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Mammals

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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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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Striped Skunk Mating Season

3-14-14 striped skunk 082Striped Skunks are on the prowl, as your nose may have told you recently – males are eagerly seeking out the company of females at this time of year and are often hit by cars traveling at night. The peak of Striped Skunk breeding season is typically the third week in March. Males will mate with several females in succession and then they often protect their harem against other males by hitting them (other males) with their shoulders or biting their legs. Once a female has been successfully bred, she will not allow further mating activity and will viciously fight any male that attempts it.

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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!


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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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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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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Coyote Winter Diet

Coyotes are opportunistic carnivores – whatever is available and relatively easy to find and/or catch, coyotes will eat. In spring, summer and fall, insects, small rodents and fruit make up most of their diet. In winter, when insects aren’t around and rodents are hidden by snow, coyotes are more dependent upon carrion, particularly white-tailed deer. Coyotes are often blamed for preying heavily on deer, and their scat often does contain deer hair, but studies have shown that most (92% in one study) of the deer consumed by coyotes are scavenged after being killed by vehicles or having died as a result of other injuries. A large percentage of the deer that are killed by coyotes have severe pre-existing injuries and would likely have died from them had they not been preyed upon by coyotes. (The pictured coyote scat consists largely of rotting apples, with a sprinkling of deer hair.)

1-31-14  coyote scat 137
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Otter Ingenuity

1-30-14 otter slides  058North American River Otter tracks are usually found where otters have travelled from one body of water to another. In the winter, this can be on frozen streams as well as over land. If they come to an incline, even a small one, they often take advantage of it by letting gravity do the work on the way down. In this photograph, two otters travelling together had the same idea at the same time, and reached the marsh at the bottom of the hill by effortlessly sliding down the hill on their bellies, leaving two 12-inch-wide grooves in the snow. Although John James Audubon, in the mid-1800s, observed a pair of otters sliding down an embankment over and over 22 times, stopping only when they discovered that they were being observed, the otters that made the tracks in this photograph were intent on getting where they were going, and only slid down once.

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Black Bears Birthing

1-27-14 black bear cubs IMG_0391Right now, partially or fully exposed to the sub-zero temperatures we’re experiencing, female Black Bears are giving birth to cubs that are blind, nearly hairless and weigh less than a pound. Although the mother’s metabolism is slightly reduced, her body temperature is relatively high, and she is very responsive to her cubs. The cubs do not hibernate – they retain full metabolism in order to maintain maximum growth, nursing frequently and for long periods of time. Their mother keeps them warm by hovering over them and breathing on them. Like human mothers, she sleeps when her cubs sleep, but awakens quickly and responds to their cries. (Photo taken during research; cub is roughly two months old.)

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Porcupine Tracks

1-23-14 porcupine tracks 014Probably the most distinctive characteristic about Porcupine tracks, other than their being somewhat pigeon-toed, is the fact that they have so few details, even in perfect tracking snow. The relative sharpness and details of the imprint of an animal’s foot often have to do with either the texture of the snow or of the animal’s foot. For example, in winter Red Fox feet are very furry and consequently distinct pad and nail marks are often not visible. Porcupine feet are well adapted for gripping tree trunks and limbs, but, like the Red Fox’s, leave few details in the snow — not because they are furry, but because of the nature of the foot pads. The digital pads typically don’t register, and the metacarpal pads (directly behind the toe, or digital, pads) are fused to form one large pad with a pebbly surface which is advantageous for climbing, but leaves a blurred imprint. With the right snow conditions, their long nails can leave marks, but this is the exception, rather than the rule.

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Otter Holes

1-20-14 otter hole IMG_5577River otters are one of the most aquatic members of the weasel family. They can swim up to six or seven miles per hour on the surface of the water as well as underneath it, and can remain submerged for up to two minutes. Otters spend a great deal of time fishing under the ice, and obtain oxygen from open holes such as the one pictured (as well as from air bubbles under the ice). As their tracks indicate, otters come up onto the ice to eat their prey, be it fish or crayfish, their two favorite winter meals.

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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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Moose Scat Form Reflects Diet

1-16-14 moose scatBiologists estimate that moose defecate anywhere from 13 to 21 times a day. The appearance of moose scat, as well as deer, varies throughout the year. Its form depends in large part on the amount of moisture in the moose’s diet. Summer scat often looks like loose plops, or patties, due to heavy consumption of herbaceous aquatic and semi-aquatic vegetation. As fall approaches and a moose’s diet includes more woody vegetation, its scat consists of clumps of soft pellets. In the dead of winter, when moose are browsing almost exclusively on trees, individual dry pellets are produced. Spring scat is similar to fall scat, as moose are transitioning into a different diet during both of these seasons.

