OUR GOOD HARBOR BEACH PIPING PLOVERS ARE AGAIN MAKING NEST SCRAPES IN THE PARKING LOT

Our little Piping Plover family has for the second year in a row been shunted into the parking lot. Saturday morning at 7am they were seen courting and nest scraping on the beach. After a full morning of plenty of dogs off leash romping on the beach, they were nest scraping in the parking lot. By nightfall, they were mating in the parking lot.

Piping Plover Good Harbor beach nest scrape April 13, 2019

This behavior is precisely what happened last year. The PiPls would begin their morning courting and nest scraping on the beach but by the end of each warm April weekend day, especially off leash days, they were found courting and nest scraping in the parking lot.

Piping Plover parking lot courtship Good Harbor Beach April 2019

Sadly, there is a contingency that endlessly denies that the people not following the leash laws have any responsibility. They expertly spread misinformation and twist words around and this is not helping the Piping Plovers successfully nest and fledge chicks. It’s heartbreaking really because nesting in the parking lot very adversely affects the health of the parents and chicks for a whole host of reasons. The adults will be expending twice as much energy, guarding a nest scrape in both the parking lot and on the beach. Last year, the birds maintained their territory on the beach the entire time they were brooding eggs in the parking lot. Intelligently so, when you think about it, because the beach nest is the precise location they marched their chicks to only one day after hatching.

To help quell the endless misinformation and falsehoods being perpetuated on a social media site –

Piping Plover monitors are not dog haters. Many of us are dog owners (some with multiple dogs) and most of us love all animals, wild and domestic.

I have, as well as have many of our PiPl advocates, been addressing not only the issue of people not following the leash laws at Good Harbor Beach, but problems around littering and trash collection and how these issues adversely affects Piping Plovers and all wildlife. Before there was the Animal Advisory Committee list of recommendation and the city’s Piping Plover Plan, I presented a list of recommendations, which included how to help the PiPl in regard to littering. This plan was presented on July 9, 2018. We fully recognize the threat gulls and Crows pose to the chicks. The focus of late has been the dogs on the beach because they are the greatest disrupters to courtship and brooding and because the PROBLEM IS STILL NOT RESOLVED, despite the ordinance change. There were dogs off leash all over Good Harbor Beach at the time of this writing (Saturday night) and only a very few gulls and Crows. We recognize that compliance with the ordinance won’t happen overnight, but rather than helping, misinformation is continually spewed.

To address the controversy over “other predators.”

As we have posted many times (including photos of), there are Eastern Coyotes and Red Fox on our local beaches. We see their easily recognized tracks in the sand. But one coyote or one fox, which is the most set of tracks that we ever see on a beach on a given morning at dawn or an evening at dusk, does not in any way equal the disruption to Piping Plovers while they are courting and brooding to that which is caused by several hundred dogs romping on the beach on a single day.

ADULT BIRDS ARE NOT IN DANGER OF BEING EATEN BY FOX, COYOTES, AND DOGS BECAUSE THEY CAN FLY AWAY FROM MAMMALIAN PREDATORS.

Crane Beach, which has by far many more natural predators than does GHB, successfully fledges chicks every year.

Crow in the dune this morning at daybreak. I have posted often about the problem of gulls, Crows, and litter and how the issue negatively impacts Piping Plovers.

ADULT PIPING PLOVERS AND GULLS FEED SIDE BY SIDE ALONG THE SHORELINE.

Gulls and Crows threaten Piping Plover chicks, but we are not even at the chick stage yet. Folks might want to know that because of the restaurants lining the boulevard at Revere Beach, the community has a much, much greater problem with gulls and Crows than we could ever imagine, literally hundreds, if not thousands, on any morning or afternoon. And yet, Revere Beach successfully fledges chicks each year in the exact same locations, and only doors down from where the restaurants are located.

