Saturday, February 11, 2012

Oh the Critters You Will See!!!

Skunk tracks near Thornton Ave

Pulling the needle of car addiction out of my arm and taking the bicycle way of life allows one to discover the world around them better.  Close encounters with wildlife occur without a Goodyear Eagle GT smashing a squirrel or a horny white tail deer sliding over the hood and crashing through the windshield.  Literally, stop and smell the stink badger.

The first fox I ever saw, and for that matter, the only foxes I have ever seen have been while riding a bike.  Jefferson County Park south of Fairfield  I encountered the first one while off road on my Trek 7000..  Later I spied one in Walker Johnson Park in Urbandale during the 90s.  Now I see them all the time near Gray's Lake.  Classic ones with the iconic big bushy tail.  Sometimes in the pre-dawn hours I follow their paw prints in the fresh snow and catch a glimpse of one trying to hide from me.  I can never get close.  They are shy.

Everyone sees deer in Iowa.  Daily.  The only time I rarely see them is when I go hunting on my in law's farm.  Hard to believe that when my father in law was growing up, 40s or early 50s, that people were not allowed to hunt them.  I yell at them STAY OFF THE TRAIL FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY.   I know two people that had been touched by the corn rat.  My darling wife Mary collided with one on the InterUrban Trail in between 30th and Beaverdale.  She stopped and encouraged the deer to move on.  When it did not Mary resumed her journey only to get hit by the white tail.  Her wheel was bent and shifting messed up.  Her clothing dirty and a few bruises on her body.  That has been the only time we have to had her Bontrager wheels trued.  She may have 7000 miles on them.

A friend from church, Jenia (pronounced wah neena with a Polish accent) was hit by one on the Great Western Trail.  She was about at the 5 mile marker when her husband said something to her.  She slowed down to hear him at the moment a "gigantic" buck leaped over her, striking its hoof on her hand and knocking her over.  Quickly a crowd assembled around her asking her if she was ok or needed an ambulance.  She got up and rode home.

Skunks.  It seems that the population of this member of the weasel family has exploded in recent years.  Local barber suggests that recent flooding has pushed skunks away from the river and deeper into town.  My daughter Dora said she saw a family of skunks on her way to school.  I have seen one once or twice in my front yard.  They are one of the few animals in North America that people can rightly freak out when spotted.  Like people in HD clothing this animal relies on its looks to ward off enemy.  Unfortunately, their poor eyesight shortens their average life span to 3 years.  Cars being their demise.

On my commute I have seen a skunks several times.  Thornton Ave seems to be homeland for one.  the first time I saw it as it ran across the street, turned around to look at me and raised its tail.  "Buddy, I mean you no harm and merely want to pass.  It let me go.  Several times later I see it at the corner of Thornton and 61st, usually digging for grubs.  One particular morning it was at 56th and Thornton and we both looked startled and said "wait a minute, you don't belong here".  The photo at the top is from my last encounter with the skunk.  I was riding up 56th and saw a black object.  At first I thought it was a garbage bag that was blown there by the wind.  Then it moved.  Perhaps a feral cat.  But a sulfurous odor revealed the identity of the black critter.  It moved quickly south to Thornton.  Its head so low I thought it was digging for food.  I paused at the intersection to let it cross, hoping that it would continue south.  The skunk never turned around.  I wonder what it sprayed.

FYI skunks can spray accurately for up to 10 feet but only have enough vile juice for 5 or 6 shots.  It takes them 10 days to refill.  Skunks are related to badger and in Indonesia there is a skunk called the "stink badger" not to be confused with the African Honey Badger.  European skunks are smaller and some are called pole cats.  The spotted skunk is an animal on Iowa's DNR list of critters not to be hunted or killed intentionally, just like the Grey Wolf.

One creature in Iowa that the DNR does not acknowledge is the mountain lion.  I have not seen one in Iowa nor while biking.  But in New Mexico I came with 25 yards of one.  I was walking at night with my friend in a place appropriately named "mountain lion canyon" when we noticed two flash lights to our left.  When we looked away the lights went out.  We looked to our left again and saw them.  They were a pair of eyes.  We had been warned of bear sightings south of our location and been told not to worry since we were headed the other way.  All we had were our head mounted lights and our brains.  I was thinking that I'd kick Sam in the nuts and make my run for it but then again I'd hate to have him be killed.  he is my best bitch.  Instead we stared at the cat.  That was the most evil face I ever saw.  These critters think about their dinner.  It spotted us long before we spotted it.  If I was alone I probably would be dead.  Eventually, Kitty wandered south.  Sam and I walked slow north to our tent, I backwards keeping an eye out for Kitty.  both our heads swiveling back and forth scanning the darkness for hungry felines.  More people in the last 150 years have been killed by mountain lions than wolves.

