APML Critter Stories

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Recently a thread on APML concerned close encounters some members of that group have had with various creatures of the night. Some of those stories are reprinted here, with the authors' permission.

Stuart Heggie wrote:
Alan - reminds me of a beautiful summer evening guiding a piggyback photo manually and I'm wondering what my tabby cat is up to wandering all around me while I am busy then it settles down under the apple tree about 15' away and I'm thinking "Since when do cats eat apples?" so I wander over to scoop her up and see what she is up to so I'm bending way over about to grab her under the tummy and I'm thinking "You know, I don't recall her having this big wide white stripe on her back YIKES!!!". Backing away quickly but the skunk never even acknowledged my presence or proximity!

Chris Cook wrote:
I too have the resident skunk. From late spring through fall, he circles the yard during twilight. Haven't been sprayed yet.... This past spring I had one of the local coyote's prance through the yard staring me down as he went about his business.

Kevin Wigell wrote:
That must have sent a chill up your spine. At my club's site, almost every night the coyotes are howling. I know they won't attack a human but I don't like being up there alone when they are howling. I've never seen one up there, though - just heard them. BTW, is it "ky-o-tee", or "ky-ote"? Or does it depend on where you're from?

Chris Cook wrote:
Naw, he was harmless. Several years ago I was out in Anza-Borrego SP and a coyote came trotting through camp about 15 feet from me. It was about 1am and I was resting in the back of my truck. The only sound was the clicking of the ST-4. I don't think he even knew I was there.

Robert Reeves wrote:
I think all veteran astrophotographers have their skunk stories. Mine was in 1975 when I got my C-8 (still use it!) and tried my first red-filtered piggyback shots from the front yard of the house I used to have in what is now basically downtown San Antonio. It was pier and beam foundation so there was a crawl space under the house. I never knew I had a resident skunk until I was guiding an exposure. The scope tripod straddled the front sidewalk. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed something moving in the dark. I looked and it was a huge tail puffed up in the air. I realized it was an oncoming BIG skunk and froze in place. The skunk waddled down the walkway, under my scope, brushed past me and kept on going like he owned the place. I never smelled a thing, so nothing bothered him lately. I watched and he wiggled under the house. Later that night I lifted up the trapdoor in the bottom of the bedroom closet and there was the skunk, all curled up and asleep. I didn't bother him and he didn't bother me.

George Anderson wrote:
We have a lot of feral cats in our neighbourhood, they prowl around day and nigh. The lot next to us was vacant and so they used to search there for food as well as use it as a throughway. I got fed up with them coming around while I was observing so I used to throw rocks in their general direction. Never tried to actually hit any, but as long as it was close they would shoot off and leave me alone for an hour or so. One night one was vary brazen and even though I would throw rocks he would only move a little bit each time. I could hear him coming up the small hill to the driveway and I decided I'd teach it a lesson. I grabbed a handful of smaller rocks with the intent of nailing it in the hindquarters to teach it a lesson. I could vaguely make out its silhouette as it came over the top and wound up in a full major league pitch ready to nail it. I damn near ripped my shoulder apart clenching the rocks tighter in my hand and stopping the windmill action when I realized it was a skunk and he was less than ten feet away. When I bolted in through the front door my wife asked what was wrong and I simply replied skunk. We turned on the outside light and watched him sniff the scope and other its I had out there for ten minutes before he finally buggered off. Next summers big astro project is a small observing deck with a pier, reachable only by a short ladder.

Don Westergren wrote:
Well, my critter tale occurred about 7 years ago when I was learning to manually guide astrophotos. I was hunched over, looking in my right angle guide eyepiece, and about 30 minutes into a 45 minute shot. Suddenly a loud noise came from some sheet metal flashing on the ground about 3 feet behind me. I grabbed my red LED flashlight and wheeled around on my stool. The adrenalin rush was going full speed. I shined the light in the direction of the noise and immediately saw two eyes looking back at me. It was a fearsome Kangaroo Mouse. When you're not expecting it, it can be quite startling!