Winthrop Shores Reservation Beach, a densely packed neighborhood with rows upon rows of of triple decker homes facing their beach has a problem with house cats on the beach, and yet this community manages to successfully fledge chicks year in and year out, in the exact same locations.

What do these three very different types of beach habitats have in common, and what are these three beach communities doing right that we are not doing? Perhaps it is because the citizens respect their community’s leash laws.

Repeatedly claiming disbelief at the number of dogs we are encountering at Good Harbor Beach, I have been pressured and cajoled into sharing photos of dogs on the beach, and when I do, there is public objection on their part. I invite all the negative PiPl Facebook commenters who we NEVER, EVER, EVER see at Good Harbor Beach, to come lend a hand. You were invited to work with us on solving the dogs on the beach issue and our invitation was ignored.

Additional note- Today, Sunday, a former off-leash day, there were fewer dogs on the beach than yesterday, a former on-leash day (as of 12pm). Puzzling, but we are not questioning the PiPls good fortune! Huge shout out to ACOs Teagan and Jamie for their hard work, to to all the people who did not bring their dogs to the beach today, to Gloucester’s DPW for installing the unmissable new signs, and to all the folks who came to GHB today, read the signs, and departed (we saw that happen)!

Our GHB Piping Plovers are weighing their options. Perhaps if we can keep the dog disturbance to a minimum, they will abandon their nest scrape in the parking lot and stay on the beach.

List of Articles and Links Provided That Explain How Dog Disruptions on Beaches Harm Piping Plovers

Very briefly gorgeous sunrise this morning, before the heavier clouds descended

FACTS ABOUT FOX KILLING AT DUXBURY BEACH AND DEBUNKING PIPING PLOVER MYTH #6

Let’s talk about the petition circulating in Duxbury to prevent wildlife officials from taking foxes and coyotes that are eating Piping Plover eggs. Many friends have sent links to the story and I apologize for taking over a week to respond.

Local persons are re-posting the story on their social media platforms unintentionally, and in the case of one, intentionally, inciting outrage at the Piping Plovers. This story has become sensationalized and taken out of context. I experienced a similar situation, that of a story about Piping Plovers being misrepresented, when last summer a Boston news channel interviewed me at Good Harbor Beach about our PiPls nesting in the parking lot. Instead of a feature about what a great job our DPW, Mayor’s administration, and community were doing in helping protect the nesting Piping Plovers that had been driven into the parking lot by dogs, it was edited as a story about GHB loosing income from lost parking spaces. In reality, our PiPl family had returned to the beach by the time all the parking spaces were needed.

Readers should know that fox and coyote hunting is permitted in Massachusetts. The 2019 hunting season dates are January 1st through February 28th, resuming November 1st and continuing through February 29th, 2020. Read More Here. Hunting is part of our culture. To be very clear, I love all animals, I LOVE foxes, and especially Red Fox. When one made a midnight visit to our backyard several weeks ago and snooped around the base of our Blue Princess holly, my husband and I were beyond excited about the prospect of them possibly denning in our garden.

Red Fox Coffins Beach

All that being said, it is sadly understandable why a number of beaches along the Northeastern Seaboard, beside Duxbury beach (including Crane Beach, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, other Massachusetts beaches, Rhode Island beaches, and New Jersey beaches) have had to resort to predator management programs. This is the course of last resort. Please bear in mind that Eastern Coyotes, Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, Crows, and Red Foxes are not endangered, rare, or even threatened species, as are many of the region’s nesting shorebirds.

I have seen first hand at Coffins Beach a Red Fox mom and her kit digging in the sand and coming very close to where there was a Piping Plover nest. Last year, the only nest that was at Coffins Beach was believed by Greenbelt to have been predated by fox. In 2018, at Winthrop Beach, dogs off leash, and a skunk, caused the entire colony of 150 pairs of endangered Least Terns to abandon the established nesting area and move elsewhere. The year before that, again at Winthrop Beach, a Peregrine Falcon had killed numerous chicks, both Least Tern and Piping Plover.

