An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

January

Wild Turkeys Foraging on Sensitive Fern Fertile Spores

Congratulations to Deb Marnich, the first of many Naturally Curious readers who identified the Sensitive Fern fertile frond visitors as Wild Turkeys.  I had neglected to check and make sure I hadn’t addressed this subject recently on this blog, which is my custom with every post, and indeed, just a year ago there was a post on this very subject.  Judging from the number of correct entries, either I have a very informed readership or their memory is better than mine – quite possibly both!

Wild Turkeys usually forage in flocks as they search the ground for food. Acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, ironwood and white ash seeds, hawthorn and witch hazel fruits make up a lot of their diet in fall, winter and spring. In the summer, seeds of grasses and sedges as well as invertebrates are eaten. In winter, when snow has accumulated, leaves of sedges, evergreen ferns, hemlock buds, burdock seeds and spore-covered fronds of sensitive ferns tend to be more accessible and readily eaten.

The fertile fronds of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) persist all winter, sticking up out of the snow as if beckoning to hungry turkeys. Upon finding a clump of these fertile fronds, a turkey will peck repeatedly at them, causing the sori (clusters of sporangia which produce and contain spores) to burst and release thousands of spores onto the surface of the snow.

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Mystery Photo

Any idea who has been visiting these Sensitive Fern fertile fronds?  If so, go to the Naturally Curious blog, scroll down to “Comments” and enter yours.  Answer will be revealed in Friday’s post.

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White-tailed Bucks Shedding Antlers

White-tailed Deer bucks grow and shed a pair of antlers annually.  The main purpose of these bony growths is to serve as weapons against rival bucks during rut, or mating season.  During this time in the fall, prior to their 24-hour receptive period, does release chemicals to signal their readiness to bucks.  These chemicals keep the bucks’ testosterone level high, which in turn keeps antlers firmly attached to their heads.  Once rut is over, does stop emitting these chemicals, and as a consequence, the bucks’ testosterone level drops significantly.

When a buck’s testosterone level drops, it triggers cells called osteoclasts to become more active in the buck’s pedicles, the permanent bony bases which anchor the antlers to the buck’s skull. As a result, calcium is extracted from the pedicles which weakens the antlers’ connection to the buck’s skull, and eventually the antlers drop off.

It is rare that both antlers drop at the same time – usually there are four to eight days between the loss of the first and the second antler. I assumed that bucks needed to knock their antlers against something hard, such as the trunk of a tree, in order to get them to fall off.  However, years ago I witnessed a buck shedding an antler simply by dropping his head and then quickly flicking it upwards, sending an antler flying through the air. (Note pedicle where antler used to be attached. Photo by Alfred Balch)

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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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North American River Otters Sliding & Gliding

North American River Otters spend much of their time foraging.  They often have a circuit they travel along rivers and lakes which takes them up to a week or more to complete.  In between bodies of water, they travel overland on well-used paths, often during the day in winter.

These circuits are miles long, and for much of the time otters lope along in typical weasel fashion.  However, in winter the snow permits them to occasionally flop down on their bellies, tuck their front feet next to their chest and push off with their hind feet as they slide effortlessly on top of the snow, both down slopes as well as along flat surfaces.  Once they obtain a certain speed, they give their hind legs a rest and lift them off the ground so as not to slow them down as they slide (see photo).  Otters have been clocked up to 17 miles per hour running and sliding in this manner.

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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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American Goldfinch Plumage Anomaly

Molting, the replacement of all or some of a bird’s feathers, occurs in response to a mixture of hormonal changes brought about by seasonal changes. This process serves to replace worn feathers (they cannot repair themselves) and can play a part in seasonal camouflage as well as attracting a mate.

All of our small songbirds have a complete molt, replacing all of their feathers in late summer. In addition, many species have a partial molt (replacing body feathers but not wing or tail feathers) in the spring.

According to David Sibley, American Goldfinches begin to molt all of their (alternate/breeding plumage) feathers in September, with the males replacing their brilliant gold feathers with much duller feathers by November.  Come spring and the breeding season, male goldfinches replace their dull (basic/non-breeding) body feathers (but not the wing or tail feathers) with new, bright feathers.