Jon Kolb wrote:
I believe it's "ki-yoat," at least that's how most folks here in CO pronounce it. They are entirely harmless, unless you happen to be badly injured and immobile. They are also constant companions in the mountains at night, and actually are quite interesting to listen to. The place I normally shoot at usually has a half dozen or more communicating with each other at various times of night. Occasionally I will spot a coyote or two at dusk when setting up my gear, but they can be seen pretty easily during the day as well, since they really have no fear of anything. It's fun to watch them hunt mice or picas under the snow. In fact, if you just stop for a minute or two and look around, you'd be surprised what you can see in the mountains. In my adventures I've seen elk, deer, foxes, hundreds of rabbits, coyotes, marmots, picas, beavers, several squirrel species, bighorn sheep, a wide assortment of interesting birds, and even a couple of mountain lions. Still, in almost 20 years of roaming the backcountry, and even though they and their sign are all over the place, I've yet to spot a bear. The most impressive are mountain lions and elk. The big cats appear and disappear as if they are just an illusion - no sound of any kind. And there's nothing quite like seeing an 800 lb. elk take off up a steep slope, already at 11,000 feet, as if he's just going for a stroll. A closer look, if you can get it, will show his tongue hanging out and hard breathing, but he still makes it look easy.

Richard Crisp wrote:
from Webster.com Pronunciation: 'kI-"Ot, kI-'O-tE Function: noun Inflected Form(s): plural coyotes or coyote Etymology: Mexican Spanish, from Nahuatl coyOtl Date: 1759 1 : a buff-gray to reddish gray No. American canid (Canis latrans) closely related to but smaller than the wolf 2 : one who smuggles immigrants into the U.S. ---- Out here in the SF Bay area "dark sky" sites we use, there are usually a number of them either visible at dusk or audible when the moon rises. They are really amazing in their yodeling: they seem to start their chattering just about the time the moon rises. One could darn near set their watch by them it seems at times. One of the local astronomers got pretty scared one night when he heard one about 50-75 feet away, but the rest of us worked on convincing him there was no danger unless it was rabid. Boy was that a mistake. The next worry was that it WAS rabid. The coyote ended up finding some cookies that a hiker had left nearby and took off. For me they enhance the experience of being outdoors. I feel cheated if I don't at least hear them.

Robert Reeves wrote:
Actually, I am surprised at all the wildlife that passes us in the night while we are stargazing. Here in my own backyard well within San Antonio (The City of Terrell Hills, actually, completely surrounded by San Antonio for many miles), I have seen possums, raccoons, many feral cats that live under our deck, large roof rats and squirrels that all seem to scamper past me at night as if I don't exist.

I am also a satellite observer and have various locations around the yard where I go to get look angles to various parts of the sky depending where the satellite will be. Here I once encountered human critters in the dark. One dark corner for the eastern sky puts me right next to the neighbor's driveway. It is pretty dark there in the shadow from street lights. Once I was waiting for a double pass, one where a low altitude satellite catches and passes a high altitude satellite that appears to travel the same general path across the sky. The neighbor lady came outside and went over to her car in the dark. I decided to stay quiet as to not scare her. Then for some reason she came over to the passenger side and walked within three feet of me without seeing me. She got something out of the car then started backing up from the car with a bunch of stuff in her arms. Now I had to say something as she was on a collision course with me as I was training my binoculars on the target spot in the sky where I expected to acquire my satellite targets. That did it! She completely wigged out and screamed at the top of her lungs. That scared me and I screamed too. I have seen that in the movies where people scare each other, but that is the first time it ever happened to me.

Its a strange world out there when the sun goes down.

