Monday, April 13, 2015

Bears in Northern Virginia

Putting the terms "bear" and "Northern Virginia" in the same sentence always seems to stir people up.  It's really not at all what I intend to do, in fact, I would really prefer to do the exact opposite.

Like something out of a horror story, some people around here are absolutely terrified by black bears.  Other people are in shock to hear about them roaming around suburban neighborhoods in Loudoun and Fairfax counties.  There's a whole mix of emotions that come into play, and people sometimes come to me to ask what emotion they "are supposed to have" or how they should react.

I find the interest and intent that people have with their native and local black bears absolutely fascinating.

Author with black bear tracks.  Loudoun County, VA.  Photo Credit: Ed Felker
There a tons of wildlife agencies that may possibly handle, talk to you about, or give advice on what to do if you see a black bear, and for the protection of my jobs and my sanity, I will not be going into much detail here about those organizations.

What I will do though, is provide you with information about some bears that I've seen.  I'll show you pictures and tell you cool stories, and immerse you into the world of northern Virginia's largest living mammals.  I'll do this on this blog post, and more in the future.

Let's first look into a common question that people have for me; the question: "Where are the black bears around here?"

My answer:  "All over the place, as they can be anywhere and everywhere and have very large territories as compared to other local mammals"

Seriously though, I've seen black bear sign (scat, tracks, fur, and/or actual sightings) in every northern Virginia county that you could think of. 

One of the most interesting bear tracking episodes came out of Loudoun County, Virginia this past winter.  A bear was seen multiple times on private properties, crossing traffic, and really all over the place.  I'll keep the exact locations to myself for now, but this bear had a very specific territory in mind.   I spent a good amount of my spare time tracking it through woods and fields, and even managed to see it a few times.  One day, I followed the tracks for over 3 hours, and even then, there was no end to its walking in sight.  The tracks lead to and were on top of large fallen logs, across streams, onto an icy pond, straight over barbed wire, and even into a bedding area where it probably stayed during that same day.

To put it simply, this bear seemed to have almost no problem going over and across all these obstacles, as the gait in the tracks seemed to almost always be consistent over short distances.  In the long run though, I could tell where it "picked up" its pace and almost did a galloping-like motion and could also tell when it got near potential food sources, as it would stand on its hind legs, walk a few steps, then go back down to all fours.  I think that it did this as if it was smelling the air more closely each time it neared a garbage can or bird feeder.  Bears will often stand on their hind legs to get a better look at something with their eyes and to hone their sense of smell when their nose is a few feet higher when standing.

Speaking of bears eating, it is actually illegal to feed black bears in the entire state of Virginia.  For more information on this, visit this website Living with Black Bears in Virginia .  That site also has various other information for the state of Virginia regarding black bears. 

Curious young black bear looking around and doing "bear things" in Northern Virginia.

So with all this information in mind, I'll lead everyone to another common question that people ask me:  "If you can't feed black bears in Virginia legally, then how do you get them to come near the camera?".

This question has tons of answers, none of which lead me to feeding black bears.  A really good way of getting bears on camera trap is to just get lucky and have one walk in the field of view of the camera.  It's kind of an answer that most people who camera trap do not want to hear, but it really does work if you put out enough trail cameras or have a lot of patience.

Another answer to that question might be to set up a camera trap where other animals are living and eating.  For example, a recent camera trap bear sighting around here came from this incidental capture.  The camera was actually pointed at a tree to see what woodpeckers would come near the freshly carved woodpecker holes, and boy did the woodpeckers arrive.  Though, a bear did too.

Why is this? 

It's almost like the bear could have been targeting this tree just because the woodpecker might have had success in getting insects out of the tree too.  Do black bears know to specifically seek out fresh woodpecker sign so they can also get a bite of insects?  I'm not sure about that one, but hope to find the answer sometime.

If you ever see a bear or bear sign in northern Virginia, I would like to know.  It could really help me track these carnivores better, and ultimately might even give me some basis on making a more accurate estimate of the black bear population in these counties.

Look for holes in trees that are this size.
What I would really like to do next year, is do a large camera trap survey just on black bear dens.  I've heard rumors and know of a few in the area that are actually confirmed by various biologists, but would like to expand on what most people (me included) already know.

I'm looking for holes in trees that could easily fit a person, brush piles where you think a bear could be, old barns where a bear has gotten into, and of course, any place where you have actually seen a bear sleeping.  Even though it is months in advance, I would still like to know. 

Please and thank you!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Wildflowers of Northern Virginia's Early Springtime

I left for a short hike today to check a camera trap (with minimal results) and eventually found myself taking a detour on some trails where I knew there were some interesting wildflowers.

Yesterday before work, I did the same and found a plethora of beautiful photo opportunities.  Although I have only been using my cell phone's camera to capture these, I feel that the photos have turned out pretty well.

These flowers are mostly ephemeral, which means that they only bloom and "come out" for a very short time.  It really depends on the species, but some of them are only in bloom for a period of multiple days to a few weeks.  There are so many more than the ones that I have seen and posted on here, but those will have to wait for another day.

