Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas "Bird" Count at The Wilds

A grand view of a big swath of The Wilds in Muskingum County, Ohio, as seen last Saturday just before sunrise. That was the day of the Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count, and I was there to participate. Scott Albaugh became compiler of the count about ten years ago, and established a consistent team of surveyors who cover the very rural reaches of the count's 15-mile diameter circle. I've been helping since Scott took charge, and am fortunate to survey The Wilds' fenced inner sanctum with their staff, which as we shall see is very interesting.

Scott handed the count's compiler reins to Steve Spear this year, ensuring a smooth continuation of the Chandersville CBC. Steve is The Wilds' director of Wildlife Ecology. I've been censusing with Steve and some of his staff since he came to work there about three years ago.

The Wilds is a conservation and research facility on a grand scale, not a zoo, make no mistake. Nearly all of the some 30 mammal species that they work with have become imperiled in their native ranges, some critically so. The primary mission is to keep this species going, with an ideal end game of restoring them to indigenous home lands. That said, visitation is encouraged, and a great way to see and learn about the animals in this post is through a Winter at The Wilds Tour.

A dozen white-tailed deer scatter along a distant grassy slope. White-tails are locally abundant, and they were one of four species of native mammal that we tallied during the "bird" count. The others were eastern cottontail, and fox and gray squirrel. There are a number of other native mammals - beaver, bobcat, muskrat, many species of small rodents - we just didn't encounter them on this day.

It's always interesting birding at The Wilds. Where else might someone exclaim "Rough-legged hawk!" Just above and right of the camel!" Indeed, a gorgeous light morph rough-legged hawk was in close proximity to this Bactrian camel.

A personal favorite is the Sichuan takin (tok-in). It's indigenous to the same regions of China that support giant panda, and frequents the same bamboo communities. Takins are goat-like and adept climbers, and favor steep rocky slopes. This is a large adult, and they can weigh up to 800 lbs.

Here's a baby takin, and it's a fraction of the size of the adult in the previous image. This little fellow was born last spring. The adults are quite protective of their offspring, and they make good guards.

This is a sika deer, a small ungulate that often retains faint spotting through adulthood, although this older male has lost them. The Wilds' works with the Indochina subspecies, Cervus nippon pseudaxis, which is probably extinct in its native Vietnam.

A Persian onager grazes along with a small herd of other onagers, who are just outside the photograph. Native to Iran, this wild ass is critically endangered in the wild, with perhaps 600 animals left. The Wilds is one of very few conservation facilities that works with the Persian onager.

A bull Pere David's deer luxuriates on a crisp mid-20's (F) morning. Most of the mammals at The Wilds are extremely hardy, hailing from cold climates such as Mongolia, or other cool regions of Asia. Pere David's deer went extinct in their native China by 1900. They have since been reintroduced to their original range.

Every time I clap eyes on one of these big Bactrian deer stags, I think instantly of the Hartford Group's iconic symbol. Bactrian deer are mammoth, and a subspecies of the North American elk. A big male can push 450 lbs. Native to central Asia, this species was reduced to about 400 wild animals by 2000. Conservation efforts have bolstered populations, and now there are 1,500 or so deer in the wild.

A pair of sable antelope peer curiously at the photographer. The animal on the left has lost a horn; not sure what happened there. Sable antelope vary in coloration, but males become black with age, like the animal on the right. Because males are larger than females, I suspect that the other antelope is also a male, perhaps a younger specimen, but I'm not sure. This ornately marked animal occurs in savannas of eastern and southern Africa.

Couldn't do much with this one photographically, due to light and angle, but it still looks cool. This is a dhole, or Asian wild dog. Dholes are indigenous in much of Eurasia, but have disappeared or become rare over much of its range.  Highly intelligent dholes are very social and clans form distinct hierarchies. Play-fighting is common, and when we were there the dholes had gotten ahold of a squeak toy and were romping about in an energetic skirmish over the toy.

In addition to dholes and the animal that follows, The Wilds' carnivore area houses cheetahs. The epitome of mammalian athleticism, the cheetahs seem to regard human observers with a degree of disdain, when the bother to note our presence. A number of cheetah cubs have been born here, and currently there is a litter of young cubs.

A pair of African painted dogs races across a meadow at breakneck speed (they can exceed 40 mph at full tilt), intensely play-fighting. These extremely intelligent and highly social canids are amazing to watch, but you wouldn't want to be in with them. Packs are well-organized and team members hunt in close cooperation with one another. The targeted prey has little hope of survival.

We saw much more but that's enough for now. Check The Wilds website for more information, and if you're looking for a fascinating and out-of-the-box trip, plan a visit.

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