Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Outdoor Family Time and the Discovery of a New Mammal

Waking Up and Looking Up After a Night Camping at Mutual Dell in American Fork Canyon (Utah County, UT)
I love how exploring nature teaches me really important stuff--like the origins for everyday terms and phrases we use. Many have their origins in our perspective of animals and their behaviors.  I also treasure the bonding experiences I have with family and friends while enjoying the outdoors. I'll start with the family time and share the word origin part at the end when I recount the discovery of a mammal I'd never seen before.

I went camping last Friday and Saturday with my son Matt and his wife Tiffany. Matt had reserved a campsite at Mutual Dell, a private camping area owned by the Latter-day Saint Church in American Fork Canyon. We enjoyed setting up camp, building a fire, having some dinner, and simply visiting with one another. While starting the fire and cooking we practiced some of the survival skills Matt had learned recently and then we taught each other how to tie some knots using paracord (parachute cord). Matt had made a really cool survival bracelet from black paracord for me for Father's Day. I now wear that bracelet every time I go outdoors. Putting on the bracelet is my "time for the outdoors" ritual now.

It was a bit of heaven being with my son and his wife in that setting. We were surrounded by a mix of conifers and deciduous trees, steep mountains, and a stream was flowing nearby. Our normal daily cares and routines were left in the valley during our brief escape to the canyon.  We were simply calm and present with one another. We saw and heard Red Squirrels, Chickadees, Nuthatches, Vireos, Jays, Flycatchers, Woodpeckers, Creepers, and more. Deer made occasional appearances and Hummingbirds were buzzing around our campsite because the caretakers and volunteers at Mutual Dell keep hummingbird feeders filled with sugar water during the summer months.

As the light gave way to darkness and we'd spent a fair amount of time visiting around the fire it eventually became time to head to the tents. I decided to make a trip down to the rest room as an effort to reduce the odds of having to make such a trip in the middle of the night. I strapped on my headlamp and began the short walk. Just before getting to the restrooms I heard some rather forceful scratching sounds coming from a tree to my left. I almost ignored the sounds thinking another small, nocturnal mammal was starting up its activities for the evening. But something gave me reason to think twice. Okay, so I probably think twice and try to investigate most of what I hear and see outdoors. My family can attest to these random derailments while I'm in the nature zone. I stopped and turned my lamp toward the large trunk that had been completely dark a second before. I was puzzled by what I saw. It was a mammal to be sure, but it was one I'd never seen before. I tried to place it. I tried to push the play button of my mind's eye to recall a few of the pages from the squirrel section of my mammal field guide. It just didn't fit. "Those ears are too big. My what long whiskers you have! What's with that long, fuzzy-but-not-really-all-that-bushy tail?" Those were a few of the thoughts I had. None of them helped me identify this newly discovered mammal.

I decided to capture an image with my phone camera while illuminating the subject with the light from my headlamp. I got a couple of images so I could refer to them later when I was able to get a mammal guide in my hands. I had recently deleted the mammal guide app from my phone thinking I needed to save some memory. I quickly decided to run to my locked truck and retrieve my Nikon gear with hopes of capturing some better images. The mystery mammal was still present when I returned so I decided to fetch my son so he would witness this discovery with me. He was a good sport and left his lovely wife resting in the tent. I wish I could say it was a Northern Flying Squirrel, but that would be wishful thinking.

Here are some of the images I captured. The body was about 8 inches long and the tail was about the same length so it was about 15 or 16 inches long from nose to tip of tail. They are primarily nocturnal and live near rocky outcrops, talus slopes, and in canyons and mountainous areas so it's no wonder few people ever see one of these.

Bushy-tailed Woodrat at Mutual Dell in American Fork Canyon, Utah County, UT
Bushy-tailed Woodrat at Mutual Dell in American Fork Canyon, Utah County, UT
Bushy-tailed Woodrat at Mutual Dell in American Fork Canyon, Utah County, UT
Bushy-tailed Woodrat at Mutual Dell in American Fork Canyon, Utah County, UT
It turns out that this is a Bushy-tailed Woodrat. They tend to collect debris, including things discarded by humans, and pack them back to the entrance of their dens. This behavior of hanging onto things that don't seem to serve a purpose is the origin of our term "pack rat".

I turned off my headlamp after taking a few images and stood in the dark to listen for the Woodrat to move on to its business for the night. While standing in the dark I heard two Great Horned Owls calling from the conifers on the mountainside.  After listening to the owls call a few times I finally accomplished what I had set out earlier to do, the restroom part. Soon I was back inside my one-man tent. It had been a great evening. I was looking forward to another sunrise and a morning with Matt, Tiff, and nature.

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