Monday, September 30, 2013

Expanded Perspectives Interview

My interview with the guys from Expanded Perspectives is now available. We discussed all manner of things but the bulk of the time was devoted to black panthers and wood apes. I think it went well.

You can hear the interview by visiting or by downloading the podcast from the iTunes store.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Does A Wolf Stalk West Bell County?

I received an interesting text message last week from a friend who lives out West of Killeen, TX. She and her family own a large piece of property outside of town where, on occasion, some odd things happen. This is the piece of property where I had game cameras up for several months after the media reported a “mystery predator” killing goats in the immediate vicinity.

My investigation of the property yielded no evidence of anything other than coyotes and a gray fox. That being said, I felt that the possibility of a large cat coming through the area from time to time was real. The patriarch of the family has claimed a sighting of a large cat from time to time but he has reported seeing wolves much more often. As you might imagine, I figured that he had likely seen a large coyotes and not a wolves. Red wolves and coyotes are colored very similarly and it is very plausible that someone could make that mistake. This gentleman, however, was adamant that he knew what a coyote looked like and this was no coyote. He went on to say that my argument didn’t apply anyway since what he saw looked like a gray or timber wolf (Canis lupus).

Gray wolves are huge animals with the males averaging right at 100 lbs. with larger individuals not uncommon. They once ranged all over the North American continent and did live in Texas. Though never as common as the Red Wolf (Canis rufus), they were not that unusual a sight in the early days of Texas. While it is nearly universally accepted that gray wolves have been extirpated from the state, reports of sightings do continue to trickle in from time to time. Many in Southeast Texas feel that a small group of gray wolves continue to hang on in the Big Thicket National Preserve. None other than Geraldine Watson, often referred to as the guardian angel of the Big Thicket, claims to have seen them in the region. However, seeing one in Central Texas would be huge news. Many would say it is impossible. However, recent reports indicate that animals roam longer and farther than most would ever suspect (For example, a 104 lb. gray wolf was killed in Missouri in 2009). Could a literal “lone wolf” have made its way here?

About two years have now passed since I first visited this property and while some odd sounds have been heard on the property and a couple of interesting, but blurry, game camera photos obtained, nothing of real note has been captured. That might have changed last week, at least to a degree.

My friend has taken to routinely driving the property around dusk in the hopes that she might spot something unusual. Last week her efforts were rewarded when she captured what looks like a very large canid of some sort in hot pursuit of some cottontail rabbits on video. She used her cell phone to capture the footage and it is a bit hard to make out but something is there. The animal, whatever it is, can clearly be seen in the still shot taken from the footage.

The animal is large and dark, if not totally black. My friend said that she clearly saw a thick, bushy tail that was pointed out or slightly up as the animal ran across her field of vision. This is an important detail. First, the physical description of the tale being “thick and bushy” totally eliminates the possibility of this animal being anything but some sort of canid. The observation of the tale sticking straight out, if not slightly up is also important. Wolves trot and run with their tails pointed straight out behind them while coyotes locomote with their tails pointed downward. It is enough to make you wonder a bit.

I asked her to return to the site where the animal was spotted and measure the distance from the outside of the tire rut on the left to the outside of the tire rut on the right. She reported that the measurement averaged about 11’ 6” at different points in the “road.” Looking at the still taken from the footage you can see that the animal in the frame is quite large. It is not in a perfect spot to get a truly accurate size comparison (isn’t that always the case?) as the rutted road bends back to the left at the exact spot where the animal was crossing. Still, you can clearly see that this was a large animal. To my eye, and take this with a grain of salt, the animal looks like it could easily be 5’ in length nose to tail. If so, this is no coyote.

So, what is roaming this property? I suppose there are several explanations that might be more likely than the idea that a gray wolf has found its way to Central Texas. The first that comes to mind, and the most likely to be true, is that this is some sort of large domestic dog that has gone feral or that lives somewhere nearby and is allowed to run free. The description given of the animal is not unlike that of a German Shepherd. German Shepherds can be totally black in color as well. What I don’t know is how they hold their tails when they trot or run. Some will continue to think that a big coyote is shown in the video. I can’t go with that based on the size and color. Those that live on the property, though, continue to think they have something unusual that comes through from time to time. They hear howling, they find tracks, and now they have video, grainy though it may be. Certainly, the video isn’t clear enough to tell us anything for sure other than a large, dark animal of some kind is, or has been, on the property, but could it really be a wolf?

