An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Animal Adaptations

Muskrats Mating

4-29-14 mating muskrats2  099 Muskrats breed year round in southern U.S., but in New England ice-out usually determines when they first breed. These largely monogamous rodents take to the water to copulate after a mad chase that often lasts several minutes. Successive breedings take place all summer. By the time one litter is weaned and independent (about four weeks), the mother is about to give birth again. Several litters of five or six young are produced each year, with the mother caring for her young up until they are weaned, and the father then taking over.

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Hungry Black Bears

4-25-14 black bear IMG_3624When Black Bears emerge from their dens in the spring, they have lost between 15 and 40 percent of their weight, and food is in short supply. About 85% of a bear’s diet is vegetation, and most trees and shrubs have not leafed out yet. Black Bears often head to wetlands, where grasses and sedges are beginning to sprout. Nutritionally the shoots of these plants provide them with some of the protein they need, but this source of nutrients is short-lived, as the shoots are tender for only a few days before hardening with cellulose. Roots, bulbs, corms and tubers of plants such as Skunk Cabbage and Jack-in-the-Pulpit are sought after, as are the buds of trees, but bears must wait for the bountiful supply of berries and nuts that mature in summer and fall. Those bears living near humans come to rely on foods inadvertently provided by these humans, such as highly nutritional sunflower seeds being fed to birds. One can hardly blame bears for taking advantage of this available source of food during this challenging time. Feeders and cans containing seed should be put in a bear-proof location if you don’t want to encourage “nuisance” bears which, unfortunately, are sometimes killed just for trying not to starve to death.

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Determined Spotted Salamanders

4-17-14  spotted salamander in snow117It’s rare to get a glimpse of a Spotted Salamander – these secretive amphibians spend most of their lives hidden under rocks or logs or in the burrows of other forest animals, emerging only at night to feed and during spring mating. In central Vermont, the annual mass migration of Spotted Salamanders to their ancestral breeding pools began two nights ago, when the rain-soaked earth and rising temperatures signaled that it was time to emerge from hibernation. Unfortunately for the salamanders (and frogs) that answered the calling, temperatures dropped relatively early in the evening, and the rain turned to snow. Undaunted, these stout salamanders continued their trek through the woods, plowing their way through new-fallen snow, all in the name of procreation.

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Wood Frogs Awakening and Thawing

4-17-14 wood frog IMG_1377The duck-like quacking of recently-emerged, courting wood frogs is slightly miraculous considering that only days ago these amphibians were frozen practically rock solid. At some point in late fall or winter, as temperatures drop, they flood their bodies with blood sugar that acts as antifreeze in their circulatory system. Activity in their brains stops, their heart stops, and 45 – 60% of their body can freeze. Yet within hours of being exposed to the spring’s warming temperatures, wood frogs thaw out and start moving towards a body of water to breed.

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Signs Of An Active Beaver Pond

4-7-14  floating beaver logs IMG_0159Beaver ponds have finally started to melt, making it easy to determine whether or not there have been beavers living in any existing lodges over the winter. The tell-tale sign is floating de-barked sticks and branches. During the winter, beavers leave their lodge and swim out to their underwater food supply pile and haul branches back into the lodge where they chew them into foot-long pieces for easy handling. The bark is removed and eaten as the beaver holds the stick and turns it, much as we consume corn on the cob. When little or no bark remains, the stick is discarded out in the open water. These sticks remain hidden underneath the ice on the surface of the water until warm weather arrives and the ice begins to melt. At this point the sticks and branches become visible, and often extend several feet out from the lodge. These sticks will not go to waste, but will be used for dam and lodge repairs. (Photo taken standing on lodge.)

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Spring Has Sprung!

4-3-14 e.phoebe2 002There’s no denying the arrival of spring, even when the snow is still up to your knees in the woods, if Eastern Phoebes are back! This member of the flycatcher family is one of our earliest returning and nesting migrants, arriving on its breeding grounds in late March and early April. One might wonder what this insect-eating bird subsists on at this time of year. Wasps, bees, beetles and butterflies are not in great supply. Fortunately, there are some insects around, including stoneflies – aquatic insects, some of which mature and emerge from streams in the winter and early spring. When insects aren’t plentiful (in fall, winter and early spring) phoebes will eat small fruits, but they only make up about 11% of their diet.

