Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Little Red Riding Wolf

I was on the road to the sea, helping my friends Brian and Kate of Seabirding spot on some of their trips off the Outer Banks.

I took my sweet time getting there and on the Friday evening had some time to kill, so I decided to head on over to Alligator River to look at Short-eared Owls. Alligator River is a 154'000 acres of everything from cypress swamp to peat bogs, open fields and high and low pocosin habitat. It's a beautiful place and protects several federally endangered species of flora and fauna. It's also one of the only places on the Eastern seaboard to see Black Bears. In short, it's a pretty cool spot.

I parked my car along some fields where the birds were hanging out and I climbed on top of it (couldn't do this with the Altima!) to get a better view. There were several harriers tacking around in the fields, and some patience was necessary to wait out the owls.

The sun set and in the twilight shapes began to appear from the pine plantation bordering the field. The harriers were still out and very quickly these new birds engaged the harriers and gave them some hell before they disappeared to roost. These were Short-eared Owls.

There were a few birders along the road but they all left shortly after the owls appeared. I figured I hadn't anything better to do, and I don't see these things very often so I stayed to enjoy the show. Eventually there were about a half-dozen birds coursing the fields. A pair of Great Horned Owls started singing behind the car and a Woodcock flew to the roadside about ten feet away and started peenting. It was also a balmy 13C. Beautiful evening.

I noticed some movement from out in the field and notice a reddish canid running around out there. I dismissed it as a fox initially until it was joined by something bigger - and that had a radio telemetry collar. I think I yelled some expletives and the dogs disappeared for about ten minutes and appeared again - they were Red Wolves!! 

Red Wolves are the epitome of "something you don't see very often". Indeed, with only around 100 animals in the wild, that chance is pretty slim. So I had a reason to be very, very excited.

I had briefly seen a Red Wolf last year in close to the same spot, however these two, later joined by a third, were putting on a show, with a glorious pink full moon rising behind them like in some sort of movie. They were hunting small mammals in the same manner that a fox does, leaping into the air several times in succession. I even managed a short video of it -


 I watched these wolves for about forty-five minutes until it literally got too dark to see. Then I got into the car and drove over to the Patteson house, playing loud music and yelling until I got there from the disbelief of what just happened.

Red Wolves are, in many ways, very different from the Gray Wolves we are used to seeing on TV from Yellowstone. They are a smaller, slighter animal adapted to surviving in more humid climates and hunting smaller prey, and while Gray Wolves can be white, gray or black, almost all Red Wolves with the exception of rare melanistic individuals, are one color.

(Captive animal - courtesy of the Red Wolf Recovery Program, USFWS)

A warm brown with noticeable cinnamon tones on the legs and behind the ears, a darker back and tail and a white throat patch.

In fact, they look quite similar to another species of wolf found in Canada.

The Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon) of Algonquin Park and surrounding area of Ontario. 

In fact, at one point it was thought that the two were conspecific, but recent work (Chambers et. al. 2012) seems to show that the two are, in fact, separate species, likely derived from a coyote-like ancestor rather than Gray Wolves. Both had large historic ranges, with Red Wolves occupying most of the southeastern United States and Eastern Wolves in Eastern Canada including the Maritime provinces and down through the north Appalachians. The Eastern Wolves are a tad better off than their cousins in the South, however, as much of the historic range of the Red Wolf is now quite densely inhabited by people, and as we all know, people and wolves don't get along.

This is a shame, because even more so than the purported "big, bad" Gray Wolves, Red Wolves are very shy and unassuming animals that very few people, even researchers, ever have the pleasure to see. They're barely bigger than coyotes and unlike that species do poorly under the shadow of civilization and stay very far away from humanity. It is likely that if property owners and governors hamper the re-introduction efforts to support the tiny experimental population of these animals, they will be the responsible for the extinction of an anecdotal terror that none of them will have actually seen in the flesh to begin with. I, for one, am counting my lucky stars.