An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide – maryholland505@gmail.com

Animal Signs

Beaver Scat Anomaly

Finding an animal’s scat is usually pretty straight forward. The shape, size and contents (in this case egg-shaped, one-inch pellets of wood fibers resembling sawdust) of scat tells you who likely deposited it. But the location and amount of this beaver’s scat is highly unusual.

This pile was discovered on a road that passes between two large bodies of water. While beavers are commonplace here, finding their scat on dry land is an anomaly. Beavers are known to defecate only in water.

Often you will find beaver scat where they have been working, such as in the water right below a dam, but usually there are only a handful of pellets, if that —nowhere near the amount in this photograph. One can only wonder what might have caused this unusual deposit. (Photo by Jody Crosby)

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Black Bears Waking Up & Ejecting Fecal Plugs

Black Bears spend their entire hibernation with what is referred to as a “fecal plug” in the last foot or so of their intestines. Scientists used to theorize that bears ate lots of roughage and indigestible plant material in order to form this plug that essentially prevents them from evacuating all winter. This theory has been proven wrong, as investigation has shown that the fecal plug consists mainly of intestinal secretions and cells that have sloughed off the inside of the digestive tract. After stopping eating in late fall, bears do produce a small amount of feces, which are in the plug along with hair and leafy bedding, both accumulated from increased grooming (licking of fur and then swallowing) that takes place before entering hibernation. During winter bears shed the calloused soles, or footpads, of their feet and it’s not uncommon to find pieces of them in a plug, as well.

Most fecal plugs measure 1 ½” to 2 ½” in diameter and 7”-15″ long. Fluids have been absorbed from the plug by the intestinal walls, leaving it relatively dry and hard. Its light scent is reminiscent of fermentation. Should you be fortunate enough to find a plug, it’s likely you’re quite close to its owner’s overwintering den, as bears eject their plug soon after emerging from hibernation. (Many thanks to Metta McGarvey and Stephen Brown for sharing their 9″ x 2″ fecal plug with me.)

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Striped Skunks Out & About

If anyone wants to become familiar with Striped Skunk sign, now is the time to do so, especially if there is still snow on the ground where you live.  Both male and female skunks have been out searching for potential mates for the past month or two, but it hits a fever pitch in March, the peak of their breeding season. If you follow their tracks, be prepared for an extensive outing – they travel as much as two and a half miles a night in their quest for a mate!

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Winter Provides Predators With Access to Beaver And Muskrat Lodges

Foxes’ and coyotes’ sense of smell is such that they rarely miss an opportunity to check out inhabited beaver or muskrat lodges in the winter, when frozen ponds and marshes allow them access to these tempting sources of food. 

Beavers are well protected due to the amount of frozen mud in their lodges that provides an impenetrable barrier to visitors (inset photo: coyote investigates beaver vent in inhabited lodge).  Muskrats are not as well protected (even though the walls of their lodges can be up to a foot thick) as their lodges are made of vegetation, primarily cattails and grasses, with very little, if any, mud. In addition to lodges, muskrats build feeding platforms, called “push-ups,” where their scent is strong enough to attract attention from hungry predators (main photo: fox tracks investigate a muskrat push-up). 

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Female Bobcats In Estrus

The peak of Bobcat breeding occurs in February and March.  Blood at the site of this scrape, where both feces and urine were deposited, confirms that a female bobcat is in estrus.  For the past few weeks she has been rubbing on bushes and stumps, urinating frequently in order to mark her territory and vocalizing frequently in order to advertise her coming availability.  Once estrus is approaching, pairs of bobcats engage in all kinds of antics, from chasing each other to jumping up and surprising each other.

The female indicates when she is receptive (as well as when she’s not) to an interested male. Although the actual mating is only about five minutes long, it is performed up to sixteen times a day for several days. (Photo by Mary Landon)

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Fishers Can, But Don’t Often, Climb Trees

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While fishers are known for their ability to climb trees, it is actually a behavior reserved primarily for when they are being harassed. They are basically a terrestrial animal. Even so, it’s possible to find evidence now and then of their arboreal prowess.

 You can occasionally find a fisher’s body imprint in the snow at the base of a tree, made when it jumped off the tree trunk (see https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/fisher-landing-imprint/). Less common are visible fisher tracks running up the length of a snow-covered tree.  Fishers have the dexterity this feat demands in part because of their semi-retractile claws. Their agility is enhanced by the fact that they can turn their hind feet nearly 180°, allowing them to descend trees headfirst.

