A Conciliatory Gift from the Mammal Community?

Maybe it was because my daughter was with me.  Maybe it was just one brave (or not very bright) individual.  Or maybe the prairie dogs and otters got together and decided to throw me a bone.  Regardless, my daughter and I had a pretty cool experience watching prairie dogs this past weekend.

Black-tailed prairie dog. TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Black-tailed prairie dog. TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

You might recall earlier posts I’ve written about attempts to photograph prairie dogs and otters.  In fact, I know many of you recall them because you ask me about them when we meet in person.  Let’s just say it hasn’t usually gone well.  (Examples one, two, and three, but see also four.)

Last weekend, however, my daughter and I were enjoying a weekend together at the Niobrara Valley Preserve before she leaves for college.  We canoed the river and explored the prairies, and generally had a great time.  The biggest highlight, though, was when we stopped at the small prairie dog town in the east bison pasture.  As we drove the truck into the edge of the town, I was telling her that we wouldn’t likely get a very good look at any of the dogs, so she should look at them in the distance and enjoy the view of them scurrying into their holes.  Based on much previous experience, I told her, “They never let you get very close.”

I drove slowly, hoping to give Anna a decent, if distant, look at a few prairie dogs before they dove for cover.  The first one we saw followed the expected pattern.  The second one, however, kept looking at us, so I slowed the truck even more, figuring I’d give Anna another few seconds to see the prairie dog that way.  The prairie dog just kept looking at us, so I stopped the truck completely.  Not only did the prairie dog stay aboveground, she(?) had three pups nearby that kept feeding and exploring almost as if we weren’t there.

Black-tailed prairie dog pups. TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Here are two of the three pups hanging around the burrow.  The third was 15 feet away, feeding.

As Anna and I sat there for a few minutes, I pulled out my camera and took a few photos. For some reason, the prairie dogs seemed largely unconcerned about us.  Eventually, I decided to take a big chance and slowly backed the truck around so that we were a little closer and so that the light was a little better for photography.  The prairie dogs just watched us nonchalantly as we moved.

We watched and photographed them for a few more minutes, savoring the chance to be so close.  I tried a little video but couldn’t hold the camera still enough to make it work well.  Very slowly, I opened the truck door, hoping to set up a tripod behind the door and take video through the open window.  I figured this would likely be the last straw for the prairie dogs, but we’d had a good look already, so it was worth a try.  …Still no response from the prairie dogs.

One thing led to another, and about 15 minutes later, I found myself lying prone on the ground, about 10 feet from the mother(?) prairie dog, photographing her while she alternatively foraged and stood on her hind feet looking alert.  (I’m not sure she understood that while in “alert position” she was supposed to be watching for things like ME CREEPING SLOWLY UP ON HER.)  Eventually, I ran out of both battery and memory card space, and retreated to the truck.  As we turned around and drove away to look for the bison herd the prairie dogs in more distant parts of the town barked warnings and ran for their holes.   You know, as prairie dogs always do…

Black-tailed prairie dog. TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

She’s sitting in alert position, but I’m not sure what she’s watching for since she didn’t seem to be concerned about the big creature stalking her with a camera.

Black-tailed prairie dog. TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Clearly unconcerned about me, the prairie dog continued to move around and eat.

This short video shows two clips.  If it doesn’t show up correctly, try clicking on the title of this blog post to open it in a web browser.  The first was shot from behind my truck door and shows the mother and pup interacting.  The second was shot later while I was lying on the ground and shows the mom feeding.  Clearly, despite how close I was to the prairie dogs, they weren’t very worried…

I have no idea why this particular prairie dog family was so accommodating, but Anna and I were certainly grateful for the time we spent with it.  I’ll try to head back to the dog town in the future and see if I can find them again.   It shouldn’t be hard if they’re the only ones still aboveground when I drive up to the town.   Alternatively, it’s very possible that a hungry coyote, hawk, or other predator will beat me to it…  While it would be great for photographers and kids if all prairie dogs were easy to get close to, it probably wouldn’t work out well for the species.

Now if I can just find a family of otters…

Anna took this photo of me with her phone. It shows how crazy close the prairie dog let me get. Sure, I was being slow and following the rules of good wildlife stalking, but still...

Anna took this photo of me with her phone. It shows how crazy close the prairie dog let me get. Sure, I was being slow and following the rules of good wildlife stalking, but still…

Prairie Dog Spider

Prairie dog towns are known to provide habitat for many species of plants and animals.  Some of those are attractive and/or popular wildlife species like burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks.  Others are attractive (at least to me), but maybe less popular among the general public, including prairie rattlesnakes and black widow spiders.  It’s easy to understand why rattlesnakes would appreciate the availability of burrows.  The snakes can sun themselves on the bare soil at the edge of a burrow, but quickly retreat underground to cool off or escape predation.  From the perspective of spiders, I’m sure the burrows funnel insects nicely into webs, but I’m not sure why prairie dog burrows are so attractive to black widows in particular.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking for invertebrates around Nebraska, but prairie dog towns are the only places I’ve ever seen black widows.

A black widow spider in an abandoned prairie dog burrow.

A southern black widow spider (Latrodectus mactans) in an abandoned prairie dog burrow.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.  The spider, including spread legs, was only slightly larger than a nickel.

While I was up along the Niobrara River last week, I walked around a small prairie dog town hoping to find either rattlesnakes or black widows to photograph.  I didn’t find any snakes, but did find black widows in two of the first 20 or so burrows I examined.  Both had webs strung across abandoned burrows.  That makes sense, but I wonder if the spiders recognize the burrows as abandoned before they build a web?  If not, I imagine there are some pretty interesting prairie dog/spider interactions as prairie dogs burst in or out of burrows and encounter the webs.  I laughed about something similar with badgers and spiders about a month ago, but the more potent venom in black widow spiders adds an extra degree of risk to prairie dogs…  My guess is that very few, if any, prairie dogs are actually harmed by black widows (the spiders probably just try to get away and prairie dog fur seems thick enough to protect against the small fangs anyway) but I don’t know of any research that’s actually investigated that.

My camera set-up for the above spider photo.

My camera set-up for the above spider photo.

Once I found the two black widow spiders, the next challenge was figuring out how to photograph them.  The first issue was that the late afternoon sunlight was very bright and the tunnels were very dark, making the lighting conditions problematic.  A homemade collapseable diffuser (thin fabric sewed to a plastic hoop) helped cut the light intensity.  The second problem was that the angle of the webs relative to the shape of the burrow made it difficult to get the spider in focus.  I finally gave up trying to find a position from which to photograph the first spider and concentrated on the second.

However, the biggest issue was that the spiders were very tuned in to movement near the edge of the burrow and kept scurrying away into the shadows every time my head, camera, or hand moved across the opening.  The above photo took 45 minutes to obtain.  Most of that time was spent waiting for the spider to return to the web (and the light) every time I re-positioned the camera, focused, or breathed (or so it seemed).  It’s not a fantastic shot, but given the challenging situation it still feels like a kind of victory.