The animal in the video is probably a large dog… probably. My friend has a game camera out and is hopeful of eventually capturing a photo that proves once and for all the identity of this animal. To this point, however, this unidentified canid remains every bit as elusive as some of the other cryptids I pursue. Sooner or later, we are going to get that photo.

Sooner or later…

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Changing Views on Popular Bigfoot Beliefs

I received a good email this week from a reader who asked me a great question. To summarize, the question was basically whether or not any of my theories regarding wood apes (sasquatches) have changed in the years since I began researching the topic seriously. The answer is yes. Once I thought about it a bit, I was surprised at just how much my views have changed regarding certain aspects of the bigfoot phenomenon and some of the more widely accepted “facts” regarding this legendary creature. I will outline some of the changes in my beliefs below.

Popular Theory: Wood apes are solitary animals along the lines of orangutans.

I used to buy into this theory as most sightings are of individual animals. My experiences, and those of my fellow NAWAC members, over the course of Operations Endurance and Persistence have convinced me otherwise. On numerous occasions we have found ourselves the target of thrown rocks that were being lobbed in from different directions by, admittedly, unseen throwers. We’ve also noted wood knocks, clicks, pops, and even whistles emanating from the woods surrounding our camps, seemingly, in answer to one another. If wood apes are the culprits behind these rock throws, knocks, and vocalizations, and I firmly believe they are, then these animals are not living a solitary life. They are living in troupes or family units. How many in a troupe? I’m sure it varies but I feel pretty comfortable in saying that we have documented activity from up to six individuals within seconds of each other in Area X. I would guess there are others that have remained unheard and unseen. Can I prove it? Not yet, but I firmly believe this to be the case. Wood apes may spread out to forage and hunt but they never seem to be far from each other. This is a big change from what I thought about them just 5-6 years ago.

Popular Theory: Habituation scenarios are a bunch of…well, you know.

My experience, and those of my fellow NAWAC members, indicates that these animals are not the solitary nomads most believe them to be. What we’ve observed may not necessarily apply to all wood apes everywhere but our experiences indicate that the apes in our main area of study aren’t going anywhere. They may move within a home range (how big that might be is subject to debate) but do seem to have a core home area to which they always return. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it is to mate, maybe it is a nursery where they give birth and raise infants, or maybe it is because this particular group of wood apes is boxed in by human settlements or even other ape troupes. Whatever the reason, the apes we are studying do not leave. Since this is the case with the apes in our area of study, I can no longer merely dismiss the possibility of other apes in other locales behaving in the same way. This makes habituation scenarios possible. I still believe that many reported habituation reports are nonsense (the Mary Green claims, for example) but no longer can I just summarily dismiss reports of habituation without first taking at closer look at the claims.

Popular Theory: Wood apes avoid game cameras.

I know, I know. Believe me I realize how ludicrous this sounds on the surface but there is something to this claim. The NAWAC, dating back to its old TBRC days, has invested upwards of $50,000 on top of the line game cameras over the last decade. We have absolutely nothing to show for it. I always assumed we just didn’t have enough cameras to adequately cover an area and left it at that. Over the last years, however, two events have changed my mind. First, the NAWAC invested approximately $6,000 on a surveillance system that utilizes infrared technology and placed it on a structure in our main area of study. What we discovered was that ape activity remained steady when the surveillance system was turned off and came almost to a complete standstill when it was turned on. Theories as to why are debated intensely within our group but there is little doubt among most of our members that the surveillance system seems to “turn off” the apes. This is driven home by the fact that some Operation Persistence teams, exhausted by a week in the bush with little to no sleep due to the continuous bombardment of the camp by rocks, would turn on the surveillance system so that they could sleep unmolested. Most game cameras these days use a combination of infrared and motion sensing technologies just like the surveillance system. Whatever it is that bothers the apes may be present within these cameras as well. Possibly, it is simply the apes have seen us put the cameras out and associate them with humans and, so, avoid them. Other animals do this. See the NAWAC article Cryptid Caution Concerning Cameras, for one such example. Some members felt the cameras must emit some sort of low-level frequency that the human ear is unable to detect but the apes can hear. The group had a study done by a bioacoustics lab that seems to quash this theory. You can read the results of the test in the article Testing of Game Cameras for Sound Emissions. To summarize, I don’t know why apes avoid these cameras but the anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that they do. In no way do I think these creatures understand what a camera is or what they do. Despite this, they seem to treat them like the plague. I realize skeptics will have a field day with this. I understand. I was once one of them. Simply, it is what it is.

