Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Unstoppable Chuck Waggy

Chuck Waggy dreams about spotted skunks.  He wakes up each morning wondering where his two little buddies are that day.  Which parts of the mountain above his rural West Virginia home they moved around in during the night, and where they are now denned up for the day.

Chuck gained spotted skunk fame three years ago for his camera trap images of spotted skunks as part of the Appalachian Eagle Monitoring Program.  Since that time, he has likely captured more camera trap images of the species than anyone else alive, and it is little wonder state and university scientists came to Chuck (a retired West Virginia Division of Natural Resources employee himself) for help in learning more about this cryptic mammal of the forest.

In April, Emily Thorne, a graduate student studying spotted skunks at Virginia Tech, drove up to visit Chuck and help take his spotted skunk tracking to the next level by placing radio-tracking collars on a few animals.  All told, they captured 4 spotted skunks in April of this year.  Two animals mysteriously vanished within weeks of collaring, but two have stayed in the area with their collars on so that Chuck, equipped with a radio-tracking antenna and the specific frequency coordinates, can track the skunks.

Planning to start up a similar spotted skunk project in South Carolina this fall, Emily and I joined Chuck for the afternoon of a late July day to learn more about what has worked and not worked during his pioneering study.  Upon arriving, he immediately begins talking about Angie and Sal is if they are members of his family.  It takes me a minute to realize he is talking about two spotted skunks which he has affectionately named after family members.

We load into his truck on the muggy day and begin the climb up an old forest service road near his home, through several locked gates, and are finally on the mountain Sal and Angie call home.  All 4 spotted skunks originally captured were trapped very close together, at one point all on one photograph (see related earlier blog post).   Chuck believes that was a one-time event during the breeding season, and his tracking over the past 3 months has revealed that the two skunks which remained collared have been relatively far apart from one another.  Not only is separate dens, but on some nights by making rather dramatic, solitary movements to new areas of the mountain that have required countless hours and circuits around the mountain for Chuck to track down.

We step out of the truck and into the mid-afternoon heat.  Midges and gnats swarm our heads, running into our eyes and buzzing our ears.  Rain has been generous this year and we walk up to a ridge noticing dozens of species of fungi growing in rainbow of collars from the forest floor and bases of large oak trees.  Gypsy moths have been very active and taken a toll on the forest this year.  We walk past oak tree after oak tree whose rough bark is littered with old casings and the yellow hard foam mats of egg cases.  Chuck turns on his GPS unit to walk us to several old den sites used by Angie and Sal.  The first site is located 20 feet up an oak tree.  Most studies of spotted skunks focus on the root masses or rocky outcrops on the ground that provide vital den cover, it appears these Appalachian skunks find trees equally of use. I ask Emily if there is a pattern emerging and she says that she thinks that "they are opportunists," taking advantage  of whenever a suitable opening is available.  Indeed Chuck's data shows that they will revisit dens, hanging out in an area for a few days, then moving on to another den.  Perhaps in search of food?  Perhaps due to territoriality?  As Chuck reminds me, with only two skunks collared is to hard to know for sure.

We top the ridge and Chuck puts away his GPS and turns on his radio-tracking equipment.  We are done with looking for old dens, and start looking for where Angie is right now.  The signal is faint but comes from the southwest, diagonally downhill and on the other side of the mountain from where we parked.  Chuck leads the way, pausing every few minutes to scan and determine which direction produces the strongest signal.  In addition to trees, Chuck has documented that his two spotted skunks often den under rocks, under upturned root masses, and hollow logs.  The consistent theme being under cover that can dramatically impact the strength of the signal.  That, combined with the steep topography of these closely packed ridges and valleys can cause a signal to bounce around, from one valley to another, leading Chuck around the mountain for hours.  By the end of the day, the last piece of advice Chuck would leave me with is to develop a "skunk sense" to be able to minimize the amount of time one wanders around in the hills.  I could already see that I needed to dramatically increase my skunk IQ, and fast.

The signal picks up as we continue down hill, further and further from the truck.  Despite walking down hill, we begin to pour sweat.  We top a small ridge and pause again to catch our bearings.  The skunk is close now, the pings coming off the receiver are so loud that Chuck can detach the antenna from the receiver and still hear Angie's signal.  A rocky outcropping catches our eye.  This is the bit of skunk sense Chuck alluded to, knowing what is likely suitable for a skunk even when it is hidden underground from view.  Chuck climbs up and narrows down on the exact crevice she is likely sleeping away the heat of the day in.  I climb up and notice a slightly skunky smell, but then it passes and we are left with only the pinging of the receiver to confirm that she is indeed there.

Chuck pulls out his notepad and records the specifics of the site, canopy cover, location, den type, date, etc.  I back off to take mental note of Angie's choice of locations.  Tall oaks shelter the ground such that only a moderate amount of light gets down to the sparse mountain laurel and patches of bright green moss in the duffy understory below.  A small creek trickles somewhere several hundred feet downhill but out of view due to the growth of lush ferns.  Nearby, a brilliant red summer tanager flits among leaves of a dogwood.  As Chuck finishes recording his data, Emily and I are sent with the GPS unit to look at a couple of additional old dens further down hill as Chuck trudges back uphill to get the truck and collect us down at the bottom of the mountain.   We attempt to use the GPS,  but the closed forest canopy keeps its navigational arrow bouncing around, telling us to go left, then right, as it struggles to connect to satellites.  We finally stumble on the orange flagging marking one of Angie's old dens and notice nothing more than a small hole in the ground by the base of a fallen pine.  Hardly large enough for a house cat to fit its head in, there is a curious 2-foot-long section of snake vertebrae leading out of the burrow entrance, picked nearly clean.  Emily immediately reaches down for a closer look, then drops it, remarking on how it is still fresh.  Soft with flies still around, it has to be a fairly fresh kill, within the past week if not couple of days.  Given that it is at a den site, we assume it was the prey of a spotted skunk.  Not the normally reported diet of insects and small mammals were accustomed to reading about, but not entirely surprising given that our friends down in Alabama did get a photo of a spotted skunk carrying a snake in a camera trap image this past year. 

Walking back to the road my mind begins to wander.  Was this Angie's kill?  How many spotted skunks are up here?  We know there were at least 4 in the area in March, drawn to the bait put out by Chuck during harsh winter months, but are there more?   Again, the more we learn, the more we questions what we know about this species.  Chuck is already showing that what applies to spotted skunk behavior down in Arkansas and Florida does not apply here.  Perhaps most worrisome, Angie, a female spotted skunk is moving around a lot.  Not the sign of a mother with a litter of young skunk pups.  Did she fail to produce?  Did she loose her litter to a predator?  This all gets at the question of how spotted skunks are doing in this region.  Are they increasing?  Declining?  Is this just a last isolated pocket of the species or are they running around at night in relatively healthy populations scattered along the forested spine of the Appalachian mountains.  Thanks to people like Chuck, scientists and managers no longer have to daydream about the answers to these questions, but they are being tested and answered hard-earned field data.