 

Least Tern eggs are exposed in the sand, just as are the eggs of Piping Plovers, and many other species of shorebirds.

At Crane Beach, electric fencing is used during the night to keep fox and coyote away from the PiPl and Least Tern nests. The wire exclosures that we use at Good Harbor Beach to protect the nests will only be used for as long as avian predators do not realize they can perch on the edge of the wire and eat the adults as they move in and out of the exclosure to brood the eggs.

Peregrine Falcon eating a bird and a gull waiting to snatch a few morsels. 

In the case of the Peregrine Falcon, it was relocated to the western part of the state. However, relocating mammals is not a legal option in Massachusetts. Electric fencing is not possible at all beaches. Wire exclosures are no longer used at Crane Beach because Great Horned Owls learned they could prey upon the adult Piping Plovers as they were entering and exiting the exclosure.

Killing wildlife to protect other species of wildlife is a very sensitive topic and again, is the action of last resort taken.

People often say, why not let nature takes its course. But there is really very little that is natural about beaches that were once shorebird habitat that have now become public. The reason why we have predation by Red and Gray Fox, Eastern Coyotes, Skunks, Crows, and a variety of gull species at public beaches is because they are attracted to the garbage left behind by people and there is nothing natural about that!

I urge everyone to read the following to gain a better understanding of why some beaches have had to to turn to predator management programs:

Duxbury Beach and Predator Management

Recently questions have come up regarding the predator management program on Duxbury Beach.  This is a controversial and oftentimes upsetting topic but is one of the challenges that the Duxbury Beach Reservation faces when trying to balance the many uses of the beach.

As landowners and stewards of Duxbury Beach for over 100 years, the Reservation strives to maintain a balance between protecting the natural resources of the beach, including habitat for wildlife, preserving the barrier which shelters the communities behind it, and providing use of the beach for recreational purposes including over-sand vehicles.   In order to provide use of the beach for recreation, habitat and species conservation regulations must be adhered to including predator management mandates by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Many residents of the South Shore have visited Duxbury Beach since childhood and have likely seen big changes to the beach – both through dune and infrastructure projects and in how the beach must be managed under local, state, and federal law.

Duxbury Beach is unique is many ways, including the nesting habitat it affords to rare and protected shorebirds.  Unfortunately, Piping Plover conservation, which is regulated under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts, can come in to conflict with human interests, including development and recreation.  In order to provide greater options for beach managers working to adhere to state and federal guidelines for plover protection while providing recreational opportunities, the state of Massachusetts has a Habitat Conservation Plan under the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  The Plan allows certain “risky” activities while providing mitigation to ensure the plover population is better protected overall.  The Duxbury Beach Reservation received a sub-permit under this statewide plan to allow recreational driving on the back road and front beach in closer proximity to young plover chicks.

Under this permit allowing recreational driving, the Duxbury Beach Reservation is responsible for continuing an intensive monitoring program and providing mitigation.  As stated by Mass Wildlife, the only form of mitigation acceptable under the US Fish and Wildlife permit is lethal predator control, because it has the highest likelihood of offsetting the potential loss.

Predator management is not the Reservation’s first option and is carefully considered each year and on a case by case basis.  The predator management program has been in place on Duxbury Beach for 8 years.  For comparison, predator management has occurred on beaches in the state of Massachusetts for over 13 years.  The plan on Duxbury Beach has undergone continuance debate and study throughout its tenure, with examination by multiple agencies and several opportunities for public comment.

The Duxbury Beach predator management program design was and continues to be based on extensive data collected on the beach on predator presence and egg and chick loss to ensure the program targets those species that are responsible for heavy losses.  Fox have been removed 3 of the past 8 years that a predator management program has been in place, and every year the number removed has been far, far fewer than the numbers suggested on social media.  This targeted removal during a limited time of year has been successful in providing two rare and protected species, the Piping Plover and Least Tern, a window of opportunity to nest and raise young on some of the little remaining nesting habitat on the east coast.  It has also afforded thousands of visitors the chance to come and enjoy the beach.

