Tag Archives: Coyotes

Photobombing Coyotes and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night in Parks

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Most people around Northern Virginia probably don’t get to see what wildlife is doing on a daily basis, and there is a lot of wildlife here. The Fairfax County Park Authority has several ways of connecting people and wildlife, such as nature centers and hiking trails. One of the fun methods of connection is the candid camera.

Since January, Riverbend Park staff has been conducting a camera-trap survey to learn about wildlife in that park. Cameras with infrared sensors that detect both heat and motion, called trail cameras or game cameras, are placed along wildlife trails. When an animal drifts by and breaks the infrared beam, the heat or motion triggers the camera, which can be set to record one or multiple frames. The boxes can be fitted with an infrared flash that will limit any disturbing of the animals. And the cameras can be programmed with a delay of five or ten minutes between shots so that the same animal isn’t photographed dozens or hundreds of times while hanging around.

Staffers never know exactly what to expect each time they check the camera storage cards. Riverbend features a large meadow, a riverbank, creeks, ponds, and deep forests — diverse habitats. These combine to host a wide range of wildlife. Sometimes thousands of pictures reveal nothing. Other times, there are pleasing surprises.

Among Riverbend’s photobombing animals are coyotes, which confirms their presence in the park.

The most common visitors strolling past these cameras have been white-tailed deer, raccoons, and gray squirrels. Foxes and otters also have stopped by for portraits. Riverbend Head Camp Counselor Brian Balik, who uses his own cameras to record some of the photos, says his favorite picture so far has been that of a red fox with white legs. Those are unusual markings and something he’s not seen before.

This fox has unusual markings.

This fox showed off its unusual white legs for the camera at Riverbend Park.

The value in these photos is in learning what animals are around. That helps staff know what steps to take to protect the wildlife. Years ago, people had to rely on actual sightings of animals. Now, staff can see exactly what is in a specific area 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The cameras also reveal animal behavior. They record the times the animals are awake, the population, the areas of a park they use, and how frequently they use particular areas. Riverbend staff is hoping the cameras will help them learn where the visiting coyotes live and whether their home is in the park.

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) in Chantilly also has conducted camera-trap surveys, and a coyote has been a common visitor there as well. ECLP Naturalist Tony Bulmer says that in late September that coyote brought along a friend, and he suspects the pair may hunt together. Coyotes do not travel in packs, like wolves, but rather they move about separately or in a family unit. ECLP is hoping their cameras will have more to teach about the coyotes, a species that Bulmer calls “one of the most maligned mammals in the United States.”

Huntley Meadows Park staff used four infrared cameras in 2011 to survey the population of deer at Old Colchester Park on Mason Neck.

Huntley Meadows Resource Manager Dave Lawlor analyzed almost 4,000 photos in the Old Colchester survey, and he pointed out that reviewing them on a computer became a little strange because, since the camera doesn’t move, the background of the photos never changes. “It makes your eyes go fuzzy after a while,” he said. Lawlor used antler points and branches to identify individual bucks, but identifying individual does is much harder.

The Old Colchester survey, possibly the most thorough one ever conducted on Mason Neck, revealed an estimated population of up to 60 deer in the 139-acre park, the equivalent of 278 deer per square mile – a lot. Naturalists estimate that the healthy population of deer in an eastern forest is 15 to 20 per square mile.

Another survey was conducted at Old Colchester this fall, and those photos will be analyzed over the winter.

Huntley Meadows Park Manager Kevin Munroe said that Northern Virginia has an overstock of deer because there’s often much more food available for deer in a suburban setting than in a pristine forest. Lawlor added the amount of nutrients deer can ingest in suburbia could be ten times that of a forest and that people think fertilizer feeds plants. He said fertilizer is nutrients for deer.

The large number of deer also affects forested areas. Some parkland has virtually no vegetation for four or five feet up from the ground except for invasive plants that deer won’t eat.

Information like this, plus the input from the trail cameras, can be used as part of the structuring of a deer management plan.

Oh, and those coyotes are widespread across the county, too. The Old Colchester survey also turned up a photo of a coyote on Mason Neck.

Riverbend Park Head Camp Counselor Brian Balik, Huntley Meadows Resource Manager Dave Lawlor, and Stewardship Communications Manager Dave Ochs contributed to this story.

IMA Volunteers Share Memorable Wildlife Encounters

One of the most exciting things about visiting Fairfax County parks is encountering wildlife. A family visit to a playground is made more special when a child points in awe at a deer moving quietly through the trees. A walk along a stream valley trail is more memorable when a fox scampers into view, even if only for a brief moment. And catching a glimpse of a bald eagle soaring high above a lake can make a bad day of fishing slightly more palatable. Wildlife is abundant on parkland, but you have to spend time in the parks for your best shot at seeing something extraordinary.