I hope you all enjoy looking at these.

Virginia bluebells nearing peak bloom.  Fairfax County, VA
Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are just about in full bloom in various locations in Loudoun and Fairfax counties.  They seem to be a real staple for people doing wildflower walks along the Potomac River and other flowing water bodies.  In some places, they come out in the tens of thousands (or more!) and can be a breathtaking sight. 

To see them in Northern Virginia, look near sandy/muddy areas in parks or private lands (with permission, of course).

Dutchman's Breeches.  Fairfax County, Virginia

Dutchman's Breeches  (Dicentra cuccularia) are some of the most interesting ones in the area.  Look at the shape of those blooms!

It's not a complete rarity in the area, as some people may believe, but to find it can be a bit tricky.

In a general sense, an easy way of finding these may be to look where bluebells are also blooming, as they tend to prefer similar soils and forests.  They can be found in other places though.  The "breeches" in the common name refers to the similar shape of sort of pants worn years ago.

Northern Virginia's beautiful sessile trillium.
Sessile Trillium (Trillium sessile) is another really interesting looking flower that inhabits Virginia. 

To me, it's interesting to see brown in a flower (pictured in the center of the flower), as a lot of other flower species on the ground that people commonly see are brightly colored.

I found a few here and there along the Potomac River a few days ago, but came upon a few large patches eventually after looking for a while.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)  is one that never seems to get past my eyes when I'm out and about in the woods this time of year.

It's all over un-mowed lawns, deep forests, and even near the Potomac River.  It can be hard to miss in places, as there are patches of it where individual flowers range in the thousands.  It's no wonder that it's called "spring beauty" as it is a wonderful sight to see after a long winter like the one we had this past year.  Each petal is streaked with a darker pink or purple color, and it can be fairly easy to identify.  Look for these in basically any wooded area in Loudoun or Fairfax, and you have a decent chance of finding them. 

Spring beauty flowers in bloom in Sterling, VA.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Why Did the Turkey Cross the Road?

Just a few days before "spring gobbler season" opens up to licensed hunters in Virginia, and with youth turkey hunting already upon us, this one might really got me going yesterday. 

"Gobble gobble"

Sometime in the early afternoon yesterday, one of my buddies sent me a text saying "There's a turkey by the Toys R Us parking lot just walking around". 

A few minutes later, I got multiple emails and Facebook notifications saying similar things.  I was hooked immediately and was watching the situation unfold from my phone and Facebook newsfeed.

I used to work for that Toys "R" Us store in Loudoun County during my high school years, and though I do not hang my hat there anymore, I try to still keep in touch with some of my old friends and coworkers there. 

It's a good way of not burning bridges and once in a while, some interesting wildlife information is spread between all of us.

This was a perfect example of that spreading of wildlife information.  It's important to know and I find it fascinating.

I get texts and emails similar to this (though usually with different species) every few days or so from various friends and contacts all over northern Virginia.  Usually I just refer them to various wildlife agencies to ask for advice, but for this one, I knew it seemed to be under control already and had an idea of where the turkey had come from nearby.

For wild turkeys, it is basically breeding season right now.  They are fluttering all over with the males starting to really "strut their stuff" during the day.  The one pictured and in question is most likely a female (also called a hen).  She lacks a beard (bristled feathers near her neck and breast) that would usually be a giveaway that it is a male.

So why did the turkey cross the road?  Well, who knows.  Maybe she wandered off farm land and wooded land too far and just go lost.  Maybe she was being chased by male suitors all day.  I like to think that maybe she was going in the general direction of the Total Wine store very close to grab a six-pack of her favorite brew, but that's probably not the case.

Either way, I do not know the exact outcome of what happened to her but hope to find out shortly.

As for the multiple friends and former coworkers who tipped me on this information, I say a very big thank you for keeping in touch with me and for sharing this.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Fooled and Fooled Again

While a lot of the camera traps that I use are for scientific surveys and owned by parks, nature preserves, and various parks/wildlife agencies, I tend keep a bunch for myself that are owned by me.

These ones are moved often, as they do not fit into a scientific proposal or specific project.  It's a sort of freedom that I really enjoy.  With these though, I like to challenge myself to get really cool stuff coming across the cameras.

This year, I've been all about the fox dens.  Last year's fox kit pictures and blog posts turned out phenomenal and I'm really hoping I can get something similar this year.  It takes a lot of work and time to search for fox dens, but it could prove to be really useful in the end.  Emails and messages have been flying around like crazy and many miles have been walked, in search for the holes made by these small canids.

There always seems to be a bit of a debate as to whether a hole or den site belongs to a fox or a groundhog, and while I've spent the past few years studying them, reading up on them, and tagging along with others in the field with various animal dens, I still have not perfected the art of determining what is a fox den and what is a groundhog den.

The phrase "Brian, you should know this stuff."  commonly pops up into my head, upon visiting each den site.  It's interesting though and makes this sort of fun.

