if you have injured eyes, it's very hard to see wildlife.

  • Invest in a field guide.   Some field guides provide useful information on whereabouts of certain animals, especially at different times of the year.  It's worth a few dollars if you are outside all the time.

  • Get High!     Ascend quietly onto ridges and small peaks in a forest.  Be extremely silent as you are going uphill.  Once you get to the top, look down and look for movement. This is how I often see deer, bear, and turkeys.