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Archive for January, 2014

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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Fox & Coyote Tracks

1-29-14 red fox and coyote tracks IMG_2095In general, the larger the animal, the larger its feet and the tracks that they leave. Red foxes weigh between 7 and 14 pounds. Coyotes weigh between 20 and 50 pounds. The size of their tracks reflects this difference in weight. In addition, note that the coyote’s toe and metatarsal pads are quite distinct, whereas the furry-footed fox’s are not. (Red Fox tracks on left headed down; Coyote tracks on right headed up.)

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Frost Formations

1-28-14  frost crystals 058When frozen water vapor is deposited in the form of crystals, we call it frost. Many windows have been etched upon by “fern frost” or “ice flowers” recently, due to the cold temperatures we’ve been experiencing. When moist, heated indoor heat hits cold window glass, water vapor condenses on the glass, forming intricate patterns. The intricacy is affected by the surface of the glass, as dust and scratches affect the shape of the crystals.

Equally beautiful frost structures are created outdoors and are referred to as hoar frost. White ice crystals are deposited on exposed surfaces such as ice that are colder than the surrounding air. Often this type of surface hoar frost resembles tiny ferns that vary in size, depending upon the amount of time they’ve been forming and the amount of water vapor in the air.

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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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Fisher Sign

1-22-14 fisher bed and scat 074You can spend days following the tracks of a fisher – this tireless member of the weasel family travels up to ten miles a day during the winter, foraging for food and stopping to bed down periodically. One of the more common signs of fisher, other than tracks, is their resting spots. Fishers are active day and night, but even they have to stop now and then to rest, often at the base of a tree. More often than not they defecate before departing. If you look closely you’ll see the fisher’s scat – guide books often state that the scat of fishers is dark and twisted. While this is sometimes so, their scat can also be somewhat mustard-color and not be at all twisted, as in this photograph.

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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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Raccoons Active During Warm Spell

1-21-14 raccoon tracks 049During the recent warm spell raccoons were actively roaming the woods, visiting open water and leaving signs of their presence. When cold weather arrives in the fall, raccoons search out hollow trees, logs, crevices, etc. in which to den. They become dormant, but do not hibernate. If the temperature rises above 30 degrees F. at night as it did during the last week, they become active, but now that the temperature has dropped to sub-zero temperatures at night, they have retreated back to their dens. During mild winters, raccoons remain active; during colder winters, they are usually dormant between late November and March. A winter with vacillating temperatures, such as the one we’re experiencing, has them going in and out of dormancy.

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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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“Waiting” – a poem written by a longtime NC blog follower

1-17-14  barred owl poem IMG_3212A barred owl hunches in the snowbound oak
listening for prey. Hidden beneath,
a heedless mouse skitters its maze of tunnels,
audible under the heavy cloak
but out of reach. Hunger is immaterial
to the outcome when the snow’s this deep.
Impossible, the leap, the plunge, the thrust,
the clench of talons, their single-minded burial
in flesh. There’s nothing but the falling dusk,
and night ahead, hours more of hunger,
daybreak, sleep, another famished night.
At the last there’s nothing but the husk
desire left behind. The owl must eat
or starve, float silent as a snowflake
over fields or save its strength in vigil.
Oh life, your soft feathers fray, your wingbeats
weaken. Hoard your warmth. The dark art
of dwindling is the birthright of the heart.

Kathie Fiveash


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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Bird Feeding – Does It Foster Dependency?

1-15-14 bird feeders 139Decades ago birds remaining in the Northeast in the winter almost exclusively survived on weed seeds and insects they gleaned from crevices in tree bark. Today, nearly one-third of American adults provide about a billion pounds of bird seed each year, to say nothing of suet, seed cakes, etc. Should we be worried about creating a population of food-dependent wintering birds? Studies suggest that this is not the case. Researchers (this is going to sound cruel) removed feeders from woodlands where Black-capped Chickadees had been fed for the previous 25 years, and compared survival rates with those of chickadees in a nearby woodland where there had been no feeders. They documented that the chickadees familiar with feeders were able to switch back immediately to foraging for natural foods and survived the winter as well as chickadees that lived where no feeders had been placed. Not only did the feeder-fed birds not lose their ability to find food, but research also showed that food from feeders had made up only 21 percent of the birds’ daily energy requirement in the previous two years. This is not to say that there aren’t negative aspects to feeding birds, such as window collisions, disease, house cats, etc., but one thing luring birds to our houses for a closer look doesn’t do is destroy their innate ability to find food. (Photo is of a Red-breasted Nuthatch.)

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Cold Snaps & Hardy Invertebrates

1-14-14 TICK IMG_0528As you may have heard, there could be a plus side to the sub-zero temperatures we’re experiencing this winter – the cold weather may well decrease the number of invasive pests we have. For example, the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (the aphid-like introduced insect decimating the Eastern Hemlock population) succumbs at 4 or 5 degrees F. However, other insects aren’t phased by the cold until it dips way below zero. At -20 F., roughly half of the Emerald Ash Borer larvae (an invasive beetle that is highly destructive to ash trees) overwintering in trees will die. Once the temperature reaches -30 F., there’s a 90 percent mortality rate. Bed bugs face instant death at -22 degrees F., but it takes 24 hours to kill them at -11 degrees F. and 72 hours to kill them at 0 degrees F. Unfortunately, once an invasive insect establishes itself, even if its numbers go way down for whatever reason, it usually rebounds in several years’ time. Some invertebrates are not affected by the cold temperatures. The Black-legged (Deer) Ticks that reside on moose, deer, mice, birds and other hosts can withstand sub-zero temperatures as they have the warmth of their hosts’ bodies to keep them warm. In order for ticks to succumb to the cold, the frigid air has to last until May, when the fertilized female ticks fall off their hosts to lay their eggs.

