Strange backyard creatures of America

Most of mammals we see where I live Southeast Texas would be considered of the common garden variety.

Whitetail deer, raccoons, opossums and squirrels are the most frequently seen creatures that thrive in our woodlands, prairies, marshes and urban areas.

In fact, these animals are common sightings throughout North America

There are however some really strange mammals in the region that are very rarely seen by human eyes and yet they can live in suburban backyards.

Take the eastern mole for example.

These burrowing mammals have tiny eyes but they cannot see and spend almost all of their time underground.

Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University
Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University

According to the Mammals of Texas, “…moles feed largely on earthworms and grubs, although beetles, spiders, centipedes, insect larvae and pupae, and vegetable matter may also be eaten. In captivity, they have consumed mice, small birds, and ground beef.

“The average daily food consumption is about 32 percent of the body weight of the animal, although a mole can consume more than 66 percent of its body weight in 18 hours. Active prey is killed by crushing it against the sides of the burrow with the front feet or by piling loose earth on the victim and biting it while thus held. Captive moles kill earthworms by biting them rapidly in several places, often nearly cutting the worm in two.”

The saliva of males contains a type of toxin that paralyzes worms and insects. And if that is not weird enough, they can move as quickly backwards as they can forwards.

If the mole isn’t odd enough for you than let me introduce you to the shrew.

These mouse-sized insectivores are arguably the most voracious predators on the planet and East Texas has two varieties: the southern short-tailed shrew and the least shrew.

According to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, shrews have an extremely high metabolic rate. This rapid conversion of food to energy requires that these animals consume up to their own body weight in food every day.

“The highly social and gregarious least shrew often cooperates in building burrows or nests, which are sometimes shared with other least shrews during the nesting and wintering seasons. The species uses the runways and burrows of moles, voles and other small mammals but will make its own runways in soft, loose soil. Tunnels under the snow provide protection from wind and intense cold, allowing least shrews to remain active all winter.

Least shrews rely mainly on their senses of touch and smell. Sight and hearing are not well developed.

The least shrew only lives a short time, usually a little over a year.

God created many amazing creatures and although the big ones get most of the media attention, those on the small side are just as interesting.

Chester Moore, Jr.

Dog eating skunks and Transylvanian armadillos

Hollywood gets lots of things wrong.

And one of the most glaring examples are references to wildlife in films. There are countless examples like CGI whitetail deer with elk antlers and any number of animals shown in the wrong country.

The following is a short list from horror movies that show there were no wildlife experts among the crew.

“Could’ve been a skunk”—In the 1978 classic “Halloween”, killer Michael Myers is believed to have visited his old house and when his doctor and the sheriff find a half-eaten German shepherd, they blamed it on a skunk.

Skunks might be able to kill a dog by giving it rabies but there is no skunk big and bad enough to kill a full grown German shepherd and eat it.

It’s a great movie but it boggles the mind to think of that line getting the green light.

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A still from “Dracula” featuring not only Bela Lugosi as the Dark Prince but armadillos! In Eastern Europe!

Armadillos in Transylvania—In 1931’s groundbreaking movie “Dracula” starring Bela Lugosi, we are introduced to the count’s creepy, gothic castle.

In the castle are rats, bats and…armadillos.

Yes, armadillos, the nine-banded variety  to be exact.

Apparently someone thought what would put that movie over the edge is a North American armored mammal. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Oh and there was an opossum too.

No Grizzly Here—The 1970s produced lots of killer animal movies in the wake of “Jaws”. One I liked as a kid was “Grizzly”, about-you guessed it a killer grizzly bear.

When they figure out a killer bear is in the park, they are amazed because someone allegedly caught all of the grizzlies and relocated them as if grizzlies can’t move long distances. And also as if they would know if they caught all of the grizzlies.

Night of the Lepus—A movie about giant, carnivorous rabbits. Nothing else to say.

Chester Moore, Jr.

Have you ever seen a cottonmouth do this?

The cottonmouth is the most feared snake of the American South.

With a reputation for a short temper, this stout pit viper often flashes the white of its mouth to say “Don’t Tread On Me”.

Wise people don’t.

