Saturday, July 2, 2011

Day 32: Power

Today was a day off, so I again managed to weasel my way into being taken out by a field crew and being a tourist photographer! I went out to the field with Ryan to search and check out the fox dens. To do so, we had to take ATVs, the first time I've ever got to drive an ATV. It was an odd feeling of power and destruction while driving an ATV. The power was like mountain biking, but faster and heavier mixed with driving a mini monster truck, like I could go anywhere. Most of the time we were on established trails that were already cut through the tundra, so it wasn't too destructive. A couple of times though, the path disappeared, especially in the swamp and when we got a bit lost on the tundra. That's when driving felt the most destructive, throwing up mud, running over a larch that stood about 2 feet high but is probably older than I am. The only justification that I can give is that I helped with research. I don't think I could ever go out just for fun without reason. Though I mostly took pictures rather than do any science. I guess it's just good to have a second set of eyes to look out for bears and catch some signs of the fox when the clues are sometimes so hard to find. 

So these are the ATVs on the tundra. I wasn't able to get any pictures of the  2 foot deep... mud puddles don't really describe them since they were more like ponds on the road. I wasn't able to get any pics because I had my camera in my jacket and once you got into a puddle, you really can't stop unless you feel like getting stuck and having to get off and wade in the 2 feet of water. Wearing only rubber boats and rain pants, I wasn't going to stop if I could help it. The worst spots were going through the swamps. The water isn't so bad since you can power through it, but the mud was impossible to get through. I got stuck twice in the deep mud, trying to get back on the path and going perpendicular to the ice wedges in the peat. Ryan was really good at getting the ATVs unstuck. It was a lot of fun though!

The purpose of the trip! We made it to the first fox den. This is Ryan kneeling beside a fox burrow opening that was recently being used. He could tell that it was recently used because of the fresh fox scat (which he is bagging in this picture.) The scat was smaller than normal, so he thought that the scat was probably from fox cubs. Around this time, the fox cubs will come out for a few hours with their parents and run around a bit before hiding back in the burrows. I didn't get to see any of the fox, but to see the evidence was really cool to find. It was like a crime scene.

Fox dens are really interesting for the fact that each year, the fox dens can be used by a different fox, even a different species of fox. That's why Ryan is checking the dens, to see if they are being actively used - looking for fresh kills, for fresh scat, sniffing the dens for the skunky, musky fox smell and, here, looking for fur to figure out which species of fox it is. Ryan is holding a big piece of white fur here which is probably from an arctic fox because they are shedding their winter coat around now. Red fox, which are also found in the area, also have a bit of white fur on their undercoat, but it normally doesn't get shed quite this much. That's why Ryan thinks that this den is an arctic fox den, at least it is for this year. It might be something else next year. Also, notice the mosquitos. This is nothing. This was bearable. It was much worse in the forests where I could slap my hand that is black with mosquitos, wait a single second, and slap and entire new layer right after. They still managed to bite through my work gloves as well.

This is a fox den that isn't being used this year and probably hasn't been for a while. There are only small bone fragments, not even the full bones of birds that could have been killed years ago. But in this picture, I want to point out the bluish green pastel grass on top of the small hill. This grass and willows tend to be indications of a fox den. I think it may have something to do with how the fox push nutrient rich dirt that is underground to the surface, adding nutrients to the surface for richer growth. I'm not sure if this is true, but I like the hypothesis. I thought it might be similar to how prairie dogs influence vegetative growth by digging up the dirt. I wonder if anyone has looked into that.

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