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Great Horned Owls Thaw Cached Prey

1-13-14 great horned owl l MH_20091001_225056_4Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest species of birds to nest in the Northeast –some are already sitting on eggs. Female Great Horned Owls do the lion’s share of incubating the eggs, while the male hunts for and brings her food. While they do eat small rodents, which they swallow whole, the diet of Great Horned Owls also consists of rabbits, hares, opossums, squirrels and skunks, which must be torn into small pieces before being swallowed. Great Horned Owls often kill more than they can eat at one time, and cache the extra food for later consumption, when food is scarce. Needless to say, during winter months the cached prey freezes, and if the prey is large, its consumption is challenging for a bird with a bill that’s designed for shredding and tearing. To solve this dilemma, Great Horned Owls sit on their frozen prey until it thaws, and then proceed to tear it into bite-size pieces.

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Bitternut Hickory Buds

1-10-14 bitternut  hickory 102Habitat, silhouette, bark and buds can all be helpful when identifying a tree in winter. Occasionally a species has one characteristic that is so distinctive, it serves as a diagnostic feature. The sulfur-yellow coloring of Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis) buds is such a characteristic. Both lateral and terminal buds have a powdery coating which gives them a bright yellow appearance. Look for Bitternut Hickory on moist lowlands (hence, its other common name, Swamp Hickory) and rich uplands. Although humans find the nut of this hickory inedible, the smoke produced by burning its wood produces the best “hickory-smoked” hams and bacon.

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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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Big Birds

blue jay puffed out in snow 101Is your bird feeder being visited by gigantic Blue Jays and Black-capped Chickadees during this cold spell? Your eyes aren’t fooling you; birds often appear larger in very cold weather.
Birds that remain in New England year round must not only be able to find enough food in the winter to produce heat and energy, they must find a way to retain the heat. Various strategies have evolved, but feather structure and function play an important role for the winter survival of all birds. There are different types of feathers, each designed for a different function. A (wing or tail) feather consists of a central, hollow shaft on either side of which are many interlocking rows of barbs. The feathers that cover the body of a bird (contour feathers) often have interlocking barbs only at the ends, on the part not covered by an overlapping feather. The bottom-most, unconnected barbs on these feathers are similar to those of down feathers – loose and fluffy. When the temperature dips, birds often puff out their contour feathers (making the birds look huge). This action, and the structure of the bottom portion of the contour feathers,
increase the number and size of air pockets between the bird’s feathers and its skin. This space provides excellent insulation, preventing much of the bird’s body heat from escaping.

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The Life of a Naturalist Blogger

Mary Holland and dog "Emma"Recently I was asked to write an article for a Vermont newspaper (The Rutland Herald) about my Naturally Curious blog — how it came to be, as well as the inside story on my selection of subjects, the taking of photographs, and the writing and posting of information. As you might imagine, there is quite a bit involved in publishing a natural history blog five days a week. The article ran this past weekend, and I thought that perhaps some of the faithful readers of my blog might enjoy reading it. If you would like to see what I had to say, you can go to this link, MaryHollandArticleJan052014, and get a behind-the-scenes account of what goes into the posts you loyally subscribe to and support! (Photo by Gary Trachier)

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The Butcher Bird

1-3-14 impaled mouse & MS shrike by Bridie McGreavy DSC_0146The Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor) is highly unusual in that it is a predatory songbird. Birds, mammals and insects are preferred over nectar, nuts and seeds. This tundra-nesting bird comes as far south as New England to overwinter, where it preys mainly on mice, voles and small birds. The Northern Shrike often kills more prey than it can immediately eat or feed its young, storing the excess food to eat later, when available living prey may be scarce. The manner in which it stores this extra food is what gave it the name “butcher bird;” it often impales prey on a thorn, broken branch (as in photograph) or even barbed wire, or it wedges prey into narrow V-shaped forks of branches, where they hang until reclaimed by the shrike. (Impaled mouse photo by Bridie McGreavy; northern shrike photo by MS Henszey)

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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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Bald Eagles Year Round in Vermont

1-2-14 bald eagle2  033Biologists estimate that there were up to 500,000 Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in North America when the first European settlers began arriving. Seventy-five years ago you wouldn’t have seen a single Bald Eagle in the state of Vermont. Thanks to the banning of DDT in North America, an effective reintroduction program in Vermont between 2004 and 2006, and the protection of Bald Eagle breeding and wintering habitat through the Endangered Species Act, Vermont now has a healthy breeding population of eagles. This summer 16 Bald Eagles nested in Vermont and 26 young eagles fledged. Winter records of Bald Eagles reflect this increase as well – 24 eagles (13 of which were immature birds) were found in the 2013 annual Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey in Vermont, with the largest numbers occuring near open water, such as Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River, where the eagles have access to fish. (You can also find them at frozen lakes where there generous ice fishermen.) Eagles are still listed as endangered in Vermont, but they are off the national Endangered Species list, and biologists say they should soon be off the state endangered list as well.

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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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