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Archive for February, 2017

Snow Buntings Starting To Head North

2-24-17-snow-buntings-on-ground-img_6743Flocks of Snow Buntings have been observed more frequently lately, perhaps because male buntings have begun their migration back to their nesting grounds on the tundra.  They are the first migrants to arrive in the Arctic in the spring (in early April), when it can be -20°F. Females arrive four to six weeks later, when days are warming and snow is beginning to melt.

It is thought that the males’ early return is related to the fact that, unlike most Arctic songbirds, buntings nest in rock cavities, for which there is great competition. Deep inside narrow cracks, nesting buntings can largely avoid nest predation, but their eggs are susceptible to freezing and require longer incubation than eggs laid in the open. As a result, females remain on the nest throughout much of the incubation period and are fed by the males. This arrangement shortens incubation time and provides the eggs with constant protection from freezing temperatures. (Photo:  can you find the lone Lapland Longspur?)

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Bobcats Courting & Mating

2-23-17-roger-irwins-bobcatBobcats are active at dawn and dusk, when their primary prey, rabbits and hares, are active.  However, they are very secretive and you are more likely to come across their signs than  bobcats themselves, especially at this time of year. January and February are the peak of Bobcat mating season, and females are busy rubbing their cheeks and bodies on scent posts, as well as marking their territory with urine. They also partake in yowling quite frequently, all of which enable male bobcats to readily locate females.

As a male approaches a female, he is either warmly welcomed or aggressively fought off, depending on her state of receptivity. Once she’s receptive, she becomes quite vocal, arches her back and circles around the male. Play-like behavior follows, with the pair throwing themselves at and chasing each other. Eventually mating takes place, lasting only about five minutes.  Bobcats compensate for the brevity of their mating with the frequency with which they engage in it (up to 16 times a day for several days). When copulation ceases, males disappear and play no part in raising their young. (Source: Behavior of North American Mammals, by Elbroch and Rinehart) (Thanks to Roger Irwin, wildlife photographer, for the use of his photo. You may visit his gallery at www.rogerirwinphotos.com)

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Coyote Beds

2-22-17-coyote-beds-049a4655Like most carnivores, coyotes do not have permanent homes, other than the maternal dens in which they raise their young.   In the winter, coyotes do not usually seek shelter in a den, but rather prefer to sleep outside, preferably out of the wind in a hollow or under an overhang, a fallen tree or the spreading boughs of an evergreen (see photo, where two coyotes bedded down). A study on the relative time coyotes spend resting or hunting found that they spend more time resting in these sites in the winter, when they depend more on carrion, than in the summer, when small rodents are readily available and more time is spent finding and catching prey.

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Ruffed Grouse Snow Roosting

 

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I recently had an experience while snowshoeing which I have always hoped to have, but which has escaped me during all these years of tromping through the woods. I was following the tracks of a Ruffed Grouse and all of a sudden it exploded out of the snow about two feet in front of me as it left its night time shelter. Now that we have over ten inches of fluffy snow, grouse can dive into the snow and spend the night in their self-made snow roosts. Finding a grouse’s snow roost is a relatively common experience; being startled by a grouse exiting one is not.

Diving head first into the snow, the grouse works its way anywhere from three to ten feet, creating a 4-inch-wide tunnel through the snow before it hollows out a small cavity and settles down for the night in its own little igloo. Up until recently, a hard crust prevented grouse from seeking shelter this winter in this manner. Had temperatures been very cold, many grouse would have suffered and even perished under these conditions. Fortunately, they can now roost in the snow, where temperatures are much warmer (as high as 32°F.), and rarely fall below 20°F. regardless of how cold it gets outside. Not only do these roosts hide the occupants from predators, but they provide an energy savings of 30 percent or more for grouse.