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Many Beavers Still Locked Under Ice

3-20-14 beaver on ice IMG_3980Although there have been sightings of beavers this spring, precious few beaver ponds have openings or ice thin enough for beavers to break through in order to procure fresh food. This photograph was taken one year ago, and one can only hope, for the beavers’ sake as well as our own, that temperatures rise soon. The winter supply of food beavers store under the ice in the fall may well be as low as many people’s wood piles are this spring, in which case, many beavers’ lives depend on the ice thinning soon.

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Opossums Scrounging

3-19-14 opossum2  021Within the last century the Virginia Opossum has extended its range northeastward and now occurs sporadically throughout most of New England. Its adaptability to a great variety of habitats and its omnivorous diet (is there anything an opossum won’t eat?) have enabled this marsupial to live in much colder climates than it initially inhabited. As long as food can be found,the opossum’s greatest challenge is dealing with New England’s cold winters. Lacking much hair, the ears and tail of an opossum often suffer from frostbite, turning black at the edges (ears) and tip (tail). Look for signs of this nocturnal scavenger under bird feeders – in the winter it can even be seen foraging in the daylight, as the opossum in this photograph was earlier this week. (Thanks to Dotty Cummings for photo op.)

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How Are Red-winged Blackbirds Surviving?

3-17-14 red-winged blackbird2 IMG_2063The first reports of Red-winged Blackbird sightings are coming in, and with two feet of snow in some places, frigid temperatures, and very few insects in flight, one can’t help but wonder how they are surviving. A number of factors allow Red-wings to sustain themselves in these conditions, including the fact that their foraging is not restricted to one habitat – they look for food in marshes, pastures, overgrown fields, shores of lakes and ponds and windblown, exposed corn fields and crop lands. Secondly, they look for food in and on a variety of substrates, including but not limited to tree trunks and vegetation, which are accessible even with snow on the ground. Thirdly, they are very adept at gaping – forcing their bill open against the resistance of bark, etc. in order to reach into the crooks and crannies where insects are overwintering. And lastly, their diet fluctuates with the food that is available. During the breeding season, the majority of a Red-winged Blackbird’s diet is insects, and during fall, winter and early spring, Red-wings are primarily plant eaters – weed seeds, tree seeds and in agricultural areas, grains. In many ways, Red-winged blackbirds are more successfully adapted than humans are to this interminable winter!

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Red Foxes and a Minuscule Mite

red fox IMG_4446A recent glimpse of a Red Fox whose tail was hairless except for a pompom-like tuft of fur at the very tip reminded me of the devastating effect a very small creature can have on an animal many times its size. A tiny, eyeless mite (Sarcoptes scabei) is responsible for the loss of fur associated with sarcoptic mange, the scourge of Red Foxes. After mating on a fox (often near the tail end), the male mite dies and the female burrows into the fox’s skin, laying eggs as she goes. After the eggs hatch, the larvae move to a new patch of skin, burrow in and eventually emerge as adult mites, ready to mate and continue the cycle. To add insult to injury, Red Foxes have an intense immune response to the mites’ excrement and the resulting inflammation is extremely itchy. Biting and scratching exacerbate the situation, causing new skin tears where bacteria can enter. Eventually, most foxes die of exhaustion, starvation and/or infection.

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Coyote Shelter

2-24-14 coyote shelter 078Like many carnivores, coyotes do not have permanent homes, other than the maternal dens in which their young are raised. After being active at dawn and dusk (as well as occasionally during the day and night), they are apt to rest, curling up in beds they make in the snow right out in the open. However, they will take advantage of a sheltered spot, such as this hollow stump, if it presents itself. Tracks leading into and out of this stump, in addition to many hairs on the ground inside it, left no question as to what canine had sought shelter here from the cold, winter wind.

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A New Book for Budding Naturalists

COVER-BeaversBusyIs there a youngster in your life who might love his or her own book about beavers? My third children’s nature book, The Beavers’ Busy Year, has just been released. Having been an ardent admirer of this rodent for many, many years, it is gratifying to have had a chance to instill a love for beavers in youngsters age 3-8 with this non-fiction book. The adaptations of beavers’ noses, eyes, ears, fur, feet and tails are highlighted in the text and photographs take the reader through the seasons of the year from a beaver’s perspective. Activities at the end of the book engage children in matching photographs of various beaver signs such as tracks, scent mounds and incisor marks with written descriptions. There are also activity/informational sections on beaver tails, beavers as engineers and creators of habitat for other wildlife, and dam building. It should be available at your local bookstore, but if not, I’d greatly appreciate your letting them know about it. Thank you!