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Bobcat “Sit-down”

If you live where there is an abundance of rabbits or hares, you may have a population of Bobcats as well.  These felines are elusive and shy — setting eyes on a Bobcat is a notable event.  One must, for the most part, settle for signs of their presence and the chances of this are much greater in winter.

Bobcat signs include tracks, scrapes/scat, beds, kill sites (https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2021/02/19/bobcats-preying-on-rabbits-hares/) and cache sites (see https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/a-bobcats-white-tailed-deer-cache/) .  Tracks are by far the most common sign.  Occasionally you come across a protected spot where a hunting cat has sat and surveyed the area for prey (see photo). Because time was spent in the same position the details of its tracks can be well defined in the right snow conditions: four toe impressions (one slightly leading) with a large heel pad that often shows two lobes at the top and three on the bottom, and no claw marks.

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Beavers Actively Winterizing Lodges

There are two noticeable differences in the appearance of an active beaver lodge in the fall as opposed to the summer.  One is the presence of a growing pile of freshly-cut branches adjacent to the lodge.  These branches provide resident beavers with the nutrition they will need during the winter months when herbaceous plants are neither available nor accessible.

The second change noticeable in a fall lodge is the presence of massive amounts of mud.  Branches are often placed on top of this layer of mud, so you have to observe the lodge before that happens in order to see the extent of the mud layer.  It provides protection from harsh winter winds which would significantly lower the temperature inside the lodge.  Together, a blanket of snow and a layer of mud serve as excellent insulation for beavers living in the lodge.

In the Northeast, where the temperature often dips into the single digits or lower in the winter, the interior of an active beaver lodge maintains a relatively stable 33° F. – 35° F., roughly the temperature of the water, thanks to the ingenuity of these rodent architects.

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Virginia Opossum Tracks

Virginia Opossums have extended their range far enough north that even in parts of northern New England they are present and remain active year-round.  Opossum tracks in the snow provide an opportunity to observe the unusual toe structure of these marsupials. 

Opossums have five toes on all four feet.  The toes on their front feet can spread wide apart, often resulting in a star-shaped track.  The inside toe of their hind foot, or “thumb,” is opposable, has no nail, and often points in the opposite direction of the other four toes. (Thanks to Connie Day for opossum track photo op.)

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Bobcats Preying On Rabbits & Hares

Bobcats are capable of preying on animals as large as White-tailed Deer (which they rarely do), but far more frequently they choose the easier-to-catch rabbit or hare. Typically at dawn or dusk a Bobcat will head out to locate and stalk its prey, slowly getting close enough to pounce on it.  Although they sometimes eat their prey immediately, Bobcats often carry it to a concealed area under brush where they eat it. (see photo).  In this scene, in addition to leaving some of the hair of the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit it consumed, the Bobcat defecated, leaving its blunt-ended, segmented scat as further evidence of its presence (lower right in photo). (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo op.)

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Unusual Beaver Activity

Beavers are known for their ever-growing incisors which allow them to cut trees down, eat the cambium (a nutritious layer just beneath the bark) and cut what’s left into pieces they are able to haul and use as building material for dams and lodges. More often than not, it’s straight forward work.

Occasionally not every step is taken – you can find standing trees that had the bottom three or four feet (as high as the Beaver could reach) of cambium removed without the trees being felled.  You can find de-barked logs that have been left where they fell and not carried or floated to the dam or lodge as construction material.  It’s also not unusual to find standing trees where several times a Beaver has attempted but failed to cut all the way through.

Recently John Twomey brought to my attention a tree felled by Beavers unlike any other I’ve ever seen:  one or more Beavers had cut down a Paper Birch and eaten the cambium layer, leaving the tree clean of bark.  At some point they cut into the tree every 18 inches or so, not quite severing the pieces, but leaving them connected by a core of wood that ran the length of the tree. If any readers have seen anything similar to this, or if you have an idea as to why Beavers would have cut the tree in this fashion, Naturally Curious would love to hear from you.  (Photo by Prentice Grassi of his sons investigating said tree earlier this spring.)

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Eastern Gray Squirrels Lining Nests

Congratulations to Wanda Rice, the first Naturally Curious reader to recognize sign made by a squirrel collecting nesting material. Many people thought it might be a porcupine at work, but porcupines, as “hellomolly” pointed out in her comment, do not leave strips of bark hanging, while squirrels do.

