Common Camp Critters
By Kevin Callan
"Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year old."
- Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods, (1997)
One of the best places to spot wildlife while traveling through the interior is right at your own campsite. Some just come in to camp because curiosity has finally gotten the better of them. Others are just passing through and try to ignore that you've taken over their turf. And some even sneak in to steal a bit of food. Which ever the case, it's great to have them visit. Here's a profile of some of my favorite camp regulars found in typical canoe country of the Precambrian Shield.
A bull moose, especially during rutting season, is more apt to be a problem in camp than a bear. I've woke up in the middle of the night a few times to discover a moose standing over the tent, wondering if it should jump over the guy ropes or just crash straight through, trampling me inside. The worst time was when I had to set up camp directly on a portage. It was a bad idea but it was late and I simply couldn't go any further. Luckily the moose walked around me, taking one of my socks with it. I haven't a clue why it took my sock but wasn't about to argue at the time.
Lovesick moose are the worst to deal with. Usually the animal is quite calm and gentle. However, during the fall rut (late September to early October) males become extremely aggressive and unpredictable. Basically, they get so excited about the mating ritual that they sometimes mistake large objects for female moose. For this reason sex craved bulls have been known to attack vehicles, charge trains, and even tree innocent campers.
The male's aggression lets up the moment it's antlers drop off sometime in December. By spring though it begins its search for salt, which it needs to help develop a good rack and the cycle soon begins all over again.
Have you ever found yourself lying snug inside your sleeping bag, waiting for the first rays of sun to rise before crawling out to meet the day, when all of a sudden the roof of the tent is bombarded by a bunch of falling pine cones? Then, the moment you unzip your tent door to see if the sky is falling or not, you hear the noisy chatter of a red squirrel and then get struck right on the noggin with a resin-soaked cone?
Don't take the assault personally. The main reason the squirrel is clipping cones from the tree tops is to gather enough for winter storage; something it takes all too seriously. By the end of the season it will have cached literally thousands of cones (they average 100 per day), stashing them in stumps, hollow logs, underground, or anywhere there's shade and the cones won't dry up and disperse their seeds.
The reason for the irritable scolding it gives you is that it just doesn't like being interrupted. The squirrel is definitely a high-energy, aggressive rodent that gets extremely annoyed with intruders in its territory. It is well know for fighting off gray jays, larger grey squirrel, owls, and even the odd camper.
The red squirrel is not fixed on eating seeds alone. In fact, it's overly carnivorous, adding mice, large insects, bird eggs, and fledglings to its diet. It also has a taste for mushrooms and will hang them out on tree limbs to dry. The poisons contained in the mushrooms have little effect on the rodent but it's thought that trappers who went "squirrelly" had actually dined on too many mushroom eating squirrels.
Native legend tells of a time when it was undecided if the earth would be covered in complete darkness or continuous light. The decision was given up to two of the forest animals: the bear, fighting for night, and the chipmunk battling for day.
Most of the animals placed their bet on the bear, thinking the bruin's strength and size would over-power the tiny chipmunk. But when the struggle began, the quick and agile rodent easily outmaneuvered the awkward bear. Eventually, however, the bear managed to trap the chipmunk under its massive paw and it looked as if darkness would soon cover the earth forever. Luckily, at the last minute the spry chipmunk squeezed its slender body out from under the bruin's grasp.
The battle ended in a tie, allowing the earth to have both day and night, and to this day the chipmunk bears the five brownish-black scares across its back to remind everyone of the fight between darkness and light.
Today the chipmunk's mystic war wounds come in handy for helping it camouflaged from its aerial predators, with the five stripes blending in with the dark shadows of twigs and plants.
Chipmunks spend a lot of their time underground constructing an elaborate system of tunnels, complete with food storage areas and escape hatches. It's almost impossible to locate the main entrance of the borrow since the rodent goes out of its way to rid the area of any trace of the excavated dirt, stuffing it in its cheek pouches and spreading it evenly across the forest floor.
If you happen to spot a chipmunk chasing another of its kind through the campsite, with its tail jerking and making loud chirping noises, it's most likely due to the fact that the other chipmunk has just robbed it of its food cache. Chipmunks are solitary creatures and only pair up to mate. They devote most of their time to gathering and storing food underground since the rodent does not truly hibernate. Its metabolism is only reduced during cold snaps and the chipmunk wil actually awaken periodically during winter to munch on its food supply.
The first time I heard a porcupine's mating call, it scared me silly. The beast was having sex directly beside my tent when it let out an eerie cry, sounding like the wail of a banshee. I had no idea what was making the noise at the time and only realized it was a porcupine when I slapped the side of the tent to scare the monster away and it released a few hundred quills into the nylon fly.
When morning came I slowly crept out of the tent and there was the porcupine, resting comfortably high up in a pine tree. And below the tree was my wooden paddle, with its shaft chewed to pieces. It was attracted to my salty sweat which had collected on the paddle. I'd seen porcupines chew on wood before. Toilet seats in the outhouse are a favorite snack and so are plywood portage signs since they contain tasty glue. But I never thought I'd have my paddle munched on. Thankfully my spare was made of plastic.
I wanted to get even, but the idea of getting stuck with a few dozen quills made me rethink getting revenge.
The porcupine doesn't actually shoot its quills (over 30,000 total). If you do approach too closely, however, it will raise the quills up and attempt to swat you with its tail where the majority of them are. If you do get hit, it's more than a simple pin prick; the quill is tipped with hundreds of tiny barbs and each time your muscle contracts it works deeper and deeper beneath the skin. Dogs and other animals who have come face to tail with a porcupine have been known to die by a single quill working its way through the brain, slowly driving it mad.
