"It’s Only Natural: Geology, Environment, Wildlife & More" Archives

Aug 26 2010

Family Matters: A Picnic in the Dark

I work at my desk on summer evenings, under a large open window that admits breezes and mosquitoes in roughly equal measure. And occasionally something more, besides.

I work at my desk on summer evenings, under a large open window that admits breezes and mosquitoes in roughly equal measure. And for as long as I can manage to sit still, that window is my only eye on the outside world. It is also my ears and my nose. The small sounds of the night enter unmuted, and an ever-changing medley of subtle smells drifts in from every point on the compass.

Lately the sounds have been dominated by a gentle, persistent scraping, interrupted from time to time by soft grunts. It didn’t take me long to identify the source: a pair of young skunks, striped tails waving proudly, foraging for grubs and seeds under the lilacs that grow near my window. I’m pretty sure they’re siblings, and I’ve sometimes glimpsed a larger skunk keeping what I can only presume to be a motherly eye on her two offspring. In any case, the trio have the unmistakable air of a family group, and their relations are invariably cordial, though the two younger skunks’ animal spirits manifest themselves in a lively roughhouse every now and then. These friendly bouts usually begin with a playful shove or head-butt and end minutes later in a brief, if rather frenzied, tumble. But it’s all in good fun. The erstwhile combatants soon return to the real business of the evening, padding patiently along, side by side, stopping only to dig up a tasty morsel. And soon they’re on their way back to their home in the surrounding woods.

But they almost always leave me something to remember them by. A not unpleasant hint of musk, perhaps, or one or two tangible reminders that all animals are really nothing more than highly elaborat tubes, so that what goes in one end must sooner or later emerge at the other. And since—for reasons I can’t begin to guess at—”skunk scat” is one of the most frequent search terms bringing new readers to this site, I figured I ought to give the questors what they’re looking for, at least now and then. So here it is: the real thing, guaranteed fresh and totally organic…

Skunk Scat

It has a certain viscid elegance, I admit, though I probably won’t be framing the photo to hang over my desk. But I will be listening again tonight, hoping to catch the first faint sound of claws tearing at the earth in search of something good to eat. I’ve always liked picnics, whatever the time of day.

In Transit

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Aug 21 2010

Hanging Out in High Places

Can chipmunks climb trees? A lot of readers want to know…

If my site stats can be believed, a lot of folks come to Outside seeking answers, and one of their most pressing questions is this: “Do chipmunks climb trees?” Until today, however, the question has languished unanswered, at least by me. But that’s about to change. In my never-ending quest to give the public what it wants, I’m going to resolve this burning issue once and for all. So here goes…

Do chipmunks climb trees? Yes. That was easy, wasn’t it? Chipmunks do climb trees. Of course, most of us think of these tireless little foragers as ground dwellers, and so they are. Chipmunks make their homes in underground burrows. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t equally at home up high. After all, chipmunks are squirrels, and squirrels are well-known climbers, quite capable of hanging upside down, prevented from tumbling into the void by their hind feet alone.

Descending Squirrel

And when I picked up my camera, this fine fellow was doing just that: suspended from his hind feet, he was having a bit of a stretch to get the kinks out. By the time I clicked the shutter, however, he’d put his right forefoot back down. (The left is still curled against his chest.) It was a remarkable performance, and I hoped he’d give me an encore. He didn’t, though. Still, the photo reveals the squirrel’s secret weapon—hind feet that can be rotated round till they’re nearly back to front. Toenails then become grappling hooks. What could be simpler?

But gray squirrels (and their red cousins) aren’t alone in having this helpful anatomic adaptation. Chipmunks share it, too. As this grande dame is happy to demonstrate:

Chipmunk Feet

What works on a stump works equally well in a tree, of course. And once our grand dame has finished hanging out, she turns her feet right way round once more, the better to leap and sprint and dig. (The sunflower seeds are her fee, by the way. You can’t expect a professional to work for nothing, can you?)

Chipmunk Foot

OK. Chipmunks climb trees. We’ve established that. But we’re left with another question: Why? And there’s no one answer. Here are a few of the possibilities: To gather food. To catch the first warm rays of the sun on a chilly morning. To eyeball the whole sweep of the landscape at one go. To escape less agile predators. Or to give the alarm…

Giving the Alarm

Sometimes, there’s no reason but curiosity. And why should there be, anyway? Chipmunks are indefatigable explorers. Their lives depend on their having an intimate knowledge of every corner of their home territory, the high points as well as the low…

Checking it Out

But food is never far from a chipmunk’s mind. Here’s the grande dame again, making short work of some tasty lilac seed capsules:

Time for Lunch

Observe the confident spraddle stance and the natural balance. There’s no doubt that this lady is used to working above ground. And speaking of balance, check this out:

Time for Lunch

Then, once the makings of a good lunch have been collected, it’s time to eyeball the area:

On the Lookout

That’s another good reason for going high. If you were only six inches tall in your stocking feet, you’d be mighty glad of an elevated observation post, too.