(Photo: Snow roost entrance hole (nearest the bottom of photo) where a grouse dove into the snow, and the exit hole (nearest top of photo), three feet from entrance hole, which a Ruffed Grouse created when it exploded out of its roost. If you look closely at the exit hole, you may be able to detect wing marks.)

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Beavers Mating

2-17-17-beaver-img_3766Under ice-covered ponds and lakes in dark, cold water, sometime between December and March, beavers mate. Latitude and climate affects the length of the breeding season, which is shorter and later in colder, more northern locations and longer and earlier in warmer, more southerly regions. February is the peak mating season for New England beavers.

Beavers are classified as monogamous, as once a bond has formed, they remain as a pair throughout their life until one of the pair dies, at which point a new mate is found. However, this does not mean they don’t stray. In a study of beaver colony genetics, researchers discovered that more than half of the litters had been sired by two or more males. So much for monogamy.

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Great Horned Owls & Striped Skunks

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Striped Skunks do have predators other than Great Horned Owls (bobcats, foxes and coyotes-fishers have been known to prey on skunks, but very infrequently), but these predators have to be pretty desperate before they will prey on a skunk.  Automobiles and disease kill more skunks than all of their predators put together, but Great Horned Owls have the distinction of being the primary predator of Striped Skunks.

Being a nocturnal hunter, a Great Horned Owl necessarily consumes prey which are nocturnal. Striped Skunks are active at night and are consumed by Great Horned Owls with regularity, even though a skunk can weigh up to three times as much as a Great Horned Owl (average GHO weighs a little over 3 pounds) and has a potent way of defending itself.

For many years scientists assumed that birds had a poor sense of smell because the area of a bird’s brain involved in smell is relatively small compared with the area found in mammals.  However, recent research reveals that birds have a high number of active genes that are associated with smell, and many species may have an excellent sense of smell.  It’s fairly safe to assume, however, from its consumption of skunks, that the Great Horned Owl’s sense of smell is not very well developed. In addition, if a skunk sprays, much of the odor is absorbed by the Great Horned Owl’s leg feathers, which extend down to its talons.

A favorite memory of mine is walking through a field at dusk and suddenly noticing a strong skunk-like smell coming from above, not below, me. A Great Horned Owl silently flew overhead, with only the tell-tale smell of a recently-captured skunk announcing its presence.

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Mystery Question

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Without googling or looking up the answer, what animal do you think might be the Striped Skunk’s primary predator? Submit answers under “Comments” on the Naturally Curious blog.

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Snow Scorpionflies Active

2-15-17-snow-scorpionfly-039On mild winter days you may wish to look closely at all the dark, little specks on the surface of the snow. Most of them will be bits of lichen, seeds or pieces of bark, but with luck you may find one or more of them moving. Active winter insects aren’t plentiful, but they do exist.

Scorpionflies are fairly common and can be recognized by their long beaks ending in visible mouthparts. (They get their name from one family of scorpionflies that possesses a scorpion-like tail.)  Snow Scorpionflies belong to a family of small, flightless insects, of which there are two species in the Northeast. They only measure about 2/10’s of an inch, so careful scrutiny is necessary to spot one. Their dark color and an anti-freeze substance in their blood allows them to remain active to 21°F., during which time they feed on mosses. When startled, Snow Scorpionflies often jump up in the air and land with their legs crumpled up (see insert) looking even more like an inedible speck of dirt. It’s fairly easy to tell their gender, as female Snow Scorpionflies (photo) lack wings, and males have bristly wings adapted for grasping females.

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A Valentine To All Things Natural

2-14-17-painted-trillium-159In field and forest, and in the animal world sheltered therein, indeed in every garden, a reality is perceptible that is infinitely more real, older, deeper, and more wondrous than everything made by people, and that will yet endure, when the inanimate, mechanical, and concrete world again vanishes, becomes rusted and fallen into ruin.  

