Pax River Natural Resources Department wraps up large mammal survey

Sarah Giordano, an intern working with the Conservation and Planning Branch at NAS Patuxent River, analyzes coyote scat she collected as part of a summer-long Large Mammal Survey aboard the installation.

There’s been something “hunting” the deer and coyote onboard NAS Patuxent River, but it’s not as ominous as it might sound.

Sarah Giordano, an intern working with Pax River’s Conservation and Planning Branch, has been traipsing through the installation’s woods and brush since May 26 conducting a Large Mammal Survey in an effort to find and count the deer and coyote population that also call the air station home.

The data collected by Giordano — who has a degree in Environmental Studies — will help to update Conservation and Planning on the presence and abundance of these species on base, making it easier for personnel to create effective and informed management plans to mitigate any potential risk to pilots and aircraft.

Twice a week, after sunset, Giordano and a few dedicated volunteers drive a route along the airfield using spotlights to locate deer, record the number they see, and then disperse them using a type of pyrotechnic.

“It’s like a large firecracker they’ll shoot in the direction of the animal and when it explodes it causes a reaction and the deer runs away,” explained Jim Swift, natural resources specialist. “We’re trying to condition the deer to know the airfield is not a friendly place; trying to change their behavior to stay away from the runways and taxiways.”

Attempting to locate coyotes is a little more down and dirty and involves finding and collecting scat — the animals’ droppings — in an effort to get an idea of the number of coyotes that live on base and their home territories.

“Coyotes are relatively new to the southern Maryland area in the last 15 years or so,” Swift said. “We don’t have a really good handle yet on the base population. Do we have a family group, two family groups, and are there transient coyotes moving through the area?”

In addition to seeking scat, Giordano has also set up baited camera traps to entice coyotes and listened for their howls after Colors plays on base in the evening.

“Coyotes seem to respond reliably well to Colors played over the loudspeakers,” she noted.

The bait used to attract coyotes to the camera traps includes an inserted substance, or biomarker, which causes a discoloration of the animal’s droppings that is visible under UV light.

“It shows up in the scat but fades from the body with no ill effects after a few days,” Giordano said. “The trail cameras will hopefully tell us the number of coyotes that visited the bait, and by equating that number to the proportion of marked/unmarked scat, we can estimate the coyote population in a particular area. I have been all over base looking for coyote scat, though the areas where the scat seems most prevalent is in areas adjacent to the airfield.”

The higher the density of animals onboard Pax, the increased chance of unwanted encounters between wildlife and aircraft.

“There has only ever been one encounter with a coyote and an aircraft, and it caused no damage, but that’s why we’re trying to figure out our current coyote population density,” Swift said, “Is it a risk to our airfield, and what kind of management strategies will we want to implement to reduce any potential hazard.”

Another aspect to developing an effective management strategy is knowing what a coyote eats, and analyzing the scat provides valuable information.

“Figuring out what their diet consists of lets us know what’s attracting them; what they’re looking for when they’re hunting or eating in and around the airfield or in areas away from the airfield,” Swift explained. “The collected scat can contain insect parts like wings and legs that aren’t digested; bones, sometimes even a whole skull, which helps us identify what type animal was eaten; the seeds or hard pits of fruits that pass through; and even feathers, so we know if they’re eating birds. It’s all biology and it’s pretty cool.”

While some coyote sightings have been reported at Pax, they are generally sparse and spread out.

“About two years ago, there was a family group living over by Public Works and we got reports of a few sightings then,” Swift added. “But sightings are rare. Most people will never know they’re there.”

Before taking the internship, which ends the week of Sept. 15, Giordano had no idea military bases had natural resources programs, and her work here has broadened her personal experience.

“I think it’s fabulous Pax River has such a department, and from what I’ve been told, [this base] is one of the more environmentally focused installations,” Giordano said. “I’ve learned a great deal about natural resource management and wildlife surveying techniques and I’ve thankfully also been able to assist [other interns] in their Pax projects by helping to look for birds and protecting terrapin nests. This has been one of the better experiences of my life and I attribute that in part to the dedicated and passionate team of people who make up Conservation and Planning. They are incredible to work with.”