Our local wildlife is furtive and relatively difficult to encounter. Even our largest carnivore, the black bear, is the least aggressive of all North American bears. A typical walk on a local trail requires sharpened senses and careful attention to hidden details, if the hiker is to see even the traces of an animal's passage, much less the animal itself. The following list contains some of the major carnivores and herbivores you are likely to see here, if you're carefully, quietly in the right place, at the right time.
Do not expect to see a black bear while you stay with us. During our eight years here, we've had just two sightings. Their exceptionally keen noses and hearing usually warn them well in advance of your appearance in their foraging area. Black bears continuously look for food; our 52 acres is littered with overturned limestone flags, testament to their reliance on insects and grubs as a major food source. Some rules of thumb for black bear safety: hike in groups, carry some form of bear-scare, and never, ever approach or feed a bear, if you do sight one.
It is common to hear coyotes howling in the woods around our B&B; they are social animals and can really make a racket. We've rushed out to see them, only to find their sounds now more distant and fading. We have yet to encounter one on our trails. If you live in Southern Ontario, there may be a problem in your municipality with coyotes. They are superbly adapted to living alongside humans; in fact, they are not native to Ontario, having migrated here from the Western US and Canada. They have trumped the more reclusive, intolerant wolf; while wolf populations face numerous pressures, the coyote's numbers are generally on the rise.
The red fox is a somewhat easier to observe in the wild; we somehow surprised a fox on one of our trails, as we came around a sharp bend, leaving it spitting and scrambling to run away. They're really quite small, often less than 10 pounds, with bodies less than three feet long. Like black bears, they are omnivores, often eating acorns and nuts to supplant their meat diet. Since foxes typically defend areas of several square miles, it is common to see the same ones again and again in a given area. Foxes are a notorious vector for the rabies virus; if a fox does not flee from you, use extreme caution and maintain your distance.
The raccoon, that master of human-created environments, is a ubiquitous-- if not always welcome-- inhabitant of our forests. Particularly for us, they are a constant threat to our chickens. Chickens hold the mistaken belief that roosting in a tree at night is a wise choice. Raccoons enjoy this attitude immensely; when night falls they scale the tree and partake of a succulent feast. Our coop and run are carefully designed to be completely raccoon-proof. If you're from the city, we don't need to educate you about raccoons; their urban population is a stunning, and rare example of the modern proliferation of a non-human species.
Here's a surprise: you may be more likely to see white-tailed deer where you live, rather than here, where we enjoy their natural habitat. Near urban centres, hunting is discouraged, so populations can reach unsustainable levels. The near-extirpation of the wolf in Southern Ontario has also greatly benefited deer populations. Other reasons for their success involve climate change, human population, and the gentrification of vast forested areas, making them more attractive to grazing deer. The diminishing of some of their grazing competitors like mule deer, elk and moose has no doubt helped as well.
Winter hikes on our trails invariably cross dozens of snowshoe hare tracks: some individual trails, others well-worn paths, the 401's and 407's of our property. The amazing pure white colour of the snowshoe hare is a startling sight when we get a January thaw: they become starkly visible targets for all the neighbourhood predators. Like other small herbivores, snowshoe hare populations regularly spike, with population densities approaching 500 to 600 animals per square kilometer. These anomalies quickly correct due to food shortage and predation.
As dusk falls here, look up in the breaks of the forest canopy and you'll see Little Brown Bats whizzing about, harvesting their nightly quota of mosquitoes, among other things. They often swoop quite low to the ground. During our telescope nights, it is not uncommon for a little brown bat to pass between two people, at head level! We are fortunate to have them around; a researcher once discovered the bodies of 145 mosquitoes in the stomach of a little brown bat. Unfortunately, bats are also vectors for the rabies virus, so care should be taken if you happen upon one during the daytime.
Castor canadensis, the common Beaver, is the second-largest rodent in the world. Canada's early fur trade depended heavily on beaver, with as many as 200,000 pelts taken annually. This naturally caused a decimation of Canadian populations, which have only recovered since the 20th century, as fur became less fashionable. We have yet to see one on our property, but have included it in this list because our neighbouring bush lots contain beaver dams and prime beaver habitat. Since the average beaver cuts down over 200 trees per year, we are happy that none live on our property!
Of Ontario's 318 species of birds, we will include only two here. Don't get us wrong: there are lots of birds out there, but a full treatment would fill a book. The irrepressibly cheerful Black-capped Chickadee will probably serenade your hike, when you venture out on our trails. Whether in their small winter flocks, hopping and flitting through the cedar trees, or their springtime pairings of breeding pairs, these delightful birds are truly a boreal treasure. They are masters of at least 15 different calls, including their namesake chick-a-dee-dee-dee, and the common fee-bee-bee.
The haunting call of the Whip-poor-will may serenade you at bedtime here. It is an increasingly rare sound in Ontario, as much of their forest habitat has been replaced by urban and agricultural uses. The Bruce Peninsula supports a population of whip-poor-wills, and a road just north of us, near Lion's Head, is called Whippoorwill Rd. These are nocturnal birds, and visual identifications are very rare. As dusk falls, they begin calling each other; a nearby, loud call distantly and faintly responded to a moment later. It is an experience you'll never forget.
One wet, rainy spring day last year, a River Otter calmly walked across our front lawn, thoughtfully peered into our front window, and continued nonchalantly on its way. Our lower lawn was partially flooded, so it just began swimming until it disappeared into the forest. The North American River Otter, Lontra canadensis, is another local member of the weasel family. You might see one here during those wet times when they are able to move between watercourses with relative ease.
The Striped Skunk, smellable from 1km away, is a carnivorous member of the weasel family. They are professional diggers, enjoying a diet of mice, worms, grubs and insects. Naturally, they will eat chickens if they get a chance, so our coop is skunk-proof, just in case. While it is very unlikely that you will come upon one here, it is our duty to at least warn you. Our dog Zee has never returned smelly from one on his innumerable traverses of our property, so we are somewhat heartened that they are a rare sight here. If you do see one, keep your distance, and use the telephoto lens!
The Porcupine, that scourge of all the pine trees on our property, is one of the more slow and dull-witted creatures that roam behind your room. They are easy to spot in their feeding trees, as a greyish brown lump that looks like a giant bird's nest from a distance. The foot of the tree is invariably littered with bits of branch, needles, and scat. Our hiking trails have a couple of good spots to observe porcupines; however, we are reluctant to go there with our dog Zee, in case the prickly creature happens to be on the ground at the time. Dog noses and porcupine tails seem like they're magnetically attracted to each other.