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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Winter's last gasp

For more pictures, see the PicasaWeb album for this hike.

Grace and I had an hour or two before sunset, so we decided on a quick hike south from Perryville. At the Freber/Hodge Road trailhead, the white skein of clouds in an azure sky contrasted brilliantly with the brown desolation on the ground. The snow cover had all but melted, leaving the grit and scum of winter amid the remains of last year's wildflowers. The still-green grass had not yet regained its vitality, and this year's shoots had yet to poke up through the litter. Overall it seemed as though the landscape was spent from its exertions in enduring the winter; the promise of spring was certainly in the air, but first it needed a minute to lie, panting and damp, and catch its breath.

As we walked, we saw here and there a last holdout of snow and ice: to our left a strip of white traced the path of a small stream tumbling down through its rocky channel. To our right, the sun turned the occasional rivulet into a vein of flaming brass. An ice stalagmite still stood within the sluice of water pouring down into the ravine near Carey Hill Road. But the mystery of that day's hike lay beneath our feet.

Every few minutes we found a type of animal dropping we'd never seen before. Its shape was much like dog droppings, but its composition reminded me of owl pellets: it was composed mostly of greyish white hair. The more of these we saw, the more it became clear that it was rabbit hair. Then we began finding some with bones. Clearly a species that frequents the trail had been devouring rabbits more or less whole.

Several times during the next day we came back to the topic of the strange droppings: Birds and snakes swallow their prey whole, but there certainly aren't any around here big enough to swallow even a dismembered rabbit. What animal would be big, hasty, and indiscriminate enough not to bother stripping the desirable meat from the rest of the carcass? We were starting to think that it must have been a pack animal like a coyote, and then I did some Googling and found that we were right.

This site has a good picture that matches what we saw. This one mentions that bobcats, like the rest of the cat family, tend to scratch at the ground in order to cover their scat. Since we didn't notice any signs of scratching, this also points to coyotes. The following excerpt from an article on the Friends of Edgewood Natural Preserve website further supports our conclusion.
Coyotes are opportunistic omnivores. They eat mice, rabbits, other small animals, insects, lizards, frogs, fruits, berries and along urban fringes, domestic livestock and/or garbage. Often the only sign a hiker sees of the local coyote population is the scat they leave along the trail. Coyote scat are difficult to recognize from fox scat. Coyote can be distinguished primarily by their size - those 3/4" or more and greater than 4" are probably coyote. Scat change seasonally -- during the summer and fall they have more berries. During winter and spring you will often find more small animal bones. Scat usually crumble apart in a few days. Finding scat on the trail indicates a coyote has been in the area recently.

Hikers often ask why scat are found on the trail. The rangers propose two theories. First, coyotes use the trails because they are easier to navigate; the same reason hikers remain on the trails instead of trying to go cross-country. Second, trails make excellent natural territorial boundaries. As such, coyotes use scat to mark them.

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