An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

January

Snow Conditions Making Life Challenging For Barred Owls

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There has been an unusually high number of Barred Owl sightings reported in northern New England and New York this winter, primarily from the road and near bird feeders. This phenomenon, particularly with owls, is usually attributed to either a current lack of food or an abundance of food during the most recent breeding season resulting in a dramatic increase in the owl population.

In the case of Barred Owls, it is the former. Unlike Snowy Owls, which vary the size of their clutch depending on food availability, Barred Owls typically have two young, regardless of the size of the rodent population. Thus, a plethora of progeny can be eliminated as a viable explanation for the abundance of Barred Owl sightings this winter, which leaves a scarcity of food as the primary reason.

For several weeks there has been a thick crust on top of the snow, which makes hunting for mice and voles difficult for raptors. Because they are very territorial, Barred Owls rarely wander outside of their territory, even when food is scarce. Thus, especially in the past few weeks, they have been desperate to find small rodents. Roads are one reliable spot where mice, voles and shrews are exposed, and bird feeders are most definitely rodent magnets. Hopefully weather conditions will allow birds of prey access to the subnivean layer (space next to the ground where small rodents travel, shelter and breed) before too many more Barred Owls starve to death. (Source: Joan Collins, NYS Ornithological Association, UV-BIRDERS List) (Photo:  Barred Owl with recent Northern Red-backed Vole catch.)

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Where Do Grasshoppers Go In Winter?

1-19-17-red-legged-grasshopper2-img_4112Everyone knows that grasshoppers disappear once cold weather arrives. Where do they go and what is their strategy for surviving the winter?  Most grasshoppers overwinter as eggs.  They mate, lay eggs and die in the fall. The female Red-legged Grasshopper, New England’s most abundant species of grasshopper, deposits clusters of eggs one to two inches deep in the soil in the late summer and early fall. During this process, a glue-like secretion cements soil particles around the egg mass, forming a protective “pod.” Each pod is roughly three-quarters to one-inch long and curved. The top third is dried froth, the bottom two-thirds contain 20 to 26 eggs. Each egg is just over 1/10th of an inch long and pale yellow.

In the spring, nymphs hatch out of the eggs, crawl up to the surface of the soil and start to feed on grasses and other herbaceous plants. It takes about three months for them to mature and begin the cycle all over again. (Photo: gravid female Red-legged Grasshopper  in late summer)

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Snowshoe Hare Forms

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Snowshoe Hares are nocturnal, so coming upon one is a relatively rare occurrence and even when you do they stand stock still and are so well camouflaged they can often escape detection. However, if they live in an area, signs of their presence are usually abundant. Tracks, runways, scat and their reddish-orange urine are quite obvious. A bit more subtle are their forms – protective spots where they rest during the day, often located under conifers branches.

A Snowshoe Hare form is an oval, slightly depressed hollow about the size of the hare that scratched it out of the snow. The lining of the form often consists of snow melted and refrozen from the hare’s body heat. When in their forms, hares usually rest “alertly,” take brief naps and sometimes groom themselves. Often there is a pile of scat in or near a form. The fact that there is a pile, not one or two pellets, means that the hare spent a considerable amount of time there. When the sun begins to set, snowshoe hares leave their form and travel along their runways, feeding on the cambium of accessible woody plants.

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The Relationship Between Ruffed Grouse & Poplars In Winter

1-12-17-ruffed-grouse-aspens-049a2566Poplar (also called Aspen) buds are an important winter food source for wildlife, but for none as much as the Ruffed Grouse. During the course of a year, a Ruffed Grouse may feed from as many as 100 species of plants, but in the winter, species of poplar are by far its most important food source. In fact, the relationship between grouse and poplars is such that the range of the Ruffed Grouse is practically identical to the range of Trembling (also known as Quaking) Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and Big-tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata).

Poplars are dioecious – the male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Although grouse will settle for any poplar bud, it is the male flower buds of Trembling Aspen trees which they prefer, due to the buds’ high amounts of proteins, fats and minerals. (Female buds are smaller and have less nutrients, oddly enough.)  Ruffed Grouse seldom feed on a poplar tree that is less than 30 years old. Perhaps these older trees have more vigorous buds, or perhaps their branches are easier to perch on because they are larger. (Information source:  Ruffed Grouse: Woodland Drummer by Michael Furtman)

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White-tailed Bucks Shedding Antlers

1-2-16-antler-049a2440Antlers, the fastest growing mammal tissue on earth, are grown by male White-tailed Deer (and very occasionally females) every year and shed every year. They begin growing in the spring, usually April, and complete their growth in August or September. During this period they are covered with “velvet,” a soft skin containing blood vessels and nervous tissue that supply oxygen and nutrients to the antler. Once growth ceases, the velvet dries up and falls off or is inadvertently rubbed off. The mating season of White-tailed Deer, or rut, during which time their antlers are instrumental in establishing hierarchy and securing a mate, peaks in mid-November. Once mating is over, the disadvantages of antlers (cumbersome shape for traveling through woods, and the energy required to carry them) promote the shedding of these bony structures. Specialized cells (osteoclasts) destroy the bone tissue between the antlers and the skull and antlers are shed sometime between the end of December and the beginning of February.

Most sources state that antlers just fall off or that the buck knocks them off by striking them against a tree. My personal observation of a buck in captivity clarified the way antlers are dropped, at least in this one instance. The buck put his head down, quickly jerked it up and to one side, and the antler went flying.

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Red Squirrels Eating Snow

1-11-17-red-squirrel-eating-snow-049a2569Red Squirrels have very efficient kidneys, so most of their water requirements are supplied in fruit, buds, fungi and other food that they eat. They are said to rarely drink free-standing water or eat snow, even when it is available. However, both the scat and the chewing marks in the snow surrounding the scat in yesterday’s Mystery Photo were made by a Red Squirrel.

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Mystery Photo

1-10-17-mystery-photo-049a2573Who has been here, and what have they been doing (other than depositing their scat)? Individual pellets are ¼” long. Hint:  note marks in snow surrounding scat. Submit answers under “Comments” on Naturally Curious blog.

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