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Archive for February, 2016

Red Fox Vixens Preparing Dens

red fox dens4With their breeding season nearly at an end, red fox vixens are preparing for the arrival of a litter of pups in March or April. This involves locating and cleaning several dens, and then choosing one in which to give birth and raise young. An adult female red fox may use the same den year after year; eventually one of her daughters may take it over.

While specific den locations vary, most are on sandy hillsides, often in the woods but close to an open area, and usually there is water within 300 feet or so. A den typically has several entrances, with the main one measuring about ten inches in diameter. At this time of year (if there is snow on the ground) it is relatively easy to locate fox dens, due to soil that has been removed and scattered on the snow.

Vixens often renovate an abandoned woodchuck burrow, but occasionally den underneath an outbuilding, in a hollow log, rock pile or other sheltered area. Pictured are a typical hillside den as well as an abandoned beaver lodge that has been renovated by a fox.  Scat (located about 2 o’clock in the photo) deposited near the entrance of the lodge indicates that this may well be a den that will be used for raising young.

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More Buds

2-24-16 buds  019

The previous “bud scale” post engaged readers to an extent that made me feel another post with additional buds to scrutinize would be welcome. Apologies to non-woody plant aficionados!

When identifying woody plants in winter, one takes advantage of everything a tree or shrub has to tell you: bud/branch arrangement (opposite/alternate), bark, silhouette and terminal buds. Buds are so revealing that they alone can immediately tell you what species you are seeking to identify. Is there one bud at the tip of each branch (willows) or multiple terminal buds (red oak)? Are there bud scales (no-witch hazel; yes- bigtooth aspen)? If so, what are their number (willows – one) and arrangement (overlapping, like shingles – red oak)? Are the buds red (striped maple), brown (witch hazel), yellow (bitternut hickory), green, or some combination of these colors? Are they pointed (bigtooth aspen) or rounded (willow)? Every species of tree has buds with a unique combination of these characteristics.  Now is the time to observe them, as some will soon start to open.

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Meadow Voles Soon To Begin Breeding

2-23-16  meadow vole 036

Under perfect conditions, with no predators, no deaths and abundant food, a pair of meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) could produce a million descendants in a single year. Because they are prey for nearly every meat-eating animal that exists, however, their population, while large, is nowhere near this.

Even though the number of meadow voles is relatively high and they are active day and night, year round, it is unusual to actually set eyes on one. What we do find, especially this time of year, are meadow vole signs in the snow: mazes of runways on the surface of the ground that are exposed as snow starts to melt, air-exchange holes originating in their tunnels and extending to the surface of the snow, tracks and entrance/exit holes to their tunnels.

The social behavior of meadow voles is about to undergo a seasonal change. During the winter, when they are not breeding, meadow voles are more social and commonly share their nests, probably to conserve heat. In another month, however, as breeding begins, females become fiercely territorial towards other females, and males are aggressively establishing dominance over each other. The peaceable subnivean meadow vole kingdom is about to come to an end. (Thanks to Susan and Dean Greenberg for photo op.)

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Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Tufted Titmice Singing

2-26-16  titmouse 199

Peter – Peter – Peter.” “Peter – Peter – Peter.” The song of the tufted titmouse is one of the first bird songs heard in late winter. Unlike its scratchy, nasal call note, the titmouse’s song is a relatively loud, clear, two-note whistle which is repeated rapidly up to 11 times in succession. If you become aware of it, it can even become a bit monotonous. While it is mostly males that do the singing, females sometimes give voice to a softer version of this song.

To hear a tufted titmouse’s song and call notes, go to http://www.langelliott.com/wp-content/mary-holland/tufted_titmouse.mp3. (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com & miracleofnature.org)

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North American River Otters Running & Gliding

2-24-16 otter slide 142One hundred years ago, naturalists were puzzled by the disappearance of otters in the winter. Some people theorized that they must be hibernating, but in fact, otters are active throughout the year — they just aren’t observed as often in the winter as in the summer. Because they inhabit water, where the fish that they eat are found, and often reside in bank dens (above water level), otters can spend most of their winter under cover of ice. However, some do travel over land from open water to open water, upon occasion. In fact, it is not unusual for them to cover several miles in their search for an open stream or a spring. Run and glide, run and glide, often along a frozen river or marsh, but also through the woods, where otter tracks seem so incongruous. Paired foot prints stop and start each slide; this combination is a dead giveaway as to who is making grooves in the snow. Ultimately, if you persevere when following them, you will find that these slides disappear into open water.

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Stoneflies Drumming

2-22-16 stonefly 019Stoneflies spend the larval stage of their life in streams. When the larvae mature, they crawl out of the streams they grew up in, split their larval skins and emerge as winged adults, ready to mate. Stoneflies are unique among aquatic insects in that there are different species that emerge in all months of the year. Most species mature in warmer months, but some do so during warm spells in winter and there are two families (referred to as winter stoneflies) that emerge only at this time of year, perhaps because of the scarcity of predators.

Recently, perhaps due to the warm weather this past weekend, large numbers of stoneflies  emerged. In places, the snowy banks of open streams were littered with half-inch adult stoneflies whose new skins were drying.  This entomological exodus from the water typically takes place at night, to avoid being eaten by terrestrial insectivores and birds.  After their adult skin dries, winter stoneflies can be seen crawling on top of the snow as they search for a mate.

In many species, male and females locate each other by tapping the tip of their abdomen upon the substrate, a process referred to as “drumming.” Any stoneflies in contact with that substrate will feel the vibrations of this drumming. Male and female drumming patterns are specific for each species and for each sex. Male stoneflies initiate drumming and females answer. This means of auditory communication is closely related to the “songs” of crickets, grasshoppers and katydids. The difference is that the sound waves of the terrestrial insect songs travel through the air and are loud enough for humans to hear, whereas the sound waves of stonefly drumming travels through a solid medium and is inaudible to us.

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Coyotes & Moles

2-19-16  hairy-tailed mole2 155Foxes and coyotes are very apt to dig into the ground where they detect the presence of a mole. In the pictured scene, the digging of a coyote was evident from the disturbed snow and earth and the abundance of coyote tracks. Two excavated holes led directly into an underground tunnel.

While many sources state that moles are part of a coyote’s diet, there are many instances, including the one pictured, where the mole (hairy-tailed) is left untouched after being unearthed by a coyote.  Unlike northern short-tailed shrews, moles are not toxic and one wonders what occasionally prevents a coyote from consuming its prey.

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