Saturday, November 23, 2013

Who's that chit-chattering behind the Nature House?

The latest time I went to the Nature House at Elk/Beaver Lake this fall, I expected to use my science talents, but I never expected to meet a new neighbour. A small neighbour, and new to me but a long-time resident of the area.

First sign of the little neighbour was a loud, repeated "CHIK!" sound from outside and behind the Nature House. I put down my gear -- a folding inflatable kayak in its bag, and a small drybag holding my wallet and spare dry shirt -- and walked round to the back of the Nature House. Up in a poplar tree was a small animal running from branch to branch, occasionally pausing to declare "CHIK!" in indignant tones.
Eventually I saw glimpses of it through the branches. It wasn't a bird as I'd thought; it was a furry four-footed animal. It wasn't a squirrel, either a red squirrel or a grey squirrel. Squirrels have long bushy tails. It wasn't a rat, either -- this animal's tail was shorter and furry, not long and bald. This little animal had a neat small head, and its furry coat was dark on the back with a white underside. I watched it scurry high in the branches, scolding another animal that was unseen; perhaps it was scolding a crow or raven.
Then I went into the Nature House, curious to figure out what I had seen. It was time for a little simple science research. But with no computer access to the internet, it was time to hit the books.
This photo is from - check out their website!
First book I found on the Nature House shelves was Mammals of British Columbia. It's a great resource, with photos as well as descriptions of the animals and their habitats. The second book I opened was Carnivores of British Columbia. I had an idea what kind of animal this might be.
The sound this animal made reminded me of the sound I'd heard a baby river otter making on a seashore one day, and otters are carnivores. I wondered what kind of animals are related to otters, and are found in trees? Was this animal a pine marten, or maybe a fisher? It wasn't anywhere near big enough for either.
The little animal turned out to be the smallest member of the mustelidae family: a least weasel.
How wonderful it was to see this neat, bright little animal in the photos, and match it to the little fellow scrambling quickly through the trees. Small books like the ones in the Nature House or the public library are so useful for understanding more about our animal neighbours. I'm so glad that when I heard the sound of the weasel in the tree, I didn't just assume it was one more crow among many.
Later at home, I was able to find all sorts of interesting websites that can help us figure out what animals we're seeing in the woods, or traces that animals leave behind. One of them is the Canadian Museum of Nature website, which has lots of resources for learning a little or a lot. And it's bilingual!
The University of British Columbia has posted a list of animals. Canadian Geographic magazine has a website listing animal fact sheets for free download in English or French. And the Ministry of the Environment has an Identification Manual to the Small Mammals of British Columbia, with a link so that you can download and print it if you like. This manual is really detailed, right down to five drawings detailing key differences among chipmunk genital bones. That's a little more detail than I needed to identify my neighbour, the least weasel.

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