Instituting a predator management program is controversial, challenging, often upsetting, and may even seem counter-intuitive to many.  Why remove one species so that another may succeed?  Aren’t there other options?

While it may seem simple to “let nature take its course” we do not operate in an entirely “natural” system.  With the removal of large predators, such as wolves, from this area by the mid-20th century, mid-sized predators, including fox, coyote, and raccoons, were able to extend their ranges and increase in population in these areas.  There are communities of hundreds of homes flanking Duxbury Beach that provide ample habitat for species like red fox that can do very well in suburban and even urban areas while other species, like the plovers and terns, have had habitat regularly destroyed by development.

Today, the largest cause of plover and tern egg and chick loss on Duxbury Beach, and many other beaches statewide, is predation by species whose populations are not in jeopardy.  Unfortunately, the common predators on Duxbury Beach, including the larger mammals (fox and coyote) and avian predators (crow and gull) are more likely to be attracted to the beach due to trash. There are staff on Duxbury Beach in the summer to pick up trash on the beach, road, and parking lots in the hopes of making the beach less attractive to animals like fox.  With communities at the far end of the beach it is impossible to limit the attractiveness of Duxbury Beach to predators with large ranges. There are very few suitable denning spots on the beach and most of the large mammals come to the beach from mainland Duxbury and Marshfield where they find ample denning spots under houses, sheds, etc.

Unfortunately, relocation of individual predators is not an option for multiple reasons:

  • It is illegal under Massachusetts law to capture and relocate wildlife off your property
  • Conflict, stress, or death caused due to intrusion into an existing individual’s territory
  • Harm to the individuals removed from their territory and a struggle to find food and shelter. Humans do not always recognize appropriate habitats for wildlife and put them in bad locations.
  • Spread of disease
  • Disruption of ecological processes by introducing a new species or more individuals to an area
  • The problem is not solved, but moved to a new location

Many have questioned why Duxbury Beach does not use “wire cages” around plover nests as are sometimes seen on other beaches.  These cages are predator exclosures and are oftentimes an unsuccessful and harmful tool. Unfortunately, predators (including fox, raptors, crow, and others) can target exclosures and kill adults when they switch off the nest. This is more detrimental to plover conservation than losing eggs or chicks because of the loss of future reproductive potential of the breeding adult. Predator exclosure use is highly dependent on beach, nesting site, and predator suite.   On Duxbury Beach it is not typically feasible to use exclosures, however, it is carefully considered. In addition, exclosures do not work for Least Tern nests as they are colonial nesters and fly to and from the nest.

In some cases, electric fencing can be used around plover and/or tern nesting areas. While this is only helpful in detracting large, mammalian predators, it does work on some beaches. Unfortunately, given the span, configuration, and location (dynamic beach), electric fencing is not feasible on Duxbury Beach.

This is not an easy topic and one that is discussed and voted on annually by the Reservation’s board. The Reservation will continue to collect and analyze data and assess all possible options for conservation and site management in order to protect the natural resources of the beach and maintain the protective barrier, while providing access for recreation where possible.  The Reservation will also continue to work with state and federal regulators to find the best options for protection on Duxbury Beach in order to adhere to the laws we must operate under.  We appreciate everyone who has taken the time to learn more about the work and understand that we are doing our upmost to strike a balance between the many uses of Duxbury Beach.

If you are interested in learning more about statewide shorebird conservation efforts or predator management work, we recommend reaching out to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

MORGAN FAUDLS PIKE’S GREAT RED FOX CAPTURE!

