Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bucket Babies, Babies, Babies!

As usual, this week was a crazy one and flew by in record time. We had all sorts of nests to process, lovely weather, and now I’m starting my four day break in Whitehorse. You’ll probably hear from me again before the weekend is over. I’m staying at a hostel in town and the internet is free. Around here you still need to draw in the tourists with free offers, as opposed to charging for every little thing like they do downunder.

Dylan and I headed out to Agnes this week to collect the first set of babies. This is Dylan with all the squirrel tracking gear. This is sort of a dorky picture. (Dylan says and I agree). We trap the mother squirrels once we know the babies have been born. We put little collars on them that transmit a signal to our antennas. This type of tracking is called telemetry. I learned how to do this when I was working with the numbats in Australia. The closer you hold the antenna to the collared squirrel, the louder the beep becomes. Sometimes (a lot of the time) it’s tricky to hear the difference between the beeps. But, we always find the squirrel before we go home for dinner.

This day, Dylan loc’d (located…a little Squirreler lingo for you) to a big white spruce. No surprise there. There are only white spruce and very small willows on grid. We couldn’t really see a nest, but we did see this guy. Dylan thought it looked like a good nest, but it was really a porcupine with a cool mohawk. The squirrel we were looking for was in the next tree over in a grass nest in a witch’s broom. Dylan retrieved the babies and we processed them.

This is one of the littles who lived in the nest. Before they have fur, the baby squirrels are tiny, pink aliens, with eyes that don’t open. Somehow, however, they are so freakishly cute. While they are out of the nest they stay in tiny fleece bags that we keep in the front of our jackets. We don’t keep them out of their nests for long. I really like protecting them in the little bag and keeping them warm, though. There are 4 to 7 babies in each nest. You can pick them all up in one handful.

We determine the sex of each baby, weigh them, then snip a little notch in their tiny ear to sample the DNA. We will come back in 25 days to check on them and weigh them again. The first time we process the nest we use a system of ear notches so that we can identify the individuals. The first female has her left ear notched, the first male his left, the second female her right, then we continue on with double notches. Snipping the ear is really quite easy to do. Unfortunately, it hurts a little bit and the babies always cry. They also nuzzle into the crook of your thumb which is very cute.

The next day, Lindsey and I went to check on two nests. Both of the nests were in the buckets where we put the peanut butter. I’ve been hoping to see bucket babies the whole time I’ve been here! So this was very exciting. You can see the lowered bucket, all our nest kit gear, and Lindsey snipping a teensy tiny ear. After we raised the bucket up, we waited for the mother to come back and move the babies to a new nest. The mothers move their babies frequently, definitely every time the nest is disturbed and they carry them one at a time in their mouth. It’s really neat to watch them. They tuck all of the little arms and legs in and carry them pink side out. This mother took a while getting back into the bucket and we were worried that she couldn’t find them, but she made it back in.

Little babies back in the bucket nest.

On Thursday I had an even better baby surprise. We went out to find some Nest 2’s. At Nest 2, the babies are 25 days old and have fur. I hadn’t been on a successful Nest 2 outing and we weren’t that hopeful for these ones. Sometimes it’s very difficult to trap the mother and put a collar on, so we try to do behaviour locs to figure out which nest she is keeping the babies in. They have a whole series of nests on their midden, so this can be quite difficult to determine. This particular day, we didn’t even really have a nest loc at all (the squirrels are active during the early day, then they go to bed around 4:30 pm, so we come back for break then head back out with nest kits to process the babies). We just went to check things out. This squirrel had so many nests. We usually shake the trees and watch for the mothers to leave, but the PhD student that is visiting right now prefers the snowball attack method for getting squirrels out of nests. I don’t really like throwing snowballs at them, but I gently tossed a snowball at one nest and the mother popped right out. Then we found these little guys. And tagged their little ears. I picked the colours. This is G*/G*. He is cute.

Here is his cute little tail end. Their hind paws are so out of proportion at this point in their life.

I really hope I get to see more Nest 2 babies before I leave!
And a special bonus picture for all my twitcher friends out there ;)

A ruffed grouse I flushed out of the bush and managed to snap some pictures of. He's well camouflaged.

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