Thursday, June 4, 2015

Life mammal! A burly burrowing beast!

The gorgeous Ocqueoc Falls, just minutes from Nettie Bay Lodge in Presque Isle County, Michigan. These are the largest falls in the Lower Peninsula. I've been coming to Nettie Bay for six years now, to lead small groups of birders in search of, what else, birds. But we find much more, in scenery that often resembles the above in various ways, shapes, and forms. The botany is exceptional, including some neat orchids. Very interesting butterflies work the flowers, and dragonflies of many species abound. And the mammals! More on furbearers in a moment, as they are the primary topic of this post.

We haven't yet confirmed next year's dates, but they'll be at the latter end of May. The beauty of late May, for those of us from down south, is that we can relive spring migration again. Even in late May big scrums of migrant warblers and other songbirds can be encountered along Lake Huron, and on one magical day this year, we observed nearly 500 raptors moving northward along the shore of that Great Lake, nearly all of them Broad-winged Hawks. We keep the group size small - about ten people - so that everyone can pretty well see everything. The general arrangement is to arrive in the afternoon the first day, dinner followed by local birding, then three days of major action. The fifth and final day ends at noon, after spending the morning chasing down some more interesting birds that were perhaps missed, followed by a brunch before departure.

Mark and Jackie Schuler are proprietors of Nettie Bay Lodge and nicer people you'll not meet. As an exceptional bonus, Jackie is a topnotch gourmet chef, and you'll never eat better on an outing like this. Just ask anyone who has been. The lodge and its attendant cabins are hard on the shore of a large glacial lake that sports several pairs of nesting Common Loons, which are prone to delivering loud yodels on occasion throughout the night. No one complains.

If you're interested in coming next year, we'd love to have you. Just contact Jackie or Mark, RIGHT HERE.

Part of our group celebrates in the sunshine of a glorious technicolor northern Michigan morning. Why? Read on...

They had just had beautiful extended views of this animal, a Golden-winged Warbler. Actually, one like it - I found over a half dozen territorial males, and this bird, caught during a preening session, was one of the others. Golden-wings are major target birds for most people who come, and finding them isn't too tough.

Presque Isle County is awash with mammals, and few are more common than Chipmunks. Or more important - the striped chubby-cheeks are MAJOR dispersers of tree fruit and other seeds. In addition, we always see Muskrat, Beaver, Porcupine (usually, but always their dens), several species of squirrel, Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel (which is essentially a prairie dog), White-tailed Deer, and more.

But one mammal in particular has always eluded your narrator, both in my five previous years of Nettie Bay trips, and elsewhere. Soon after my inaugural visit to Presque Isle County, I noticed burrows like this. This part of Michigan is sand country, and the big burrows typically have large porches of excavated silica out front. I knew immediately what was making them, although a local deputy sheriff assured me that they were the handiwork of Red Fox. Ha! I knew better than that, and have spent many hours observing burrows that looked to be active. As the presumed occupants are mostly nocturnal, I even skulked about near burrows in the nighttime forest, hoping to see what for me was a beast approaching mythical status.

It's funny, sometimes, how one finally vanquishes a nemesis animal. Maybe, if it is some bird that you've always lusted for, it shows up at your backyard feeder. Or a desired butterfly alights on your arm, after years of failing to see one. In this case, the Glory Hallelujah moment took place in a 15-passenger van as it plodded down a backwoods sandy track. It was near day's end, and our group was tired, having met at 5:30 am and spent much of the day finding Kirtland's Warblers and other great stuff. We were headed back for one of Jackie's delicious dinners, when suddenly a SHOUT WENT UP!
Photo: Jenny Bowman

BADGER!!! Shouted Jenny Bowman and Sandy Brown in tandem, along with perhaps others. STOP! Was the next cry, from me. Mark notched the van into reverse, and eased backwards. There, big as life and peering curiously at our conveyance and the strange bipeds within was this big, beautiful badger!

We quickly settled down, and took full advantage of this rare opportunity to ogle a seldom-seen mammal. The den was only ten or so feet off the road, which is how they commonly are found up here.

But wait! It gets better...

Photo: Sandy Brown

A BABY BADGER!!! It wasn't but a few seconds or so and a smaller paler version of the big one pushed its way from the lair and stared at us. The youngster seemed curious indeed about us, but momma badger was having none of it. She seemed to attempt to prod it back down the hole, but the inquisitive youngster resisted for a bit, giving us brief but fantastic looks.

After perhaps a minute or two, the mother succeeded in herding junior down the hole, and then went subterranean herself.

Video: Jenny Bowman

Immediately after the adult Badger disappeared, large clouds of sand came flying out from the hole. At first, not knowing much of the ways of these beasts, I wondered why she would pick such a time to do further excavations to the den. Well, that's not what she was doing at all. Jenny's video above shows her sand-pitching activities.

I went back later that evening, towards dusk, with Mark, and we ever so silently approached the den. Only to quickly discover the reason for her sand-flinging. She was temporarily covering the burrow entrance, after apparently perceiving our presence as a threat. I went back the following day, and she had opened the hole back up and reshaped it to perfection.

Badgers, as we've seen, are efficient diggers and their primary prey are lesser animals such as ground squirrels, moles, mice, chipmunks etc. which they rapidly unearth from their burrows. Badgers are primarily western in distribution, with Michigan being near their eastern limits. For more about these fascinating mammals, GO HERE.

Thanks very much to Jenny Bowman and Sandy Brown for allowing me the use of their photos, and video. This was the one day in probably years that I DID NOT bring a camera along. I had been carting along the Canon 7D Mark II with the stellar new 100-400 lens bolted on, just in case anything major happened. But one can not - or at least should not - focus on photography when leading groups. And that morning dawned rainy, and only a week or so before I had been in the rain with my other camera and the moisture gummed it up a bit. So foolishly I was sans camera, figuring hey, what could happen if I didn't cart one along for one day. I'll long kick myself over the Badger shots that I would have had. But Jenny's and Sandy's are quite nice, and besides, the memory of this major mammalian moment will always be with me, and everyone else who was there.


Sue said...

Glad to hear you got to see your badger.
I didn't realize we had them here until one day, washing dishes at the sink, I saw one running down my driveway and head to my vegetable garden. I've never seen him since, but will not forget that day.

plainbirder said...

Now that would have been cool!!

Bruce Lindman said...

My current mammalian quary is the River Otter. I understand that they are proliferating in some areas of Ohio, but I have yet to see one.

Julia McGuire said...

Love the video! My kids and I have seen several badger setts. Was this one facing southeast? For some reason, we find them facing a certain direction.

Julie Zickefoose said...

Well Hallelujah! I've been blessed with badgers in North Dakota and Montana. Certainly one of my long sought and favorite mammals. How sweet that Jenny and Sandy documented it for you. Jenny got the best tayra photo of our Costa Rica trip! I think I'll take her to South Africa with me. She's good mustelid luck. Maybe we'll see a honey badger! Honey badger don't care!
YAY! and mazel tov, Jimmy Mac!

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks all, and interesting observation, Julia. This one was facing almost directly west, and up there the dens seem to face nearly any direction. Placement seems to be dictated by the presence of nice well drained sandy banks.

Auralee said...

That was an agonizingly suspenseful leadup to the guest of honor! And I AM INSANELY JEALOUS!!!