What DC Coyotes Eat for Dinner

Coyote. Photo by jamescumming / 123RF Stock Photo

On my way home from a long work day, with the hours getting darker, the humid air still hung itself like a damp coat over the end of September.

As I walked towards the woods at the end of my street, I took in the darkness and wondered why no one on our ever-dissatisfied listserve has complained about the lack of street lights.

Ahead of me, I could barely make out the silhouette of a woman walking her two small dogs and hoped she could see my own outline so I didn’t surprise her. But something else was about. Just as we met up, we both heard the howl at the same time and her two dogs started barking. “Did you hear that?” “Uh, yes.” “Coyote. My husband told me he’s been seeing them around.”

For newcomers to DC who may think that the most exotic creatures we have here are interns, coyotes have lived in this city since 2004, according to the National Park Service FAQ page about the elusive creatures. Read Jacob Fenston’s article for WAMU, “Why Does A City As Dense As D.C. Have So Much Wildlife?,” to learn how our regional park corridors provide habitats and access to our backyards for our furrier neighbors.

I like telling people that there are coyotes in Washington. Maybe talking about coyotes could help remove the myth that DC is all stuffed suits and type A women wearing Ann T. You already know I’m here for the parks.

Not counting the occasional tropical bird that gets blown off course and ends up in New England or pet pythons released in Florida plumbing, there must be animals living in other cities and places that only appear to be interlopers.

Some friends of mine who moved from Capitol Hill to a cabin in rural Kentucky told me my favorite story of surprising residents. The Southern Devil Scorpions live in rural Kentucky. In the woods. And your shoes. These scorpions do sting but aren’t interested in people and not dangerous.

Please let me know in the comments what animals and insects you are most surprised to see where you live or have visited. Now back to the coyotes in DC.

How likely are you to see one?

The answer to this is you might see one while in and around Rock Creek Park and some of the adjacent neighborhoods, but it isn’t likely. The population appears to be small, and coyotes are most active in the evenings and at night.

And I know the burning question that is on our minds is: What do coyotes eat for dinner?

Coyotes eat dead things, vegetation, and small critters in the park. You’re safe, but keep an eye on your pets. It’s best if taking your animals on hikes through the park or near the park, that you keep them leashed. It’s the law anyways, though I witness it often ignored especially in the parks. (And normally I wouldn’t care because I love your animals as much as you do, except that someone’s very lovely, playful Goldie once yanked me off my fast-moving bike by my ankle. I’ve since forgiven the pup but not his people.)

Fake news alert: Coyote wolf hybrids do not exist in Rock Creek Park. It takes two to tangle and without a wolf population, well, you just get more coyotes.

If you see a coyote: According to the National Park Service, notify Resource Management Specialist Ken Ferebee at 202-895-6221. Let Ken know the date, time and location you saw the animal.

Black Bears Don’t Growl

High Laurel Inn, photo by CGIOS

High Laurel Inn, photo by CGIOS

Did you know that black bears don’t growl? Me neither!

Last fall, Joe and I went for a hike in Shenandoah. We chose a spot that was pretty far off the beaten path, because we had been lamenting how crowded trails are close to DC. Weekends on the trail are starting to feel like spring break. Don’t misunderstand. I’m grateful more and more people are appreciating the outdoors, but truly escaping into the wilderness is becoming harder to do. If you have tried to visit the madness that is Sugarloaf Mountain on the weekends in the last year or so, you have an idea of what I mean.

Timing our trip with colorful fall foliage, we headed out to High Laurel Inn in Grottoes, Virginia. The room was nice and quiet, set onto a hill facing the woods. The owners are story tellers in the best way and cook up a delicious breakfast. We got our first taste of what to expect in the wilderness from the owners, who told us all about the numerous rattlesnakes, copperheads, and bears in the area. We were excited and also beginning to feel a bit nervous.

Joe spent a lot of time on the internet looking up what to do for snake bites. First, nothing works. Not tourniquets, not sucking out the venom, not carving a hole in someone’s leg. Oh, and your cell phone will also probably not work. So the victim’s only option is to not move and wait for her partner to hike back to civilization while she gets eaten by bears. Life is a moot point if you get bitten by a poisonous snake in the middle of nowhere. Evidently. (If you’re an expert on poisonous snake bites or have survived one, please give us the “how to” in the comments.)

photo by CGIOS

photo by CGIOS

In the morning, after a gigantic breakfast from our hosts, we packed our lunches, filled water bottles, and headed out. The nice thing about High Laurel Inn is that it sits just steps from the start of the trails. We began at the park boundary near the foot of the mountain, hiked up Paine Run to the Trayfoot Mountain Overlook, across the AT to the Blackrock Summit, and then back down to where we started via the Trayfoot Mountain trail. This is the longest I’ve hiked, which some might laugh at, but it’s a pretty big deal to someone with chronic compartment syndrome (another story for another time).

