Twice this month, while walking with my dogs through the woods on the neighbors’ acreage, we heard wildlife warning calls: Stay away!
In both instances, the calls came from a few yards off the path, well into the trees. I couldn’t see the animal issuing the call, but the first one I recognized, a call I know well: Coyote.
Before I share that video, here’s one I took later, on June 21st, following Conall along that same path through the woods, Finn at my heels. It sets the scene. I was taking this video because I hoped to see the other animals we startled in this area: a Ruffed Grouse hen and her chicks.
That’s a good representation of how Conall, always in the lead, uses his senses to become aware of the wildlife around us. I, then, cue off Conall’s body language. The challenge, though, is guessing what particular animal he’s noticed. Chipmunk? Grouse? Wild Turkey? Or something deserving more concern, like a coyote, or moose? His signals are often subtle, but I’ve learned to read them.
On the morning of June 9th, the boys and I were strolling slowly along the section of woods in the video. Toward the far end, Conall – maybe ten feet ahead of me – suddenly stopped and turned ninety degrees to peer intently through the trees. His tail dropped, which is my clue that what he’s seen, smelled or heard gives him pause and I should be prepared.
Right as I focused on Conall’s stance I heard barking, sounding like a dog in hot pursuit of something, or maybe confronting a threat. It was an odd series of short barks.
I immediately thought, Did Finn see something and chase it, hurting himself? But I couldn’t image my old dog doing that. I looked at my feet, and there was Finn, looking at me and Conall, wondering why we were standing still. I unwound the dogs’ leashes from my waist and put one on Finn. In this instance, I was grateful for Finn’s near-deafness. He wasn’t at all concerned at the unusual barking.
Then, sounding much closer to us, I recognized the distinctive bark of a coyote. Barks that turned into their better-known quick yips/howls.
No mistaking that warning! It did not want us to come any closer.
May/June is when coyote pups are leaving their dens for the first time. Their parents become extremely protective of them. There have been warnings all over social media and local papers lately, telling people to be aware and avoid dens and pups, especially if walking with their dogs.
I haven’t heard a lot of coyote calls since moving here nearly a year ago, but I know there are some living in the area the boys and I walk almost daily. Mostly we see their scat, but some evenings I’ve been serenaded with their howls. And then there was the incident of the trapped and wailing coyote last winter.
Yet I still haven’t seen a coyote in Vermont, which is proof of their elusive and shy natures, because in Idaho I saw them regularly.
Finn secure on his leash, Conall staying close to me on the path, I decided to take a few seconds to record the coyote’s warning vocalizations. I aimed the camera toward the trees, but never saw the coyote, the foliage too thick.
We returned the way we came, heeding the coyote’s warning. Conall stopped to check behind us every few yards to make sure we weren’t going to be ambushed from behind. (That’s a dog thing; never turn your back on a potential threat.) The coyote kept vocalizing. It sounded like she moved from the obscurity of the dense trees to the path to watch us, making sure we did indeed retreat, but I couldn’t see her.
A few days later, on that same path through the woods, Conall gave a quick alert – his body tense, tail high on his back and waving, meaning something harmless to us, but interesting – and in that same instant I heard a whoosh through the ferns and shrubs nearby. Two fat, fluffy little birds flew down the path directly toward me before veering off the side into the undergrowth. I grabbed my camera, and managed to get a photo of one before they both ran off through the ferns and other plants, disappearing.
The boys and I kept walking. Within a minute I heard what sounded like a sad puppy, a whining dog sound. My mind was whirling with thoughts: Is that a lone coyote pup? This is where we were warned off a few days ago. But wait, why would a coyote pup whine and make its location obvious? Conall’s paying attention, looking through the trees in the same place where we were warned earlier. What’s going on?
We didn’t receive any warning barks from an adult coyote, so I cautiously urged the boys – Finn leashed again – to keep moving ahead, through the woods and emerging into one of the meadows to complete our loop.
Thinking about what I’d seen and heard as we finished our walk, I realized it would be too much of a coincidence to startle the young birds and then hear a coyote pup whine just a minute later, on the other side of the path. Where was the chicks’ parent? The chicks were a pretty good size, round little bodies, but their short, fluffy feathers and wings marked them as quite young. And clearly they were just learning to fly – they never got more than a foot off the ground and didn’t fly very far. They looked more like Pixar animations than real birds as they flew toward me at ankle height.
Quail? Pheasant (or what they call Partridge here)? A mystery to me.
Back home, I downloaded my photos and realized the one I took of one of the chicks turned out decently, given how hastily it was taken and how well the chick was hidden. Maybe it would help me identify the type of bird.