Gloucester sculptor and designer Morgan Faulds Pike’s arrestingly beautiful works of art are often inspired by the wildlife and wild habitats of Cape Ann. I love her description of a Red Fox she recently spied. Go here to Morgan’s website to see a collection of her stunning sculptures, carvings for pipe organs, and drawings. And of course, you can always visit her “Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Memorial” on the boulevard.
Thanks so much to Morgan for sharing!!
Hello  Kim,
Heading home Tuesday from an early morning run around the quarries, I saw this fox cross Granite Street toward the Tool Company. She munched on something under a bush in the empty lot while crows, and later mockingbirds, harassed her. I got out of the car and watched her calmly cross at the crosswalk, then head up Curtis street on the sidewalk. A beautiful animal with ink dipped feet and ears and a white tipped fat fur tail. Sorry it’s only iPhone resolution…
Morgan Faulds Pike

Red Fox are so elusive. We used to see them all the time in East Gloucester, especially on the backshore beaches, scavenging early, early in the morning. I see them now much more frequently in West Gloucester (and Gray Fox, too) and Joey recently saw one trotting along in East Gloucester, after years of no sightings.

I read that where you have a greater concentration of Eastern Coyotes there will be fewer Red Fox. I also read that because of habitat competition from the Eastern Coyote, they are now denning closer to people’s homes as these sites are deemed safer from coyotes. Coyotes typically sleep out in the open and don’t usually make a den, unless it’s pupping season, and then they may use a fox’s den.

TRACKING WILD CREATURES ON OUR LOCAL BEACHES (WILL BEARS BE NEXT?)

Just some of the paw prints seen on our local beaches this spring are Eastern Coyote, Red Fox, Skunk, Racoon, White-tailed Deer, and of course, a plethora of crows and gulls.

If you would like to see what wildlife traverses and scavenges Cape Ann beaches when we humans are not there, the best time to look is early, early in the morning, before the tracks are disturbed. Oftentimes the best days to look are after a rain storm, especially after the sand has dried a bit. Forget about tracking tracks on a windy morning. If you are not sure what you are seeing, take a close-up photo of the track, and then take a long shot, too, to see the pattern of the tracks.  

The Mass Wildlife Pocket Guide is the best handy track identification tool because it shows clearly the tracks, as well as the pattern of the tracks, and only shows wildlife we see in Massachusetts.

My favorite tracks to find are (no mystery here) Piping Plover tracks, which are wonderfully shaped, like a diminutive fleur de lis.

Piping Plover tracks showing courtship activity

I am waiting to see Black Bear tracks. Just kidding, although, the range of the Black Bear is expanding from western Massachusetts eastward. I imagine that within ten years Black Bears will, at the very least be frequent visitors to Cape Ann, or will be living in our midst. Just the thing Joey will be thrilled to know 🙂

Learn more about Black Bears here.

 

The Black Bears expanding range in Massachusetts.

Black Bear Cubs

Photo courtesy wikicommons media

THE WHITE-FOOTED MOUSE THAT RAN UP MY DRESS -By Kim Smith

Well hello there little mouse! My husband Tom was releasing a mouse that was caught in his have-a-heart trap. He first opened opened the front door of the trap, with no sign of movement within, and then the back door. After a few minutes passed, out ran the little mouse, but then he froze in his tracks, only several feet from where I was standing. As I was motionless taking his photo, I think he must have thought I was a tree. He suddenly ran up my leg, up under my dress, and poked his head out from beneath my coat. It’s too bad I was holding the camera and not my husband!

Thinking about hantavirus, and just to be on the safe side, I changed my clothes and washed immediately.

Off towards the woods he ran.

Studies show how the increasing Eastern Coyote population has impacted White-footed Mice, Red Fox, and the explosion of Lyme disease. In areas where the Eastern Coyote has outcompeted the Red Fox for habitat, Lyme disease has increased. Coyotes not only kill Red Fox, they simply aren’t as interested in eating mice as are the fox.

 

 

Answer: Both the White-footed and Deer Mouse carry hantavirus, not the House Mouse. To be on the  safe side, if you find rodent droppings in your home or office, do not vacuum because that will disperse the virus throughout the air. Instead, wipe up with a dampened paper towel and discard.