In the Mystery Photo, an Eastern Gray Squirrel had been shredding and collecting the thin bark of a Maple Sugar sapling to line its nest with.  Gray squirrels nest throughout the year, but nesting activity peaks during their two mating seasons (December -March, and May – July).  They build two types of nests – large, round, leafy nests among tree branches (dreys) and cavity nests, the latter being preferred during the colder months. Abandoned woodpeckers nests as well as natural-formed cavities provide additional protection in the winter from predators as well as the elements. (Drey broods are 40 percent less likely to survive than squirrels born in tree cavities — a hole no wider than three or four inches protects them from large predators such as raccoons.) Both types of nests are lined with soft material such as lichen, moss, grass, pine needles and shredded bark.

The effect of a squirrel’s stripping a tree’s bark depends on the extent of the damage. Usually a young tree is chosen due to the thinness of the bark and the ease with which it can be stripped.  Although a tree can survive with some of its bark removed, it will die if the damage is too severe or bark is stripped off around the tree’s circumference.  Stripped bark not only provides nesting material but the process of stripping the bark exposes the tree’s cambium layer which contains the nutrients and sugars a tree has produced and which squirrels readily consume. (Eastern Gray Squirrel photos by Margaret Barker Clark)

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Red Foxes Marking & Mating

It’s that time of year again, when the odor associated with skunks wafts through the air, even though most skunks are denned up and in a state of torpor.  This odor is the perfumed urine of Red Foxes, especially intense during their mating season, which begins around the middle of January. They use both urine and feces to communicate their presence, dominance and sexual status to other foxes and do so frequently (urinating up to 70 times per hour when scavenging at this time of year!).  Stumps, logs and other raised surfaces often serve as scent posts.

According to scientist Dr. Mark Elbroch, Red Foxes “employ any of 12 different positions to urinate upon precarious perches…”.  It’s fun to imagine exactly which one was used that allowed both a foot print and urine to appear on the pictured raised log!

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Coyotes Scavenging

Coyote tracks from three different directions led to an area where a deer’s well-cleaned skull was the only remnant of a communal meal. It had been dug up from a spot nearby where it had been cached, and carried to a more protected area to work on.  Coyotes are omnivores, but about 90% of their diet consists of mammals.  Coyote scat I’ve examined has included, among other things, the hair of Muskrat, Snowshoe Hare, White-tailed Deer and small rodents as well as feathers, grass and apples.

Coyotes are commonly blamed whenever there is a decline in the White-tailed Deer population.  Studies involving the removal of deer populations in a given area have not found any evidence that Coyote removal caused an increase in the deer population, nor did it affect the overall deer population growth. The fact that Coyotes are not causing deer populations to decline can also be seen in the devastating effect White-tailed Deer are having on forest ecosystems throughout the eastern United States as the Coyote population increases.

That’s not to say Coyotes don’t hunt deer – they do, primarily in the spring (fawns) and in the winter, especially when there is enough snow and/or crust to slow deer down but not Coyotes. However, much of their venison consumption is a result of their scavenging deer carcasses, which they do any time of year. Examine Coyote scat and the chances are great you will find deer hair in it; chances are also great that it came from a carcass, not a living deer.

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Beavers Foraging

Even in the coldest of winters, there is often a thaw around this time of year that frequently allows beavers to escape the cold (+/- 34°F) dark lodge where they reside during most of the winter.  Our most recent thaw was such that in many beaver ponds, ice didn’t even have to be broken in order for resident beavers to forage for food on land.

When beavers are confined to complete darkness (under the ice) their 24-hour circadian cycle extends to a 28 hour day. During this time beavers sleep for longer periods at a time and thus need less food.  As spring approaches and the days lengthen, the slightest exposure to daylight will reset the beaver’s biological clock back to the circadian cycle. (Leonard Lee Rue, Beavers)  (Photo by Alice Trageser)

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River Otter Scat

Because fish make up a large part of their diet, North American River Otters live along streams, lakes and wetlands.  Although crayfish, hibernating frogs and turtles, insects and other aquatic invertebrates are also consumed in the winter, the telltale identifying feature of otter scat (spraint) this time of year is the presence of fish scales.

Look for otter scat on raised areas near water, especially the shortest distance between two water bodies or on peninsulas.  It is usually found on the ground, but occasionally on logs and at the intersection of two streams. Otters frequently form large latrines of multiple scats.