Kevin Wigell wrote:
One time I was AP-ing in my backyard (which has a farm field right behind it), probably about 11 p.m. or so. I was manually guiding, so I was glued to the guiding eyepiece. I heard a loud rustling off in the cornfield behind me (the corn was at least six feet tall then). I could tell it was coming closer, but I could only take short glances away from the eyepiece. I could see from the motion of the corn that something big was coming. I figured it was a deer, as we have lots of them around. Imagine my surprise when a person finally stepped out of the cornfield!

Alan Voetsch wrote:
Last Spring, for several nights in a row, I kept hearing this horrible, chomping, grinding noise. It sounded like like some horrific monster was tearing bodies apart, chewing them up, then spitting them out using every rude, grunting kind of noises you could possibly imagine. Keep in mind we do have occasional cougar/mountain lion problems. I was too scared to even try to get close enough to figure out what it was. This area is really overgrown so it was not a simple case of shining a flashlight into the area. Finally, one night I heard the creature leaving the area and figured if I moved up the driveway I would be able to get a glimpse of it moving through the neighbor's yard, hopefully without being mauled. I was EXTREMELY relieved to see that what had been causing all the racket was simply a deer, apparently re-chewing some of it's dinner. Last night, after posting one of my skunk tales, I went out on the front porch. Walking out of the lit area into darkness, I saw two shapes which I had out-flanked. Turns out that we have more than a 'Skunky' here, we have at least 2 Skunkies. Over the last 6 months, I could have sworn that I had noticed size, and even some personality differences. Turns out that was correct and I'm sure I can expect to see some "Little Skunies" in the Spring, or maybe sooner. I don't have any idea when they produce offspring. Anybody want to adopt a skunk?

Mike Cole wrote:
About six years ago near Mt St Helens WA, I was imaging late one night and had my face glued to the shielded laptop screen when I detected a rather foul odor and noise behind me. I turned around allowing the laptop to lightup a cow elk about 20 feet away. I am not sure who was scared more.

Dale Ireland wrote:
We have raccoons, coyotes, bears, skunks, deer, moles, possums, mice, etc in the yard. 20mi west of Seattle. I have met them all face to face when out with my scope except for the bear. Most of them are noisy except the skunk. Skunk on the hoof has a sweet smell but it makes you freeze up with worry about just how close he might be and tripping over him/her. Greg Mueller is a few miles away and has a bear regularly in his yard. I lose my night vision often because I hear something and whip out the highbeam flashlight in defense. eek

Greg Harp wrote:
I live in a Dallas suburb that (for the moment, still) borders some farm land and larger chunks of property than the average build-em-as-close-as-possible modern neighborhood. The street that leads up to my build-em-as-close-as-possible housing development is dark, and I pretty much have to keep my foot ready to slam on the brakes in case a coyote, rabbit, possum, skunk or armadillo decides to cross in front of me. It happens about once a week. The coyotes are the most common things we see. We often hear them yapping away in the evening, especially within a couple of hours of sunset which is I guess when they do most of their hunting, but they never, ever howl. At our dark skies site, which is obviously in a much more rural location, we occasionally hear them yapping but more often the first sound out of the coyotes as a bunch of howling. I've always thought it was a curious difference, given that there are only about 90 miles separating the two locations. My understanding (right or wrong -- it's what I was told one time when I asked) is that they howl when they are signaling to other coyotes in the area that they have spotted a larger prey animal than they would normally take down solo. They yap when they are chasing small prey or feasting on whatever they caught.

Don Westergren wrote:
I have heard stories of how quiet bats are when they fly. I saw (heard) first hand one night when my observing buddy and I were outside our observing tents talking and enjoying the night sky. Silhouetted against the white dome tent, I saw a bat fly over my friend's head, within a foot above him. Neither of us heard a thing and neither of us were talking at the time. I could see the bat wings flap, but they are absolutely quiet.

