Jun 112014
 

Dateline – May 11, 2014

I had a number of interesting wildlife encounters over the course of ten days this past May. The weather in North Texas in mid-spring is still very nice. It can get warm, but the heat is never oppressive the way it is in the dog days of summer.

In May, the clement weather combines with longer days, spring migrations, and baby season to produce and abundance of wildlife activity. Below are just a few of the urban wildlife observations I made in the spring of 2014.

Starting in Lewisville, I found this Bee-like Flower Scarab feeding on the pollen produced by the blooms of a field full of wildflowers. The name of these beetles comes from their resemblance to bees—both in appearance and in sound—while flying.

A Bee-like Flower Scarab.

A Bee-like Flower Scarab.

Later in the day, as the sun began to set, larger animals began to come out to engage in foraging and other spring time rituals. The two tom turkeys below were part of a larger group that dispersed as I came into view. The group may have been involved in courtship behavior, as I believe I saw some males presenting their tail feathers and strutting.

Wild Turkeys in Lewisville.

Wild Turkeys in Lewisville.

Just around the corner some White-tailed Deer had come out to feed. These deer became skittish as I rounded the bend, but quickly settled down as I stopped short to observe them.

This encounter illustrates one of the great things about urban wildlife. Animals that live near cities and towns often develop a certain tolerance for the presence of people. This aspect of their demeanor can help to make these animals more readily observable than their rural cousins.

A White-tailed Deer at dusk.

A White-tailed Deer at dusk.

Two more were feeding nearby.

Two more were feeding nearby.

My next encounter in May took me out to Rowlett Creek in Allen, Texas. I had recently received a report of a Mountain Lion sighting in this area and I wanted to check it out for myself.

I generally receive about a half dozen Mountain Lion sighting reports in the metroplex each year. Though the possibility of a Mountain Lion being present in the Dallas/Fort Worth area is unlikely at best, it cannot be ruled out altogether. With this in mind, I try to check out any report I get that sounds even remotely plausible.

To date, I have not found any substantiating evidence at any of the locations that I have checked. Nothing that would even raise an eyebrow.

Until now.

Rowlett Creek.

Rowlett Creek.

A little forewarning, though. Just like your typical bigfoot or UFO story, this tale will end in an unsatisfying and inconclusive way. The location of the reported sighting was a frustratingly poor place for recording animal tracks. A hard limestone base covered with only a thin layer of dry loose dirt practically guaranteed that any tracks found would be vague and indistinct.

An Eastern Cottontail on the dry, rocky ground.

An Eastern Cottontail on the dry, rocky ground.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird in silhouette.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird in silhouette.

A large canine track stamped in soft mud.

A large canine track stamped in soft mud.

In a few places near the water the soil was thick and damp enough to record good impressions. In these places I found an abundance of Coyote and dog tracks, but nothing remotely feline—not even Bobcat tracks. That surprised me a bit because this place contained lots of excellent Bobcat habitat.

I spent the next couple of hours scouring the area a checking all of the most promising places for unusual tracks. As the afternoon wore on I expanded my search into less likely places, and eventually I made my way to dirt trail running along side of a farmer’s field. That is where I noticed the first track that caused me to do a double take.

Like I mentioned earlier, the soil along this path was thin, loose, and dry. It was nowhere close to be optimal for recording nice crisp tracks. But the surface was good enough to record a general impression.

The first track I found was huge. It was nearly 6 inches long by 5 inches wide. Another track just 12 inches away was of a similar size. Then I found another set of two tracks about three and a half feet away from the first two. And then another set and then another, following the same pattern.

This track is over 6 inches long and nearly 5 inches wide.

This track is over 6 inches long and nearly 5 inches wide.

In this picture you can see at least five different tracks on this trail.  Spacing between pairs of track is just over three feet.

In this picture you can see at least five different tracks on this trail. Spacing between pairs of track is just over three feet.

I checked the path carefully looking for some other explanation for these tracks. I considered the possibility that they were boot prints of some kind, but it did not take much convincing for me to see that they were not. Then I weighed the likelihood that they belonged to a large dog.

The impressions are certainly slightly larger than the actual paw that made them due to the loose nature of the soil that they were stamped in. But even so, they are extremely large for dog tracks. I took a minute to look for human foots prints along the road which would address the possibility that someone had been out walking their Great Dane, and I found none.