Albert Hofmann   (Photo: Painted Trillium, Trillium undulatum)

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North American River Otters Sliding

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There is no denying that North American River Otters know how to travel and have fun in winter. Whether on a flat surface such as a frozen pond or river, field, or down slopes, otters take advantage of the snow, bounding then dropping to their belly and sliding, saving precious energy. Most slides are relatively short, around 10 feet long and 6-10 inches wide, though they can be as long as 25 feet long on slippery ice. At the beginning and end of a slide there are tracks (from where they push off with their hind feet, and cease sliding and begin bounding again), creating a dot-dash pattern. Sometimes a downhill slide is used repeatedly and when it is, bobsledders have nothing over otters, as water from the otters’ coats creates an icy and very slippery slide.

For those of you who would like to view an excellent video of an otter sliding, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBB0OLOkvIU .

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Fisher Scent Post Update

2-12-17-fisher-scent-post-img_1644-002Last week’s post on a fisher’s spruce sapling scent post showed evidence of rubbing (broken, bare branches) and scat. Since then, the fisher has returned (scent posts are used repeatedly) and because there’s fresh snow, you can now see where it rolled. I thought this might (?) be of interest to some readers.

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Coyotes and White-tailed Deer

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Coyotes will eat just about anything they come across – rodents, rabbits and hares, beavers, muskrats, birds, even garbage. Whatever is available and whatever they can catch they will consume. Very often you find white-tailed deer hair in their scat (see photo), and while a majority of the time it comes from deer carcasses that they have come across, there are two times of year when they are known to hunt deer. One is in the spring, when fawns are vulnerable, and the other is during the winter, when one of two conditions are present that favor coyotes: when the snow is deep and deer have to struggle to move faster than coyotes, and when there are crusty conditions, when coyotes are held up on top of the crust, but deer break through, often cutting and exhausting themselves.

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Classic Fisher Sign

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Fishers are one of the most rewarding mammals to track as they leave so many signs. One of the most common ones, other than their tracks, is their scent posts. This is where a fisher rubs itself, anointing the substrate with its scent as it marks its territory. Young saplings often serve this purpose. The fisher rubs and rolls on a young tree, often a conifer, usually breaking a few branches.

If you see a scraggly-looking sapling in the woods, and there are fisher tracks nearby, examine the sapling closely for fisher hairs that often get caught on the branches when a fisher rubs against them. More often than not, the fisher will also mark the tree with a bit of scat or some urine. Fishers are very adept at controlling the amount of feces they leave, often excreting very small portions as markers throughout their travels.

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Your Naturally Curious Comments

2-3-17-yellow-crowned-night-heron-by-mholland-030I’ve been meaning to address the subject of reader comments on my posts and my responses, or lack thereof,  for some time.  As you might imagine, I get a number of questions emailed to me as well as questions submitted on “Comments” after each post, which I do my best to answer. However, after having responded to those questions, gone outside to photograph for the next day’s post, decided on a topic, researched that topic and written the post, there is precious little time to respond to the rest (those not asking questions) of the comments. I read every single comment, and ideally would respond to every one, but there just isn’t enough time in the day for me to do so.

Please know that your commentary contributions, be they additional information, stories, personal observations or critiques, are much appreciated, both by me as well as other NC readers. I truly love that my readers are engaged in the subjects I write about and take the time to write. I’m just sorry that I can’t respond to many more than those seeking an answer to their question.  (Photo:  Yellow-crowned Night Heron)

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Raccoons Active

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Yesterday’s mystery tracks were those of a raccoon that was following a partially-open stream, emerging from the water only when it was necessary to cross ice in order to get to the next patch of open water. Temperatures have been on the mild side recently, so raccoons have been active. During very cold periods raccoons become lethargic and tend to seek shelter in hollow trees or other retreats where they may remain for up to a month or so. When the temperature at night rises above 32°F., they become active, but little or no food is consumed. Instead, they live off body fat (up to 30% of their weight) they accumulated in the fall. In addition to recent warm weather coaxing Raccoons to become active, February is the peak of their mating season.

