Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Coati, Agouti, Iguanas, and Captive Animals on a Mexican resort

     In December 2014, I spent a week in the southern Mexican state of Quintana Roo. The majority of this part of Mexico is undeveloped. To give you an idea of the landscape, the main highway that runs along the cost is primarily bordered by jungle, secondly by resorts and adventure parks, and fourthly by the occasional city (Cancun, Peurto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Tulum). I was just a few miles south of Playa del Carmen. Zoom in on the map below to get a sense of the geography of Quintana Roo, if you're into that. My time here was limited to a few days, and most of my wildlife-seeking occurred on and around the resort I visited. Consequently, I got a good sense of how wildlife were using human-dominated areas (and how humans were using formerly-wildlife). 

     Looking at the map of the resort (which was akin to a map of an amusement park), I noticed icons labeled Monkeys, Deer, and Flamingos. These were first on my agenda. The restaurants, buffets, open bars, and swimming pools were secondary. After finding the howler monkey enclosure empty, I checked out the deer exhibit. I didn't know what species of deer were found in Mexico. I was hoping for some small forest-dwelling deer that I couldn’t see at home. However, the enclosure contained the familiar white-tail (Oddocoleus viginianus), which apparently is found from Northern Canada all the way to Southern Peru. 

Captive white-tailed deer - Quintana Roo, Mexico

     Some coati were lounging by the deer feeding station. I suspect this was a group of wild individuals who found life to be a little easier inside the deer exhibit and climbed on in. They are a raccoon-relative, but are diurnal and have some different features, including a longer snout and a longer tail.

Coati in deer exhibit - Quintana Roo, Mexico

     Making my way down a path on the outskirts of the resort, I came across an anole (anole refers to a type of lizard of which there are very many species in multiple genera). I believe this was a brown anole (Norops sagrei). This is a small lizard that resembles its relative, the green anole (often seen in Florida and pet stores across the US). To give a sense of scale, this lizard would have fit in the palm of your hand, much unlike the iguanas that I’ll get to later. It was calm, and let me get my camera lens quite close before darting away into some plants.

Brown anole - Quintana Roo, Mexico

Captive flamingo - Quintana Roo, Mexico
     Cutting back through the resort, I came across some captive flamingos. Something doesn’t sit right with me when animals are captive for their aesthetic value only. The pen they were fenced into was small, and so was their pond. At night, the few flamingos here were put in a small building attached to their enclosure and I could hear them squawking. I also suspect that their flight feathers were clipped to keep them from flying away. I’ve never seen flamingoes in the wild, and have appreciated seeing them in captivity a few times. Given their small enclosure, I would prefer these birds not be forced to live in captivity- particularly when the purpose of their existence has been stripped down to evoking "oohs and ahhs" from tourists.

     In search of some wild animals, I set off down a trail bisecting a patch of jungle in the resort. I came across two large iguanas basking in a small field. By the next day, I was slightly numbed to the presence of iguanas... they were all over the resort, all over the archeological site of Tulum that I visited, and presumably all over this part of Mexico. There were even iguanas lounging by the poolside beside drunk tourists, and on the beach, and on walkways outside of the hotel lobby. But, this was my first encounter with wild iguanas and I was thrilled. I come from a state that has one species of lizard (the five-lined skink) that neither I nor >99% of Connecticut's residents have ever seen.
     Anyhow, this was a good fist iguana encounter because they were active. The larger one noticed me watching him, and picked his head up to keep an eye on me (photo below). Then, to my surprise, he actually started moving toward me. I wasn't sure if he was trying to intimidate me or to get a better view of what I was doing. But, he saw that I was maintaining my distance and relaxed. He even started munching on the plant he was lounging next to, which was cool to see (bottom photo below). The smaller iguana in the photos below was between the large one and myself. 

Iguanas - Quintana Roo, Mexico

     Continuing down the trail through iguanaland, I passed another basking on the side of a tree, and then encountered one on a walkway who let me get close enough for one of the best wildlife photographs I have ever taken (rivaled only by some lucky shots of lions in Africa):

Iguana - Quintana Roo, Mexico

     This lizard was right outside of an open part of a building adjoining the lobby. Here, there were at least 6 scarlet macaws perched and on display. These are very beautiful and intelligent birds. I don't wish to start a rant, so I'll just say I don't think they should be enslaved by the resort and forced to sit on one perch from which they can't get down for most of every day. 

Captive macaw - Quintana Roo, Mexico

     Next I found the baby of a guinea pig and a deer. This is an animal called an agouti. It's not a hybrid, just a typical Central/South American rodent. I saw them often, but they were always skittish and evaded me. Thus, I didn't get any great photographs of one, but the photos below should give a good sense of what these look like. 