Intensely curious about the whining sound I’d heard, suspecting it was related to the baby birds, I started researching bird types. Based on an online photo of a Ruffed Grouse chick, I decided that’s what I’d seen and photographed. Then I researched the calls of Ruffed Grouse and made the definitive ID on the All About Birds website: they do indeed have a call that sounds like a whining puppy! (If you visit the site via the link above, click on the Sounds icon, then listen to the fourth one down, recorded in New York on April 30, 2016. Or, watch the video below.)
The sad puppy sound I heard is the last one in this video, starting at 1:25 and continuing to the end. (Try to ignore the ads. Sorry. At least this video offers footage of grouse.)
My guess is that a Ruffed Grouse hen was trying to distract Conall and me away from her chicks by making the whining puppy sound, several feet off into the trees on the opposite side of the path from where her chicks hid. It certainly did get our attention; both Conall and I spent a minute or so peering through the tree trunks, trying to see what was making that sound, but since my immediate thought and fear was coyote pup, we didn’t stick around and I didn’t record it for myself.
A few years ago, running along a remote Idaho forest trail with Conall, we startled three grouse chicks. They ran headlong down the trail right in front of Conall for a few feet before dashing off through the huckleberry shrubs to hide. As soon as Conall and I recovered from that surprise, we were “attacked” by their mother from behind. I heard squawking, turned to look behind me, and saw a large bird, wings outstretched and tail feathers fanned, running right for us, head down as if to peck us to death. She was fierce. Both Conall and I ran for our lives, hearts racing!
Since our initial encounter with the grouse and her chicks on June 13th, the boys and I have startled them three other times as we walk our usual routes. The latter encounters were in tall field grass, close to the edge of the woods. One time I think I saw at least six chicks take flight. And mama? She’s enormous. I don’t want to mess with her.
These grouse encounters were happening so frequently that I started walking with my phone camera in my hand, already opened and set to video so I could (I hoped) record them flying off. But of course, whenever I was prepared, they didn’t show. Including this morning.
Conall and I were running through the fields and woods, stringing together several small figure-eight loops to add distance. As we ran through the woods where we first met the grouse family, I had my phone ready. Nothing. Running through a field where we’d seen them a few days ago, once again I was ready. Nothing. I gave up and put my phone back in my running pack.
And, of course, that’s when we saw them. Conall was a few feet ahead of me, making a beeline through a field toward a pond for a drink, when whoosh! The sound of grouse wings pushing air to gain altitude startles me every time! First three chicks rose above the grass, then mama, all flying for the safety of the woods. The chicks are flying higher and farther now, truly getting their wings under them. Fun to see.
I hope the other chicks I saw a few days ago were hiding in the tall grass rather than flying for safety. I hate to think they’re no longer, but it’s a tough life for grouse chicks, especially with coyotes living nearby.
The woods of Vermont are so different than those I grew to know and love in Idaho. In Idaho, the trees are mostly firs and pines, growing big, tall, and well-spaced (especially if the Forest Service has thinned them). At eye level, it’s mostly trunks; the needle-covered limbs are higher on older trees. And the undergrowth is relatively short, mostly wildflowers, short grasses, and low-growing shrubs, like Huckleberry, Wild Dog Roses, and Serviceberry. At higher elevations, there’s even less undergrowth. One can usually see quite a distance through the trees, so animals like deer, elk, black bear and coyotes are easily heard and observed.
Vermont’s woods are…thicker. Shorter. More dense. Most trees are deciduous, their leaves blocking light and line of sight. Once spring arrives, with the forest understory bursting forth with new growth after the long winter, trees leafing out, and grasses and ferns growing hip high, one’s sight is limited to just a few feet beyond the wood’s edge before everything appears dark and a little menacing.
To give you an idea, here’s another video I took on June 21st, Conall alerting to something in the darkness of the trees, me wary, calling him to stay with me.
It’s that awareness and ability to alert me to…something, everything, that endears me to Alaskan Malamutes. People are surprised I’m willing to head into forests alone. That was especially true in Idaho. I try to explain that I’m not alone, I’m with the best possible companion – Conall (and before him, Maia and Meadow). Following the dogs’ lead, paying close attention to what they see, hear, and smell, I’ve been able to see wildlife I would otherwise have missed. They don’t want to chase or kill wildlife; they’re observers, like me. And, because Alaskan Malamutes are visually intimidating to humans and wildlife – large and wolf-like in appearance – I always feel protected and safe in their company.
While I didn’t get any grouse video this morning, I did get some nice photos of a pond with Blue Flag irises blooming along the edge, including the feature photo for this post.