An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

February

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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Common Ravens Repairing & Building Nests

2-24-14 common raven IMG_2002Common Ravens have begun tending to their nests – one was seen snapping dead branches off of a Black Locust tree in Vermont last week. Often ravens will use the same nest for many years, renovating and repairing it every year. They typically nest on or in cliffs and trees (although abandoned cars, a satellite dish and a barbecue grill have been used), with the female doing the lion’s share of the construction. (The male assists her by bringing sticks to the nest site.) The base of the nest consists of sticks up to three feet long with smaller branches being woven into a cup lined with softer material such as sheep’s wool, fur and shredded bark. The finished nest is two to three feet across and up to four feet deep.

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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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Snow Buntings Headed Back to the Arctic

2-27-14 snow buntings2 091Whirling flocks of Snow Buntings have been observed more frequently lately, perhaps because male buntings have begun their migration back to their nesting grounds on the tundra. They are the first migrants to arrive in the Arctic in the spring (in early April), when it can be -20°F. Females arrive four to six weeks later, when days are warming and snow is beginning to melt. It is thought that the males’ early return is related to the fact that, unlike most Arctic songbirds, buntings nest in rock cavities, for which there is great competition. Deep inside narrow cracks, nesting buntings can largely avoid nest predation, but their eggs are susceptible to freezing and require longer incubation than eggs laid in the open. As a result, females remain on the nest throughout much of the incubation period and are fed by the males. This arrangement shortens incubation time and provides the eggs with constant protection from freezing temperatures. (Thanks to Liz and Clemens Steinrisser for photo op.)

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Red Foxes Preparing Dens

2-25-14  red fox den 013Red Foxes will be begin giving birth in about a month, so the time for preparing their den has arrived. While it’s never very hard to see a fox den (due to the pile of dirt at its main entrance), they are most obvious now, when the dirt removed by the foxes is conspicuous against the white snow. Red Foxes seldom dig their own den. Rather, they take over a woodchuck’s abandoned burrow, or, in some cases, forcibly drive the woodchuck out (and sometimes devour it, as well). They den in woodlands as well as fields, usually on a sandy knoll where they can observe the surrounding territory, and where their den will be well drained. Most dens have one or two main entrances. The tunnel usually slants downward to about four feet beneath the surface and then extends laterally for 20 to 30 feet and resurfaces. An enlarged chamber along the main tunnel serves as a maternity den.

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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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White-tailed Deer Scavengers

deer carcass2  028According to NPR, each year Americans waste 33 million tons of food (and much of this ends up in landfills where it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas). This situation is totally alien to that of other animals in the natural world, which seem to find a use for any and every organic particle. Great crested flycatchers incorporate shed snake skins into their nests, beavers build dams and lodges with branches they have eaten the bark off of, ermine line their nests with the fur and feathers of prey — the list goes on and on. When it comes to food, there is equally little waste. The carcasses of animals do not linger long, as almost every atom of their bodies is recycled. Fishers, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, bald eagles, hawks, woodpeckers, ravens, crows and many other animals make short work of a dead deer in winter. Come spring, if there’s anything left, the final clean-up crew consists of legions of turkey vultures, beetles, flies and bacteria, among others. How unfortunate we’ve strayed so far from a process that’s worked for so many for so long.

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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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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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Snowy Owl Invasion

2-4-14 lemmings-at-nest4In a typical winter, sightings of snowy owls are a regular occurrence in the Northeast, but this winter, as most New Englanders are aware of, we’re experiencing a banner irruption year, with individuals appearing in greater numbers from the north than they have in decades. In the past, hunger and lack of prey in the Arctic have been the accepted explanation for this influx of northern predators, but this year that theory has been put to a test, as 2013-14 visitors are arriving in excellent condition. Last summer the lemming population (snowy owls’ food of choice, with one owl eating up to 1,600 lemmings in a year), as well as other prey species, exploded in northern Quebec. It’s thought that snowy owls amass to nest in areas where prey is abundant, and it appears that this is exactly what happened in Quebec. The rodent explosion resulted in exceptionally large broods (up to 12 chicks per pair of owls). In part due to competition with older owls, this large first-year population of owls moved south this winter, and we are the beneficiaries. To see the movement of this year’s irruption, go to http://www.projectsnowstorm.org, where this photograph of a 70 lemmings/8 voles-lined snowy owl nest by Christine Blais-Soucy originally appeared.

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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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Snowshoe Hare Urine

2-28-13 hare urine IMG_4070Snowshoe hare scat is very distinctive – round, brown, pea-size fibrous pellets. Equally, if not more, distinct is their urine, which sometimes is orange, red or pinkish, depending on their diet. Often mistaken for blood, snowshoe hare urine has this color because of chemical compounds called porphyrins which are present in the chlorophyll molecules of green plants that hares consume. These compounds have such vibrant pigments that they were originally extracted from plants and used as dye for clothing. If you’re interested in seeing this colorful phenomenon, now is the time to do so, for it’s obviously a lot easier to find when there is snow on the ground!