Kent Kirkley wrote:
Here in North Texas and Southern Oklahoma (dark site) we encounter all sorts of critters while observing/imaging. A few years ago I was imaging Hale-Bopp with my Schmidt camera and was, as usual, concentrating on the process at hand. I suddenly sensed something behind me in the dark. Turning around to see what it was, the critter obviously hadn't sensed me either, because it jumped straight up in front of me. Startled, I jumped straight up and backward, almost on top of my gear. We both headed in opposite directions. It shouldn't have been so shocking as it was only a resident armadillo. They are nocturnal and have very poor eyesight, of course in the dark mine wasn't much better.

At another dark site we use, Ft. Griffin State Park, the Texas Longhorn herd is in residence and the herd will sometimes wander right through our observing area. This is usually after we have hit the sleeping bags as morning twilight begins. It is amazing that with those wide horns they have never really knocked over any important gear. One morning I did notice one photo tripod was laying on the ground, so they don't have a perfect record.

At Ft. Griffin, owls are another critter we hear and barely see. These large owls will glide over the observing area on target to some distant field mouse and you can hear the whoosh of their wings.

John Lanoue wrote:
I'm not sure if this guy counts as a "critter", don't critter's have to be small? ;-)

I was in my observatory tent and I could hear my daughters playing on the swingset, the chains creaking back and forth... then a few minutes later my 'daughters' tipped over the birdfeeder, that's when I was suspicious that it wasn't my daughters.

Walked in the house (in complete darkness), saw my daughters playing quietly in the playroom, turned on the exterior lighting and saw this 'critter'...


Don Westergren wrote:
I think 'critters" are small if you are hunting them with a .22. Astro-critters on the other hand are just about any size we may encounter while out observing. I enjoy my time spent out under the night skies, which for me is a 45 mile trip from home to "get away" from the urban area and out into "nature". The sights and sounds of the area wildlife are part of the attraction. I treasure each encounter I have had with good memories. So far I haven't had any "bad ones". It pays to play it safe. I keep a radio going with soft music, and usually have a few red lights glowing so any animals know I'm there. I don't leave food out that might attract them. I always observe with someone else nearby. My biggest adrenalin rush was caused by a mouse making noise unexpectedly right behind me. My most awe inspired views were on two successive Saturday nights, facing a mountain lion 40 feet away in the open. She snarled and screamed, but made no signs of aggression. I vividly remember those magnificent white teeth.

Jonas Carlsson wrote:
Both of these stories remind me of two (or actually several) occasions when standing in the yard of our previous house observing. (The house we lived in then was situated in the countryside here in the south of Sweden). Often when standing alone in the darkness there was bats coming close to me and on at least one occasion I have felt a light wind (or touch) from a bats wing in my hair as they just changed direction. Nothing was heard but as I knew there was a lot of bats I felt more close to nature then scared for the unknown. On another occasion I was standing on the same spot when I could just make out a large shadow passing just above me. First I got a bit scared but then I heard something big sitting down in a tree just about 30 meters from me. I lit a torch to see what it was and saw that it was a large so-called "mountain owl", the largest type of owl here in Sweden. That was really nice!

Frank Holub wrote:
O.K. I couldn't resist any more... So more critter stories from my experiences.

1.) About five years ago I was doing some observing while seated on a stool. I was staring intently into the eyepiece, when I felt something touch my leg. I looked down and was a raccoon sniffing my knee and had his paw on my leg. I'm not sure which one of us was more frightened! I jumped and screamed and he ran...

2.) 3 or so summers ago I was manually guiding an exposure of comet C/1999 S4. The fact that comets are hard to manually guide on is usually enough and listening to an owl eating his dinner in a tree a short distance away made the job harder. But, listening to the owl's dinner loudly protesting that fact that it was being eaten did in the exposure!