Opportunistic White-tailed Deer

white-tailed deer and nip twigs 008One of the most obvious signs associated with porcupines is the presence of “nip twigs” on the ground – severed tips of Eastern Hemlock branches dropped from above after porcupines have eaten the buds off of them. It usually doesn’t take long for White-tailed Deer in the area to detect this easily-accessible source of food. Tender tips that would be out of reach without the assistance of porcupines are quickly consumed by White-tailed Deer. Look for deer tracks and scat beneath trees in which porcupines are feeding. (Note wide porcupine path on left leading to den tree. All other trails were made by deer.)

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The Perils of Fermented Fruit

robin eating rotting apple 782In New England, fruit-eating birds are particularly vulnerable in the winter, because they depend so heavily on a food source that ferments, and to get enough protein they need to eat a lot of it. Toxic levels of ethanol can be produced as the natural sugars ferment, causing some consumers to become inebriated. Robins, waxwings and starlings have been found dead in large flocks after eating toxic berries and diving into the ground or colliding with solid structures. In addition, when they are really drunk, they lose mobility, making them helpless in the presence of predators. To the surprise of many observers, birds that appear lifeless on the ground have been known to eventually sober up and fly away. While birds don’t intentionally wish to ingest a lot of alcohol, there are other animals, such as elephants and apes, that will wander for miles to seek the pleasure of fermented fruits.

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Birds & Water in Winter

2-21-14  hairy eating snow  012In winter, dehydration can be as much as or more of a threat than starvation for birds. At this time of year, they often get their water supply from melting icicles and puddles. When it is severely cold and there is no available water, they eat snow, as this Hairy Woodpecker is doing. It takes a lot more energy for birds to thaw snow and for their bodies to bring the freezing temperature of the snow to their body temperature (roughly 102°F.) than when they take a drink of water. Water is also key to keeping a bird warm in the winter, as it is used to preen, or clean and realign, their feathers so that they can maintain pockets of air next to the bird’s skin that retain the birds’ body heat.

While access to water is essential, there can be too much of a good thing, especially in freezing temperatures. If you have a heated bird bath, it’s a good idea to put stones in it or sticks across it to prevent the birds from immersing themselves in very cold weather.

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Red Squirrel’s Winter Coat

2-20-14 winter red squirrel IMG_0220There is a marked seasonal difference in the Red Squirrel’s appearance due to its two annual molts (spring and fall). In the winter, a broad rusty-red band extends along its back, from its ears to the tip of its tail. The Red Squirrel’s thicker winter coat also includes ear tufts, which no other species of squirrel in the Northeast possesses. Come spring, when the squirrel sheds again, it loses its ear tufts and its new coat is closer to an olive-green color than red.

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Ruffed Grouse Snow Cave

2-18-14 grouse hole 023When snow depth is over 10” Ruffed Grouse are known to dive into it and often burrow a short distance in order to seek refuge from the wind and the cold as well as from predators, a behavior known as “snow roosting.” Because the grouse flies into the snow leaving no tracks and little scent, predators have difficulty detecting them. The major risk is freezing rain which can form a crust on top of the snow, trapping the grouse. The Ruffed Grouse’s behavior allows it to conserve a great deal of energy, as the temperature inside this roost rarely falls beneath 20°F. This conservation of energy translates into less time spent up in trees eating buds, exposed to hawks and other predators. When morning comes, the grouse usually bursts out of the snow, leaving a hole and wing marks, or, as in this case, shuffles its way to the surface of the snow before taking off. The presence of scat indicates that the left-hand cavity in this photograph is where the bird bedded down and its exit was made to the right. (Thanks to Edith Hoose for photo op.)

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Barred Owl Story in the Snow

2-17-14  barred owl prints 013These beautiful impressions in the snow tell the story of a Barred Owl diving feet first after prey, most likely a vole or mouse. The fact that there are no rodent tracks on the surface of the snow tells you that the mouse or vole was well hidden in its tunnel under the snow at the time. Apparently the owl’s talons did not reach their target (at least, no blood or rodent remnants), and the owl continued to plow through the snow in repeated attempts to capture its prey before taking flight.

The presence of facial discs (feathers in the shape of a funnel around each eye that direct sound waves towards the owl’s ear) plus the differing size and asymmetrical placement of an owl’s ear openings allow the owl to discern the direction a sound is coming from, how far away it is and its height relative to the owl – even in the dark or under the snow! The exceptional hearing ability of owls, particularly those in the genus Strix (which includes Barred and Great Gray Owls), enables them to plunge into the snow and often successfully capture prey, sight unseen. (Species of owl was determined by wing length. Thanks to Rob Anderegg and Jennifer Grant for photo op.)

