Much is happening below ground at this time of year, including the birthing of red fox pups. In late March or early April, about 7 weeks after mating, female foxes give birth to four to ten young. Each pup weighs about a quarter of a pound, and the white tip of its tail is often already evident. During the first month, the pups grow a dark grey coat (they shed this coat and grow a sandy-colored coat about the time they venture out of their den, which is usually dug in a sandy bank). The mother stays with her young in the den, nursing and curling her body around them to help keep them warm for about two weeks, while the father brings her food. She then resumes her normal activity, returning to the den to nurse, clean and play with her pups.
Common mergansers can be seen year round in northern New England, but in the spring their numbers peak around the first week in April, due to the large number of birds that wintered further south and are migrating to Canadian nesting grounds. These birds are fish eaters, known to consume at least 50 species which they easily grasp with their bill due to the sharp projections along its edges. Egg-laying is still a couple of months away, but coveted tree cavities where they nest are being scoped out. (female common merganser on left, male on right)
Hibernation has come to an end for painted turtles in central Vermont, or at least for the early risers. Painted turtles actually became active a while ago, beneath the ice before ponds were completely thawed. Once some of the ice melts, they are quick to climb up and bask in the sun on any available floating log or rock, or even on the melting edge of the ice. Having spent the winter in the mud at the bottom of the pond at the rather brisk temperature of 39 degrees F. (at 39 degrees F. water achieves its greatest density and sinks to the bottom of ponds, which is where the turtles are), painted turtles are more than ready to get warm. Like black bears, painted turtles find March and April the most challenging months of the year. More of them die now than at any other time, due primarily to a shortage of food.
It’s well known that owls have an acute sense of hearing — some species, such as the barn owl, hunt nocturnally by sound alone. An owl’s asymmetrically-placed ears are located beneath the feathers at the edge of its facial discs. This placement, along with the shape of the external ear canals, is thought to contribute to an owl’s keen ability to locate sound. The flesh-colored fold of skin that you see in front of this barred owl’s ear is movable, and reflects and concentrates sound waves coming from behind the bird.
The most prominent courtship behavior of male wild turkeys (toms) consists of two displays: gobbling and strutting. Both begin in late February in northern New England, before the females (hens) are receptive, but by late March the males begin to reap the fruits of their labor. The gobbling of the males attracts females or competing males over considerable distances. The tom turkey begins to “strut” only after a hen appears. While strutting, he fans his tail, lowers his wings with the primaries dragging on the ground/snow, elevates the feathers on his back and throws his head backward as he appears to glide around a female. If she is receptive, she assumes a “sexual crouch” on the ground, signaling to the male that he may mount her. (Thanks to Chiho Kaneko for this photograph.)
Recent discovery of black bear tracks and scat confirm that hibernation has come to an end, at least for some bears. During the winter black bears lose an average of 23% of their body weight. Because there is a scarcity of food when they emerge from their dens, black bears continue to subsist off the fat that they put on last fall, and thus continue to lose weight. The diet of black bears is high in carbohydrates and low in proteins and fats. When hibernation is over, they head for any available succulents and protein-rich food, including bird feeders.
Do you know a 3 – 8 year old who loves animals and would enjoy getting close-up views of the antics of a red fox kit during the first summer of his life? My second children’s book, Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer, has just been published by Sylvan Dell in both hardback and paperback. I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to observe and photograph young red foxes as they interact with each other and with their parents. This book consists of a selection of these photographs, accompanied by text and an educational component at the end of the book. Look for Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer in your local bookstore. If they don’t carry it, you would be doing me a huge favor by asking them to. Thank you so much. My next children’s book is on Beavers and will be coming out in the spring of 2014. (I am still looking for a publisher for Naturally Curious Kids!)
The pitcher plant flowers that bloomed in bogs last June persist through the winter. Their maroon petals are gone, as is their scent, and they are withered and somewhat drab-colored, but the upside down flowers are still on display, supported by long, graceful stems protruding above the surface of the snow. Pitcher plants flower for about two weeks at the beginning of summer, during which time their pollen is distributed (primarily by bees). After fertilization, 300 – 600 seeds form within each ovary. This is when the carnivorous pitcher leaves develop. In late fall, the “pitchers” begin to wither and the seed pods turn brown and split open, scattering seeds. In three to five years, the plants which these seeds grew into will begin flowering.
It’s hard to believe that flies are not only active but mating now, given the snow and low temperatures that Vermont is still experiencing, but these two flies were perched atop coyote scat doing just that. They are in the Heleomyzidae family, whose members are often found in dark or cold places, and are most likely to be encountered in the spring or late fall. There are species associated with caves, mammal burrows, carrion and birds’ nests, in addition to scat.