 

Read more about the White-footed Mouse and Lyme disease here: The Mighty White-footed Mouse

CAPE ANN WILDLIFE: A YEAR IN PICTURES 2017

CAPE ANN WILDLIFE: A YEAR IN PICTURES 2017

By Kim Smith

Cape Ann provides welcome habitat for a menagerie of creatures beautiful, from the tiniest winged wonder to our region’s top predator, the Eastern Coyote. Last year I posted a Cape Ann Wildlife Year in Pictures 2016 and I hope you will find the wildlife stories of 2017 equally as beautiful. Click on the image to find the name of each species.

WINTER

The only partially frozen ponds at the start of winter allowed for dabblers and divers such as Mallards, Mergansers, and Buffleheads to forage at the freshwater. Mr. Swan had his usual entourage of quwackers and daily heads to the other side of the pond to get away for his morning stretches. Sightings of Red-tailed Hawks and other raptors abounded. Although photographed in Newburyport, the owl photos are included because these species are found readily on Cape Ann. An Eastern Screech Owl (red-morph) was seen daily perched above a playground and Barred Owl sightings too were reported throughout the winter. Raptors live on Cape Ann all year round but are much easier to see in winter when the trees are bare of foliage.

The beautiful aqua green eyes of the juvenile Double-crested Cormorants were seen wintering at both Niles Pond and Rockport Harbor. And during a warm February day on a snowless marsh a turkey bromance shindig commenced.

SPRING

In early spring, a male and female American Wigeon arrived on the scene making local ponds their home for several weeks. In the right light the male’s electric green feathers at the top of his head shine brightly and both the male and female have baby blue bills.

Meadow and marsh, dune and treetop were graced with the heralding harbingers of spring with photos of a Red-winged Blackbird, a pair of Cedar Waxwings, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Kingbird, Tree Swallow, and Grackle included here.

The Great Swan Escape story made headlines in Boston as Mr. Swan eluded captors for hours. He had re-injured his foot and someone took it upon themselves to call the animal rescuers, which would have surely meant death for our beloved 27-year old swan if he had been wrangled into captivity.

M is clearly for Migration through Massachusetts and the month-long arrivals and departures did not abate. Short-billed Dowitchers, winsome Willets, Yellow Legs, Brandt Geese, and Ruddy Turnstones are just some of the migrating birds spied on Cape Ann beaches and marshes. The best news in May was the return of the Piping Plovers. Of the five or six that camped at Good Harbor Beach to investigate potential nesting sites, one pair bonded and built their nest mere yards from the nesting pair of last year. Could it be the same pair? The nesting Piping Plover story took up much of the spring and by early summer four little Piping Plover chicks hatched over Fiesta weekend. Hundreds of photos and hours of film footage are in the process of being organized with a children’s book and documentary in progress.

Piping Plover Courtship Dance

Piping Plover Nest

SUMMER

OctoPop

The survival of one Piping Plover chick was made possible by a wholesale community effort, with volunteers covering all hours of daylight, along with Mayor Sefatia and her team, Ken Whittaker from the conservation office, Chief McCarthy, and animal control officer Diane Corliss all lending a hand.

Sadly, several Northern Gannets came ashore to die on our Cape Ann beaches, struck by the same mysterious and deadly disease that is afflicting Northern Gannets in other coastal regions. During the summer season they are typically at their North American breeding grounds, which are six well-established colonies, three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, and three in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland.

An orphaned swan was introduced to Niles Pond, much to the dismay of Mr. Swan. Eastern Point residents Skip and Lyn kept watch over the two while they reluctantly became acquainted.

By mid-July many of us were seeing Monarchs in much greater numbers than recent years. Nearly every region within the continental United States experienced a fantastic Painted Lady irruption and butterflies of every stripe and polka dot were seen flitting about our meadows, fields, and gardens.