Bohemian Waxwings

2-27-13 bohemian waxwings2 IMG_4496Bohemian waxwings breed in Alaska and northwest Canada, but are known for their tendency to move south in the winter when their winter diet of fruit becomes scarce. These irruptions can occur in huge numbers – thousands of birds, in some cases. Their name reflects their nomadic tendency (much like gypsies, or bohemians) and their unpredictable migration patterns. Mountain ash, juniper, cedar and holly berries are among their favorite foods, and typically they will stay in an area with an abundant food source until that food is stripped before moving on. Like their relatives, cedar waxwings, with whom they often flock, they are susceptible to alcohol intoxication, and even death, from eating fermented fruit. Someone I know who was unaware of this phenomenon was alarmed when she observed a number of waxwings lying on the ground outside her house, looking for all the world as if they were dead. To her great relief (and disbelief), an hour or two later the ground was bare, the inebriated birds having sobered up and departed.


White-tailed Deer Bed Positions

2-26-13 deer bedsIMG_5183If you walk in many of New England’s woods, it is likely that you will come upon deer tracks. If the snow isn’t deep enough to keep the deer confined to one area, or “yard,” such as this year, then tracks can often be found throughout the woods. Where there are tracks, there are also beds – spots, often on higher ground, where deer bed down for the night. By looking at the edges of the indentation left when a deer lies down, you can usually determine which direction the deer was facing. (It’s back leaves a fairly symmetrical curve in the snow, and its knees often make impressions.) Deer frequently travel in herds and bed down together. Because they are prey for numerous animals, it should come as no surprise that their actions, even ones as simple as in which direction to lie down, are intentional. If you look at an area where several deer bedded down, you will usually find that each deer is facing a different direction. This is so that, together, they have as much of a 360 degree view as possible, in order to spot an approaching predator. The deer that occupied the closest bed in this photograph was facing right, while the further deer was facing left.


Otter Slides

2-25-13 otter slide2 IMG_3773Otters will travel long distances from one pond to the next, and when they do, they frequently alternate between bounding and sliding. They often slide down hills, but they also slide on level ground, as in this photograph, and sometimes even uphill. While sliding, the otter holds its front feet back along its sides with its hind feet out behind it, leaving a trough roughly 6” to 12” wide and up to 25 feet long. Two footprints (actually four, but the hind feet land on top of where the front feet landed so it looks like two) can be found at the end and at the beginning of each slide, where the otter stopped sliding, bounded and began sliding again. You can see at least five separate slides in this photograph. Occasionally, in deep snow on level ground, an otter will use its foot to help push it along, either inside or outside of the trough. Otters slide at all times of the year, on mud as well as snow and ice, and appear to do so in order to get from one place to another, as well as purely for fun, as when they repeatedly slide down the same slope over and over. (Thanks to Mark and Susan Boutwell for sharing their discovery.)


Watch and Listen to Six-week-old Black Bear Cubs

2-24-13 black bear cub IMG_0386I can’t let another minute pass without bringing a website to my readers’ attention, as activity has really picked up recently. The live-cam installed inside a bear den in Ely, Minnesota at the North American Bear Center captures the sounds and movements of a mother bear and her two six-week old cubs 24 hours a day. Everything from the mother’s birth to the fall and rescue of a cub has been recorded. Enjoy part of your snowy (or not) Sunday by taking a look at this ursine family. You may have to have considerable patience before seeing a cub, but it will be worth it, and you’ll hear them night and day! It will be obvious to you that female black bears with newborn cubs do not have the luxury to go into as deep a hibernation as their mates, who are blissfully asleep in their own den. Go to http://www.bear.org/website/live-cameras/live-cameras/lilys-den-cam.html and click on “live stream” in the upper right hand corner of the picture of the bear to view live coverage. You can also see tapes of past activity, both here and on “Lily the Black Bear’s” Facebook page.


Beaver & Otter Cohabitation

2-22-13 otter scat and beaver track2 IMG_3211It is not coincidental that you often find otters residing in beaver ponds. There appears to be a commensal (one animal benefits while the other is unaffected) relationship between these two animals. The beaver is unaffected – it is a herbivore, so its food supply is not threatened by the presence of otters. (While an occasional beaver is eaten by an otter, it is a rare occurrence.) The otter, on the other hand, benefits from abandoned as well as active den sites (both beaver bank dens and lodges) as well as an ample supply of fish due to the impoundment of streams by beavers. While I was aware that otters often take over abandoned beaver lodges, I only recently learned that the lodge does not have to be uninhabited for otters to move in. This was confirmed when I discovered a large amount of otter scat (mostly fish scales and crayfish shells) on top of a beaver lodge, right next to the hind foot print of a beaver. Freshly placed sticks on the lodge (it is in open water) indicated that it was occupied by beavers, while an otter’s stream of air bubbles could be seen as it exited the lodge and popped its head up above the surface of the water.


Porcupines Tapping Out

porcupine tap IMG_3494At least one porcupine got a jump on humans this sugaring season. A porcupine eats outer tree bark in order to access the phloem (layer of inner bark cells that transport nutrients) and cambium (produces phloem and xylem cells) layers of a tree, its primary winter diet. In eating these layers, the porcupine unintentionally cuts into the xylem, or sapwood, where water and dissolved minerals (sap) are transported between the roots and crown of the tree. Unintentionally, porcupines tap the trees whose phloem and cambium they eat. In this case, the weather had warmed up enough to cause pressure in the tree, which in turn caused the sugar maple’s sap to flow just as a hungry porcupine happened along. Soon thereafter, the temperature dropped, causing the sap to freeze, forming icicles. While they looked good enough to sample, one whiff of them told me that sap was not their sole ingredient! (They were located beneath the porcupine’s den in a hollow tree, from which urine flows freely.)


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