Popular Theory: Apes use wood knocking to communicate.

I was very dubious about the wood knocking phenomenon for a long time. I had never heard a wood knock, nobody had ever observed an ape beating on a tree with a stick, and, honestly, some of the folks pushing the idea of wood knocking were not people whom I considered credible. I came around soon enough, however, once I seriously got into wood ape research. The NAWAC’s main area of study has proven to be a priceless learning ground and it proved itself again when it came to clearing up the question of whether or not apes use wood knocking to communicate. I have heard knocks, some very loud and close, that are clearly wood on wood. They were often answered by other knocks coming from different locations. Often, NAWAC members hear clear wood knocks upon entering the study area. It is as if there is someone, or something, acting as a sentinel, a watchman, if you will, watching the road in whose job it is to alert other apes when someone arrives. I can’t say for sure that wood apes are behind the knocks, as I’ve never seen one engaged in the activity; however, I have seen an ape in this area and have been there when knocks were heard, seemingly, in response to some sort of movement or activity on our part. The evidence, as circumstantial as it may be, points to wood apes being the culprits behind wood knocking. The bottom line is something with hands has to be behind wood knocking. There is no known animal in the woods of North America capable of producing these sounds. What does that leave?

Popular Theory: The Sierra Sounds were hoaxed.

The first time I heard the Sierra Sounds recordings I laughed out loud. It was simply the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. The Sierra Sounds are a series of audio recordings allegedly captured in the Stanislaus National Forest by Ron Moorehead and Al Berry in the early 1970’s. Moorehead and Berry claimed they had captured audio of a troupe of sasquatches vocalizing. The recordings ranged from relatively tame whoops to the infamous Samurai-like chatter that has so often been ridiculed by skeptics. My tune changed a bit when I visited with a witness who claimed to have seen a wood ape in the Big Thicket National Preserve several years ago. He also claimed to have heard the creature vocalize in a way that reminded him of a badly dubbed Kung Fu movie. He was credible and convincing. Later, the NAWAC captured strange chattering during Operation Endurance in the summer of 2012. The chattering sounds are eerily similar to some of the Sierra Sounds recordings. I stop short of saying the Sierra Sounds recorded back in the early 1970’s are real. I simply don’t know. What I can tell you is that I no longer blow them off as an obvious hoax. I’ve heard things too similar to say that now.

Popular Theory: Wood apes are almost totally nocturnal.

This theory seemed to make sense to me. It would help explain why these huge creatures were not seen more often. Certainly, hunting and moving about at night would lower the odds of their being seen by humans. Later, this idea was validated in my mind when I witnessed a wood ape in the middle of a forest service road in the Sam Houston National Forest in May of 2005… at 3:15 a.m. What I have found in the years since is that this is simply not true. I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of witnesses and the accounts are equally split between daytime and nighttime sightings. The NAWAC has documented literally hundreds of events and more than a dozen visuals over the last two years in our main area of study. What is clear is that the apes are every bit as active during the day as they are at night. Again, it is possible that troupes of apes in other locales may have different habits but based on what I know, wood apes are not strictly, or even mainly, nocturnal.

Popular Theory: Wood apes have eyes that glow at night.