Imagine my surprise when I spied a brilliantly colored American Goldfinch at my feeder this week.  According to ornithologist George Clark, it’s usually March before one starts to see an American Goldfinch in breeding plumage. One can only wonder what prevented this individual from molting its breeding plumage in the fall. (Photo: male American Goldfinch, winter plumage; inset – male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage in January)

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Bobcats Foraging

Bobcats are active all winter, particularly at dawn and dusk, when their primary prey (hares and cottontails) are active.  Mice and voles are also a significant part of their diet, and occasionally larger-bodied male Bobcats successfully prey on White-tailed Deer.  The pictured tracks reveal that while foraging for food, a Bobcat discovered the remains of a Porcupine that had been killed and skinned by a Fisher.

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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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Seeing The World Through A Naturalist’s Eyes

There are innumerable resources for anyone interested in identifying any part of the natural world — field guides to feathers, fungi, tracks, butterflies, mosses, bird nests — the list goes on and on.  What has been lacking, in my opinion, is an introduction to the art of discovering what it is that you may then wish to identify.

If you are very lucky in your lifetime, you may cross paths with someone who heightens your awareness of the natural world that surrounds you and teaches you how to look at it and ask the questions that will provide you with insight into it.  These are skills that one rarely finds in a book.  To the good fortune of all who open the pages of The Naturalist’s Notebook – An Observation Guide and 5-year Calendar Journal for Tracking Changes in the Natural World Around You, this book does this and more.  Not only does it present the reader with the keys to observing the natural world around them, it provides the means to record these observations so that the daily details one observes are preserved for posterity and for comparison in years to come.

I can’t think of a better way for a budding or experienced naturalist to start a new year than to open the pages of this book and delve into the words that will allow them to connect themselves more intimately to the world that is right outside their door. Not only would they reap the benefit of the morsels within this book, but all royalties from the sale of The Naturalist’s Notebook are donated to conservation and environmental education. Nathaniel T. Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich have given the world a true gift – one that could ultimately affect the future of this fragile planet we live on.

NB:  In addition to this publication, Nathaniel Wheelwright has produced an exceptionally informative and entertaining series of short videos about the natural history of eastern North American plants and animals: https://research.bowdoin.edu/nature-moments/.

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Two For One

2-15-19 cardinals _U1A8442Thanks to warmer temperatures and a vast increase in the number of bird feeders, Northern Cardinals have expanded their range northward as far as Canada over the past century. Males get far more attention than females, due to their year-round brilliant red plumage. However, the female Cardinal is equally striking with her more subtle tan plumage highlighted with touches of red. Believe it or not, it is possible, albeit very rare, to find both of these plumages on one bird.

Recently an interesting phenomenon known as a bilateral gynandromorph was recorded in Pennsylvania — a cardinal whose body is half male, half female. (For a detailed explanation and video, go to https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/01/half-male-half-female-cardinal-pennsylvania/?fbclid=IwAR2KbCmxuGxtGmKug2eLPS9JD6Vf_KV93OWgy0UsKuMAO-p_2soISJgM400.) Not just the plumage, but the anatomy of this bird is half male, half female. The way in which this gender division exists has a unique effect. According to National Geographic, “Most gynandromorph individuals are infertile, but this one may actually be fertile as the left side is female, and only the left ovary in birds in functional.”

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Otter Holes

1-30-19 otter hole img_5596A pond can have one to two feet of ice on top of it, yet North American River Otters somehow manage to find a way to come up through the ice. How do they do this? Careful observation reveals that the ice where otter holes are found is thinner than most of the pond’s ice. Otters rely on spring-fed open water and areas of thin ice for surfacing holes. Here they break through the ice and often drag larger fish out onto the ice to eat them.

If otters are feeding in a beaver pond and they can’t find openings in the ice for fishing, they have been known to tunnel into beaver dams for access to open water. In late winter, water levels sometime drop below the ice, leaving an air space that lets otters swim and hunt beneath the ice without the need for holes. (Look closely at opening to see the actual hole beneath the surface water that they emerge from.)

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The Sniff Test

1-30-19 red fox marking img_7153When your quest is to find out as much as you can about the identity, activity, diet and territory of your four-footed neighbors, it is logical to make the most of all your senses. Tracks can be seen, scrapings and bite marks on a tree can be felt and yes, one’s sense of smell can enhance any tracking expedition. Just as the tracks and scat of different species of animals have distinctive characteristics, so does the urine of different animals. Scent marking, including urination, is a behaviour used by animals to identify their territory, and therefore a highly visible sign in winter.