Now, having completed her threat assessment and found no imminent danger, she gets back to work. There’s always one more seed capsule just a little higher up:

Ever Higher

Going down is easier, of course:

Heading Down

Caution! Professional climber. Don’t try this at home!

Get a Grip

Finally, with all her work done—for the moment, at any rate—she takes a well-earned rest, calmly and confidently surveying her world…

Room With a View

With her tail wrapped securely around the branch and her tightly curled front feet held close to her chest. No chipmunk needs a fur muff, even on a chilly day!


Can chipmunks climb trees? Well, I referred that question to a panel of local experts. And now you’ve seen their answer for yourself.

Happy Chipmunk

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Jun 19 2010

Otterly Unbelievable!
Mother Saves Children From Onrushing Torrent

I heard the cries loud and clear above the roar of rushing water. I was out on an island in The River, photographing tadpoles in a nursery pool, and the caterwauling seemed to be coming from every point of the compass. I climbed to highest point on the little island to get a better look. What did I see? A female river otter was bounding sinuously along the far shore, her nose lifting rhythmically as if searching the air for a familiar scent. Suddenly, she dove into the swift current and began to swim upriver.

Distraught Mother!

Riverine Operations

Then I saw the reason for her headlong rush. Two young otters clung uncertainly to a midstream rock. I didn’t know how they’d managed to swim out there, but that wasn’t important. They had. And now they didn’t know how they were going to get back. I’d heard their cries for help. So had their mother. And help was on the way:

Family Portrait

She bounded up onto the rock, shaking herself till water flew in every direction. Her kids’ mood lifted immediately. Now they wanted to play. But Mom was having none of that.

A Whole Lot of Shaking Going On

She butted the kids unceremoniously into the water, dove in after them, and guided them back to the shore, using her long, muscular body to keep her two charges from being swept over the falls just downriver. In no time at all, everyone was back on land:


But Mom wasn’t going to let her wayward offspring off the hook so easily. She head-butted them straight up the rocky slope. When they rebelled, she grabbed the protesting delinquents by the scruffs of their necks and dragged them still higher, before depositing them in a cluster of blueberry bushes where two better behaved siblings waited patiently. Then she gathered up her brood, and all five loped along the bank of a small stream, heading home to a den hidden in the forest. There, a stern lecture doubtlessly awaited them—to be followed, I’m sure, by a welcome nap.

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Dec 07 2009

The Mysterious Appeal of Skunk Scat

Thirteen months ago I published a short article about wildlife scat, and included a photo of skunk scat.

Beetles, ants, and sunflower seeds were dinner for the skunk who left this calling card. Three skunks live in the area, and I’ve met them all at one time or another. Sometimes all three of them will dine on seed left behind at the bird table outside my office window. Their bright white stripes glow in the moonlight, and each skunk is easily distinguished from the others by the unique shape of the white stripes. I’ve become rather fond of Pepé, Pierre, and Big Momma. I’ve crossed paths with them when taking nighttime strolls onto the hillside to get a breath of air before bed. In all the years I’ve lived close to skunks, none has sprayed me with their formidable deterrent. We all give one another elbow room and treat each other with respect.

So where’s the mystery? It’s only this: Since “Who Passed This Way,” there has been a steady trickle of visitors to Outside Up North looking for information about skunk scat. I can’t figure why this could be. Are there lots of others like me who like skunks? I really have no idea. But for those of you who find Tamia Nelson’s Outside through search engine queries for skunk scat, here are some pictures:

Skunk Hole

This is a hole in the lawn, left by one of the skunks burrowing for grubs. I’ve seen them eating the grub. They’re large, pale, succulent sausages that seem to be to skunks what potato chips are to us—you can’t eat just one. If you go outside one morning and find these inverted cone-shaped holes in the lawn, it’s probably a sign that skunks have been helping to keep your yard free of insect pests.

Here’s a blurry nighttime photo of Big Momma:

Big Momma

I think this is the mother of the two other skunks. She’s very large and authoritarian over the smaller skunks, who behave just like young kids when she disciplines them. It’s a terrible picture because Big Momma was busy in her search for grubs under a floodlight, moving constantly, so that even with a high ISO on my camera I couldn’t get a clear picture. Big Momma is distinguished by a nearly all-white back and upper part of her tail, in addition to her large size. Here’s Pepé:


I caught him just before dawn, on his way back home into the woods across the road. He has a black tail, except for the white tip. He’s looking back at me, as you can tell by the thin white stripe down the middle of his face. Right after this long shot was snapped, he ran off into the woods. I’ve not been able to get a picture of Pierre, but maybe this calling card is his:

Skunk Scat

The scat shows signs of sunflower seed husks and bits of vegetation were on the night’s menu.

The nights are below freezing now, and I haven’t seen the skunk family in over a week. They don’t hibernate, but they do have periods of torpor. When they come out of their sleep, I’m sure that they’ll stop by for a visit, and I’ll be happy to greet them. Want to know more about skunks? Then read “Little Stinkers.”

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