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Wrong Mystery Solved!

My apologies to the 50+/- NC readers who responded with great creativity to the latest Mystery Photo!  The photographer and I had a miscommunication, and I misdirected readers about the actual mystery you were to solve!  I thought the photographer had observed a goose making the two parallel lines in the ice with their feet (nails) as they landed. However, these two lines are actually just cracks in the ice, as many readers guessed (Susan Cloutier was the first to correctly identify them).   While Canada Geese do use their feet as well as their wings as brakes to slow themselves down before they land and they do have a hind toe which conceivably could scratch the ice, the landing imprints of the geese (and what I should have asked readers to identify) are actually in the upper half of the photo (see red circle) where the snow has been plowed aside, revealing the darker ice underneath.   The presence of a considerable amount of goose droppings confirms the identity of the birds landing on the ice.

Observers often ask how Canada Geese or other waterfowl can stand for long periods of time on frozen lakes and ponds.The legs and feet of waterfowl play an important part in maintaining their body temperature.  In the summer, their large, flat feet cool their body by releasing a good deal of heat.  In winter, the heat exchange system (counter-current circulation) in a bird’s legs prevents a great deal of body heat loss due to the fact that the warm arterial blood going into the bird’s feet is cooled by the colder blood traveling back to the body in adjacent veins.  Constricted blood vessels in their legs further conserves heat. (Photo by Mike Hebb)

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Photo Op Alerts

Over the years I have discovered and photographed most of my blog post subjects, but every once in a while someone lets me know about something out of the ordinary that they think I might be interested in photographing.  (Scattered flying squirrel tails, black bear dens, red fox litters and nesting birds come to mind.)  I am immediately on the road if it is something that I think might make a great post (and might possibly still be there by the time I arrive).  Distance and subject matter are heavily weighed before causing my car to contribute even more to greenhouse gas emissions…however, anyone who would drive 2 ½ hours to photograph a Monkey Slug has obviously contributed to climate change.

When I have had the opportunity to photograph something because of someone’s generosity in sharing the subject and location with me, you will see “Thanks to ___ for photo op (opportunity)” at the end of the post.  I am eternally grateful to anyone who thinks of me and takes the time to let me know about something noteworthy.  It doesn’t have to be something as earth-shattering as mt. lion tracks, for instance – kill sites, animal beds and caches, otter slides – anything that isn’t too commonplace and tells a story will have me at your doorstep.  To contact me please call 802-279-2330 and leave a message if I don’t answer. I am located in Hartland, VT (just south of White River Junction) and unless it actually is a mt. lion track sighting or something equally rare or that I’ve never seen, I probably won’t be tempted to drive more than a couple of hours. Thank you so much! (Photo: White-tailed Deer cached by and then dug up and eaten by a Bobcat.  Thanks to Otto Wurzburg for photo op.)

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Moose Beds

In winter, Moose prefer to use powder snow areas in mixed forests, under large conifers, as bedding sites. They can rest while standing or when bedding on the ground. When standing, a moose’s head and neck are relaxed but its ears are constantly moving in order to detect sound coming from any direction.  When bedded on the ground, a moose’s legs can be tucked under its body or extended (when laying on their side).

A favored resting and sleeping position of antlered bulls is on one side of their body, with legs stretched and one antler touching the ground. Moose have the ability to nearly disappear if they bed down in snow. A bedded moose does not move and looks very much like a stump or rock.  When they rise, they often leave shed hairs and scat in the depression they’ve made in the snow.

A large bed with one or two smaller ones indicates a cow and her calves have bedded down together.  (Thanks to Kit Emery for photo op.)

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Red Squirrel Belly Flop

Congratulations to Mary Pratt, the first reader to correctly identify the impression a Red Squirrel left in the snow.  Red Squirrels are fiercely territorial, and will chase each other furiously in order to defend their territory and their food caches. The photographer, Susan Bull Riley, witnessed this behavior as she watched two Red Squirrels racing after each other in the crown of a maple tree.  Suddenly one of them fell to the ground, where sleet and wet snow cushioned its fall and recorded the belly flop landing.  No time was lost in the resumption of the chase!

