An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Omniovres

Raccoons Up & About

3-7-13 raccoon IMG_2452 copyWhile we don’t see raccoons much in the winter, it isn’t because they’ve been hibernating. Rather, during cold spells, they seek shelter, often in hollow trees, where they remain for up to a month at a time in a fairly lethargic state (but not true hibernation). If the temperature at night rises above freezing, raccoons are out foraging. Lately their tracks have been very evident, signaling that their nights of inactivity are coming to an end. There isn’t much food for them to find this time of year, so for the most part they are living off the fat that they accumulated last fall.


Raccoon Tracks

12-6-12 raccoon tracks IMG_0046The relatively warm, wet start to winter has provided us with the opportunity to see riverside tracks that might otherwise not be evident.  Raccoons are known for their ability to go anywhere and get into anything and the reason for this dexterity is revealed in their tracks.  Both front and hind feet have five long toes.  Although the “thumb” is not opposable, it is long enough to grasp things. Because of this dexterity, raccoon tracks can vary widely.   In mud and snow, they often resemble small human hands.  Typically the toes of the front feet are more splayed out than those of the hind feet.


Black Bear Signs & Hyperphagia

Black bears are omnivores as well as opportunists.  They will eat almost anything that they can find, but the majority of their diet consists of  grasses, roots, berries, nuts and insects (particularly the larvae).  In the fall, prior to going into hibernation, black bears enter a stage called “hyperphagia,” which literally means “excessive eating.”  They forage practically non-stop — up to 20 hours a day, building up fat reserves for hibernation, increasing their body weight by 35% in some cases.  Their daily food intake goes from 8,000 to 15-20,000 calories (that’s roughly equivalent to 70 McDonald’s cheeseburgers).  Signs of their foraging for grubs and beetles, such as the excavated base of the snag in the photograph, can be found with relative ease at this time of year, if you live where there are black bears.  If you do share their territory with them, be forewarned that they have excellent memories, especially for food sources.  Be sure not to leave food scraps or pet food outside (my compost bin was destroyed last year but I have no solution for that particular problem), and if you really don’t want any ursine visitors, it’s best to not start feeding birds until most black bears have entered hibernation – late December would be safe most years.


Signs of Striped Skunks

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If you are finding small, conical pits in your lawn, you probably have a striped skunk to thank for reducing your grub population.  During the spring and summer, invertebrates make up a large percentage of this nocturnal omnivore’s diet.  With the help of their well-developed sense of smell and their long nails (which make them excellent diggers), they locate, gain access to and consume subterranean insect larvae with relative ease.   Another sign of skunk activity, in addition to lawn divots, are the excavated ground nests of yellowjackets.  If they’ve met with success, skunks will often leave sections of empty, paper cells scattered about the nest site.  Apparently, even though yellowjackets can sting multiple times, they’re not very effective at discouraging foraging skunks.  Should you be so inclined, a close examination of skunk scat will reveal bits of insect exoskeletons, as well as the bones and hair of small rodents.  The pictured scat (next to the divot) contained, in addition to insect parts, the fur of another nocturnal animal, a flying squirrel.  (Thanks to Emily and Joe Silver for photo op.)


Young Muskrat Feeding on Cattails

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This young muskrat, probably about 2 months old, is still living with its family, but on its own as far as feeding itself. Typically, muskrats eat a variety of aquatic vegetation as well as an occasional clam, frog, crayfish or fish. This particular muskrat dines almost exclusively on cattails. Getting at the choicest part of these plants, the roots and inner stems, requires some serious digging in the mud, which is evident from the muskrat’s face in one of the photographs. Long nails on their front feet equip these rodents for this arduous task.


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