The Middle of Nowhere

Being the first person to break a new snow cover at Pointe Mouillee on Tuesday, I was treated to a feeling of grand isolation. I was, at least for a while, the only human out there on that expansive marsh. I was not truly alone, of course. The river mouth to my north was covered with trumpeting Tundra Swans and honking Canada Geese. All were vocalizing as flock upon flock of their brethren drifted overhead and landed with a splash in the gray waters of the Huron (see here). They were flying in from feeding in the corn fields of northern Monroe County. A lone male Red-winged Blackbird, the first of the season, called from the twisted branches of an equally lonely willow.  His was a tentative call full of doubt – a spring call on day still fully dressed in winter garb.

Many other silent beings had trodden the path ahead of me. Whether they passed by the night before or perhaps earlier in the morning I couldn’t tell. Wandering coyotes, several long-distance mink, a few scattered cottontails, and host of opossums all left marks of their passage. At least one of those beings was still in the act of passing as I entered his domain, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The activities of the coyotes, as revealed in the track evidence, were especially intriguing. There were several individuals and they were engaged in mousing on the grassy dikes. A long singular line of foot marks would veer to the right or left where the sound of a meadow vole apparently caught the ear of the track-maker. Scuff marks and “nose” trenches (see below and here) showed where the predator stuck his muzzle down into the wet snow to pinpoint the location of tasty vole hidden in a grass tunnel just under the surface. At several locations a globular grass nest was uprooted and torn asunder.  It is likely that each endeavor started with the classic jump and dive approach where the coyote launched into the air and came down on the chosen spot with both front feet.

There was no evidence of actual capture, however. Coyotes tend to down their prey in a few gulps and leave little in the way of blood evidence.  For the sake of reality, it is safe to assume that the mice got away most, but not all, of the time. At one point a strategizing coyote sat down in the snow for a moment of contemplation. The creature not only left heel impressions (see here) but also shed a few stray hairs as evidence of his respite (see below & here).

As I neared the end of the Long Pond Unit, the coyotes abandoned the dike and veered off into the low grasses of the Bloody Run Unit. Several mink took up the trek at this point, although they were not in hunting mode. Their tracks ran continuously for a mile or more without deviation before jumping down the side of the dike to their destination.

It was a gray 35 degree day, warm by winter standards but still chilly as the nippy west winds chipped away at the edges. It was surprising, to say the least, to see a total of three Tiger Moth caterpillars attempting to add their tracks to the snow cover (see above). Too light to make any impression, they were slow and deliberate in their movements. They looked worse for wear (translation: looked like hell) with their spiky hair falling out in patches, but they managed to preserve some dignity and roll into a protective ball when picked up (see here). These anti-freeze pumped larvae were obviously overwintering in the grass tussocks but it is anybody’s guess why they were migrating over the snow on this particular day.  As if to show some arthropod brother ship, a lone spider was doing the same thing (see here). I believe this beast was probably ripped out of the comfy confines of a cat-tail or reed head by the wind. Finding himself exposed on the foreign surface, the sturdy traveler was trying to lay down a few snow angels before the neighborhood Horned Larks picked him up.

At the furthest point of my walk, the ground was peppered with opossum tracks. It was apparent that many of these tracks were laid down the previous night because there were multiple faint impressions made when there was still a crusty cover on the snow pack. At a point where the tracks looked especially fresh in the soft mid-afternoon snow, I looked up and found out just how fresh they were – the maker was still in them. Eying me suspiciously from the edge of the dike trail, a small dark opossum was figuratively frozen in his tracks (see below).

I instantly saw this as yet another opportunity to test the notion that these critters will drop “dead” if pressed. You may recall a similar experiment I conducted last month in which the possum remained fully in control of his dull senses. I walked toward this Mouillee ‘possum but he remained in place until I was only a few feet away. His flight, if you can call it that, took him along at a speed approximating the rate of a rising biscuit. I will say that this little marsupial deliberately stayed among the tough reed stalks so he really didn’t need to go too fast in order to elude me. I crashed along behind him, none-the-less, for another 50 feet or so in a clumsy attempt to keep up. Slow as he was, he kept just ahead of me. The chase scene reminded me of that televised slow motion O.J. chase.

Eventually he stopped to face me, and showed a slight bit of annoyance by opening his mouth but then reverted to stare-down mode (see below). We both rested for a moment. He patiently waited for the better part of two minutes as I changed the batteries in my camera, and we resumed the chase. I gave up after a quarter mile. The opossum showed no signs of fainting, slowing down, or speeding up. I, on the other hand, was close to exhibiting the first two symptoms.

So far, the score is 2 to zip in this game of man vs. opossum (if you count my earlier attempt to fritz out one of these beasts).  Out here in the middle of nowhere where coyotes are chasing mice and frozen caterpillars are chasing the season, such scores don’t really matter do they?

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3 thoughts on “The Middle of Nowhere

  1. Thanks for the tips on the coyotes, very fortuitous. Just this morning I was tracking my local coyote who usually takes a straight route across my yard, but this morning his/her tracks were more serpentine. I figured it may have been a domestic dog, until I read this. Your description of the “nose trenches” and “scuff marks” and ripped up grass that marks a coyote pounce fits the bill nicely to evidence I found but did not fully recognize at the time. Thanks– great blog a favorite read.

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