I have dealt with cottonmouths on hundreds of occasions and actually found some of them to be quite docile but the one in this photo was not.

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At all!

It rose up about a foot of the ground in an almost cobra-like stance. Actually it was sort of a cross between a western diamondback rattlesnake’s “s” position and a cobra.

The snake in question is the biggest I have ever worked with and is nearly four feet in length.

Another interesting thing about this particular snake is that unlike most cottonmouths I have worked with, it did not want to maintain its position and lash out. It lunged at me while conducting the photo shoot and kept advancing forward.

One of the things that continually amazes me about the amazing creatures the Lord graced us with is individuality. Most people, including those into wildlife, look at snakes as all one in the same. A snake is a snake is a snake…or something like that.

In reality there are vast differences among individuals in a population and also from region to region. The cottonmouths I encounter in the Pinewoods of East Texas do not tend to be as aggressive as the ones along the Texas coast.

In addition it is virtually impossible to get those I find along the Interstate 12 corridor in East Texas/Southwest Louisiana to show their white mouth while the ones just north and south of there do it frequently.

One of the intriguing things as a journalist pursuing wildlife is that we cannot interview them like I might a wildlife biologist so we spend as much time in the field as possible shooting photos and videos to capture a profile of a given species.

Chester Moore, Jr.

The great white buffalo!

 

A beautiful herd of longhorn cattle made their way across a bluebonnet covered meadow.

Walking down a trail from an oak thicket, one particularly massive bull stopped and glared at us so I felt obliged to jump out of the truck and shoot photos.

We were at YO Ranch Headquarters near Mountain Home in Kerr County and had just completed granting a “Wild Wish” for a little boy named Amos who got to encounter a giraffe and many other exotic animals at the legendary ranch.

“Wild Wishes” is a program that grants exotic animal encounters to kids who have a terminal illness or have lost a parent or sibling.

Amos and two other wish kids who accompanied us followed me and another chaperone out to photograph the massive bull when we noticed something in the bushes. Hiding under the shade of a live oak was a massive bison. The longhorns were cool but this was awesome!

This thing was easily in the 2,000 pound range and gave us a real thrill as buffalos were the topic of conversation riding down the road. “Wild Wishes” grants exotic animal encounters for children who have lost a parent or sibling or who have a terminal illness and to think that the Lord granted us this chance to see such an amazing animal together was humbling to say the least.

Then it got better.

From behind another tree stood up something big and white. At first it looked like a bull but when it turned around chills ran up and down my spine. This was no bull. It was a white buffalo.

The Great White Buffalo!

As I snapped photos, the majestic bison looked us square in the eye and then retreated into the oaks as we stood blown away.

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All three of the kids knew about the legend of the white buffalo and its importance to Native American culture and so did I of course. And I could not help but sing a chorus of my friend Ted Nugent’s “The Great White Buffalo”.

We had no idea such a creature existed on the huge ranch and would not have seen it if we had not decided to pull over and photograph the longhorns.

I have no question the Lord had His hand on this encounter and so did the kids who were excited beyond measure. They had seen something that until then only seemed like a legend.

I have had many incredible wildlife encounters and this one ranks right up there with seeing great whites in the Pacific. This was a lifelong dream come true and I got to share it with three very special kids and a friend who is as big a buffalo fan as I am.

Part of my love of bison comes from knowing their tragic history and the great conservation efforts that saved them.

According to the Texas Bison Association, Bison were hunted in various ways. Before the Indians rode horseback, they would encircle the herd with tribe members on foot. By getting the animals to mill within the ring they formed, Indians were able to fire large volleys of arrows into the herd until they downed an adequate number of animals.”

“In the 16th Century, when horses were acquired by the Plains Indians, bison hunting became easier. The Indians used other methods to harvest the mighty buffalo: stampeding herds over a cliff, driving the animals into a large natural trap, or into bogs or blind canyons. The most famous hunting technique was the “horse surround.” Several hundred riders would form semicircles on two sides of the herd, then move in until they created a circle around its entirety. As pressure was applied by the oncoming riders, the bison would begin to get confused, start milling and eventually stampeded into a frenzied milling mass. At this point, riders would move in and begin the slaughter with showers of arrows or plunging lances.”

