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Animal Signs

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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Two Songbirds And A Mouse

3-9-18 mystery photo2 049A1842

Two different kinds of signs — droppings and incisor marks – reveal the inhabitants of a woodshed during a very cold spell. The partially-eaten, shelled acorns have tiny grooves in them (difficult to see well in photo, my apologies), made by the incisors of a very small rodent, likely a White-footed Mouse or a Deer Mouse (the animals, much less their signs, are extremely difficult to tell apart, even if both species are sitting in front of you).

The two remaining signs are droppings from birds that sought shelter overnight inside the shed. Mourning Doves have very distinctive scat — individual round droppings, each about 1/4″ in diameter, consisting of coils of dark, solid waste which sometimes have a dollop of white uric acid on top.

The third and last sign is also bird droppings, but unlike the Mourning Dove’s, these are white and log-like. If you’ve been inundated with Dark-eyed Juncos this winter, you should be able to find these on the ground where they congregate.

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Fisher Dines On Two Flying Squirrels

3-1-18 fisher scat and flying squirrel tails 049A3138 (1)Although Coyote tracks led me to this kill site, the Coyote was only inspecting the remains of two Flying Squirrels. Fisher tracks and scat confirmed that it was the predator.

Deciphering the story in the snow was possible through a familiarity with certain details of both the predator and prey. A Flying Squirrel’s tail is distinctively flattened, and the fur on it is very light and silky. There is no mistaking it for any other animal’s. (This would be difficult to discern from a photograph!) One entire squirrel’s tail was in a depression, where the squirrel had unsuccessfully sought shelter in a tunnel it had started to dig. The second tail had been ripped into bits and pieces. The Fisher claimed its kill and/or territory by depositing its characteristically small, twisted, pointed scat at the kill site. (Not an uncommon practice of many predators.)  Always fun to be able to piece together some of the drama that occurs nightly in our woods and fields.

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