3.)Back in the Fall of 2000, I was getting in some good manually guided exposures from a small parking lot under the dark skies of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. It was a cold night, and I was starting to get one of those really bad chills. I was dressed warmly but sometimes you get one of those deep down chills you just can't shake... Anyway, I was going to stick it out for one last 30 minute exposure, but 3 or 4 minutes into the exposure I heard the distance howls from the coyotes that have recently arrived to the park area. I was DONE, when I heard those howls a chill like nothing I have ever felt ran right into my spine! The scope was packed in record time and I drove back to the campsite and spent the rest of the evening in front of a big warm fire...

Kevin Wigell wrote:
OK, one last critter story from me, one which is a least remotely astronomy related. This took place in 1983. I was visiting Yellowstone with my girlfriend (now my wife). I had been there before and knew how spectacular the night skies could be. We were staying at the Old Faithful Lodge, close to the geysers area. For those who have not been there, the geysers area is criss-crossed with wooden walkways for visitors, to protect the delicate surface features there.

 Anyway, I suggested to my then-girlfriend that we go out on the boardwalk after dark to take a look at the night sky. So, we headed out on the wooden walkways at dusk. Even though it was summer and we had light jackets on, the temperature was dropping fast. It was still twilight, and I suggested that we stand in the plume of an erupting geyser to stay warm. There wasn't another (human) soul around. So we stood in the plume of the erupting geyser for perhaps five minutes while we waited for it to become fully dark. We couldn't see more than 2 or 3 feet away inside the plume of water vapor. Suddenly the wind shifted and the plume moved away from us. We immediately became aware of a VERY large bull moose standing not ten feet away from us - and he became aware of us. We were frozen staring at him - and he stood stock still staring at us. Then he took one BIG step toward us and was then perhaps six feet away from us. My life flashed before my eyes, and my then-girlfriend later confessed to me she was considering jumping into the boiling cauldron next to us. Then the bull moose turned, and in seconds was gone.

We scuttled back to the lodge (and the bar) just as fast as we could. It was an experience never to be forgotten.

Frank Holub wrote:
Tonight, I finally had clear skies, so, for the first time in a month I set up to do some astrophotography. A friend of mine also brought his scope over to do some observing. At some point after an exposure, he was looking at my mount and exclaimed "What is that stuff?".

My scope is permanently mounted about 8 feet from my house in an enclosure that is basically an outhouse on wheels. Seems "Mickey" had found a 10 pound bag of rice in our basement and decided to move some into a stash of his own. Now I get to find his hole... The good news is that the tracking was good and the OTA was sealed...

Alan Voetsch wrote:
Every summer our local club puts on a couple programs for a local state park. It's Stewart State Park which is about halfway between here and Crater Lake. In exchange for our time, they kindly give us about 4 sites to use for free. Our president does a slide show then all the campers come around to look through our scopes. Usually by 11:30 they're gone to bed and I can start imaging (I'm the only imager of the group).

Other than some problems with one of our club members who has no night-time etiquette, things went smoothly for me until late Saturday night. After setting up a shot of M17 and getting it going, I went to take a shower (ahh, the pleasures of autoguiding). When checking the ST-4 readings about 30 minutes later, I noticed unusual numbers: a whole series of zeroes, occasionally interspersed with a '6' or a '7', then back to a series of '0's'. That is just not normal. I love those zeroes, but am always happy with '1's and '2's. I interrupted guiding and checked the parameters and found that the ones I had entered were now replaced with the default settings. That only happens when power is shut off. So, I scratched my head, re-entered my numbers, re-calibrated and started another exposure. Soon the same thing started showing, again. At this point it was about 3:15 AM and the sky was getting noticeably lighter in the NE. So I shut down.

Yesterday as I was packing up my equipment, I noticed that the red wire in the ST-4s power cable harness was severed. That explained my problems, but not how the wire was cut. I didn't find that out until I removed the carpet remnants I always cover my wires and cables with. Upon doing so, I saw a brand new gopher hole. Apparently, the hungry little SOB surfaced, and ate his way though the wire. My only hope is that he may have gotten a little shock as he did so.

I patched the wire after returning home yesterday, and the ST-4 was
working great last night, so all is well.

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