IMA volunteers work together to restore parkland by removing invasive plant species and planting native species.

One group that spends a significant amount of time in parks is our Invasive Management Area (IMA) volunteers, our frontline defense against the spread of non-native invasive plant species. These intrepid volunteers endure searing heat, stifling humidity, stinging plants, and painful thorns as they search for invasive plants to remove and replace with native species. Because their work often takes place off the beaten path, IMA volunteers also frequently encounter wildlife.

July is Parks & Recreation Month.

As we celebrate Parks & Recreation Month’s GET WILD theme, we thought we’d share some of our IMA volunteers’ incredible wildlife sightings. Enjoy these retellings and keep an eye out for wildlife in the parks and around your home. Your wildlife encounter, whether simple or spectacular, will be a story you can share with family and friends for many years.

Vivian Morgan-Mendez, a longtime volunteer at Nottoway Park, often sees bright orange Baltimore orioles and bluebirds flitting near community garden plots. She also remembers the afternoon a wild turkey flew out of the brush where her crew was working. “All five of us saw it. Pretty amazing!” However, sometimes wildlife encounters aren’t always fun; just ask Morgan-Mendez. “Several of my IMA volunteers and I were stung after we dug up a ground bee hiding place along with invasives. It was a very painful experience.”

Volunteer Jennifer Porter credits her proximity to Holmes Run Stream Valley Park for the abundance of wildlife activity around her home. “We have foxes around. They sashay down our pipe-stem drive at will at almost any time of the day or night. Our next door neighbor’s cat was forced to take refuge under a car to escape one fox that seemed too interested. Some years ago now, we had a fox on the front porch chasing our blind cat. A few days after that, another fox chased our second cat up the back steps.”

Porter used to be fond of gardening barefoot, at least until she nearly stepped on a copperhead. “Barefoot appears not to be a good idea,” she advises. One summer, Porter’s cats brought 16 small snakes into the house including one that tried to escape by crawling inside the piano pedals.

IMA Volunteer Renee Grebe photographed a pair of coyote pups as they crossed a creek on a downed log.

Those who venture into local green spaces have a unique window within which to see unusual things. Renee Grebe reports Clermont and Loftridge Parks are “alive these days – coyotes everywhere it seems.” Grebe has also encountered coyotes around her neighborhood, including a pair of pups she saw crossing a creek on a downed tree. Several times a week last summer, she began hearing the howls of a newly established coyote pack at dusk, and the howling has begun again. “The cacophony makes it sound like there must be 100 of them (though at latest report there may only be four adults and three babies).” She continued, “Also, it’s not unusual (and almost expected) that if an ambulance siren goes off, the coyotes will howl back.”

Grebe finds humor in some of her wildlife encounters. One morning she came upon a fawn that was standing a short distance from the path. The fawn seemed curious and crept closer as Grebe stood still. “But at one point,” she recalls, “it must’ve hit a spider web right on its nose because all at once it started snorting and jumping in place and shaking its head. It was so funny! I wish I had it on camera. It was just the reaction you’d have if you didn’t expect yourself to walk into a web.”

Wilson Harris was intrigued by a red fox that recently visited a bird feeder in his front yard. “The fox was just sitting placidly there. No sign later of any carnivorous activity” Harris has also seen box turtles ambling across his yard.

When Greg Sykes isn’t volunteering with IMA he’s taking photographs, and wildlife is one of his favorite subjects. While kayaking at Royal Lake he snapped a photo of a pair of egrets that came closer and closer to him. “I thought they might try landing on my boat!” he said. Sykes has seen foxes and kits by a den, sometimes with a dead goose or duck. On another kayaking excursion, this time at Lake Accotink with his dog, a bald eagle landed right in front of them.

Beavers are a common sight in lakes and creeks.

Royal Lake has been a particularly good place for Sykes to encounter wildlife. He has seen muskrats playing among wood duck chicks and he is one of the lucky few to have seen a river otter playing in a tributary in the park. Sykes remembers watching bats and beavers at twilight. “It was cool to watch the bats, and then a beaver swam up to where I was with a mound of vegetation and made a scent pile by the shore. I don’t think he knew I was there.” Sykes offered a tip to aspiring wildlife photographers. “You don’t always need blinds to photograph wildlife. I’ve used a camera bag and lay on my stomach to get some skittish animals, like hooded mergansers.”

Remember, Get Wild this summer and spend some time in the parks. You’ll be surprised and amazed by the wildlife encounters waiting for you there.

Have you had a memorable wildlife encounter in the parks? We invite you to share your story in the comments field.

You can view and print brochures about wildlife and other stewardship topics here.

 Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer