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Herbivores

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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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!


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 Hares

1-21-14 snowshoe hare by Patsy Fortney IMG_4140 (3)You’re most likely to see Snowshoe Hares at dawn or dusk, when they are most active. That is, if you can detect them before they detect you. Snowshoe Hares depend upon camouflage as their first line of defense, with seasonal coats to match their environment. They sometimes freeze where they are, making no movement, or take shelter in a protected spot or “form” and sit quietly, with their feet tucked out of sight and their ears pressed tightly against their back, making them all but invisible. If threatened, they can break into a full run leaping up to 12 feet at a time, reaching 30 or more miles per hour thanks to their powerful hind legs. (Photo by Patsy Fortney)

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Porcupine Feeding Technique

12-18-13  porcupine incisor marks IMG_0150In the winter, the bulk of a porcupine’s diet is the inner bark, or cambium, of trees. The porcupine removes the outer bark (unless the tree is young or has thin outer bark and then it eats the outer bark as well) in order to reach the cambium layer, which lies directly beneath the outer bark. At this point the exposed surface is very smooth, more finely finished than the work of a beaver. Then the porcupine removes the cambium in small, triangular patches, each patch composed of five or six scrapes converging at one point, like sticks in a tepee. The point where the scrapes meet is where the upper incisors are placed and held fixed against the tree. The lower incisors scrape, making a fresh path with each scrape, as the lower jaw swivels in a narrow arc.

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Beaver Breath

12-2-13 beaver breath  074It’s very subtle, but in winter, especially when it is very cold outside, there is a way to tell if a beaver lodge is occupied. The temperature inside the lodge remains relatively stable at around 34 degrees Fahrenheit. When snow falls, it provides added insulation, raising the interior temperature of the lodge slightly. A layer of fat and thick fur keep beavers warmer than the air inside the lodge, plus they raise their body temperature even more by sleeping piled on top of one another. All the moist, warm air that beavers give off through breathing and evaporation escapes through the (mudless) vent that goes up through the center of the roof of the lodge to its apex. The vent’s purpose is the exchange of air; when the warm air inside the lodge rises and hits the cold air outside the lodge, it condenses and forms water vapor that is visible, indicating that there is life inside.

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Beavers’ Last Hoorah

11-22-13  beaver dripping 107We’re right on the edge of when beavers will no longer be able to smell fresh air, see the sun and obtain fresh bark. Until the temperature drops to around 16 degrees F. they continue to break through the thin ice covering their pond. Once the temperature drops to 16 degrees F., they no longer try to break through the ice and are sealed under it until spring, unless there’s a mid-winter thaw. Once they are confined by the ice, their activities outside the lodge are minimal. Beavers leave their lodge in winter primarily for two reasons: to swim out to their winter food supply pile and retrieve a stick which they bring back into the lodge to eat, and to defecate. Other than those excursions, they spend most of their day in the dark, enduring a lodge temperature of about 34 degrees F. (Thanks to Kay Shumway for photo op.)

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White-tailed Deer Pheromone Glands

11-15-13 white-tailed deer glands 582Animals communicate with their own species through strongly scented chemicals known as pheromones. Many mammals have glands that generate pheromones. The messages the scents convey vary according to the pheromone that is used – they can indicate alarm, territorial boundaries, the age of an animal and/or its sex, hierarchy and the receptiveness of an animal during the breeding season, among other things. White-tailed deer have scent glands where you might not expect them – their heads, legs and feet. Their primary glands and their functions are: forehead (scent left on antler rubs and overhanging branches), preorbital (near eye, doe uses it to communicate with fawns), interdigital (between the two toes of each hoof, foul-smelling yellow substance left on the ground with every step a deer takes), nasal (inside nose, may produce a scent, or may just lubricate the nose), preputial (on inside of buck’s penal sheath, function unknown), tarsal (inside of hind legs near middle joint, urinated on to spread scent, used intensely by bucks during rut) and metatarsal (outside of hind legs between ankle and hoof, function, if any, unknown).

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Moose Wallow

11-1-13  moose wallow 010As the moose rutting season comes to a close, signs of their breeding behavior are fewer and not as fresh. The pictured moose wallow, or rutting pit, was most likely created by a bull moose as a means of spreading his pheromones to receptive cows (although cow moose have been known to make them). After scraping the ground, the bull then urinates in the depression and stamps in it to splash the urine on his antlers (“antler perfuming”) and/or lies down in it, soaking the under side of his body, including the dewlap, or bell, that dangles beneath his neck. Every soaked surface serves to advertise his presence to cows in the area. Often the sound that the bull makes splashing the urine attracts cows, who run toward the bull and, by head bobbing and attempting to drink the urine (the sipping sound is attractive to both cows and bulls), encourage him to urinate more. (Thanks to Alfred Balch for photo op.)