Central American agouti - Quintana Roo, Mexico

     My best guess is that agouties use human-dominated areas to (1) avoid predators such as wild cats, large snakes, and birds of prey that tend to avoid humans, and (2) perhaps to take advantage of food sources not available in the jungle. There are several species of agouti found in Central and South America. The animals I saw were Central American agouties (Dasyprocta punctata).     
     Next, I made my way to the coast, which was further away from the resort. I discovered a much wider array of native Mexican animals along the wild coastline than on the resort. 

Ocean view - Quintana Roo, Mexico


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Rocky ledges, woodpeckers, and chipmunks in the White Mountains

     In November 2014, I traveled to Conway, New Hampshire with my lovely field assistant Kristen to document mountainous New England scenery and fall wildlife activity. We started at Echo Lake State Park. After taking in the dramatic rock-ledge, we set out for its summit. Making our way around the lake, we noticed the chipmunks were busy preparing for winter. They were timid, but I was surprised at how interested they were in us.

Rocky cliff face - Echo Lake State Park, Conway, New Hampshire

Chipmunk interrupted while gathering acorns (left) and peeking out at me from it's burrow (right) - Echo Lake State Park, Conway, New Hampshire

     Here in the southern White Mountains, there's more deciduous forest than some northern areas, which means plenty of beech and oak to provide nuts and acorns for small mammals. We also noticed some signs of woodpecker activity (photo below). The bird that did this is New England's largest woodpecker (roughly the size of a crow) and primarily feeds on carpenter ants1,2.

Holes in a tree created by a Pileated Woodpecker - Echo Lake State Park, Conway, New Hampshire.

     Continuing up a gentle rise at the base of the mountain, I found a smaller woodpecker keeping busy with his typical woodpecker duties (red patch on head indicates "it's a he"). This is a downy woodpecker. It's cousin, the hairy woodpecker is also found throughout New England and looks very similar, but is a bit larger. The length of a downy's bill is about 1/3 of the distance between the base of it's bill and the back of it's head. It also has black marks on it's white tail feathers. In this region, most hairy woodpeckers have completely white tail feathers and their bills are about as long as their heads. 

Male downy woodpecker - Echo Lake State Park, Conway New Hampshire

     We came to the top of our first peak and got a great view of the cliff face, then started making our way to its summit. 

A rock face at Echo Lake State Park, Conway, New Hampshire

     Enroute, I encountered what could have been the first woodpecker's mate, with her head buried in a hole in a snag (a snag is a dead tree). I liked the lighting conditions rendered by the hemlock trees in this part of the woods, so I ended up taking many photos of this bird.  

Female downy woodpecker - Echo Lake State Park, Conway, New Hampshire

     Notice how there's no red cap on this one... (female) 

Female downy woodpecker - Echo Lake State Park, Conway, New Hampshire
     You can also see the 'zygodactyl' foot clinging to the tree (photo below). 'Zygodactyl' means there are two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward, though in this picture she has her backward-pointing toes stretched out to the sides (some other animals with zygodactyl foot structures include toucans and chameleons). Also note the black bars on the white tail feathers (on each side of tail), indicating that she's not a hairy woodpecker. If she were hairy, she'd be a mammal...

Dorsal view of a female downy woodpecker - Echo Lake State Park, Conway, New Hampshire

     Moving on, we encountered another timid-but curious chipmunk. This one has it's cheeks stuffed with winter rations. We also came across a chickadee curiously busy in a beech tree. I couldn't figure out what it was pecking at, but saw other chickadees doing this later that day (if anyone knows what this behavior is about please fill me in). 

Chipmunk with stuffed cheeks - Echo Lake State Park, Conway, New Hampshire
Chickadee - Echo Lake State Park, Conway, New Hampshire
     At the top of our second peak, we got what I would consider to be a 'mediocre view' relative to other parts of the White Mountains; it was beautiful none the less. When I travel to places like this, I always hope to see animals I don't normally see. Chipmunks, chickadees, and downy woodpeckers all live in my backyard. I was really hoping to encounter the pileated woodpecker after seeing several large rectangular holes in trees throughout our hike today. But, the nice views and scenery made up for it. 

Scenic view from peak - Echo Lake State Park, Conway, New Hampshire

     We descended the mountain and were making our way back to the parking lot. The best wildlife sightings often happen when you least expect it. We were actually cutting through the parking lot of a resort at the base of the mountain when I spotted it...

