Sunday, April 14, 2013

Selu outing- wild mice, a cat, trees and bats, oh my

                                 Dr. Karen Francl with a wild white footed mouse

    This past Saturday the wind was a bit cool, but it didn't dampen the spirits of the students and few brave naturalist souls who went to a property owned by Radford University for some early spring nature hunts. Dr. Francl, from the R. U. biology department, had set traps to catch some critters in the brambles and fields that are part of the Selu Conservancy property. This property is unique in that it has an old 1930's style farmhouse with no electricity (with battery powered radio, to boot), woods that may get a bit of harvesting, a wonderful, modern retreat house, and a gravel road that will take you to a parking area where you can walk a winding road to an overlook. It makes a grand outdoor classroom, and on that day that is just what we did.
    Dr. Francl and some students set out to set "up" these tiny little tiny traps, the kind that have food at one end. Once the little critter gets in it, the open end closes. It does have the food and breathing holes, so they should be okay. They set out hundreds of these little traps and mainly obtained for their work white footed mice, which I understand have a shorter tail than a deer mouse, and are the common wild mice of the area. The adult normally is a brownish color with a white bottom; young mice are gray, which you might see in your neighborhood if your cat decides to pounce on something (just recently my 8 year old cat showed she'd still pretty fast and laid a very small gray and white mouse by the front doorstep-- bad kitty).
     I was rather preoccupied with getting a picture and should have been brave enough to grab the "scruff" of the mouse (in back at the shoulder blades) as she maneuvered the little buggers from the rectangular tin trap to a lingerie bag with various holes so that they would be measured and weighed and not escape. But then she did the "scruff" action and took the lingerie bag off mouse and you could really see it. They have these big, shiny black eyes and white whiskers and I think were a little bit afraid. But one of her students I guess had a poor grip and the little bugger hit deep into her finger, bringing up a big circle of blood!
    While there we also learned that in our area is a lot of calcium carbonate in the form of dolomite and limestone. There's also sandstone on our "faulty" mountain ridges. In our valleys because of these stones you find sinkholes and near them--- salamanders! At Selu we  found a red backed salamander, with a red line going down its sleek black back, and another dark salamander, the slimy salamander, so-called because if it feels threatened it can give off a sticky substance that doesn't smell great either. Salamanders are secretive critters, but you can find them under rocks and very close to streams. They need to keep moist as most of them "breathe" through that moist skin. I didn't find any myself but a fellow naturalist pointed out the somewhat fat, striated leaf of what he called an "Adam and Eve" orchid. They produce a small flower in late summer. This was the first I'd hear of them.
    But the early spring and edible plants I did know about I showed a handful of people around the old farmhouse. We took note of the Pennsylvania bittercress, edible just like watercress and wintercress, as well as the few wild mustards, with their tiny yellow flowers on top. The seed is not much bigger than a period at the end of a sentence. They say if you have the faith of a little mustard seed then you can move mountains. I hope that is so. Blackberry/raspberry brambles were also in evidence -- did you know they are related to the rose family?
    They set up one bigger cage in hopes of catching a raccoon-- they got someone's pet ginger colored cat instead, and it didn't look too happy being in that big birdlike cage!
    Dr. Francl also had some students talk about our Virginia and national bats. The Indiana bats travel here, and our little brown bat might be endangered, depending on who says so. They had some expensive echo-location bat-tick meters, but I didn't get to try them out. I don't believe there were any bats nearby, but you can never tell!

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