The tadpoles and froglets of American Bullfrogs and Green Frogs made for good eating for several families of resident otters, who are making their homes in abandoned beaver lodges. Little Blue Herons too, find plentiful frogs at our local ponds.

Tree Swallows Massing

In early August we see the Tree Swallows begin to mass for their return migration. They find an abundance of fruits and insects in the dunes, headlands, and beaches. The Cedar Waxwings and Ruddy Trunstones were observed back again foraging on their southward journey, along with myriad species of songbirds, shorebirds, divers, and dabblers.

FALL

The Late Great Monarch Migration continued into fall as we were treated to a wonderfully warm autumn. Waves and waves of Monarchs came ashore and more butterflies arrived on the scene including new batches of Painted Ladies, Clouded Sulphurs and Common Buckeyes (nothing common about these beauties!).

A pair of Northern Pintails called Cape Ann ponds and coves home for nearly a month while we seem to be seeing more and more raptors such as Red-tailed Hawks, Osprey, Bald Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons. Juvenile herons of every species that breeds on Cape Ann lingered long into the fall—Black-crowned Night Herons, Yellow-crowned Herons, Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, and Green Herons.

Just as Mr. Swan and the Young Swan appeared to be warming to each other, the Young Swan, who has yet to learn to fly, became trapped in the ice at Niles Pond. He was rescued by caretakers Lyn and Dan and is now spending the winter at a cozy sanctuary built by Lyn and friends.

 

Heart Wings Monarch Butterfly

Thank you to all our readers for your kind comments of appreciation throughout the year for the beautiful wild creatures with which we share this gorgeous peninsula called Cape Ann. If you’d like to read more about a particular animal, type the name of the animal in the search box and the original post should come up

With its expansive marshes and dunes, bodies of fresh, clear water, saltwater coves and inlets, and geographic location within the Atlantic Flyway, 2017 has been a banner year for Cape Ann’s wild and wonderful creatures. I can’t wait to see what awaits in 2018!

Snowy Owl “Hedwig” January 2018 Backshore Gloucester

Coyotes, Red Foxes, and Lyme Disease in Massachusetts

Are Coyotes the Cause of an Increase in Lyme Disease?

Struck by the recent interest in coyotes after the fascinating video Two Coyotes Versus One Deer  by Shawn Henry was posted on GMG, I became interested in reading various studies and reports about coyotes, wolves, and foxes in Massachusetts and the Northeast. My primary interest at the onset was of concern for the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), which has seen a tremendous decline in numbers. I wondered if the presence of coyotes (Canis latrans) was negatively impacting the Red Fox. In the past, I often saw a Red Fox in the early morning hours trotting along the shoreline at Brace Cove. I wish so much that I had filmed the last one that I saw because it was a gorgeous scene; a strikingly beautiful creature so completely unaware of my presence and so at home in its realm, investigating rock and seaweed, pausing to sniff the air, and then resuming its journey. The last time I saw a Red Fox in our neighborhood was over three years ago. As I was reading about coyotes I learned the findings of some of the most recent studies indicate that because Eastern Coyotes out-compete the Red Fox, the coyotes are the cause of an increase in Lyme disease. More on that in a moment.

1_22_coyote_snarl

The coyotes that now inhabit every region in Massachusetts are an invasive species. They are a hybrid cross species of the Western Coyote (found west of the Mississippi) and Red Wolf (Canis lupus rufus). “Researchers now believe that the Eastern Coyote is a hybridization between the Western Coyote and Red Wolf many generations ago in the upper Great Lakes region of the United States. It is theorized that as populations of the Western Coyote increased, they were forced to move east and north in search of food. As they moved into Minnesota they crossbred with Gray/Red Wolves and produced a genetically hardy animal able to sustain itself through New England winters.” (Mass Audubon)

Coyotes are not “re-populating” this region because this new species was never in our region.