There were many “Flying Squirrel” responses, which makes great sense as they are approximately the same size as a Red Squirrel (just an inch or two shorter in length) and are gliding from tree to tree or from tree to the ground.  My assumption is that a Flying Squirrel’s landing impression might show some of the patagium, or membrane, that stretches from a squirrel’s wrists to its ankles, due to the fact that it is extended as the squirrel glides. (Any firsthand Flying Squirrel landing-in-snow impression observations welcome.) Thanks to all who submitted an answer to this Mystery Photo.  Many were very amusing!

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Snow Fleas Emerging

4-12-19 snow fleas_U1A6604Yesterday was the kind of day when you could not take a step without knowing you were crushing hundreds of Snow Fleas, or Collembola, those tiny black specks on the snow. Their presence is a hopeful sign in northern New England, as it often signals the coming of spring, which we are more than ready for.

This non-insect arthropod is a type of springtail (not a flea). Springtails are no longer considered insects, but are classified as hexapods. These miniscule creatures sometimes come to the surface of the snow on warm winter days but are active year-round in leaf litter, feeding on algae, fungi and decaying organic matter.

Snow Fleas do not bite, nor do they sting. What they do do is catapult themselves impressive distances by means of an appendage on their underside called a furcula which snaps and propels them through the air. They have a soft landing due to three anal sacs that they evert from their anus just before launching themselves. (To see a photograph of these sacs go to a 2012 NC post on Snow Fleas: https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/snow-flea-mystery-appendage/) (Photo: Snow Fleas clustered in the track of a Black Bear that recently emerged from hibernation)

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Meadow Vole Tracks & Tunnels

2-4-19 meadow vole_U1A2759Tracking animals can be an elusive endeavor because so many things can alter the condition of the tracks. Have recent flurries erased the details of an imprint? Has the sun melted and enlarged a track? Was every toe registering? Did wind-blown snow cause the tracks to vanish into thin air? Was the animal walking, loping or tunneling or a combination of all three?

The reason you use more than just one track to gather information, such as the stride of the animal and the width of its trail, is that sometimes the individual tracks defy the hard and fast rules of some tracking guides. A commonly accepted generality is that Deer and White-footed Mouse tails leave drag marks, and Meadow Voles’ shorter tails don’t. However, in the right conditions, even a vole’s one-inch tail can drag (see photo), though not creating as long a line as a mouse’s tail would. The Meadow Vole whose tracks are in this photograph was loping along when it suddenly decided to seek cover under the snow and began to (try to) tunnel. Perhaps a predator instigated this behavior.

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Foxes Scent Marking

12-14-18 fox tracks_U1A8060Foxes, like all canids, tend to mark their territories frequently with both scat and urine.  Both convey information to other foxes regarding hierarchy and sexual status, in addition to marking territory. As these Gray Fox tracks crossing a pond illustrate, it’s rare for an elevated object in a fox’s line of view not to be visited and anointed. Research shows that when scavenging, foxes urinate up to 70 times an hour, allowing just a small amount of urine to be left in any one place.  In addition to rocks, stumps and other raised objects, the remains of a meal are often urinated on, indicating that the nourishing portions have already been consumed.

Red Foxes are generally solitary animals, except during their courtship period, which occurs any time between December and February.  At this time mates pair up, so it is not unusual to see two sets of fox tracks together.  This is also the time of year when the males’ urine acquires a strongly pungent, skunk-like odor detectable from hundreds of yards away.

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Black Bears Scent Marking

4-20-18 black bear biteIn the Northeast, Black Bears typically emerge from their dens in April and mate sometime between mid-May and late June. Prior to mating, Black Bears of all ages and both sexes announce their presence to other bears by rubbing their scent on marking trees (maintaining several on their territory). These “trees” often include utility poles, such as the one pictured. While most of the marking is done by mature males during the mating season, this week’s storm provided proof that scent marking actually resumes in April soon after bears come out of hibernation.

Scent marking can include a bear’s rubbing its shoulders and neck against the tree/pole as well as clawing and biting the tree. Claw marks are usually quite shallow, but incisor bites are deep enough that pieces of bark and wood are sometimes pulled out.  This photograph shows where a Black Bear stood on its hind feet and with its head sideways, grabbed the pole with its mouth open and closed its jaws, scraping a horizontal groove across the pole as its upper and lower canine teeth came together.  The height of the bite was about six feet.

Fresh bear signs indicate that it’s time to bring bird feeders in (either permanently or, at the very least, at night), in order to avoid creating “nuisance” bears,  thereby putting the bears’ lives at risk.

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