Then came wholesale slaughter of bison by European settlers that was as much to wipe out the Plains tribes that relied on them as it was to sell bison parts. What was once a herd of millions was reduced to less than 1,000 by the late 1800s.

According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, legendary rancher Charles Goodnight started the remnants of the herd on his JA Ranch in the Texas Panhandle in 1878, in attempts to save the animals that had meant so much to him.

“It was actually his wife that influenced the cattle and business tycoon to preserve them, before they disappeared, so that future generations might be able to see and appreciate these special creatures.”

“Somehow, against the odds, a herd of genetic-related Southern bison have managed to survive the decades since, and now, we all benefit from the Goodnights’ vision. When the bison were initially donated to TPWD and moved to Caprock Canyons State Park in 1997, it was discovered that their DNA was different, and feature genetics that are not shared by any other bison in North America. In fact, the Official Texas State Bison Herd at Caprock represents the last remaining examples of the Southern Plains variety.”

Now YO Ranch Headquarters and other ranches proudly raise bison and they are flourishing right here in the Lone Star State on private land and at Caprock Canyons State Park. Without ranchers and hunters, there would likely be no bison today.

As we walked back to the trucks, the moms, grandmas and dads were excited for the kids (and this big kid) who just encountered something special.. They got to see all of this go down but one thing they did not see were its eyes.

We started into the eyes of the white buffalo.

None of us may ever be the same.

We locked eyes with a legend.

Chester Moore, Jr.

Chased by Chupacabra

The dim moonlight illuminated the trees just enough to make out the edge of the forest. A strange sense of forebode overcame me as I gazed into the blackness.

As I neared a crossroads, something jumped out of the ditch and made its way through the tall grass. Standing about 20 inches at the shoulder, the creature had large, erect ears and pale, gray skin.
Perhaps, I had finally encountered the legendary “chupacabra”.

I have maintained the “chupacabras” seen on many video clips and photos shared on social media are coyotes or foxes with a very bad case of mange.

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The mysterious canine enshrouded in the shadows. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)

However, as I pulled over, grabbed my flashlight and ran to the woods edge, my rational explanation wasn’t resonating. I was alone, without a gun, on a dark, country road and looking for a “chupacabra”.

To top things off my flashlight was dying and so was my cell phone.

Sounds like a good start for a horror movie, doesn’t it?

As I pressed toward the woodline, a nasty growl came my direction. Followed by aggressive barks, I could tell there was a canine not happy with my presence. I inched a little closer and could make out a set of blue eyes illuminated by my dim flashlight. A creepy silhouette of a thin animal with tall ears peaking from a behind the tree looking at me, hit my curiosity factor so I moved closer.

At this point, the animal moved and started barking again. Aggressive barks.

It was time for me to go. I may be curious but I am not stupid.

I returned this morning slowly cruising alone the road as a thin layer of mist on the ground began to dissipate.

And about 50 yards from where I left it the night before was the mysterious animal. I quickly shot a few photos with my cell phone as it stood silhouetted in the forest. I could only make out the shape until it moved into an open patch of light.

I could see that it was a dog (mutt) of some sort with short hair that was coming off in large patches. It even had a tiny collar on.

If coyotes and foxes make up the bulk of “chupacabra” sightings, now the domestic dog can join the ranks.

“Chupacabras” are not monsters. They are simply sick animals and in this case I have feeling it was a sick animal dumped off in the woods so the owners would not have to deal with it. Either that or it escaped from somewhere and made a long haul to this stretch of road.

I doubt that though as it hung around the same spot I saw it last night. That’s a sign of an abandoned dog.

I knew what I was looking at was a canine of some sort all along but how many people would be able to tell during a brief sighting under the moonlight?

In this case the “chupacabra” was more like Frankenstein’s monster than some sort of evil being from beyond as some bloggers claim. It’s circumstance was at least partially man-made and it was just doing what it had to do to stay alive.

In this case I was the like the angry mob that drove the monster to the windmill, only with a flashlight instead of a torch. I did however back off and let nature take its course.

After all, Frankenstein’s monster fought back and I had no desire to end up bitten by a chupacabra-one wearing a collar or not.