Raccoons are notorious camp robbers and more than one camper has dealt with their persistence in stealing food scraps right under their nose. They're smart, smarter than their close cousin the bear, and when cornered can be extremely vicious. I once attempted to scare off a family of raccoons from my campground site who were in the midst of tearing off the rubber seal on my truck cab to get at my cooler. I lost the battle and found myself standing on top of the picnic table, surrounded with half-a-dozen hissing and snapping raccoons when the park ranger arrived to see what all the fuss was about.
Raccoons are nocturnal and have adapted to rummaging for food just by feel. With thousands of nerve endings on their hands they can easily sense the presence of food before seeing it; which is why they are so successful opening up camp coolers and garbage cans. It's also believed that water actually enhances their sense of touch and is the reason behind them constantly heading off to wash their food in a nearby stream.
The loon's primeval call, made up of a series of wails and yodels, is a true symbol of the north-country, a sound that will definitely lull you to sleep at night and awaken you early enough to witness the morning mist burning off the lake.
Remarkably, the song itself has a great number of meanings, ranging from an expression of alarm to a simple hello. It is distinctive yodel, the one that's usually heard at night while you lie snug inside your sleeping bag, comes from separate males, all which have their own distinct sound, talking to one another from lake to lake. It's also the male of the species which you see running across the surface of the lake, widely flapping its wings and yodeling uncontrollably. It's a sure sign of aggression and is used to either chase off another rival male or to protect its young from a possible predator
Loons prefer lakes that are deep enough to dive for fish and long enough to provide a decent runway for taking off. The bone structure of the loon is not hollow like most water birds. It has a solid bone structure, which allows it to sink rapidly to depths of 200 feet (60 meters) and allows it to lie just beneath the surface of the water, catching a quick breath before submerging again and leaving you wondering where on earth its gone. However, the loon's extra weight also makes it extremely difficult for it to take off and less than graceful when on land. The legs are so far back on its body that it can't hardly stand, let alone run if needed. For this reason it's rare to ever see a loon on land, and if it's approached while sitting on its nest the bird will most likely panic and may even abandon her nest completely.
Keep an eye out for a decline in loon populations on the lakes you visit on a regular basis. Wave action from motor boats and those pesky Jet-Skies (Personal Water Craft) constantly disturb nests and the effects of toxic pollutants in the water or acid rain are starving them out.
This diving duck is usually spotted swimming close to shore with its half-dozen or more goslings waddling close behind. Not all the young birds are owned by the parent, however. The merganser has a habit of adopting as many goslings as possible to help it coral minnows along the shoreline. The goslings will form a half V and each bird will take turns snatching up the minnows caught between the line of birds and the shoreline.
It's the female merganser that has a distinctive, bright, chestnut-colored head and crest, while the male has a white breast, a dark glossy head, and lacks the female's breast. Don't mistake the common merganser with the more northern red-breasted merganser. The male red-breasted has a crest and a streaked breast. The female's crest is dull in color and has a full, pale, white-colored collar and breast. Also, don't look for the bird's nest on the ground; the common merganser is like the wood duck and nests in the hollows of dead trees.
Canoeists claim that mergansers have the amazing ability to float care-free down a raging rapid and come out at the end without a scratch. However, it's best to scout the rapid on your own rather than just follow the path of some bird.
During mid-summer great-blue herons are loners and are usually found searching the shallows adjacent to your campsite for fish and frogs. The birds are amazing to watch as they stand frozen in the water, waiting for their prey to come to them. Then with amazing accuracy they lash out with their long, sharp bills spearing the unsuspecting dinner and swallowing it whole.
In flight, the great-blue heron will usually squawk or croak. Look for the long skinny legs dragging behind the tail and the dropping neck (a Sand-hill crane's neck stays outstretched when flying).
The early spring is the only time these large crane-like birds congregate, nesting in large, elaborate stick structures called rookeries. This is also when the heron is most vulnerable. As a defensive strategy, however, they're known for whitewashing or vomiting on any predator attempting to climb up after them. In close quarters the heron will even jab its javelin-like bill, aiming straight for its enemy's eyes.
The rookeries themselves are difficult to find, and even if you happen to come across a nesting area it's best to keep well away. Herons are notorious for abandoning their young at the slightest cause for alarm.
I swear that grey jays, those fluffy grey-feathered birds with a white forehead and collar, come equipped with some type of homing device locked on to soft-hearted camp cooks. They're legendary for their bold approach at panhandling food scraps, and with my past experience with them I can tell you they prefer greasy bacon over bannock any day.
There are many names given to the bird. Ornithologists still insist on calling it the "Canada Jay." But true northerners have labeled the bird "camp robber." I've even heard it being called "whiskeyjack." It's not that the bird has a taste for liquor. The term is derived from the Algonkian word "Wisakedjak" used to denote a trickster - a supernatural shape-shifting spirit that loves to play pranks on campers.
Grey jays are close cousins to the blue jay. But rather than migrate south in winter, they are able to survive the cold months by storing food caches all summer. Watch them the next time they steal a bit of food from you. They'll first coat it with saliva, which acts as a preservative, and then stuff the food behind a piece of bark or tree moss.
Kevin Callan is the author of 11 books including 'The Happy Camper: An Essential Guide to Life Outdoors'. He is a recipient of the National Magazine Award and has been a regularly featured speaker at North America's largest canoeing and camping expos for over 20 years.
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