Many mammals have two molts a year, producing a winter and summer coat. Moose only have one annual molt, and it occurs in early spring. Their winter coat consists of long (up to six inches on neck and shoulders), hollow guard hairs and a thick undercoat. In early spring the faded and ragged winter hairs are shed and replaced with short, dark, shiny hairs. Molting starts on the shoulders and proceeds along the sides of the neck and back over the moose’s body. Adult bulls molt first, the cows and yearlings shortly after. Pictured is a beaver-cut tree which was used by a moose to scratch off loose winter hair.
It’s always surprising to find any form of life crawling on top of the snow, but for some reason spiders seem particularly fragile and susceptible to the elements. There are species, however, that remain active in winter, even in the northeast. Most live in the leaf litter beneath the snow, but they often emerge when temperatures are about 25°F to 35°F. Tentative I.D. has the spider in the photograph belonging to the genus Tetragnatha.
A cooper’s hawk made short work of a mourning dove near my bird feeder recently, killing and apparently, given the large number of feathers scattered on the snow, plucking the dove on a nearby snow bank. If you look closely you can see whole sunflower seeds in amongst the feathers. These came from inside the mourning dove’s crop. Mourning doves generally feed quickly, filling their crop with seeds which they digest later, when they’ve found a safe spot in which to roost. Unfortunately for this particular dove, it didn’t live long enough to have that opportunity.
A study of coyote prey (through stomach contents) in the Adirondack Mountains of New York revealed that beavers were second only to white-tailed deer. This photograph shows that, possibly for the last time this winter, a coyote recently took advantage of a still-frozen-but-fast-thawing pond by walking across it in an attempt to reach an active beaver lodge. Once there the coyote attempted to dig into it in order to reach the inhabitants. A hard, two-to three-foot-thick wall of frozen mud, logs and sticks kept the beavers well protected, as it was designed to.
Male red-winged blackbirds have returned to Vermont, and their most notable features are the brightly-colored reddish-orange feathers on their “shoulders”, referred to as epaulettes. In the military, an epaulette is a shoulder ornament that indicates, through its position, color, length and diameter, the bearer’s rank. Some birds, including male redwings, also possess this badge, or visual cue, which indicates the social status of the bird to other birds of the same species. Studies of male red-winged blackbirds and their epaulettes indicate (through dyeing their bright orange/red shoulder patches black) that epaulettes play a significant role in the male’s defense of his territory. Over 60% of the redwings that had their epaulettes dyed black lost their territories to other males. Further research revealed that aggression by a territorial male redwing is proportional to the epaulette size of the encroaching male redwing. It also indicated that male redwings intruding into redwing-occupied territories greatly limit the exposure of their epaulettes by covering them with black feathers. (Female red-winged blackbird plumage is brown and lacks epaulettes.)
Coyote tracks led to a hole dug in the snow, with the body of a shrew lying on top of the snow next to the hole. Apparently a coyote had succeeded in catching the prey it had heard, but upon smelling this tiny insectivore, the coyote decided it wasn’t that hungry. In addition to having poisonous saliva that immobilizes small prey, shrews possess two glands on their sides that emit an unpleasant odor, detectable even by human noses. Although this odor did discourage the coyote from eating the shrew, it wasn’t enough to save its life.
While 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.
If you find clumps of empty burdock fruits lying on top of the snow, there may well be wild turkeys in the area. During the winter, especially when the snow pack is deep, wild turkeys feed on vegetation poking up above the surface of the snow, such as burdock seeds. There are tell-tail signs when turkeys have been eating burdock, even if no tracks are evident, because of the way in which they consume the seeds. Turkeys somehow pluck the burdock fruits off and then turn them inside-out, exposing the seeds which they then eat. Typically several of these empty fruits will be “velcroed” together, leaving small bunches of them scattered over the snow.
Stoneflies spend the larval stage of their life in streams, but as adults they are terrestrial. When the larvae mature, they leave the streams they grew up in, split their larval skins and emerge as winged adults, ready to mate. Most species mature in warmer months, but there are two families, referred to as winter stoneflies, that emerge at this time of year, perhaps because of the scarcity of predators. You can often find these cold-hardy stoneflies crawling around on top of the snow near streams.
They may not be sweet, plump and juicy, but the fruits of staghorn sumac play a crucial role in the lives of many birds that overwinter in New England. True, they’re not a preferred food for these birds, but because they persist through the winter, these fuzzy fruits are an important source of food in late winter and early spring, when very little else is available. Ruffed grouse and wild turkeys rely on sumac fruit as a source of food throughout the winter, and bluebirds, robins, cardinals, mockingbirds and starlings are frequent visitors to staghorn sumac shrubs this time of year.
It’s often a lot easier to find signs of otters than otters themselves. Recently I discovered two dead crayfish on the shore of a mostly iced-over pond that I knew was inhabited by otters. Nearby otter scat confirmed that these crayfish were probably left by satiated otters. The most important prey item in a majority of otter scat analysis studies is fish, followed closely by crayfish. Otters will take advantage of other prey, such as frogs, salamanders, ducks, muskrats, an occasional young beaver, mice, snakes, insects and even turtles when readily obtainable, but fish and crayfish are first and second choices.