Five inch tracks spaced a foot apart from each other.

Five inch tracks spaced a foot apart from each other.

These tracks are rounder and more feline in appearance.

These tracks are rounder and more feline in appearance.

So, did I found Mountain Lion tracks? I doubt it. As you can see from the pictures above, the tracks are smeared and ill-defined. I consulted with some tracking experts, and the consensus is that these are dog tracks. Indeed, one of the tracks does appear to be very canine in shape and form. Sometimes I think I can even see claw marks in this impression—a feature that wouldn’t be there on a track made by a feline with retractable claws. But, many of the other tracks in the series are rounder and more feline in appearance.

So, while I am inclined to defer to the experts in a case like this, I am not yet entirely satisfied. If these tracks were made by a dog, then it was an awfully BIG dog. Maybe even big enough to become unlikely.

The truth is—just like so often is the case with Mountain Lion sightings in DFW—there just isn’t enough evidence here for a conclusive identification one way or another. The only thing that can be said for certain is that a large, four legged carnivore came loping down this trail at a medium gallop.

Tracking is an art and a science—and one I have not master yet. The photograph below illustrate how easy it is to be fooled while out in the field. I found the track pictured next in a small, dry rivulet under a Rowlett Creek bridge.

Except for the narrow dried stream bed there was no good place to record tracks in this area. There were no tracks leading up to this print, and none leading away. There was just this one, extremely sharp five-toed print, and around here there is only one animal that make a track like this—the River Otter.

Even though this place struck me as only marginal River Otter habitat at best, I was still very excited about this find. I learn new things about animals all of the time, and I was thrilled about the possibilities a River Otter track at this location opened up.

My excitement was short lived. My friendly tracking experts quickly got me straightened out on this find. What we have here is actually a very precise double impression of a Bobcat track. The front paw was stamped first, followed by a very nicely placed over-stamping of a hind print. See the diagram below for details.

Overlapping Bobcat tracks forming a convincing five-toed River Otter track.

A River Otter track?

My excitement was short lived. My friendly tracking experts quickly got me straightened out on this find. What we have here is actually a very precise double impression of a Bobcat track. The front paw was stamped first, followed by a very nicely placed over stamping of a hind print. See the diagram below for details.

Overlapping Bobcat tracks forming a convincing five-toed River Otter track.

Overlapping Bobcat tracks forming a convincing five-toed River Otter track.

Also under this bridge were an abundance of Cliff Swallow nests. These charming and colorful birds are expanding their range and using man made structures like bridges to do so. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the Cliff Swallow:

American cliff swallows breed in large colonies. They build conical mud nests and lay 3-6 eggs. The natural nest sites are on cliffs, preferably beneath overhangs, but as with the Eurasian house martin, man-made structures are now the principal locations for breeding. Female American cliff swallows are known to lay eggs in and move previously laid eggs into the nests of other birds within the colony.

This species has always been plentiful in the west of North America, where there are many natural sites, but the abundance in the east has varied.

European settlement provided many new nest sites on buildings, but the population declined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the supply of unpainted barns declined. There has been a subsequent revival as dams and bridges have provided suitable sites.

Cliff Swallow nests under a bridge.

Cliff Swallow nests under a bridge.

Cliff Swallows have expanded their range by making uses of man made structures such as this one.

Cliff Swallows have expanded their range by making uses of man made structures such as this one.

A little closer look at the colorful Cliff Swallow.

A little closer look at the colorful Cliff Swallow.

Springtime brings with it a lot of baby animals. The baby Eastern Cottontails below got in a little trouble when a neighbor’s family dog found the nest in their backyard. The dog was so excited about finding the baby rabbits that he could not stay away. Even inside the house the dog paced back and forth whining and hoping to get back out to the rabbits.

In the end it was decided that the nest just would not be safe with the dog so fixated. The baby bunnies were reluctantly collected and delivered to a licensed wildlife rehabber where they will be cared for until they are old enough to be released.

Four orphaned Eastern Cottontails.

Four orphaned Eastern Cottontails.

Each baby was about the size of a man's thumb.

Each baby was about the size of a man’s thumb.