(Muskrat, Otter and Beaver were the three other 5-toed, water-loving mammals that received the most “votes,” all viable guesses. The Raccoon’s front and hind feet are more dissimilar from each other than those of Muskrats or Otters are, and a Beaver’s hind feet are webbed and considerably larger than a Raccoon’s.)

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Mystery Photo

mystery-photo-049a2992Whose tracks are these?  (Hint: front track is on left, hind track is on right – both between 2″ and 3″; black portion of photo is water)  Please go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and submit your answer under “Comments.” Thank you.

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New Children’s Book Released

otisowl-email-sizeI’m delighted to announce that my latest children’s book, Otis the Owl, has just been released. This book is a celebration of the serendipity of having had the opportunity to observe and photograph Barred Owl nestlings around the time of my grandson Otis’s birth. Otis the Owl is available from independent bookstores, online and from the publisher (click on cover image on my blog). It might make the perfect Valentine for your favorite 4 to 8 year-old!

Watch in wonder as Otis transforms from a tiny ball of fluff into a predator on the cusp of  stretching his feathers beyond the safety of his family tree, in Otis the Owl, a real-life glimpse into the world of the woodland Barred Owl. Nature photographer Mary Holland’s breathtaking images capture the fierce beauty found in birds of prey, and candid commentary educates and enlightens while engaging audiences with questions, quizzes, and creative thinking.  (Foreword book review)


Woodchuck Hibernation

2-2-17-woodchuck-280As fun as it would be to see a Woodchuck on Groundhog Day, it’s not likely to occur in New England, even taking into account climate change, at least not yet. Rather than migrate or remain active and adapt to winter conditions, Woodchucks lower their metabolism and hibernate through the winter.   Their heart rate, body temperature and breathing rate are decreased significantly in order to conserve energy.

One assumes that once a hibernating animal’s metabolism is lowered, it remains lowered for the duration of hibernation. However, it turns out that this is not the case. All of the species of hibernators that have been studied have woken up periodically throughout the winter and warmed themselves up. During these two-three day (on average) arousals, the Woodchuck’s body temperature (roughly 38°F. during hibernation) rises to 98.6°F., its normal temperature during the summer. During these arousal times Woodchucks do not eat. Rather, they rely on deposits of stored body fat, which results in their losing about 40 percent of their body mass by the time green plants are available in the spring. Woodchucks’ bouts of hibernation are initially short, then they lengthen to an average of eight days, and then shorten again as the season progresses.

Arousal consumes a lot of energy (a single arousal may consume as much energy as ten days of hibernation) so it must have a crucial function. Theories regarding this function include restoration of depleted nutrients in the blood, invigoration of immune system, elimination of toxic substances, dealing with potassium loss and facilitation of sperm production in males. As of today, however, the reason for this arousal phenomenon has not been determined.

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A Beaver’s Winter Quarters

2-1-17-beaver-lodge-interior-img_4899What exactly is it like inside an active beaver lodge in winter? It’s dark, damp and around 32°F. The living chamber inside usually has a ceiling no more than two feet high with a diameter of 4 to 6 feet, depending on the number of individuals in the family. (A typical beaver family is composed of an adult male and female, 2 to 3 yearlings, and 2- 4 kits that were born in the spring.) Fresh air enters and carbon dioxide leaves through a central vent (where mud is not applied) and through small holes that remain under logs on the side of the lodge. When there isn’t much snow and the outside air falls well below zero, the temperature inside may drop to a degree or two below freezing, but if the sun is out, it warms right back up again during the day.

The dampness is due to the beavers’ repeated need to enter the water both to retrieve sticks from their nearby food supply pile and to defecate. Upon returning to the lodge, the humidity inside increases due to the water draining from the beavers’ fur. No small wonder that if a January thaw permits, beavers will exit their pond for some fresh air, food and a little bit of sunshine.

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