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Thrashing: Moose Rut Sign

10-23-13 moose thrashing sign 051During their breeding season, or rut, bull moose display a number of behaviors that are not commonly seen any other time of year, and many of these behaviors leave obvious signs, including broken branches, scraped bark, wallows and tracks. Bulls roam their home ranges, thrashing their antlers back and forth against shrubbery and saplings while leaving their scent. The sound of their antlers beating against vegetation is thought to signal the bull’s dominance to other males, as well as serve to attract females. The pictured broken balsam fir sapling and its frayed bark are evidence of this behavior.

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Beavers Gathering & Storing Winter Food Supply

10-15-13  beaver winter food supply pile 292(Part 3 of 3 Beaver posts)
In the fall, beavers spend weeks cutting, transporting and piling sticks and branches whose bark, twigs and leaves will hopefully provide them with sustenance through the winter. With no access to land once ice forms, beavers rely on the food that they have had the foresight to store on the bottom of the pond in the fall, as close to the main entrance to their lodge as possible. Initially the beavers dive down and stick the butt end of the branches into the mud. Once anchored, these branches form the base of a growing pile which often sticks out above the surface of the pond. (The portion of the pile above the water is not accessible to the beavers once the pond freezes.) According to beaver biologist Leonard Lee Rue, a beaver colony needs to store between 1,500 and 2,500 pounds of edible bark, twigs and leaves (this weight doesn’t include the wood, as they don’t eat wood) if it is to sustain them through the winter. As one would suspect, southern beavers do not need nor make winter food supply piles.

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Beavers Reinforcing Dams

10-15-13 beaver dam 208(Part 2 of 3 Beaver posts)
Beavers repair and strengthen their pond’s dam much as they do their lodge in the fall. New sticks are added and mud is retrieved from the pond bottom just below the dam, making the water deeper there than in the rest of the pond. Beavers dive down, dig up a load of mud and carry it beneath their chin and front feet to the dam. They then use their front feet to push the mud on top of and in between the pieces of brush on the dam (see front foot prints in mud, insert A). Because beavers spend so much time reinforcing their dam, it is not unusual to find their 1 1/2 –inch long, fibrous scat (insert B) in the water right below the dam (they keep their lodge relatively clean by defecating only in water).

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Beavers Refurbishing Lodge

10-14-13 refurbished beaver lodge 248This is the time of year when the industriousness of beavers can determine whether or not they survive through the winter. There are three major tasks for a beaver colony to tend to in the fall: refurbishing their lodge; strengthening and repairing their dam; and cutting and storing their winter food supply. They tend to perform these tasks in this sequence, tackling the lodge first. If the water level is high, the beavers will raise the floor of the lodge and the roof of the sleeping chamber. Every fall they add new material to the exterior of the lodge to strengthen the entire structure – typically sticks intertwined that create walls two feet thick or more. At this point the beavers coat the lodge with mud that they dredge up from around the base of the lodge (which greatly increases the depth of the water near the lodge). The apex of the lodge is not coated, allowing fresh air to filter down into the sleeping chamber. Once cold weather arrives, the mud hardens to the consistency of concrete, making the lodge is impenetrable to predators that can approach the lodge once the pond freezes. (In photo, note the fresh eastern hemlock branches and mud that have recently been added to the lodge.)

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Grasshoppers Mating and Laying Eggs

9-23-13 mating grasshoppers 137Grasshoppers typically mate in late summer and fall. If it’s a short-horned grasshopper (pictured), the smaller male mounts the female (female long-horned grasshoppers mount the males). The male short-horned grasshopper often remains riding the female for long periods in order to ensure paternity. When the eggs are fully formed, the female pushes the ovipositor at the end of her abdomen ½” to 2” into the ground and produces a glue-like secretion that cements the soil around the egg mass, forming a protective “pod.” Each pod may contain 25 to 150 eggs, depending on the species of grasshopper. Grasshoppers which deposit masses containing few eggs usually lay more pods to compensate. A female may lay as many as 300 eggs which overwinter and hatch in the spring.

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Mutual Grooming

8-1-13 beavers grooming each other IMG_2714Beavers spend a great deal of time tending to their coats, grooming several hours a day throughout the year. Grooming consists of removing sticks and debris that have become embedded in their fur, as well as applying oil from their anal glands to waterproof their fur. Waterproofing is essential, as it prevents the cold water from penetrating their fur. Typically they sit with their tail between their hind legs, stretched out in front of them, with their anal glands exposed. Beavers procure the oil with their front feet, and use all four feet to comb it through their fur. The two inside nails on both of their hind feet are split, increasing the efficiency with which they can apply the oil. Sometimes two beavers will groom each other, engaging in “mutual grooming.” The male and his offspring begin to groom each other when the kits are only two weeks old, yearlings and kits from three weeks on, and the mother and kits when the young are four weeks old. Mutual grooming continues as long as they are a family unit. ( I am humbled by the response to yesterday’s post. You will each be hearing from me soon. )


