An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

February

Woodpeckers Drumming

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As tempting as it is to refer to the drumming of a Hairy Woodpecker or a Downy Woodpecker as a sign of spring, the truth is that both males and females drum at any time of year.  However, there’s definitely an uptick at this time of year. Drumming rates are usually highest prior to nesting, lower during nesting, and increase again after young leave the nest.

Much of the drumming in late winter has to do with courtship. Woodpeckers drum to define territories, locate a mate, summon a mate and to solicit copulation, among other things. Males are already busy establishing and defending territories, so keep an ear tuned for the sound of a bill pounding repeatedly against a tree or other hard surface.

For those wishing to distinguish between Hairy and Downy Woodpecker drums, according to David Sibley the drum of a Hairy Woodpecker is extremely fast and buzzing, with at least 25 taps per second, but has long pauses of 20 seconds or more between drums. Downy Woodpeckers drum at a slower rate, only about 15 taps per second, and drum frequently, often with pauses of only a few seconds between each drum. (To hear their respective drums, go to http://www.sibleyguides.com/2011/03/identifying-downy-and-hairy-woodpeckers-by-drumming-sounds/ )  (Photo: male Hairy Woodpecker)

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Raccoons Stirring

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Even in mid-February, there are signs of spring.  Tracks of animals that hole up during the cold winter months and emerge when the nights are warmer are starting to be seen.

Raccoons often seek shelter in dens for months at a time during the winter (they don’t technically hibernate, but experience torpor).  When night temperatures rise above freezing they abandon their hollow tree cavities, often following streams or visiting wetlands. Although they occasionally may forage for aquatic prey such as fish or crayfish, Raccoons in New England eat very little during the winter. Rather, they utilize the fat they store in the fall, which is often more than 40% of their body weight. By the time spring arrives, they may have lost half of their fall weight.

If you find tracks this time of year that lead to or away from a den they may well be those of a male Raccoon who has emerged to seek out a mate.

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Red Fox Vixens Cleaning Out Dens

2-14-18 red fox den 049A2731You may have heard or seen Red Foxes barking in the past few weeks – a sign that their mating season has begun. The skunk-like odor of fox urine at this time of year (particularly the males’) indicates where they have marked their territory. Most of the year Red Foxes are solitary animals, but in January and February it’s common to find the tracks of a pair travelling together.

Vixens (female Red Foxes) are already scouting out this year’s den site. They often clean out several dens on their territory, one of which they choose for their litter. The typical fox den is on a hillside in sandy or soft soil, often in a forest but close to an open area. They may dig their den, or modify the burrow of another animal. Usually there is a source of water within 300 feet or so of the den. There are several entrances, the largest being about ten inches in diameter. The same den may be used for many years, and eventually taken over by a daughter upon her mother’s death.

Finding a fox den is easiest now, when the excavated dirt is obvious on the snow, and tracks leading to and from it are visible. In roughly two months there may be anywhere from one to ten (usually four or five) kits being raised inside the den.

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Spiders Crawling On The Snow

2-12-18 snow spider 049A2557Most adult spiders (as many as 85% of temperate zone species) are dormant during the winter, seeking shelter beneath the leaf litter. Their metabolism slows and their need for food is greatly reduced. Other species die at the end of the summer, and their eggs overwinter, protected inside silken sacs. A third, even smaller, group of spiders remains active through the winter.

Spiders’ body temperatures vary significantly, heavily influenced by their environment. Many spiders that remain active year round seek shelter in the subnivean layer between the ground and snow, where the temperature (+/-32°F.) is often warmer than the air. Occasionally, however, they do appear on the surface of the snow, where they are exposed to the wintery blasts of cold air.

Scientists don’t know exactly how these active spiders survive the cold. Some species can tolerate temperatures as low as -4° F.°. Glycerol acts as a type of anti-freeze for these arachnids, but its effect is marginal. In order to survive, some species bask in the sun and derive energy from their diet of snow fleas (a type of springtail) and other small prey, but these strategies don’t totally explain their ability to survive a New England winter. Species of spiders in the families Linyphiidae and Tetragnathidae (see photo) are often what you see crawling on top of the snow.

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Rolling White Pine Cone

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Leave it to NC readers to recognize yesterday’s Mystery Photo! I was impressed with the fat tire track guesses – something I would never ever recognize! With the help of the wind and a gentle slope, a White Pine cone rolled down a hill, leaving the imprint of its spirally-arranged scales in a repetitive pattern. The fall cone crop of many conifers this year was extreme, so your chances of coming across this track are great this winter.

All species of pines produce cones with scales that overlap each other like fish scales. During cold, damp weather, these scales close tight to protect the seeds within them from bad weather and hungry animals. When the weather is conducive to germination (warm and dry) the scales open, allowing seeds to escape. Even after cones fall from the tree, their scales can still open and close.

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Mystery Photo

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A favorite past-time of many people who traverse woods and fields in winter is deciphering the tracks that they come across. Do you know who or what made this track? (Hint: diameter = 5”)

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Happy Groundhog Day !

2-2-18 woodchuck IMG_2381The Woodchuck, or Groundhog, is one lucky creature, considering past practices. The observation of “Groundhog Day” originated in the mid-1800’s, and by the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the celebration consisted of feasting on this rodent. A formalized hunt took place and participants then dined on Groundhog (which purportedly tastes like a cross between chicken and pork) and drank Groundhog punch. Since then, the Groundhog has evolved into a forecaster of weather, rather than a meal.

While New England Woodchucks are curled up in their hibernacula,  Punxsutawney Phil is busy seeing if he can see his shadow today (in which case we’re in for six more weeks of winter) or whether cloudy skies will prevent that from happening and spring is right around the corner. I’d bet on the former.

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