Monday, February 27, 2017

Mousing Around

Trip Date: February 2017



I've been spending a lot of time in Weaselhead Flats Natural Area lately, searching for owls and other wildlife to photograph. The park is easily accessible from my home in southwest Calgary and offers a superb alternative when driving to the mountains isn't possible. The park is home to a variety of wildlife including beaver, muskrat, deer, moose, bobcat, squirrel, rabbit, mink, black bear, and some 200 species of birds. There is also a healthy population of coyotes that roam through the park. These members of the wild dog family live a semi-urban lifestyle and can often be viewed throughout the entire park and sometimes beyond its borders. If you'd like more information about Calgary's urban coyote population please refer to my previous story titled, Calgary's Song Dogs.

This is how motionless the coyote was standing when I first saw it
Over the Family Day long weekend I was strolling along the Regional Pathway in the southern portion of the park searching for the elusive Barred Owl that had been seen regularly over the past few weeks. The park was unusually quiet, especially for a long weekend, and it felt like I had the entire place to myself. Unfortunately it was pretty quiet on the wildlife side of things as well. Other than the ever-present and ultra-chatty Black-Capped Chickadees and the odd White-Breasted Nuthatch, I hadn't seen or heard anything else. Feeling a bit defeated I started making my way back to the parking lot knowing the owl had eluded me once again. I was walking along the fence-line that separates the Weaselhead from the land of the Tsuu T'ina Nation when something caught my eye through a stand of Poplar Trees. Perched motionless on a low snow drift was a solitary coyote. With my luck suddenly changing I grabbed my camera and cautiously moved to a better vantage point so as not to spook it. To my surprise the coyote didn't even glance in my direction, instead opting to remain completely still for several moments. It took me a minute to realize what was happening, but then it dawned on me, this coyote was hunting (known as mousing) for small rodents beneath the snow.

Listening intently for rustling beneath the snowpack
I had seen this hunting tactic on television from coyotes and foxes, but had never witnessed it in person before. With my camera at the ready I watched and waited as this beautiful coyote slinked silently across the snow, pausing every few steps while listening intently, and then it happened! The coyote reared backwards, like cocking a gun, and leapt into the air with all four paws becoming airborne. During the landing the coyote drove its fore-paws through the snow's outer crust and eventually buried its entire head into the drift. Anxiously I waited for the coyote to reemerge so I could know if it had been a successful hunt. As if on cue the coyote withdrew its head from the snow with the hindquarters of a rodent (most likely a pocket gopher) dangling from its sharp teeth. The coyote looked directly at me as it took two bites and swallowed the rodent whole. I was thrilled to have witnessed such a spectacle and was glad I captured it with my camera. The coyote then moved behind a small incline beyond my line of site. I was just about ready to move on when a second coyote caught my attention further across the field. Moments later a third one appeared from the trees and the original had come back into view, so I was now watching three coyotes all mousing at the same time.

Cocked back and ready to pounce
Leaping into action!
Airborne
Nailed the landing headfirst into the snow!
Feasting on the spoils
Time for round two?
The entire sequence of events truly amazed me. Here we have an animal using its keen sense of smell and hearing, hurling itself into the air targeting a barely audible rustling sound an unknown distance away. If that doesn't sound challenging enough the coyote also has to determine the speed and trajectory of the unseen scurrying rodent, all while taking the thickness of the snow crust and overall depth of the snow into consideration. After all of these variables have been considered you'd be forgiven if you assumed that this hunting style would be widely unsuccessful, but it's quite the contrary. During the winter when caloric intake is of the utmost importance coyotes won't waste precious energy on ineffective tactics. I witnessed three separate coyotes attempt six different hunts (two each) in approximately half an hour and as a group they were successful during four of those attempts. Granted this is a very small sample size, but it would seem as though coyotes are pretty adept at using this style of hunting.

This is the second coyote I spotted
I missed the pounce, but it was a successful hunt
This time I captured the pounce...
...and the landing...
...but the rodent lived to see another day!
This coyote was looking at me as I was looking at it
I won't soon forget this memorable experience in the Weaselhead and I hope to witness something similar in the near future. I encourage you to get out there and enjoy this wonderful wilderness park for yourself. You never know what you might encounter while you're there!

Here's the third coyote I saw that morning
Time for some action
Sticking the landing, but this rodent was on the move
It took a second pound from this coyote before catching its prey
Enjoying its well-earned breakfast in the tall grass
One last look before disappearing into the nearby trees
For more information about the Weaselhead Flats Natural Area please visit the Weaselhead/Glenmore Park Preservation Society website. You can also connect with them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In addition you can view some awesome photography (including a few shots by yours truly) on the Weaselhead Photography webpage. Lastly, there's also a slideshow available here that contains all of the above photos and more from this unique encounter. See you outside!

2 comments:

  1. Great pics thanks for sharing. I also live nearby and go there trying to shoot wildlife (with a camera).

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    1. Thanks for the comment Rafael! Isn't it a great spot for photographing wildlife? What have you seen lately?

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