On the way over to the starting line, we saw a skinned something or other (maybe coyote) hanging from a tree by the road. If anyone has any idea why someone would do that, please comment below. It makes for an eerie start. Maybe a half mile in, I realized I had left my water bottle at the room, but we decided to keep going with just one bottle. In hindsight, not a good idea at all.

Paine Run at the AT, photo by CGIOS

Paine Run at the AT, photo by CGIOS

The hike up Paine Run was uneventful. Yet there were reminders everywhere, in the form of fresh bear scat, that we were out of our element. We only passed two people before reaching the top. We sat at the Trayfoot Mountain Overlook and enjoyed lunch and the break after our climb. I was starting to relax and enjoy being outside.

I LOVE hiking. This time I was nervous about being so far from anyone who could help us if we got in trouble, and I missed my water bottle and cell phone service. The most populated parts of our hike occurred near the top of the mountain by Skyline Drive, which is not unusual. Bill Bryson talks about how most of us like the idea of woods, but don’t stray too far into them in A Walk in the Woods. (Side note: It took me way too long to read this humorous book about hiking the Appalachian Trail.)

Blackrook Summit, photo by CGIOS

Blackrock Summit, photo by CGIOS

At the top, a clear sign announced the presence of copperheads on Blackrock Summit. Yet what were the chances we would actually see one? We chatted with a family who had just happily crawled on the rocks, and I have been hiking on rocks on the AT my whole life without ever seeing a copperhead.

The view at the overlook was breathtaking. I was slightly ahead of Joe and walking through the rocks when I turned around to see him bent over face to snout with a small copperhead. Those things are hard to see! The understated creature wasn’t interested in moving away from Joe. I told him what he was looking at and asked him to back away. We both suddenly realized that in order to keep going forward on our journey, we still had to hike by an indeterminable amount of rocks. I was paralyzed with fear. We could go back past the copperhead and back the way we had come, which was pretty but not the most interesting hike. Or we could keep going forward and hope that we would pass through the rocks quickly. We moved forward with sticks, poking ahead of us as we tested for slithering beings. Just as we entered the woods again, we came upon a group of hikers that included a guy who was way too enthusiastic about us seeing a snake. But. it. was. poisonous. His buddy behind him got the message.

Monarchs on their way south, photo by CGIOS

Monarchs on their way south, photo by CGIOS

And then that was it, almost. We didn’t see another human for the rest of the trail. Miles and miles of wilderness trekked by two nervous nellies. About two miles from the end of the hike, we heard a growl. A low, mean, get the nuts out of my territory growl. Joe’s instinct was to stop and push me back the way we had come. But at this point our choices were to move forward towards the growl and finish the two miles left or go back eight miles past the rocks and snakes and all the hidden bears that ignored us the first time. Not to mention we lacked water.

One way or another, we had both had it with our fear and either a bear or the end of the trail was going to put us out of our misery. Whichever came first.

photo by CGIOS

Hickory Tussock caterpillar, don’t touch, photo by CGIOS

So you know we survived because I’m writing this post. We have no idea what made the growling sound. I did learn after the hike that black bears don’t actually growl. They make all kinds of other sounds, but they don’t growl like in the movies. My aunt who spends a lot of the year in the Alaskan rainforest confirmed that a growl is in the ear of the beholder and that we may have certainly heard a bear. After recently reading A Walk in the Woods, I’m wondering if we heard the elusive mountain lion. Or maybe it was just two big old trees rubbing together in the wind.

I felt a shift in my hiking mood during this outting. While absolutely nothing happened to us, I am suddenly aware of the could haves. I now ask everyone who goes hiking if they’ve seen a bear or a snake. I’m collecting survival stories. We weren’t exactly prepared for our hike, given its remoteness. Our future hikes in more populated areas will help me relax back into my love for nature and escaping to the wilderness. Sugarloaf anyone?

