Wild Ideas: Scatological ramblings

Social gatherings, pet sitting, iffy weather and other events kept me from doing a lot outside over the holidays, although I did take a walk up to the upper pond on Christmas Day. I didn’t see much wildlife, but I did find signs of their traveling the same route.

Hearty native evergreens like the Christmas fern brighten up an otherwise drab winter forest floor. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Hearty native evergreens like the Christmas fern brighten up an otherwise drab winter forest floor.

My driveway ends in a trail through the forest that leads up to a tiny pond. Both attract critters year round. The pond lies just below the ridge of Oventop Mountain, in Old Hollow. On the path, just a few yards up from my house, I ran into a pile of scat that was a bit worse for wear from a lot of recent rain but which was intact enough for me to discern it was from a bear. The volume and shape were tip-offs, and it was also grayish-brown with acorn or nut shells in it. This time of year, the bears that are out and about are mostly trying to continue to layer on fat, and acorns and nuts — hard mast — is their preference for doing that. After last year’s dearth in mast, this year’s abundant crop is apparently being well used. Although we have a few nut trees and virtually no oaks up here, the typical bear’s wide territory would likely include oak stands.

After days of rain, all that remains of this pile of scat are the skins of what appear to be tiny fox grapes and the larger, leathery seeds of persimmon, pointing to the depositor’s being an opossum.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
After days of rain, all that remains of this pile of scat are the skins of what appear to be tiny fox grapes and the larger, leathery seeds of persimmon, pointing to the depositor’s being an opossum.

On the edge of the pond, I found one piece of scat that was about three inches long, almost black, tapered at both ends and without any sign of fur, nut hulls or other helpful hints to what left it there. Many types of mammals visit the pond. At first I thought of a canid (dog family), but just a few inches away was a wide pile of scat that was contained what appeared to be the skins of fox grapes and the seeds of persimmons, with the rest washed away by the recent rains.

Both scats likely came from another omnivore, the opossum, whose scat shape and content varies widely, in reflection of its diet, although this ancient marsupial is particularly fond of fruit. And, although raccoons also eat a varied diet with fruit featured, as a member of a news group on a hunting website (thefiringline.com) put it: “They’re more dainty eaters. Possums just throw it down.”

The tiny and properly named wintergreen plant. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
The tiny and properly named wintergreen plant.

My first thought at the sight of the persimmon seeds was, man, I miss persimmons. I love them but have never discovered any persimmon trees on the property. The consumer must have been foraging more widely than just on this property.

Although examining scat may not be to everyone’s fancy, the winter forest offers other charms. Along the path and throughout this stretch of forest, hardy Christmas fern carpeted the floor, and tiny three-leaved wintergreen plants also demonstrated their hardiness. Their low-growing leaves — small and oval, cool green, with a white stripe running down the center — retain their color throughout the coldest winter; hence the name.

Mosses and lichen also adorn rocks, logs and soil throughout the forest. And the occasional fall flowers, now dry, white and brittle atop brown stalks, catch the light of the sun briefly as it makes its short winter trip over the mountain.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Monarchs move to the endangered list?

A Dec. 31 Washington Post article reported that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering putting the monarch butterfly on the endangered species list. USFWS’s review comes at the urging of conservationists that warn that the species’ population is declining in a “deadly free fall.”

While these four adult monarch butterflies are enjoying the nectar of a native liatris Bruce Jones planted on his property, the butterfly’s caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
While these four adult monarch butterflies are enjoying the nectar of a native liatris Bruce Jones planted on his property, the butterfly’s caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed.

As the article points out, over the past 20 years, the monarch population has fallen by as much as 90 percent, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. While many factors have led to the monarch’s decline, the disappearance of milkweed, the species’ sole host plant, is the most serious one. Milkweed is in decline because of the strong pesticides used on federally subsidized corn and soybean crops on industrialized farms, particularly in the Midwest. Genetic modification to these crops by Monsanto makes them resistant to damage from the herbicide glyphosate, the prime ingredient in Roundup, which is also produced by Monsanto. As I wrote about in my July 3, 2014 column, the loss of milkweed is aggravated by other factors: loss of habitat from development here in the U.S., illegal logging in Mexican forests where the monarch overwinters and unstable weather due to global warming.

While populations of monarchs are historically much smaller in Virginia, especially in forested areas, they have declined to alarming levels here, too. Recent butterfly counts in Rappahannock and Fauquier counties, conducted under the auspices of the North American Butterfly Association, have counted fewer than 10 monarchs.

Other conservationists petitioning to put monarchs on the endangered list include the Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and monarch expert Lincoln Brower, according to the Washington Post article. Following a 60-day information gathering process by USFWS, the agency will either decide to propose protection under the Endangered Species Act, decide that the listing is not warranted or continue to evaluate the petition on a yearly basis.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 286 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”