Young groundhog in a "prairie dog" type of stance in Lovettsville, VA.
Don't worry though, I know the "textbook" definition of a fox den and a groundhog den, but that is just what it is.  Generally, groundhog dens are a bit differently shaped than fox dens and dirt may be thrown out of each hole in a different pattern with each species.  They both can be commonly built on berms or small hillsides either in the middle of the woods or in meadows.

To me, the easy way to tell if a fox has been in a den is to put my face near it and take a whiff of the air.  If it smells like fox urine (a pungent smell that is similar to skunk spray), a fox has usually been there.  To make this even more complicated though, is to add the fact that a fox could have been hunting a baby groundhog, co-habitating (living with) the groundhog, or just marking the territory nearby.

I've been fooled with this time after time.  This year has been the epitome of me getting fooled by foxes and groundhogs, and just when I think I've got an active den with fox kits, a groundhog will appear.

It's a bit discouraging, but it's all part of camera trapping.
Resident groundhog from Loudoun County, VA from this past March.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Technical Difficulties

The best camera trap photo opportunities sometimes seem to vanish with either technical difficulties or "user error".  By "user error", I mean the fact that sometimes I forget to reset cameras or even forget to turn them on at all.  I'm just human.  Mistakes happen.

This little mistake though is one that I cannot figure out yet.  I'm unsure if it is a memory card problem, "me problem", computer problem, or a camera trap problem.  I need to look more into it.

When viewing the images, only a portion of each image shows.  The rest of the picture seems to be sort of blurred out with a single color.  It's odd and I cannot figure it out.

Here are some examples.

Although I find these pictures fascinating and I can add the species to my data tables, they are not exactly the "perfect pictures" that I was hoping for.

That's the way it goes sometimes.  There's always somethin'.

I'm happy with those coyote pictures though.  At least they made it to the blog!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

New Dens

Newly dug fox hole.
The better part of this afternoon was spent working and scouting locations for where I should put up camera traps next.

Through some dense brush and "the thick stuff", I stumbled across a new den site, of the fox variety.

One impressive entrance hole was made deep into the little berm where the dens were being made.  An exit hole was only just beginning though, and was no more than 3 days old.

Hopefully we'll be seeing some fox kits within the next two months.

Camera traps will tell us all this though, but for now, I'm going to stay away from this den so I do not disturb the animals that are building it.

Last year brought some incredible results from fox dens that not only helped estimate the canid population, but gave me a great opportunity to educate the public on what some cute northern Virginia baby foxes looked like.

See the link here to view some results from last year's red fox den and its activity:
Red Fox Kits 2014

There's no telling what will happen though.  Time will tell, and that is the beauty of all this.

Partially dug out exit or entrance hole to a new fox den.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tracking Wildlife Through Social Media

Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest of them have a place in the lives of everyone who uses them. From the completely addicted Facebook user, to the Weekend Twitter Warrior, everyone seems to be connected with them these days.  I was thinking about this a few days ago and was going through my head to classify myself or put myself under the category of some kind of social media demographic.

I never found out the real answer to my own question, but I did realize that my Facebook usage is unlike most people's.  I use Facebook and Twitter to track wildlife.  I do it all the time by just being connected.

Facebook has "Groups" and "Pages" for those of you who are unfamiliar with the website.  You can join these groups and see exactly what people post to the public.  Groups range from hobbyist groups, to family groups, and even classmates in a specific college class or study groups.  Pages are a bit different, but with a similar concept.  We'll leave pages for another day.

Black bear reported to the public on Facebook
What intrigues me though, are Facebook groups that cover people of a certain geographic area. Homeowners associations and neighborhood watch groups are a perfect place for a bit of interesting wildlife tracking.

People post all kinds of important information on the whereabouts of all sorts of species.  Most posts regarding wildlife have to do with what comes up to bird feeders, "too many deer", red fox appearances, and the occasional coyote post from around the area.  Once in a while black bears and bobcats are talked about, and very rarely, someone will post something about a mountain lion.

All of these sightings are important to me.  It helps me out with my trail camera surveys and gives me an opportunity to talk to private property owners about what is really around here.  What usually happens in situations where I see people posting about wildlife sightings, is that I will comment that I'm interested and take it from there.  Sometimes this leads to me trusting the people enough to get the chance at putting up a trail camera on  their property.

I find it fascinating to not only see what people see, but also to see what they completely miss.  It's incredible how many animals seem to "go under the radar" of lots of people.  I have known about bears, bobcats, and whole packs of coyotes that visit people's yards.  Some visit almost every single night, and people never even know.

A good way to skip through posts not having to deal with wildlife is to go on the specific Facebook group and hit the "search" bar up top.  I type in words such as "coyote", "bear", and "wildlife" and all kinds of stuff may come up.  This is usually done once a week on my areas' that I cover on wildlife sightings and trail cameras.  It is something that is free and doesn't take much time at all.  For those two reasons, it is well worth it for me to do this.

A large portion of the work I do covers sightings and opportunities that come directly from my bosses in the parks and wildlife careers.  Tracking wildlife through social media is an opportunity that takes me off the beaten path of professional animal sightings and is a whole "science" in itself.  It's amazing.