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Animal Signs

Fishers Crossing Logs

11-25-16-fisher-tracks-049a1848The first snow that sticks on the ground is cause for celebration, if only because it allows you to know so much more about what goes on in the woods and fields that surround you than you would know if it never snowed. At this point the snow isn’t deep enough to distinguish tracks very well in the leaf litter, but thanks to the fisher’s propensity for crossing logs (which are relatively smooth, an excellent substrate for tracks, and retain scents well), one resident’s presence was announced loud and clear recently.

Fisher have large, wide feet with five toes on each foot and semi-retractable claws. This makes them well adapted for walking on snow, climbing trees and grasping and killing prey. (They are also capable of rotating their hind feet nearly 180 degrees, which allows for a headfirst descent from trees.) Their track is very distinctive, and can be quite common in forested areas of the Northeast.

Usually, if given the option, fishers will choose walking on a log over walking on the forest floor. Why would they have developed this preference? There often is no water where this occurs, so it’s not done in an effort to avoid wet feet. My best guess as to the purpose of this behavior is scent-marking. Fishers have been observed sliding along logs on their bellies, as they rub the scent of their anal glands along the top of the log. The fisher scent-marks with cheek, abdominal, neck, flank, and plantar (feet) glands, in addition to anal glands. A fisher leaves its scent with every step of its hind feet, and if rotting logs are superior scent-absorbers, it may be why fishers choose them over the forest floor.

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Beaver Winter Food Supply Cache

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Once locked under the ice, beavers have only the food that they have had the foresight to store in their pond prior to it freezing to sustain themselves for the next four to five months. Sometime in September or October beavers start cutting down trees and limbing them. (The more northern the latitude, the earlier they begin this process.)  Beavers have been found foraging over a third of a mile from their pond in the fall.  At this time of year they tend to go further afield in order to find their preferred trees and shrubs – poplar, willow, alder and sugar maples. The branches are carried to the pond and hauled through the water to the lodge. When they approach the lodge the beavers dive down and push the butt end of the branches into the mud at the bottom of the pond and proceed to weave additional layers of branches into them.

Most caches are built as close to the entrance of the lodge as possible. A cache, or winter food supply pile, that feeds a colony of beavers consists of 1,500 to 2,500 pounds of edible bark, twigs and leaves. (On average, a beaver consumes 1 ½ pounds of food per day in the summer, and 2.2 pounds in the winter.)  Because beavers don’t eat the wood, they must gather several tons of saplings and branches in order to have enough to survive.

If you look closely at yesterday’s close-up view of the food cache, you will see larger limbs on top of the pile. These larger logs are used to weight down the pile –they often consist of species that beavers aren’t particularly partial to, if they eat them at all. (Note proximity of food cache to the lodge, which is to the left in photo.) 

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Identifying Animals By Their Scat

10-14-16-fisher-scat-20161012_5024Anyone who has tried to discover what wildlife resides in their woods knows that signs of animals are much more likely to be seen than the animals themselves. One of these signs is an animal’s scat. There are different factors regarding scat that help to reveal the identity of the animal that left it. One is where you find it. Different animals deposit their scat in different locations. For instance, foxes typically do so along and at the intersection of trails, Fishers often use stumps or other elevated surfaces.

Another helpful hint is the shape of the scat. Many mammal species have distinctively-shaped droppings, but they can vary depending on the animal’s diet. If you open any book containing scat descriptions, and turn to the page on Fishers, you will undoubtedly come across descriptive words such as “twisted”, “black”, “tapered”, and “pointed ends.” Indeed, if the Fisher has consumed prey, its scat is usually as described. But if the Fisher has been eating fruit, which they often do in the late summer and fall, its scat is tubular and quite smooth, with little twisting. While scat can be an excellent clue to the identity of an animal, interpreting it can be tricky! (Pictured is tubular Fisher scat filled with the seeds and skins of grapes behind old, rained-on Fisher scat filled with fur and bones.)

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Meadow Voles Soon To Begin Breeding

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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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How Owls Locate Prey Under the Snow

1-26-16  barred owl imprint  067An owl’s range of audible sounds is not unlike that of humans, but an owl’s hearing is much more acute at certain frequencies, enabling it to hear even the slightest movement of their prey under two feet of snow. When a noise is heard, the owl is able to tell its direction because of the minute time difference in which the sound is perceived in the left and right ear. If the sound is to the left of the owl, the left ear hears it before the right ear. The owl turns its head so the sound arrives at both ears simultaneously, at which point it knows its prey is right in front of it. Owls can detect a left/right time difference of about 0.00003 seconds.

Once an owl has determined the direction of its next victim, it flies towards it, keeping its head in line with the direction of the last sound the prey made. If the prey moves, the owl makes corrections mid-flight. When about two feet from the prey, the owl brings its feet forward and spread its talons, and just before striking, thrusts its legs out in front of its face and often close its eyes before the kill. (Photo: barred owl wings and feet imprints; inset: barred owl ear opening.)

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Cougars in New England

1-15-16  cougar tracks  022Are there cougars/mountain lions/pumas/panthers/catamounts (all common names for the same species) in the Northeast? There have been many sightings in every New England state, but official Class 1 confirmation (body, photographs or DNA) only in Connecticut (2011), Massachusetts (1997) and possibly Vermont (1994-mixed DNA results). It depends on whom you talk to, but the consensus of most wildlife biologists is that there may not be a breeding population yet, but they are here (some thought to be of captive origin). There is no question that cougars are extending their range eastward. Through DNA analysis a cougar killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011 proved to have come from the Black Hills of South Dakota. It had traveled about 2000 miles to the East Coast over 2-3 years.

A recent sighting by a friend had me out on snowshoes recently, trying to find traces in the woods where she had had an excellent view of what she identified as a juvenile cougar crossing the road in front of her car. The pictured tracks are what I found and followed. They are definitely cat tracks! Further investigation revealed several sites where parts of a deer had been cached, with typical (of a cat) sheared deer hair (see photo insert) evident. Unfortunately, there was no scat to be found, so adequate DNA wasn’t available for analysis, and thus, it is but one of 50 to 60 reported-but-unconfirmed cougar sightings that Vermont gets each year. It may be officially unconfirmed, but there is no question in my mind which species of cat I was tracking. (Thanks to Squam Lakes Natural Science Center for cougar photo op.)

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Meadow Voles Food for Coyotes

1-11-15 coyote  192When there is deep snow on the ground, white-tailed deer are often preferred-eating for eastern coyotes, with snowshoe hares not far behind. While small rodents are also consumed during the winter, they make up a larger proportion of a coyote’s diet during spring, summer and fall. With only a few inches of snow on the ground currently, meadow voles are still very vulnerable to predation, as the tufts of grass where they tend to nest are still visible.

Tracks indicate that a coyote stopped to investigate numerous grass tussocks scattered throughout a nearby field recently. Near several of these clumps of grass were slide marks (see foreground in photo) where the coyote had jumped, landed and slid. The groove made by the coyote’s sliding foot always ends with a foot print. At this particular site, the coyote had pounced, slid and then dug and uprooted a nest, possibly procuring a vole, but leaving no trace of success behind. What it did leave behind was scat (3 o’clock in photo), with which the coyote claimed ownership of the site.

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