Tuesday, October 6, 2009

mammal watching can be fun

Many of us are birdwatchers (or birders, is there a difference?), but not so many are mammal watchers (mammalers?). But mammal watching can be fun too. There are only about half as many species of mammals as there are of birds, so there aren't as many to watch, but—of great significance—the vast majority are brown, so they don't attract the attention of those who love to see the varied colors presented by birds. Many birds are conspicuously, even rainbowly, colored. So the mammals have one strike against them (of course, we're one of them, surely a strike for them).

Perhaps of even greater significance is the fact that most mammals are nocturnal, and most of us do our nature study during the day, when we can see what's going on. Mammalogists know that if they want to have a lot of encounters with mammals, they go out at night. And they have to resort to a whole array of technology, from flashlights to mist nets (for bats) to sunken cans (shrews and mice fall in them) to live traps (especially for rodents).

Nevertheless, there are mammals that can be seen during the day. This includes all marine mammals, most ungulates (hoofed mammals), and some rabbits and rodents (especially squirrels). A trip to a big national park, where they are protected, may tally a surprising number of mammal species.

We found a few of these mammals, totaling seven species, on an early October trip to the Washington coast. Among them was a small herd of Elk consisting of a finely antlered male and two cows and their half-grown calves. Elk seem to be increasing in the Pacific Northwest, both the Roosevelt Elk subspecies on the coast and the Rocky Mountain Elk of the Cascades and East. There are small herds of Elk all over the southwest corner of the state, often visible in late afternoon as they come out of the forest to graze on herbaceous vegetation in prairies and second growth.
Of marine mammals, we saw quite a few Harbor Seals and California Sea Lions at the mouth of the Columbia River and the mouth of Grays Harbor. One big male sea lion was sleeping on a floating dock in the harbor at Westport, quite unconcerned with fishermen, crabbers, and tourists walking past about 20 feet away. As we watched, it had a good scratch, much like you'll see your pet dog or cat doing. From a population low some years ago, California Sea Lions have become more and more common, and the people who work in the harbor at Westport have become concerned as more and more of the big (and dangerous) mammals pre-empt parts of the docks.
Of rodents we saw numerous Douglas Squirrels, the common native squirrel in western Washington forests. Of lagomorphs (the rabbit order), we were enthralled by a baby Snowshoe Hare that grazed on weeds at the edge of the road in Leadbetter Point State Park. Unlike many of its species, this little gem sat there and fed calmly as we approached closer and closer with our cameras. It's a great feeling to get to photograph any wild mammal at leisure!

It's always special to see carnivores, and we saw two of the more common species of Washington. We watched a Coyote come out of the bushes at Leadbetter Point, trot over to the shore of the salt marsh, and lie down right at the water's edge. It was engaged in grooming rather than hunting, although it seemed to us that it was looking intently at a nearby foraging Great Blue Heron.

Finally, there is a nice viewing platform on the rocks in Westport where you can look out over the harbor with a scope and take in the bustling avian activity. Local people put out food and water for a crowd of feral cats there, and I wonder if they know they are feeding native carnivores as well. A Raccoon came out of the rocks as we watched and meticulously cleaned up a pile of cat chow, then finished with a drink from the water bowl and ambled back into the rocks. Not a bad day for furry encounters.

Dennis Paulson

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome posts! Glad to see that the great photos and sections keep on coming. Any interest in an article on herps?