I have seen rabbits with some frequency along the path. They are rare when there is a dog around but I will often see one lollop across the path in the morning. This fellow was having a bit of dinner of dandelions as I came home from work. The path is very busy at this time – runners, cyclists, dog walkers – so I was surprised to see it not only out but sitting right beside the path.
The dog was sniffing and, I fear, eating a bit of grass to help his digestion. For whatever reason, we had stopped for a moment and I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. This is typical for how I see things on the riverbank: I’m not usually looking at it but something catches my attention. This little muskrat had snuck up into the long grass and was having a good nosh. It was quite still and for awhile I wasn’t sure my eyes weren’t just looking at a stump. These rodents are less than half the size of a beaver but similar shape and, most distinctively, a rat-like thin tail.
I was waiting for the train this morning when a brown thing, that I had mistaken for a log, suddenly moved. A small groundhog ( Marmota monax ) was poking its head up and out of its den, which was about 3 feet the other side of the railroad tracks. I would say he was “prairie dogging” but I don’t want to confuse things.
The groundhog peeked out a few times, so I was able to get my camera out. Just before the train arrived, he came all the way out of his hole and lit out across the snow towards a gully near a downed tree and some additional protection. I wondered what the difference between a groundhog and “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck” woodchuck. They’re the same thing, and are also sometimes called a “whistle pig”!
One might expect the animal tracks across the river to appear in different places so that smaller animals avoided predators. I had to smile when I saw these three tracks meet in the middle of the ice, like a T junction on a highway. I think the two larger sets are actually one animal, perhaps a rabbit that was moving faster or slower.
There is a small hummocky area on the inhabited side of the rail tracks. The grass is long and has collapsed with winter’s approach. The recent snow covered everything and you could imagine the small shrews and mice enjoying the slight protection it gave from predator’s eyes, if not their noses. When the snow melted, this little mound was uncovered, with all of the small entrances that these creatures must use when they aren’t so exposed. I am sure this whole field is covered in these sorts of little burrows, but they’re hidden away under the long grass.
We – the dog and I – came across the muskrat again. Argos never sees him, perhaps because we are on a bridge and he’s about 15 feet below us. It makes me wonder how much the smells above and around the water are an added protection. As I walk along the path, I can often pick up what smell like animal odors, which may mean they’re nearby or have just passed across. This fellow was sitting on the bank of a small island and, when he heard us above, he swam off.
The sun has failed me and I walk to the river in the dark in the mornings. This can be a bit perilous because there are no lights on this side of the river. My eyes become accustomed to the dark but, as the foliage on the riverbank fades in autumn, the lights on the other bank make it hard to see.
In any event, I now am carrying a flashlight to give me a bit of notice of things in my path. This was brought home to me when some animal – like a horse – used the path last week and left a large manure pile on the path. It is easy to avoid, if you can see it. The light of my torch caught another dark object this morning just before I stepped on it and it was this little dead shrew (Soricidae).
It was to all appearances unhurt but it was definitely dead. I kicked it off the path but, on my return in the evening, I took a closer look. When I was younger, I thought these were very small moles – until I saw a dead mole! There are some basic similarities, except a mole will be many times larger and the digging paws are very impressive.