I always assumed researchers who reported eyeshine had misidentified some other known animal. Eyeshine is dependent on the presence of a thin layer of tissue directly behind the retina called the tepetum lucidum. The tapetum lucidem reflects visible light back through the retina, which increases the amount of light available to be picked up by the photoreceptors in the eye. This greatly improves night vision. This process also creates the eyeshine effect with which most are familiar. Very few primates have a tapetum lucidum; humans do not and neither do any of the known great apes. The only primates that I’m aware of that have a tapetum lucidum are some of the prosimians, the Sportive lemur, for example. This being the case, and believing the sasquatch to be an undocumented great ape, I felt that the eyeshine so commonly reported had to be a simple case of misidentification (folks believing sasquatches are primitive humans would still have been in agreement with me since humans do not possess this feature either). Observations over the last few years have changed my opinion on this. The eyes of the wood ape are, seemingly, quite large and produce a very bright eyeshine. This phenomenon has been observed by NAWAC members time and time again. The colors of the eyeshine reported have ranged from orange, yellow-gold, red, to green. The varying colors reported don’t bother me much as eyeshine color often depends on the angle at which it is being viewed. It would appear that the wood ape does have a tapetum lucidum. This would seem to fly in the face of my assertion earlier than these animals are not nocturnal. Again, it is what it is. I still do not believe that the eyes of a wood ape glow without a source of external light. That would be unprecedented in the animal kingdom. Having said that, it doesn’t seem to take much light for these animals’ eyes to light up very brightly. The apes seem to be aware of their own eyeshine to some degree as well. Often, they are spotted observing our camps at night and once they realize we are looking back directly at them, they will duck their head as if to eliminate the beacon that is their eyes. It is really quite amazing. Maybe they are just hunkering down in general in an attempt to avoid detection but it sure seems that they are aware that their eyes give them away. So, yes, wood apes do exhibit very bright eyeshine.

I like to think that my opinions on these animals and their behavior and characteristics haven’t changed as much as they have evolved. I hope this is the sign of an open mind that simply goes where the evidence leads. The evidence has led me to some pretty improbable conclusions; however, I do think it is important to differentiate between what is improbable and what is impossible. I guess you could say that about the very existence of these creatures; it is improbable. That is inarguable. But is their existence impossible? No, not at all.

I have no desire to try to get anyone to “come around” to my point of view. I just wanted to point out some of the ways that actually researching, being a member of a credible group full of other researchers, and direct observations have caused me to give second thoughts to many aspects of this mystery and let you know what my point of view is on some of these theories.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Killer Vultures of Bell County

Vulture: Any one of several large birds that eat dead animals and have a small featherless head.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I think most would agree with the definition above. Vultures are carrion eaters, nature’s vacuum cleaners. They fill a vital environmental niche. They are all over the state and are seen on an almost daily basis by all but the most urbanized Texans. They can be spotted perched high on power line towers, on the shoulder of roads cleaning up road kill, and riding warm thermals looking for and/or circling a sick or dying animal. Vultures are almost infinitely patient as they wait for their future meal to kick the bucket. How many western movies have featured a cowboy hero struggling for life under a blazing desert sun that looks up to see vultures circling ominously above him just waiting for him to give up the ghost? Vultures will wait and wait and wait...

…or will they?

There are two types of vultures that ride the warm air currents of the Lone Star State: the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) and the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus). Of the two species, the Black Vulture is the hardier bird. They are broad, thick-chested birds with short tails that often stay close to their Turkey Vulture cousins. They aren’t there just to keep good family relations, however. Black Vultures actually have a poor sense of smell and often follow Turkey Vultures, who have an excellent sense of smell, to food. Once the Black Vultures arrive, they force out the more slightly built Turkey Vultures who then have to wait and hope something is left over for them. But then, as mentioned before, vultures are the most patient of creatures. They will wait. Time is on their side. They are patience in the flesh…

…or are they?

In 2004, the Temple Daily Telegram ran a story about the duties of a Bell County trapper named Gary Silvers. In the article, Silvers detailed something very unusual. Vultures that actually killed live prey. Silvers said in the article that he was initially skeptical of the killer vulture claims being made by ranchers and rural landowners (interestingly, Silvers says he was more skeptical of the killer vulture claims than he was of black panther sightings). The calls and the claims continued to pour in, however, so, his interest piqued, Silvers decided to investigate. What he was able to observe startled him.

Silvers was present on a rural piece of land near Hartrick Bluff when he witnessed a violent vulture attack; the ferocity of which left him stunned. A heifer in the pasture Silvers was observing was giving birth to a calf when a half dozen or more Black Vultures swooped in and attacked. The first arrivals distracted and harassed the heifer long enough for a second group to descend upon the helpless calf.

