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Anita’s Blog -- Vestiges of Visitors

What lurks in yonder yard after the house is closed up for the night and the occupants are sleeping?


We have a couple of great horned owls; I hear them in the wee hours of the morning. Earlier this year, I photographed them in the top of a tree across the resaca, just after daybreak. I watched as they flew off, one swooping into one of the tall Washingtonian palms that line our driveway. I traipsed over, aimed the camera into the tangle of fronds and took a series of shots. Amazingly, one was clear enough to be identified on iNaturalist.org. Below is that photo. The tell must have been the glowing red eye or the fall of the mottled feathers.


Great Horned Owl. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Recently, a blob of gray matter was splashed onto the driveway under that owl palm, the protruding bones telling me an owl had recently been well-fed. It was an owl pellet.


Owl pellet. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Owls usually swallow their prey whole or nearly whole. Owl stomach acid is weak; they can’t digest fur, teeth, bones, claws or feathers. A little bit about owl anatomy: They have two chambers in their stomachs, as do other birds; in the first chamber, the glandular stomach or proventriculus, is where the parts of the meal are liquefied. The meal then passes into the gizzard where digestible food goes on into the intestine; the indigestible matter remains in the gizzard where it’s compacted into a pellet. About 12 hours after eating their prey, owls spit out the pellet by coughing it out. Apparently, pellets are odorless, as they are clean of all flesh.


The pellet shape, size and texture depend on the owl species and the prey the owl consumed. Some, like my recent find, are loosely compacted and have an irregular shape. Great horned owl pellets vary greatly because of the vast variety of their diet. They hunt rabbits, rodents and birds; owls are one of the few animals known to eat skunks.


More about owl pellets from an earlier blog post are here:

https://rgvctmn.org/blog/anitas-blog-a-peculiarity-of-owl-pellets/


Some people like to dissect owl pellets to see what critter an owl had for a meal. The Internet takes you to companies that sell sanitized owl pellet kits for schools, home schooling, and organizations for science projects. As I mentioned in the earlier blog post about owl pellets, it’s wise to be cautious and wear a face mask and gloves if you want to see what’s in an owl pellet you might find on your own.


Another interesting discovery happened when our dock finally emerged from the receding resaca waters, although it was left covered in a thin layer of slime. I was inspecting it to see what it would take to clean off the slats and noticed faint animal tracks had preceded my arrival. There were two sets. The tracks in the middle of the ramp were obviously domestic cat tracks, judging by the one-inch-in-diameter size, but the ones along the side were more than twice that, measuring a little over two inches. The bobcat! I could envision a bobcat walking to the end of the dock for a drink from the resaca. Whatever it was, the animal seemed to have walked back close to its other set of tracks.


The dock ramp at right. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Animal track, possibly bobcat. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The dock plank measures 5 1/2 inches. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Animal tracks. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The photos aren’t as clear as the owl-in-palm photo for iNaturalist, but various Internet sites about tracks led me to be almost positive that our visitor was a bobcat. Bobcat tracks are about two inches in diameter. The wet muck on the dock deck wasn’t thick enough to register the heel marks of the animal’s paws, which would have been a good tell. Bobcats have two front lobes and three rear lobes in each heel pad.


Coyotes, on the other hand, have somewhat similar tracks but have one front lobe and two rear lobes in their heel pad. Often, an imprint will show the coyote’s non-retractable claws above the toe print. Feline tracks rarely show the claw mark because their claws are retracted. Canine tracks typically are longer than they are wide while feline tracks have more of an equal length and width, or it may be wider than it is tall. Feline toe pads are horizontally oblong, if the toes are splayed.


One thing that doesn’t add up is that bobcats are diagonal walkers and direct register which means that their rear feet land in or close to their front footprints. I don’t detect that on the tracks I found on the dock, except one print that is less distinctive than the others. The Internet photographs look like what I photographed on our dock. Perhaps the bobcat is still on our circuit. I wrote about a bobcat sighting on the opposite shore of the resaca earlier, which can be read at this link:


Anita’s Blog - Abundant but Rarely Seen - Rio Grande Valley Chapter Texas Master Naturalist (rgvctmn.org)


A third oddity soon captured my curiosity but raised some questions.


A couple of months ago, a volunteer vine sprouted near a tree I’d just planted. Two musk melons developed from the vines. The smaller melon disappeared early on. The other melon was nearly ready to harvest. And then, it, too, was gone without a trace. About two feet from where the melon had been, I discovered scat. Gray, furry-looking scat. My research points it to be coyote scat. Does the missing melon have anything to do with the scat? What animal would eat an entire melon? A skunk, racoon, opossum? Coyote? It’s a mystery.


Scat, possibly coyote. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Researching about coyote scat, one site noted that it’s generally several inches long, the diameter of a cigar and tapered at the end. Coyotes eat small animals, birds and insects, so their scat will contain bits of bone, feathers, fur and insect exoskeletons. Scat color typically ranges from dark black to gray, depending on the diet. It’s typically filled with fur and bones during winter and seeds and berries during summer.


It’s exciting and disturbing at the same time to think our small acreage has such animal diversity at night, although I began wondering if the dock tracks might possibly be coyote instead of bobcat or the scat bobcat and not coyote and questioned whether both species would go along the same route. Further research indicated that the two critters can share a similar range. Coyotes exist throughout all of the United States, southern Canada and into Alaska; the bobcat inhabits much of the same territory with a notable exception of the upper Midwest.


Any animal tracks or scat experts who may be able to distinguish species from the information and photos posted here, please let us know.

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Websites and articles helpful in my research for this blog post were: allaboutbirds.org, illinoisbobcat.org, outdoorlife.com, sciencing.com, southcoastbotanicgarden.org, trutechinc.com, urbancoyoteresearch.com and agrilife.org

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