Chester Moore, Jr.

World’s Scariest Animals Pt. 2

A few days ago we looked at some of the world’s scariest animals and the response was great, so I thought it would be fun to look at some more creatures that inspire goosebumps.

Spotted hyena—Hyenas have a reputation of being sort of a “funny” animal with their strange, “laughing” vocalizations. In reality, however, hyenas are dangerous predators that will gather in packs and taken on animals as large as lions and will attack people.

Hyenas have extremely powerful jaws that can snap bones in a single bite and will eat every single piece of an animal. When a pack of hyenas gets through with a carcass, there is only some blood left and most of the time they lap that up.

Photo courtesy Wiki Commons
Photo courtesy Wiki Commons

Parts of Africa, particularly Somaliland, are seeing a huge increase in hyena attacks on people according to Softpedia news.

“People have become so afraid of them, that families in Ainabo district, situated 300 kilometers away from the Somaliland capital, Hargesia, have been sleeping with guns near to them in order to protect themselves and their relatives. Officials have added that hyenas live in tremendously large packs in this district and have launched attacks on livestock in the past, but moved to humans, mostly women and children, in the last few years.”

”People from Eritrea, also situated in the Horn of Africa, have also reported the fact that large packs of hyenas have made several attacks within the capital, Asmara, which prompted people to form committees to develop a plan to defend themselves and the city against what seem to be predator hyenas,” they reported.

Tiger shark—Garnering its name from the faint stripes that line its body, the tiger shark has more in common with its namesake than coloration. According to the 1961 book, Dangerous Creatures of the World’s Oceans, tiger sharks like the feared cats of the Asian jungles are actual man-eaters.

“Tiger sharks kill a greater proportion of their human victims than do great whites. Whereas whites often spit out their prey after they realize it’s not a seal or some other natural prey, the tiger shark will be quite happy with eating a person and in fact seem to relish it.”

Tigers are second only to great whites in the size department among predatory sharks. There is great dispute among shark experts about the size potential for the species. Most texts list the species as growing up to 18 feet in length and weighing more than 2,000 pounds. Still, there are figures all over the board for their size, including one I found that said “Tiger sharks range in size from 8.8 to 24 feet long. The largest found weighed 6,800 lb.”

That figure seems a bit high as the International Game Fish Association lists a 1,780-pounder caught by Walter Maxwell off the coast of South Carolina in 1964 as the largest caught by an angler. That far shy of the above estimate, but still massive for an oceanic predator.

Fans of the movie “Jaws” will remember the scene where actors Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider’s characters dissect a big tiger shark caught by angler seeking the reward for the man-eater that had terrorized their community.

They pull out a mackerel, a small tuna and a Louisiana license plate that says “Sportsman’s Paradise”. That was a very accurate portrayal of the tiger shark’s eating habits. They are the garbage collectors of the ocean and will eat anything, including people sometimes. And yes, I do mean eat people. Many shark species attack people but tiger sharks are known for actually eating the humans they occasionally attack.

Saltwater crocodile—These super aggressive reptiles were made famous by “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin who frequently tangled with them in his native land of Australia.

Size alone makes these creatures scary as the largest on record according to National Geographic is 28 feet long and was killed by a schoolteacher in 1958. Specimens over 20 feet long are fairly common among the 200,000-300,000 known to exist in the Pacific region.

According to National Geographic, “Classic opportunistic predators, they lurk patiently beneath the surface near water’s edge waiting for potential prey to stop for a sip of water. They’ll feed on anything they can get their jaws on, including water buffalo, monkeys, wild boar, and even sharks. Without warning, they explode from the water with a thrash of their powerful tails, grasp their victim, and drag it back in, holding it under until the animal drowns.”

Chester Moore, Jr.

World’s Scariest Animals Pt. 1

This week, I thought it would be fun to check out some of the animals you would least want to encounter on a cool, autumn night when the wind is howling and the moonlight barely illuminates your surroundings.

Polar Bear—Most bear species kill people out of territorial instincts or to protect their young but polar bears often”do so for dining purposes. Yes, polar bears are maneaters. There aren`t many easy meals in their icy habitat so any human showing up is fair game. Arcticwebsite.com has a great article called “How to Survive a Bear Attack” and it does a great job summing up why the polar bear is so scary.