Eastern Coyotes have extremely broad food habits and many factors affect the coyotes’ diet, including competition with other mammals, abundance of prey, season, and weather. In the Northeast, their diet consists of shrews, rabbits, voles, woodchucks, mice, deer, beaver, muskrat, weasels, squirrels, and carrion. And according to Mass Audubon, “They eat ground-nesting birds and their eggs, as well as reptiles and amphibians. When other prey is scarce they will eat a variety of insects including grasshoppers, beetles and cicadas. When animal matter is scarce, they will eat available fruits including apples, cherries, grapes, and strawberries.”

The rapid invasion of the alien Eastern Coyote has negatively impacted many sympatric native species, as the coyote has assumed the role of top-order predator. The coyote has fundamentally altered the existing ecosystem and various species have experienced population declines as a direct result of their role as coyote prey or from direct competition for food. “Culturally and ecologically significant species including Red Fox decline dramatically in response to increasing coyote populations. Eastern Coyote and Red Fox share many common habitat requirements and occupy overlapping niches. Through time, the larger and more resilient coyote is able to out-compete and displace resident fox populations.” (Department of Natural Resources, Maryland.)

Studies have shown repeatedly that Eastern Coyote predation on deer is minimal. Most herds can handle the coyotes. Typically coyotes have success with fawns that are 4-5 weeks old (after they have become more active and are not by the mother’s side), weakened and sickly adults, and deer separated from the herd. These targets represent approximately one or two percent of the total deer population. While coyote diet studies show consistently the use of deer for food, it does not appear that coyote limit deer population on a regional scale.

Although the population of White-tailed Deer has stabilized, Lyme disease continues to increase. In June of 2012 researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz published their findings from the study “Deer, Predators, and the Emergence of Lyme Disease.” (Taal Levi, lead author.)

The study found that once where there was an abundance of Red Foxes, there is now an abundance of Eastern Coyotes.  Even more significantly, fewer coyotes will inhabit an area once populated by more foxes. The greater number of foxes would have consumed a larger number of small tick-bearing animals, primarily White-footed Mice, Short-tailed Shrews, and Eastern Chipmunks, all of which transmit Lyme disease bacteria to ticks. It appears as though it is the Red Fox that once kept the population of these smaller rodents under control.

red-fox-killing-a-mouse

Even when there is a threefold rise in deer population, study after study now shows that the strongest predictors of a current year’s risk of Lyme disease are an abundance of acorns two years previously. How does that work?

Many acorns = many healthy mice and chipmunks.

Many healthy mice and chipmunks  = many tick nymphs.

The following year when it may not be a bumper acorn crop = fewer mice.

Fewer mice and chipmunk = dogs and humans become vectors for the ticks.

While acorns don’t serve as a universal predictor because Lyme disease can be traced to forests where there are no oak trees, the data suggest that food sources and predators of small forest mammals are likely to be valuable in predicting Lyme disease risk for humans.

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To summarize, multiple studies suggest that the invasive Eastern Coyote out-competes and kills the native Red Fox population, which leads to a rise in the number of small animals particularly the White-footed Mouse and Eastern Chipmunk, which in turn leads to an increase in ticks that carry Lyme disease. The impact of the Eastern Coyote on native deer population is negligible. And, as many family’s can attest, the impact of the Eastern Coyote on populations of domestic cats and small dogs has been devastating.

Typically the excuse given for unwanted encounters with wildlife is that people are encroaching on the animal’s habitat. That simply is not the case with the Eastern Coyote. The Eastern Coyote is advancing on humans–and they like what they see; no large predators, a reluctance on the part of people to hunt and trap, and an abundance of food. The environmentally and culturally destructive chain reaction caused by the Eastern Coyote invasion is taking on added urgency as the coyote strikes closer and closer to home.

It is legal in the state of Massachusetts to shoot and kill a coyote from your home. If confronted by a coyote, make as much noise as possible, if attacked, fight back aggressively.

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