In Plano we found this great example of how well urban wildlife adapts to make use of the resources available to it. These pictures of a Great Egret were taken in a park-like setting on the grounds of a community church. The pond and surrounding woods create an excellent backdrop for photographs, and many people stop by to take advantage of it—especially at prom time.

So, while all of the other parents were busy photographing their sons and daughters, I snuck off for a few shots of this intrepid Great Egret. In spite of all of the hubbub—laughter, converstaions, and posing for pictures—this bird was going about his business completely unconcerned about the people in close proximity.

A Great Egret hunting next to a Red-eared Slider.

A Great Egret hunting next to a Red-eared Slider.

This bird went about his business confidently even though there were many people around.

This bird went about his business confidently even though there were many people around.

Nabbing a fish.

Nabbing a fish.

A grand example of urban wildlife.

A grand example of urban wildlife.

Back in Carrollton, I found these Familiar Bluets—a type of damselfy—hovering in formation just above the surface of a small pond. The blue damselflies are males and they appear to be gathering around in order to have an opportunity to mate with the tan colored females.

Damselflies spend much of their lives in an aquatic nymph stage. During the last molt as a nymph the damselfly emerges as an adult. In some of these pictures there appear to be some newly emerged adults trying to climb up the aquatic vegetation to reach the surface of the water. It is possible that the males are hovering in anticipation of newly matured females to mate with.

Familiar Bluets mating.

Familiar Bluets mating.

The males are blue and the female is tan.

The males are blue and the female is tan.

Here the female bluet is being held under the water for some reason.

Here the female bluet is being held under the water for some reason.

At this same pond, Nutria and Mallards were observed sharing the grassy banks. The mammals and the birds went about their business without taking much notice of each other.

A Nutria craws out of the water behind a group of Mallard ducklings.

A Nutria crawls out of the water behind a group of Mallard ducklings.

The Mallards were not concerned about the Nutria's proximity.

The Mallards were not concerned about the Nutria’s proximity.

A mother Nutria greeting one of her kits.

A mother Nutria greeting one of her kits.

Grooming after exiting the water.

Grooming after exiting the water.

Mallards and Nutrias of all ages.

Mallards and Nutrias of all ages.

A late to migrate Redhead was still hanging around this Carrollton pond in mid-May. This male duck stuck around for another week or so, and has since moved on. Here is how Wikipedia describes the attractive Redhead:

The redhead (Aythya americana) is a medium-sized diving duck, 37 cm (15 in) long with an 84 cm (33 in) wingspan.

The adult drake has a blue bill, a red head and neck, a black breast, and yellow eyes. The adult hen has a brown head and body and a darker bluish bill with a black tip. The drake’s distinctive call, a mewing weee-ooooo, is given during courtship.

The breeding habitat is marshes and prairie potholes in western North America. Loss of nesting habitat has led to sharply declining populations. Hens regularly lay eggs in the nests of other redheads or other ducks, especially Canvasbacks. Redheads usually take new mates each year, starting to pair in late winter.

Following the breeding season, drakes go through a molt which leaves them flightless for almost a month. Before this happens, they leave their mates and move to large bodies of water, usually flying further north.

They overwinter in the southern and northeastern United States, the Great Lakes region, northern Mexico and the Caribbean.

This strong migrant is a very rare vagrant to western Europe.

These birds feed mainly by diving or dabbling. They mainly eat aquatic plants (74%) with some molluscs (21%). Gastropods include 18% of food and bivalves include 3% of its food.

A late to migrate Redhead.

A late to migrate Redhead.

A closer look at this attractive duck.

A closer look at this attractive duck.

  5 Responses to “Urban Wildlife – Ten Days in May”

  1. Very cool Chris.

  2. Nice captures. The red-head is awesome.

  3. Great pics and articles. Love the whole tracking expedition and the pics of the Nutria were great!

  4. I saw a mountain lion leap across the road at Campbell and brand rd in Garland/richardson by the traffic circle next to firewheel golf course and breckinridge park/ spring creek nature preserve , it had a very long tail, I have seen bobcats before and this one was to muscular and large to be a bobcat

  5. Hey dude don’t you know those big tracks are real, the claws are too. They’re big, real big. Like bear sized. The’re like dogs, but not dogs. It’s hard to explain.

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