“The vultures pecked the eyes out first,” said Silvers. “After that it was all over. It was a pretty gruesome scene.”

The black vultures exhibited a flock mentality and ferocity that is not usually associated with the species. So what got into these vultures that turned them from patient scavengers into predatory killers? Silvers also noted the presence of Turkey Vultures in the trees surrounding the pasture where this all took place but they did not take part in the attack. They roosted stoically until the calf was dead.

“I think it’s just a case of the calves being in the wrong place at the wrong time, “Silvers said in the 2004 article. “There’s something about the calves and calving, something about the smell, I guess, that draws them for some reason.”

My interest level in the killer vulture phenomenon jumped up considerably when I found out the attack Gary Silvers observed took place on the property of someone I know. Someone I know quite well, as a matter of fact.

Roy Northen has lived in the Hartrick Bluff area for decades and has just about seen it all. I can personally vouch that he is a man of impeccable character and not prone to exaggeration. In fact, he might be the most understated man I have ever met (To illustrate, Mr. Northen, a rabid University of Texas Longhorn football fan, once described Earl Campbell as a “pretty fair running back.”) Mr. Northen is quoted in a 2007 article written by Clay Coppedge on the Country World website regarding the incident.

“There’s more and more of these new vultures (Black Vultures). The old vultures (Turkey Vultures) would wait for something to die, then they would have a big feast if you let them,” he said. “The new vultures don’t mind at all going after a calf.”

Vulture killings in the area aren’t common but they are no longer rare. Silvers, in the same Country World article, estimated that Bell County ranchers lost between $15,000-$20,000 in 2006 (the year before the article was published).

It seems there is little that can be done to curb the predatory vulture issue in Central Texas. It seems you can kill just about any mammal with a standard hunting license but almost all birds are off limits. Black Vultures are no exception. The Migratory Bird Act is the main thorn in the side of those who would like to thin the vulture population a bit. Anyone seeking to kill a vulture must have a Special Purpose Master Migratory Bird Permit issued from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department. The permits are not always easy to get. Even those fortunate enough to obtain the permit are severely limited in the number of vultures they are allowed to cull. Based on my own observations of the Central Texas vulture population, far too few birds are taken to actually curb the issue. It is the equivalent of killing ten fire ants after you stir up a nest. It just isn’t enough to do any good.

The articles referenced for this post are several years old but do not make the mistake of thinking that the predatory behavior of Black Vultures in Central Texas has slowed or stopped. Quite the contrary is true. If anything, the behavior has increased. I have heard reports of several young goats being taken by Black Vultures over the last two years. These kids were not newborns either. They were several weeks old and strong enough to follow their mothers about. It is enough to make you wonder about some of the pets that disappear in these parts. Usually, coyotes or bobcats are blamed for such disappearances; sometimes owls are blamed. I would guess that hungry vultures capable of killing a calf are more than capable of taking small pets like cats and dogs.

Why Black Vultures have started to engage in predatory behavior is a mystery. Is it due to the severe drought conditions that have plagued Texas on and off for the last decade? Is it a natural adaptation made necessary by the fact that there are too many vultures and not enough carrion to go around? Nobody seems to have any answers.

It is true that predatory behavior in vultures is not completely unheard of. There are many, many cases where vultures dig in before the animal on which they are feeding is dead. There are also cases from around the world of vultures being opportunistic and feeding on an unlucky small mammal that wanders too close to a roosting location. The behavior of the Black Vultures in Bell County, however, seems different. These birds are organized and exhibit a brutality that is quite disturbing to witness. While the attacks are no more or less brutal than those undertaken by any other predator, they seem to have a greater effect on those that witness them as they come from a totally unexpected source.

Maybe the predatory behavior of these Black Vultures is anomalous. Maybe the behavior will lessen or stop altogether in the future. I just don’t know. One thing I can tell you, however, is that the “Killer Vultures” of Bell County are a reality. Are they a threat to people? No. Is their existence something to keep in mind when letting your pet out of the house? Yes. Their existence is certainly something that ranchers in the area are dealing with on, at least, a periodic basis.