At this time of year, foxes are breeding, and without even putting your nose near where a fox has marked his territory with urine, you can detect its skunk-like odor as you pass by. If you’re so inclined (and I realize many readers may not be) you can heighten your sensory experience as well as your identification prowess by sampling the smell of other animals’ liquid waste. White-tailed deer urine has a pungent, piney smell, quite pleasing to this naturalist’s olfactory receptors. You can detect a porcupine den from a considerable distance by the pungent, very distinctive but hard to describe odor of its urine (which spills out onto and coats the bark of a tree den, thereby advertising the porcupine’s presence). Coyote urine smells very much like a domestic dog’s, and members of the weasel family often have musky-smelling urine, though a recently-sniffed fisher marking had very little scent.

Needless to say, it’s a lot easier to discover and sample urine when there’s snow on the ground and it is more evident. Virginia opossums, snowshoe hares, red and gray squirrels, eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, raccoons, fishers, mink and striped skunks are all in or entering their breeding seasons, when scent marking is more frequent. Snow is currently on the ground, at least in northern New England. It’s prime time for olfactory activity, if you’re game. (Photo: stump marked by a red fox)

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Common Gartersnakes Brumating

1-28-19 gartersnake img_4888Somewhere between two and four feet (depending on where you live in New England) beneath our feet there is a “frost line” below which the ground water in soil doesn’t freeze. Snakes, being reptiles, are ectotherms, and their bodies assume the temperature of the air around them. In order to avoid being frozen to death in the winter, they retreat below the frost line, where they enter a state called brumation – the cold-blooded term for a state of torpor and inactivity that is not true hibernation, but in which a dramatic slowing down of bodily functions occurs. Crevices in south-facing rocky ledges and abandoned woodchuck, fox and skunk dens (and human cellars) often serve as hibernacula, or winter shelters. Common Gartersnakes are known to gather in large numbers (one Canadian den served as a hibernaculum for 8,000 gartersnakes), in order to concentrate the small amount of heat their bodies produce in the winter.

As the air temperature lowers in the fall, a snake’s body temperature falls and its metabolism decreases dramatically. Gartersnakes actively prepare for this by not eating for several weeks prior to hibernating. This allows all of the food they previously consumed to be completely broken down and absorbed into their system. To enhance this process, gartersnakes bask in the sun both before and during their early days of sheltering in hibernacula, warming themselves so as to increase the rate of their metabolism just prior to hibernating.

Should a snake happen to eat a large grasshopper, earthworm or small frog just prior to entering brumation, the snake may become extremely lethargic due to the slowing down of its metabolism, and the contents of its stomach may not be digested as quickly. The longer it takes to process food in its stomach, the greater the chances that this dead material will start to decay, which could result in serious illness to the snake.

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Some Cedar Waxwings Have Orange Tail Tips

1-23-19 cedar waxwing with orange tail tip_u1a2642Cedar Waxwings can be found in most of New England year-round. They are one of the few North American birds that specializes in eating fruit, particularly in the fall and winter. Unlike the Pine Grosbeak (see 1/16/19 post), which crushes the fruit and consumes only the seeds, Cedar Waxwings eat the whole fruit. If it has fermented, they will feel the effects and, like humans, become somewhat tipsy.

If you look carefully at a flock of Cedar Waxwings you may spot one that has an orange-tipped tail, rather than yellow. This has to do with the bird’s diet. Morrow’s Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) was imported in the late 1800s for use as an ornamental, for wildlife food and cover as well as for soil erosion control, but it is now recognized as an invasive plant. Its fruit contains red pigment in addition to the normal yellow pigment found in honeysuckle berries. If a Cedar Waxwing happens to eat enough of the fruit of Morrow’s Honeysuckle at the time of feather formation (they molt between August and January), its tail feathers will have orange tips instead of the usual yellow. Cedar Waxwings with orange tail tips began appearing in northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada in the 1960’s.

