Backyard Wilderness Blog
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February 2012
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As time goes by and scientific knowledge increases, it becomes increasingly clear that human beings are connected to the natural world in many more ways than we could have imagined a few years ago. All creatures great and small, from Blue whales and African elephants, to the tiniest bacteria, fungi and even smaller viruses are connected to each other through our worldwide ecosystem known as the evolutionary "tree of life."

February is a great month to walk in the woods, with frequent snowfall revealing the winter tracks and survival activities of a number of woodland animals. Deer, bobcat, coyote, foxes, ermine, raccoons, fishers, pine martins, red squirrels, mice, and turkeys leave easily identifiable "footprints."

Over the years, I have watched our backyard ecosystem go through a number of changes as the populations of different animals increase or diminish, with a corresponding reaction from their predators or prey. When there are a lot of coyote and foxes, there are fewer turkeys. When there are a lot of fishers, there are fewer porcupines. When there are a lot of hunters, there are far fewer deer, and when there are too many housecats, there are fewer mice, chipmunks, garter snakes and songbirds.

When we first purchased our land in 1985, there were many wild inhabitants here. A walk in the woods was almost always met with the distant deep bass, wing thumping of a ruffed grouse. Occasionally, when least expected, one would explode out of low growing vegetation just a few feet in front of me, causing my heart to nearly jump out of my chest! In the fall, weasels could occasionally be seen running at lightning speed across the forest floor, diving and re-surfacing through the leaves like furry brown torpedos. Raccoons were frequent visitors, too, inserting themselves into our family like pushy neighbors, as they began hanging out with our cats, then trying to move into the house by pulling at window sashes, siding, or trying to come down the chimney; annoying, but cute. There was even a skunk that became so accustomed to our activity, that one day while I was sitting on our front porch steps she crawled right across my lap, looking up at me as if to say, "this is cool, right?," then continued on her daily circuit around our hillside. Exciting, but scary when I thought of the potential weapon she was packing! Equally exciting, but even scarier were large eastern coyotes who would come down out of the mountains into our valley in the winter, running around the house yipping and howling in the middle of the night. Most memorable in the fear category, was the night we were awakened by an animal scream! Sounding like a combination of a baby crying, a woman shrieking in terror, and car tires squealing before a crash, it was most likely a bobcat, fisher, or possibly a mountain lion. Whichever it was, it caused us to bolt upright in bed from a sound sleep with every hair standing straight up! Unforgettable and wonderful!






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Another great photo from Darin Yatsui, this is the beautiful, but poisonous Amanita muscaria, aka the Fly Agaric. Europeans and early American colonists would grind this mushroom into small pieces, mix them with milk in a small bowl and leave it out to kill flies.
This 'shroom is also known as the "Son of God" mushroom in India. Shaman there and in other eastern cultures carefully used this mushroom in rituals to put themselves into a trance-like state, where they claimed to attain a greater state of awareness and knowledge. Unfortunately, eating too much of this one can also cause death!
Photo was taken in Oregon 02-27-2012. Thanks Darin!
It seems lonely in my forest now, and makes me wonder how the colonial longhunters, and especially the First Peoples felt as the great eastern forests of America were rapidly depleted of game in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Unfortunately, a few years ago there was a rabies epidemic across New England that decimated regional rodent populations and ultimately, too, the foxes. Shortly thereafter, the dairy farmers next door stopped growing their own corn, and the vast cornfields surrounding us that fed the numerous racoons here, disappeared. Although the red squirrels have made a comeback, it has been years since we have seen a raccoon, skunk, or weasel in our woods, and even the foxes mentioned earlier on this website are now gone, their dens showing signs of only an infrequent passerby from another species.
The photos to the left and right were taken from a low-resolution video tape shot in our back yard in February 2001. Both images show the same ermine, or "least weasel," (Mustela nivalis,) wearing it's white winter coat. Hearing a squeal, my son grabbed the video camera just in time to film this extremely fast little predator catch a mouse with it's sharp front teeth!
Fairly common in our neighborhood before 2001, this is the last one seen on our land since that time.
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