Pileated woodpecker - Echo Lake State Park, Conway, New Hampshire

    The largest woodpecker in North America. (That is, if we are comfortable assuming the ivory-billed woodpecker is indeed extinct). Admittedly, I have seen a pileated woodpecker my yard in Barrington... it was in a tree next to my front door (I scared it when I walked out of my apartment and it swooped down, actually toward me until it could coordinate its wings and get itself back into the woods). But, having grown up in Connecticut, this isn't a bird that I've seen many times and I was excited nonetheless. I spotted it from far away, and had to thrust my backpack into Kristen's arms, quickly extract my camera, and run like a ninja to get close enough for a decent shot. I only had it in view long enough for three snaps. I don't know if it flew away or if it disappeared into the hole that it had it's head in when I first got a glimpse of it (photo below). In the photo above, you can see what's probably some sort of bug at the end of it's bill, which makes me suspect this was a feeding hole rather than a cavity that the bird would reside in. 

Pileated woodpecker with it's head in a tree - Echo Lake State Park, Conway, New Hampshire

Here's where you can find Echo Lake State Park and all of it's glorious wonders and woodpeckers (use buttons in lower right corner to zoom out and see where this place is relative to you or someplace you're familiar with):

Thanks for reading and come back next week to hear about my recent wildlife encounters in Quintana Roo, Mexico... where I saw many species and only one of which also lives in my backyard. 

Referenced Works:  
1. Elbroch, Mark, and Eleanor Marks. 2001. Bird Tracks & Sign. 1st ed. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 
2. Flemming, Stephen P., Gillian L. Holloway, E. Jane Watte, and Peter S. Lawrence. 1999. Characteristics of foraging trees
          selected by pileated woodpeckers in New Brunswick. Journal of Wildlife Management 63:461-469.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Pond life, an estuary, and a great blue heron in southeastern New Hampshire

     Not far from the University of New Hampshire, tucked away behind the rural New England countryside is a small spot for hiking, hunting, and boating called Adam's Point. I visited this place on a warm and clear Saturday in late September 2014. After a surprise encounter with a garter snake, I came to a pickerel frog at the edge of a small nearby pond. (The garter snake zoomed right through my feet as I was walking, it was probably just as startled by me as I was of it.) Unlike the snake, it's nice when they stay still for a closeup like this. 

Pickerel frog at Adam's Point Wildlife Management Area, Durham, New Hampshire
Frog at Adam's Point Wildlife Management Area, Durham, New Hampshire
     There were a few other frogs as well, but they were more skittish and buried themselves under muck before I could get close. They were either green frogs or bullfrogs, which are two of the most common frog species in New England (intraspecific morphological variation can make distinguishing these two species difficult)
     Staring down at the edge of the pond where a frog had just disappeared, I noticed something small and peculiar moving on the pond floor. It was less than an inch long, brown, and had a beautiful pattern of red spots. The way it moved was mesmerizing, it's body would expand, contract, and change shape as it cruised around. 

Flatworm at Adam's Point WMA, Durham, New Hampshire

     From the freshwater pond, I moved onward to the slightly-salty shores of the Great Bay estuary. After climbing down an escarpment, I found myself on a rocky shoreline with a nice view of Great Bay. Those are double-crested cormorants sitting out on the sandbar in the photo below. Often, you'll see them sitting near the water with their wings stretched out to dry. They have webbed feet and swim both on top of and below the water. I watched two of them dive below water and reappear after several moments, presumably hunting fish.

View of Great Bay and Cormorants at Adam's Point WMA, Durham, New Hampshire

Double-crested cormorant at Adam's Point WMA, Durham, New Hampshire

     Walking further along the shore, I encountered other interesting invertebrates. This time it was a mating pair of horseshoe crabs (fun fact: they're more closely related to spiders than crabs). These animals look practically the same as they did when they first evolved about 500 million years ago, before the first dinosaurs, birds, or mammals ever existed.

Horseshoe crabs mating at Adam's Point WMA, Durham, New Hampshire

     As I was leaving Adam's Point, I passed a marsh along the peninsula and saw another prehistoric-looking animal (photo below). I forget where I was or who said it, but remember someone saying that great blue herons look like pterodactyls when they fly, and I agree. Look at the photo below, this is a dinosaur as far as whatever it has in it's mouth is concerned (more fun facts: it is now widely accepted that birds evolved from dinosaurs, also... pterodactyls are not dinosaurs). I watched it hunt for a few minutes from my car. 

Great blue heron at Adam's Point WMA, Durham, New Hampshire. Top: Heron with prey.

Here's where all of this took place:


Thanks for reading, check back this time next week if you'd like to hear about a recent trip to the White Mountain National Forest.