Other mammals I routinely see are ground hogs and beavers.  The former waddle fast to get away.  Usually around the rive on the levy.  I did come within 1 foot of a beaver on the Neal Smith Trail.  In the wooded area between North HS and the trestle bridge a huge beaver was crossing the trail early before sunrise.  I got super close and hit him with maximum wattage from my lights.  It slowly turned its head and looked at me then slowly moved off the trail.  How slow it seemed.  It appeared to be half the size of a Labrador retriever.

Marsupials, I've seen a few.  Opossums, I really hate them.  they look like rats but I suppose they are harmless.  Back in  the days before the Great Western Trail was paved the Des Moines Cycle Club would meet at the Tap and ride to Martinsdale and on Friday nights during the winter.  I was with a group of 5 or 6 riders, probably in the middle of the pack when a possum ran out in front of me.  All I could do was grip the bars harder, close my eyes and hope that I would not suffer a catastrophic wheel failure.  I felt a solid bump and reopened my eyes.  The bike was still upright and the group was still together and people were like "whoa, did you see that?"  On the way back there was no sign of it.  Taken away by a coyote or limped home.  I was on my white Trek 7000.

One quick note.  I think that crushed limestone trails are much better in winter than their paved counterparts.  But paved trails are better for the remaining 3 seasons.  It must have something to do with the snow and moisture being absorbed into the ground versus ice formation.  Just my thoughts.

Back to 'possums!  Mary and I were heading to Windsor Heights on the trail when she had an encounter.  We were south of Center St, the dog park, when I spotted a set of eyes.  Domesticate house cat I thought (why I always see cats I do not know why) then I looked forward and heard Mary scream.  rounding the curve I saw the opossum run across the trail and Mary laying on the ground.  Apparently, she said, the bastard ran into her wheel and knocked her over.

Creatures of the air.  Everyone is in awe when they see a bald eagle.  And these raptors have made a significant come back.  Their is a nesting pair near Gray's Lake.  When I was a child we would have to go to the Mississippi River to see them winter.  now, less than a mile from my home, there are up to 30 of them along the Des Moines River at SE 6th.  Where I work and in the territory of the skunk, there is a juvenile eagle that roosts on a light pole.  Almost common these days.  I sometimes view them as the first sign of winter.

Other raptors I see are the buzzards.  Turkey vultchers live in Iowa in great numbers until it is time for them to fly to Central America.  During team Mystery Machines Fall Classic ride on the Wabash Trace trail we spotted 50 in the air migrating south.  In the spring I came across a nesting ground while mountain biking in northern Iowa.  BSA camp Igwanis and the scout camp near Marble Rock offer great off road adventures.  I remember taking a break with Rob Prunty and having my peripheral visual stimulated with what I first dismissed as traffic.  Realizing that we were miles away from roads I looked around.  Hundreds of vultchers in the trees.  Later I rode up a prairie section with many of these scavengers flying about me.  What a sight!

Odd as it may be be, I am more excited when I see an indigo bunting.  Perhaps my favorite bird.  Small but the most brilliant and gorgeous shade of blue, I only see them on bicycle trails during the warm months.  The Raccoon River Trail is home to many.

Another blue draped bird is the blue bird.  Distinguished from the jay and the bunting is its orange belly.  For the past several years I see them before the robins return.  Yet it is always the robin that gets its photo on the front page of the newspaper, above the fold, buried in snow with a caption that says "back too soon!"

Wild turkeys are common in Iowa.  They freak me out when I hear them in the pre-dawn hours while riding to work.  On a ride from Cumming to Osceola I saw one fly over the road between St Mary's and Martinsdale.  the next week when we repeated the ride, near century each time, it was dead on the side of the road.  Sad.

Of course geese, the dirty bird that never migrates south any more and shits green turds all over the trails...

Strangely, the only lizard, amphibian critter in Iowa that I have ever seen in the wild was a salamander crossing the White Pole Road west of Anita on our way to Ragbrai.  I turned the bike around to take another look.  For as much time as I have spent camping and exploring woods and playing in water this was the first and thus only.

Snakes.  Yep.  they like to sun themselves on the trails.  Taste like chicken I understand.  I really could live the rest of my life without seeing another one.  Let me see more salamanders and lizards.

And by the way, anyone see that huge grey cat with white paws near Orlando's?  It is too big to be homeless yet it is out all the time.  I hope it is alright.

1 comment:

  1. Skunks..,. yikes.

    Ive seen turkey vulchers on the GWT before. Ugly f-ers.

    Remy and I found a stray kitty near the GWT trail head last night. kitty bolted fast though :(

    What about the grasshopper invasion every late summer/fall? Those don't really count as critters. but still. trails are always covered in hoppy grasshoppers. :)