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Coyotes Investigating Beaver Lodges

1-21-19 beaver lodge img_6186Over the past century beaver trapping has declined and beavers have returned to many of their former habitats. Wolves also have come back in a few areas (not the Northeast yet) — but most places where beavers now live remain free of wolves. As a result, the beaver population has continued to increase, limited only by a few predators, primarily humans and Eastern Coyotes.

Coyotes are major beaver predators and have established themselves throughout the Northeast partly because of the abundance of prey and partly because of the absence of wolves, who keep coyotes out of their habitat. During most of the year, coyotes can take advantage of beavers that leave their pond to feed on land. When they are in their lodges, however, beavers are fairly safe from coyote predation, especially if their lodge is surrounded by water. Come winter, when ponds freeze and beavers remain in their lodges, coyotes can easily approach an inhabited lodge by walking over the ice. Thanks to the lodge’s two to three-foot-thick walls of frozen mud and sticks, the beavers within are safe. (Photo: signs showing a coyote’s attempt to access a beaver lodge)

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Leaf Marcescence

1-14-19 beech leaf _u1a9125Deciduous trees typically lose all of their leaves by late autumn. However, when snowshoeing or skiing through the woods this time of year, one is likely to find a scattering of deciduous trees that still have leaves clinging tightly to their branches. These plants are exhibiting marcescence, the trait of retaining plant parts after they are dead and dry.

Most deciduous trees form a layer of cells called the abscission layer at the base of each leaf’s stem, or petiole, where it attaches to the branch. This layer is composed of thin-walled cells that break easily, allowing the leaf to drop. A thin layer of corky cells seals the tree at the spot where the leaf was attached. Abcission layers are not formed on marcescent trees such as oaks and the American Beech, all members of the family Fagaceae. Therefore, their leaves do not fall off as readily, and many remain attached through the winter.

The evolutionary reasons for marcescence are not clear, though theories include defense against herbivory (e.g. browsing by deer), protection of leaf buds from winter desiccation, and as a delayed source of nutrients or moisture-conserving mulch when the leaves finally fall and decompose in the spring.

Leaf marcescence is most often seen on juvenile trees, and on the lower branches of older trees.

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Pine Grosbeaks Irrupting in Northern New England

1-16-19 pine grosbeak _u1a0130If you live in northern Maine, you see Pine Grosbeaks year-round as this is the southern border of their breeding grounds. Those of us living in central Maine and northern New Hampshire and Vermont, if we’re lucky, will glimpse this member of the finch family only during major winter irruptions. (The rest of New England rarely sees a Pine Grosbeak.) It is an infrequent winter visitor in northern New England, irrupting less frequently and remaining further north than other boreal finches.

This is an irruption winter. Because of the dearth of mountain-ash berries and conifer seeds further north in the boreal forest, Pine Grosbeaks are seeking out crabapple and mountain-ash trees in northern New England.

A flock of Pine Grosbeaks will descend on a tree and strip it of its fruit in no time. Anyone who has watched these entertaining birds feeding knows that they are incredibly agile acrobats, stretching their necks and contorting their bodies in order to reach all available fruit. Once they grab ahold of a crabapple, they squash it with their short, conical beaks. They can look quite comical as the fleshy pulp accumulates on the tops and sides of their beak, as well as on the ground beneath them. The object of their desire and efforts is the seeds within the fruit, which they consume with gusto. If disturbed they will fly en masse to the tops of nearby tall trees where they remain until the perceived danger has passed and then return to continue feeding. (photo: female Pine Grosbeak in crabapple tree)

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Mink and Fisher Tracks

1-16-19 fisher and mink tracks img_2238As members of the weasel family (Mustelidae), Fishers and Mink have five toes on both front and back feet. Often all five digits do not register, but in prime tracking snow, you can sometimes see them. Typically, mink tracks are found near a body of water, and fisher tracks are found under a canopy, not in the open. Where you have both water and trees, it’s possible to see signs of both animals.

In general, the larger the animal, the larger its tracks. Mink weigh one to three pounds; fishers four to eighteen pounds. In this photograph, the mink tracks (smaller, in the middle) are heading towards the top of the photograph, and the fisher tracks (top most and bottom most) are heading towards the bottom of the photograph. They were both traveling on a frozen woodland stream.