View from High Laurel Inn, photo by CGIOS

View from High Laurel Inn, photo by CGIOS

All this said, for those that like adventure and prefer remoteness, the Trayfoot Mountain hike is beautiful. And I highly recommend High Laurel Inn for a nice weekend getaway. In the end, the best view we saw all day was from their front porch.


When Push Comes to Shark


Photo by Jen Pekkinen and Dave Kaye.

Although I’ve actually never tried, I’m pretty sure I could sprint on water if push comes to shark, er, shove. My fear of sharks is bigger than your fear of anything. Just to give you an idea of what I’m dealing with.

The kicker is that I absolutely love being in the water. Swimming is as close to meditation as I get, snorkeling is my happy place, Sylvia Earle is one of my heroes (learn about her Mission Blue Alliance), and I feel most at home standing next to bodies of water. Also, there is nothing better than exploring tidal pools for the unimaginable.

As children, my sister and I used to swipe our nets along the bellies of floating piers to see what lived just out of our sight. At night, we leaned over the edges with flashlights to peek around. We witnessed tiny crabs, iridescent grass shrimp, sleek gar fish, coy anemones, abundant seaweed, creepy eels, and phosphorescent jelly fish. Thankfully, we never saw sharks.

While snorkeling I prefer to stay close to shore, for a quick escape to land just in case. I’m not embarrassed about snorkeling in two feet of water with my mask and fins, eyeballing schools of tiny silver fish and clumsy hermit crabs who are usually passed up for the much hipper reef inhabitants.

A starfish I found in a tidal pool in Nicaragua.

A starfish I found in a tidal pool in Nicaragua. Photo by CGIOS

My friends just got back from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Galapagos Islands, via National Geographic. I happily swiped through their Facebook photos liking every single one, until I saw the photo of a shark. They recounted seeing several sharks while snorkeling, and it was NO BIG DEAL. Jen reassured me these reef sharks were not carnivorous sharks. So they eat plants, I said, got it. They don’t really eat plants. She was over-reassuring me that I would not be a meal. The whitetip reef sharks snack on other fishes and crustaceans, and prefer not to chomp on humans. Unfortunately, they still LOOK like sharks. There are 30 species of sharks off the Galapagos Islands, making the location a great place to get to know these terrifying and awesome hosts.

My goal is to eventually learn how to scuba dive (and generally be more comfortable in the water), but that pesky little fear of sharks is in the way. The Nat Geo trip sounds like it could be a productive start to overcoming my fears, but also expensive.

Another way I’m working on my fear is by getting to know more about sharks. I’m now one of @MaryLeeShark‘s 70,000+ followers on Twitter. Mary Lee is a great white that @OCEARCH has been tracking and studying. The personification thing does wonders for phobias, although I still hope she will ping nowhere near Chincoteague, VA in late June. While I think I could eventually swim next to a reef shark, I’m definitely okay with never meeting a great white in person. Thank goodness for social media.

If you love the beach but are nervous about swimming where you can’t see your feet, this list from the Florida Museum of Natural History shows just how unlikely you are to be attacked by a shark anywhere in the world. If we think about the number of people in the water swimming, snorkeling, and diving at any given summer moment, and compare with the number of attacks on this list, we can all feel a little calmer. Not that I’m going to dangle my toes in the water in Chincoteague if Mary Lee is pinging anywhere near the Delmarva Peninsula. The Atlantic Ocean isn’t big enough for the both of us.

Ick. Spiders.


Photo by CGIOS

It’s no secret that spiders make me screech like a girl, despite how good they are for the environment. I know I’m not alone, but I feel like this is a fear I need to conquer. Here is the first in a series of posts to try to get over my fear.

Do you see the white patch in the middle of the green vines? There is a huge spider in there. I can see the outline of its body and it’s easily the size of a Cadillac. Maybe it’s laying eggs? (swatting my skin as I write this)

I’ve thought about busting the sack open several times, expecting either a big full grown thing to crawl out or a bunch of babies to go softly into the wind all Charlotte’s-Web-like. But then again, it’s right next to my car. Which means if that’s an Orb Weaver in there, I’m going to have to fight it for my door every day. Grandpop’s resident Orb Weaver rebuilt its web dutifully every morning after he knocked it down. In other words, I know what I’m up against and will therefore leave that sack alone.

I started by observing the spider with binoculars. Every morning, I talk myself into getting a little closer. My heart trembles a little less with each approach, and I’m almost excited to see what happens next…