How long will it be before the rest of us have to do the same?


Monday, September 9, 2013

Tracking 101: Cat Tracks vs. Canid Tracks

I received an email recently from a lady who thought she might have a big cat visiting her property. She had found large tracks and was afraid for her livestock and children. After examining the photos of the tracks it was pretty clear they were of canine origin. I questioned her and it was revealed that the folks on the neighboring property had two Great Pyrenees that watch over a small flock of goats. The goats roam a pasture during the day but are penned up at night. My guess is that the pair of dogs has taken to wandering about a little at night once the goats are penned up and left the tracks in question.

The whole exchange got me to thinking and I thought that a post on the differences between dog and cat tracks might be worthwhile. On the surface, the tracks of these two very different types of animals are pretty similar. It can be difficult to tell the difference, especially if the track is not in pristine condition. There are, however, some telltale characteristics that you can look for in a track to help you determine whether a cat or a dog left the print.

The first thing to look for is whether or not claws are visible in the track. Cats of all sizes have retractable claws.* Generally, a cat’s claws are retracted while walking and, thus, do not appear in any tracks left behind. Canids cannot retract their claws which results in their marks being visible in their tracks most of the time (Pay attention to the type of soil in which the track has been impressed as cats can leave claw marks in soft, sandy or very muddy substrate). This is a quick and easy thing to look for and, while not 100% accurate, will usually help you determine just what type of animal trekked across your property.

If the track is in good shape, a sure way to determine whether the print-maker was a canid or a cat is the shape of the paw pad. In a cat track the front edge of the pad just behind the toes will appear almost square. You might determine a slight dip in the middle of this area giving the appearance of two lobes. This will be very subtle, however, and will be hard to see except in the most pristine of tracks. The rear of the pad, opposite the toes, will show three distinct lobes. In a degraded track the lobes might appear less obvious but the rear of the pad will have more of a squared off and flat look to it than a dog track. A canid pad will appear almost heart-shaped with a single lobe behind the toes and two distinct lobes at the rear. In a degraded dog track the back two lobes may be difficult to identify and appear squared off and flat not unlike a cat track; however, the single top lobe is almost always clearly visible and easy to identify.

Something else you can check that will help you differentiate between dog and cat tracks is the shape of the toes and the direction they are facing. Generally, the toes of canid will all point straight ahead. If you can imagine drawing a straight line emanating from the end of each toe you would see four almost parallel lines. By contrast, the toes of a cat will usually appear more splayed. If you drew those same imaginary lines from the toes of a cat track you would get lines that are not close to being parallel with each other. This splaying of the toes also gives most cat tracks a much rounder overall appearance than those of a canid. Generally, dog tracks are longer than they are wide and cat tracks are wider than they are long. Finally, the toe shape can be a give away even if no claw marks are visible in the print. A teardrop shaped toe that comes to a sharp or narrow point is going to be that of a dog. True oval-shaped toes are going to belong to a cat.

One last indicator is size. A really, really big print is likely that of a large breed domestic dog. The tracks of the Great Pyrenees mentioned in the opening paragraph, for example, were larger than what I would have expected to see even in a cougar track. So, if you come across a really big track it isn’t necessarily time to panic.

I will be the first to admit that I am no expert tracker. The guidelines I’ve touched upon here are just that. There’s more to it than what I’ve discussed (I didn’t touch on differences between front and rear paws, for example). There are going to be times, especially if you find an individual track and not a series of prints, that you just aren’t going to be sure if it is canid or cat in origin. It is important to note that no single characteristic I’ve described will be present in every single track. If, however, you find multiple tracks some or all of the characteristics I’ve discussed should be readily identifiable in at least a few of the prints and allow you to identify the culprit.

I hope that helps. Now, get out and find those cats.

*Not quite a true statement...cheetahs cannot retract their claws. However, if tracking in North America this, obviously, doesn't come into play. Still, thought I would address the inaccuracy of the statement that was pointed out to me by a reader.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

"That which is possible is inevitable."

- William Carlos Williams

Many of us in the NAWAC have adopted this quote as our unofficial motto. Discovery day is inevitable. It is coming.