Moose Submerge To Reach Aquatic Plants

6-24-13 moose eating after submerging 576The highlight of a recent trip to Maine was watching a bull moose feed on submerged aquatic vegetation. It would swim a short distance, and then sink, much like a submarine, until only the top of its back was visible, and then it, too, completely disappeared, leaving no sign of a moose. Seconds later the moose’s head would reappear, with its mouth full of green plants. When these plants were consumed, the moose would submerge underwater again and come up with another mouthful. It proceeded to do this at least a dozen times before eventually swimming to shore. When moose are feeding on submerged vegetation they are capable of reaching plants in water over 18 feet deep, and they can remain under water for up to 50 seconds or longer before resurfacing. It’s thought that they remain submerged by paddling and perhaps by releasing air from their lungs.


Muskrat Division of Labor

5-6-13 muskrat carrying grassi 093Although muskrats are primarily nocturnal, you occasionally see them in the daytime, especially in the spring and fall. They often reside in ponds or marshes, where they live in the pond bank or build their own house out of mud, cattails and other available plant material. Muskrats are herbivores, favoring cattail roots, arrowhead, bur reed, pickerelweed and other aquatic vegetation. The pictured muskrat is not feeding, however — more often than not muskrats eat their food where they find it, especially during the warmer months. It is doing its share of parental care — this is the time of year when the first of several litters of muskrats are born. While the mother nurses her four or so young, the father spends time gathering bedding material for his offspring. The muskrat in this photograph spent a morning cutting and gathering several mouthfuls of grasses growing by the side of the pond. When he couldn’t fit one more blade of grass in his mouth he would scurry down the bank and disappear into a burrow which most likely led to a chamber where his young are being raised. Like their beaver cousins, muskrats tend to keep a tidy house and forage for fresh bedding for their young with some regularity.


Beaver Scent Mounds

4-30-13 beaver scent moundsThis is the time of year when two-year-old beavers leave their lodges and strike out on their own, primarily because the woods surrounding a pond usually can’t support more than one family of beavers. Beavers are exceptionally territorial; once they’ve established a lodge, they do not take kindly to interlopers. In order to make this perfectly clear to house-hunting young beavers, in the spring resident beavers build what are called scent mounds — piles (up to three feet in height, but usually much smaller) of mud, leaves and pond-bottom debris — around the perimeter of their territory. They then smear castoreum, a substance that comes from their castor sacs, over the mound. Chemicals in the castoreum convey to roaming young beavers that this particular pond is spoken for.


Porcupines Giving Birth

4-18-13 porcupine IMG_9203It’s not easy being a female porcupine. You mate in the fall and are either pregnant (7 months) or lactating (4 months) for the next 11 months before you have one month’s break and begin this cycle all over again. This time of year porcupines are giving birth to one young that is covered in fur and quills and weighs about a pound. The young porcupette is born headfirst in a sac, in order to protect the mother from quill damage. Its quills are soft at birth, but harden within an hour. (Thanks to Kay and Peter Shumway for photo op.)


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!


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.)


Porcupine Trail

porcupine trail IMG_0059It’s fairly obvious when there are active porcupines in the woods, as they leave all kinds of signs. The females, who often spend the day in a hollow tree or rock den, come out at night to eat (males often spend several days up in a tree), and leave very pronounced 6” – 9” trails back and forth to their feeding trees. Along this trail, in addition to an occasional quill, there are often pellets of scat as well as urine, which both your eyes and your nose can detect. Porcupines discard the tips of hemlock branches when they’re through eating the tender buds and leaves up in the canopy, and consequently the ground under a feeding tree is often littered with “nip twigs.”


White-tailed Deer Diet & Digestion

11-30-12 deer eating IMG_6035A white-tailed deer’s diet consists of a wide variety of herbaceous and woody plants, the ratio of one to the other being determined by the season. Fungi, fruits and herbaceous plants form much of the summer diet. Dried leaves and grasses, acorns, beechnuts and woody browse are important autumn and early winter food. After snowfall, the winter diet consists mostly of woody browse (twigs, leaves, shoots and buds) from many different trees (maples, birches and cedars among them). Come spring, deer eat buds, twigs and emerging leaves. Deer are ruminants (as are cattle, goats, sheep and moose). They have a four-chambered stomach, which is necessary in order to digest the cellulose in the vegetation they consume. Food goes first to the rumen, the first of the four chambers, which contains bacteria and other microorganisms that help digest the cellulose. Food is circulated from the rumen back to the deer’s mouth by the second chamber, or reticulum, and the deer ruminates (“chews its cud”). The third chamber, or omasum, functions as a pump, sending the food to the final chamber, the abomasum, where the digestion process is completed.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


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