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Coyote Breeding Season

2-18-14 coyote breeding season2  067February is the peak of Coyote mating season in the Northeast. Males cover a lot of ground at this time of year in search of females, so their tracks are relatively easy to find. If you follow them for any length of time, you are almost certain to be able to determine the gender of the Coyote you are following. Males mark incessantly (a raised leg often leaves urine several inches off the ground on a mound of snow or stump), and females in estrus leave tell-tale drops of blood. Tracks often lead to a spot that has been trampled – whether these tracks are a sign of males vying for a female, copulation, or both, I do not know, but they are not unusual to come upon in February. Now is also the time to listen for the duets of male and female Coyote pairs — they are known to howl together before mating.


The “Strut”

2-12-14  tom turkey displaying IMG_7084The Mystery Photo guesses were extremely entertaining. Most creative and funniest: “A very overweight raccoon cross-country skiing with his belly dragging in the middle?” In all fairness, the fluffiness of the snow certainly didn’t help give the answer away.

When male Wild Turkeys, or toms, are displaying for one or more females during courtship, their behavior includes something referred to as the “strut.” This involves the male turkey fanning his tail, lowering his wings with the middle primary feathers dragging on the ground, raising his back feathers, throwing his head back and inflating his crop as he glides along the ground in view of one or more females. In snow, this behavior leaves a relatively straight line of turkey tracks with a line (or several) to either side of the tracks, left by the tom’s primaries. (When the tom turns a corner, several feather tips often leave numerous lines in the snow.) Wild Turkeys are already displaying in our woodlands, in preparation for mating in March.

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Honeybee Scavenger

2-10-14 chickadee & bee33 174If the weather warms up sufficiently in January or February, honeybees take advantage of it and use this opportunity to leave their hive to rid themselves of waste that they have accumulated since their last flight and to remove the bodies of dead honeybees. They don’t fly very far before dropping either their waste or their dead comrades on the snow. This ritual is quickly noted and taken advantage of by animals that are not hive dwellers and need constant fuel in order to survive the cold. Black-capped chickadees are one of these animals – the chickadee in this photograph repeatedly landed on the hive body, and if a dead bee was available at the hive entrance, the chickadee helped itself to it. Otherwise it would survey the snow in front of the hive and then dart down to scoop up a bee in its beak before flying off to a branch to consume its nutritious meal. (Note dead bees at the hive opening, awaiting being taken on their final flight. Screening keeps mice out, but allows bee to enter and exit.) Thanks to Chiho Kaneko and Jeffrey Hamelman for photo op.

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Mink Meanderings

2-5-14 mink with tail dragging2 IMG_2152As these wet footprints and tail drag marks indicate, mink are excellent swimmers, and spend a great deal of time in all seasons foraging in and along streams and ponds. As a rule, all weasels can often be found close to water, as they drink often, though relatively little at a time. But mink do far more than drink water – they find much of their prey, including crayfish, frogs and fish, in it and are very well equipped to capture them. Mink can swim underwater to a depth of 18 feet and they can swim as far as 100 yards. Look for their tracks going in and out of openings in the ice that covers much of a stream’s surface this time of year.

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Winter Mouse House

2-5-14 mouse nest with insulation roof IMG_4629White-footed Mice and Deer Mice are known for their keen ability to recognize a potential winter home when they see it. Abandoned bird nests provide firm foundations, and more often than not, mice will create an insulated roof made out of thistle down or milkweed fluff when renovating a nest. There are exceptions to this rule, however. If you look closely you’ll see that the roof of this nest has a slightly greenish tint, the reason being that the roofing material selected was none other than green insulation “borrowed” from a nearby human dwelling. (Thanks to Heidi Marcotte and Tom Wetmore for photo op.)

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Groundhog Day Premature in Northern New England

2-3-14 woodchuck 117As is true for Black Bears, if climate conditions are mild and food (such as remnant corn in fields) is available, Woodchucks have been known to remain active year round in parts of their range. However, they typically hibernate during the winter in underground burrows, living off the fat (equaling about a third of their body weight) they accumulate in late summer and fall. In Pennsylvania, where Groundhog Day is first referenced in North America, male Groundhogs, or Woodchucks, emerge from their burrows at the end of January or beginning of February. In northern New England, however, we don’t usually see signs of this largest member of the eastern squirrel family, Sciuridae, until the end of February or beginning of March, when males actively start searching for mates. Currently our Woodchucks are still curled up in a ball hibernating beneath the ground, with their heart rate reduced from 100 beats a minute to 15, and their body temperature down from about 96°F. to 47°F.

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