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Second Edition of Naturally Curious to be Released in June

jpeg FINAL COVERWhen I announced last year on my blog that my book, Naturally Curious, was going out of print, the decision by Trafalgar Square Books to issue a second edition had not been made. Happily, they asked me to make some updates, and I can now announce that a new edition is being published and will be available this coming June. It will be available in independent bookstores in June, and can be pre-ordered now on several online bookstores. You can also sign up for notification to pre-order on the publisher’s site, https://www.trafalgarbooks.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=NACUNE.


Track Stories

1-9-19 coyote gets vole_u1a8956Finally – a snowstorm not followed by rain! Tracking has been challenging, to say the least, this winter in central Vermont. However, 36 hours after the latest snowstorm, there was a plethora of track stories to read in the snow. A ruler or measuring tape and a good field guide to tracks (Mammal Tracks & Sign by Mark Elbroch and Tracking & The Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes come to mind for indoor resources, and the smaller Mammal Tracks and Scat: Life-Size Pocket Guide by Lynn Levine for keeping in your backpack) will allow you to determine who’s been where and what they’ve been up to. Signs of feeding, marking and seeking shelter are just a few of the things these stories reveal.

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Eastern Screech-Owls Basking

1-7-18 nc screech owl in cavity_u1a8484 Tree cavities serve not only as nesting sites, but also as winter roosting sites for many species of birds, including Eastern Screech-Owls. Here they perch and soak up the sun’s warmth on cold winter days,with their eyes open just enough to be aware of any activity in the immediate area.

Perhaps the most common owl east of the Rocky Mountains, the Eastern Screech-Owl is best known for its two main calls, which don’t really resemble a screech but are more of a descending “whinny” and a monotone trill. Their vocal repertoire also includes various barks, hoots, squeals, and screeches — hence the common name. Both sexes call, with the female’s call a bit higher than a male. You can hear these calls by going to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Screech-Owl/sounds.

Eastern Screech-Owls come in multiple forms (polymorphic): rufous, gray and a more rare brownish form. These different forms are not directly tied to age or gender, but vary with region and climate. Gray morph owls are prevalent in colder, drier, more coniferous habitats in the northern and western part of their range. Rufous Screech-Owls are most common in eastern and southerly regions and in humid, deciduous forests. (Thanks to Marc Beerman and Howard Muscott for photo op.)

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Coyotes Scavenge More Deer Than They Kill

1-4-19 deer skull eaten by coyotes IMG_2423Coyotes are considered opportunisitic omnivores and will eat just about anything. As the seasons and the availability of foods change, so does the coyote’s diet. During the summer, coyotes feed upon berries and insects. Small mammals are an important prey of choice during the fall and into the winter. As winter becomes harder and small mammal populations decline, coyotes turn toward their largest prey – white-tailed deer.

It is not uncommon to come upon deer carcasses in the winter which have been cleaned within an inch of their life by coyotes, illustrating their preference for this ungulate. However, the majority of deer carcasses consumed by coyotes are not killed by them, but are discovered as carrion or road kills. Coyotes infrequently kill healthy adult deer. Occasionally, working in packs, they will chase them down. Scat dissection shows that in late spring, coyotes prey on fawns.

A study of coyote predatory behavior in New York state several years ago found that during the winter, only 8% of adult deer carcasses visited by coyotes had been killed conclusively by coyotes. The remaining 92% were scavenged by coyotes after being killed by vehicles and other injuries. The adult deer that were killed by coyotes had severe pre-existing injuries and were likely to die from other causes in the absence of coyote predation.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch Irruption

As a rule, most Red-breasted Nuthatches winter within their breeding range. Irruptive movements southward typically occur every two to four years when conifer cone production on breeding grounds is poor. This fall’s numbers confirm that it is a banner year for Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Northeast, due to their irruptive flights south.

The large number of Red-breasted Nuthatches at our feeders come as no surprise, as this year’s winter bird forecast by Ron Pittaway predicted a Red-breasted Nuthatch irruption due to the poor spruce seed crops in much of the eastern boreal forest. Even so, the numbers are impressive, as you can see from Ken Kaufmann’s (Audubon’s Field Editor) comparison of eBird’s September 2017 and September 2018 Red-breasted Nuthatch sightings.

RBNUT2-Dobd-dDWsAADR2y.jpg large

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