“The polar bear is the most deadly of all. While his normal food is seal, they have been known, for centuries, to attack humans. Until the introduction of firearms, the native people of the north have lived in fear of them. Many early explorers have told horror stories of polar bear attacks. These bears are known to stalk and hunt humans. If you are in polar bear country carry a firearm or avoid the area.”

Cape Buffalo—Any animal that routinely beats down lions and charges vehicles, hunters and anything else it feels like is scary. These truly bad-ass bovines will actually lie in wait for the hunters who have shot them and according to some professional guides, they have an uncanny ability to pick the shooter out of a group. I once had a run-in with a cape at a 40,000-acre game ranch in Central Texas.

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My wife and I were driving out of the ranch and spotted a herd of zebra feeding in a meadow, so I grabbed my camera and tried to sneak up for a closer shot. When I came up to a patch of cedar trees, I heard something moving through the brush toward me. I was hoping it would be a zebra so I could get a point blank shot, but as it turned out, the animal was a Cape Buffalo! I had no idea they had any on the ranch, but I was looking at one at a distance of 10 feet and the car was about 75 yards away. I`m here to tell the story, so I obviously made it out safely but the buffalo followed me toward the car and made me question my mortality. Scary, indeed!

King Cobra—The king cobra is the world`s longest poisonous snake, reaching lengths of up to 18 feet and can inject enough of its deadly venom to kill an elephant within three hours it strikes it in the trunk. On top of that when coiled up in a strike position, a maximum size specimen can look a grown man in the eye. If that`s not enough to scare you, consider that snake experts consider it the most intelligent of snakes that can recognize their caregivers and according to legend send out distress calls for other cobras to help it in moments of danger. True or not, that is the stuff nightmares are made of.

Candiru Fish—Ever heard the stories of the tiny catfish that can swim up a stream of urine into the bladder? Did you think that was a myth? Well, it`s at least partially true. There have been a number of documented cases of this tiny parasitic fish entering both men and women through openings in the body. They can`t swim up a stream of urine but they can and do get into people`s bodies. The good news is they can`t survive long there.

On second thought, that isn`t much of a consolation, is it?

Chester Moore, Jr.

Manta Ray found just off TX beach (Video)

Last week readers Andy Allen and Reggie Begelton captured this video of a large manta ray swimming a mile west of the Sabine Jetties, just off the beach at Sea Rim State Park out of Sabine Pass, TX.

Manta rays are present in the Gulf of Mexico but sightings are rare and sightings with a mile of the beach are virtually unheard of in Texas.

According to Wikipedia, swimming behavior in mantas differs across habitats: when travelling over deep water, they swim at a constant rate in a straight line, while further inshore they usually bask or swim idly around. Mantas may travel alone or in groups of up to 50. They may associate with other fish species as well as sea birds and marine mammals. Mantas sometimes breach, leaping partially or entirely out of the water. Individuals in a group may make aerial jumps one after the other. These leaps come in three forms: forward leaps where the fish lands head first, similar jumps with a tail first re-entry or somersault. The reason for breaching is not known; possible explanations include mating rituals, birthing, communication, or the removal of parasites and remora.

“Manta rays have broad heads, triangular pectoral fins, and horn-shaped cephalic fins located on either side of their mouths. They have horizontally flattened bodies with eyes on the sides of their heads behind the cephalic fins, and gill slits on their ventral surfaces. Their tails lack skeletal support and are shorter than their disc-like bodies.  The dorsal fins are small and at the base of the tail.”

“The largest mantas can reach 1,350 kg (2,980 lb). In both species the width is approximately 2.2 times the length of the body; M. birostris reaches at least 7 m (23 ft) in width while M. alfredi reaches about 5.5 m (18 ft). Dorsally, mantas are typically black or dark in color with pale markings on their “shoulders”. Ventrally, they are usually white or pale with distinctive dark markings by which individual mantas can be recognized. All-black color morphs are known to exist. The skin is covered in mucus which protects it from infection.”

Chester Moore, Jr.

Cutting-edge wildlife writings and investigations.