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Hide & Seek: Voles & Foxes

1-9-14  hide and seek-fox & vole IMG_2735Unlike wolves, which hunt in packs and often take down prey larger than themselves, red foxes are solitary hunters and as a result often catch prey much smaller than themselves, such as mice and voles. During the winter, mice and voles become more active during daylight hours because much of their time is spent under the snow, where they remain hidden from view. Consequently, in winter you’re more likely to see a fox hunting during the day than in the summer. Whenever it’s hunting, night or day, a fox depends heavily on its acute sense of hearing. It is most sensitive to lower noises such as the rustling and gnawing sounds that small animals make as they move through vegetation or feed on seeds, buds and twigs. Foxes can locate these sounds several feet away, to within inches of their true location, under three feet of snow. Recent research suggests that they may also use the magnetic field to help them locate prey. (photo: red fox & meadow vole tracks)

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Discerning Eastern Gray Squirrels

1-3-14 gray squirrel2 029In the fall, Eastern Gray Squirrels bury individual acorns from Red and White Oaks to sustain themselves through the winter. The acorns of Red Oaks have delayed germination – they can be stored up to six months before they start germinating. The acorns of White Oaks, however, have no such dormancy, and begin to germinate in the fall, soon after they fall from the tree. Once acorns sprout, they are less nutritious, as the seed tissue converts to the indigestible lignins that form the root. Gray Squirrels, as a means of “long-term cache management,” selectively remove the embryos from White Oak acorns (but not from Red Oak acorns) before burying them. Germination is prevented, and the storage viability of the White Oak acorns is extended by six months, equaling that of the Red Oak acorns.

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Distinguishing Vole from Mouse Tracks

12-29-13 vole-mouse tracksMeadow Voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and White-footed Mice (Peromyscus leucopus) are two of our most common species of small rodents, and they both remain active in winter. Their feet are roughly the same size (approximately ¼ ” wide by ½” long), but the tracks they leave differ slightly, due to their differing gaits. White-footed Mice bound, leaving tracks that have a four-print pattern (parallel larger hind feet in front of smaller, parallel front feet) often with a long tail drag mark in between each set of tracks. Meadow Voles have a variety of gaits, the most common being a trot, which leaves an alternate-track trail, with the hind feet directly registering in the tracks of the front feet. Although voles can also leave a tail mark, they do so much less often than mice. Once the depth of the snow is significant, mouse tracks are more common, as voles tend to travel primarily through tunnels they’ve created under the snow.

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Canada Lynx “Snowshoes”

12-16-13 lynx & bobcat feet IMG_3811Bobcats and Canada Lynx are in the same genus, and are roughly the same size (averaging 15 to 35 pounds), with Bobcats usually weighing a bit more than Lynx. The size of their feet is vastly different, however, and not proportional to their relative weights. A Lynx has much larger feet and longer legs than a Bobcat. Its range extends further north, which means it must be well equipped to deal with snow much of the year. A Lynx has big, furry paws, and when its feet land the toes spread way out. Both of these adaptations help a Lynx’s feet act like snowshoes, helping it to chase down food in the winter. Much of the time, this food consists of Snowshoe Hares –anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of the diet of Lynx is made up of hares. The soles of Snowshoe Hare feet are also well-furred, particularly in winter, enabling them to run on soft, deep snow without sinking in very far. Because Snowshoe Hares are extremely fast and agile (reaching speeds of 30 mph and jumping 12 feet in a single bound), the feet of any serious predator must also be well adapted to traveling on snow.

Note: Bobcat sightings are much more frequent than Lynx in northern New England (the southern tip of the Lynx’s range) but breeding populations of Lynx have been documented in the last two years in the boreal forests of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

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Tracks Reveal Spotted Salamander Defense Mechanism

12-11-13  spotted salamander & fox tracks3 007Red Foxes have a very diverse diet – birds, small mammals, snakes, frogs, eggs, insects, fish, earthworms, berries, fruit — the list is endless and this diversity is part of the reason that foxes thrive in almost any habitat. However, the fox whose tracks I was following recently passed up a meaty meal – that of a Spotted Salamander. The story the tracks tell suggests that the fox dropped the salamander after unearthing it from its hibernaculum and carrying it some distance. It’s likely that it had detected the sticky white toxic liquid that Spotted Salamanders secrete from poison glands in their skin when they are threatened. Unfortunately, detection did not occur in time to save the salamander’s life. Either its experience with the fox and/or freezing temperatures killed the salamander, preventing it from going back into hibernation. (Note red fox tracks to right of salamander.)

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