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Scat

Flies Mating

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As readers are aware, I spend a significant portion of my time outdoors examining scat, and in so doing, have discovered a family of hairy flies, Heleomyzidae, that are often present on the freshest specimens, especially in early spring and late fall. This spring I have found them mating on both coyote and bear scat.  The ardor of males is impressive – without exception the males pounce upon each and every fly of their own species they see. Repeated rejections do not appear to slow them down – just the opposite. In fact, moments after the pictured pair left the surface of a coyote scat and landed on a nearby branch, they were joined by another fly and the threesome tumbled to the ground in an attempt at a menage a trois (see inset).

Different species of flies in this family feed on different food sources. Look for them in and on carcasses, scat, compost, fungi, caves, and bird nests.

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Woodland Recycler

4-7-17 chickadee on scat 116The ability to find food is crucial for all creatures.  It involves looking in every potential location, including the waste material of other animals.  Nothing goes to waste in the natural world, and I was fortunate to observe an example of this recycling phenomenon recently in bear-inhabited woodlands.

Even though feeding birds is discouraged at this time of year due to the seeds’ appeal to hungry, emerging Black Bears, many find it a hard habit to stop. Inevitably Black Bears will smell the seeds in feeders and help themselves to them.  If this continues long enough, the bears will become habituated and eventually this can lead to their being considered a nuisance, which can lead to their demise. Thus, it’s best to stop feeding birds now that Black Bears have emerged from hibernation.

That said, those who continue to fill feeders in the spring and have had them raided by bears need not fear that their birds are without recourse should they find the feeders empty or missing. Much of what goes in comes out, and bears deposit their seed-laden scat throughout the woods, creating ground “feeders” for all kinds of creatures. In this instance, a Black-capped Chickadee repeatedly helped itself to uncracked sunflower seeds amongst a great deal of millet and sunflower seed husks in the scat of a Black Bear.

This post is dedicated to Sadie Brown, Solid Waste & Recycling Coordinator for the town of Melrose, MA.

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River Otter Brown-out

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River Otters have latrines on land where they come to defecate, urinate and roll around, all in the same area. This area is used over and over and is referred to as roll or brown-out. The latter name is derived from the fact that much of the vegetation dies as a result of the urine and acid build-up. Most otter scat (also referred to as spraint) disintegrates fast and consists of piles of fish scales, with little form. However, if you come upon a recently-visited brown-out, or if the otter has consumed prey other than fish, such as crayfish, tubular scat can be present (see photo insert). Look for River Otter brown-outs on narrow strips of land that stick out into ponds, or a strip of land between two bodies of water. (Thanks to Squam Lakes Natural Science Center for rolling otter photo op.)

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White-tailed Deer Diet In Transition

10-25-16-deer-scat-20161017_5319Even if you didn’t know that a white-tailed deer’s diet changes in the fall, their scat would be a dead giveaway. Its texture and formation are excellent indicators of what a deer has been eating. During the summer, individual pellets are often lumped together due to the moisture content of their summer diet (grasses, clover, alfalfa, apples and other herbaceous food). As winter approaches, deer transition to a diet of twigs, leaves and acorns which results in the formation of individual, dry pellets. At this time of year, it is possible to find both forms of deer scat.

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Identifying Animals By Their Scat

10-14-16-fisher-scat-20161012_5024Anyone who has tried to discover what wildlife resides in their woods knows that signs of animals are much more likely to be seen than the animals themselves. One of these signs is an animal’s scat. There are different factors regarding scat that help to reveal the identity of the animal that left it. One is where you find it. Different animals deposit their scat in different locations. For instance, foxes typically do so along and at the intersection of trails, Fishers often use stumps or other elevated surfaces.

Another helpful hint is the shape of the scat. Many mammal species have distinctively-shaped droppings, but they can vary depending on the animal’s diet. If you open any book containing scat descriptions, and turn to the page on Fishers, you will undoubtedly come across descriptive words such as “twisted”, “black”, “tapered”, and “pointed ends.” Indeed, if the Fisher has consumed prey, its scat is usually as described. But if the Fisher has been eating fruit, which they often do in the late summer and fall, its scat is tubular and quite smooth, with little twisting. While scat can be an excellent clue to the identity of an animal, interpreting it can be tricky! (Pictured is tubular Fisher scat filled with the seeds and skins of grapes behind old, rained-on Fisher scat filled with fur and bones.)

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Forest Floor Mystery: Pellets? Old Scat? Cache?

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Lying at the base of a large Eastern Hemlock I recently found two piles of bleached bones.  One pile consisted of mostly vertebrae; the other pile had numerous tibias, humeri and ribs.  All were the appropriate size and shape to have come from several Eastern Chipmunk skeletons – at least four or five.   How did they end up in two distinct piles?

The lack of any fur indicated that regardless of how these bones came to be here, they were deposited quite a while ago.  The lack of any partial skulls or jaw bones and the large number of bones in each pile led me to believe that these were not the remains of two pellets that had been regurgitated by resident Barred Owls. No wild owl pellet I’ve ever dissected, including the large pellets cast by Snowy and Great Gray Owls, has contained even half this many bones, and most contained at least part of a jaw bone.

If not pellets, then scat?  How likely is it that a predator could catch and consume multiple chipmunks rapidly enough so that they would end up in the same pile of scat?  One feasible explanation could be that a fox, coyote or fisher preyed on young, inexperienced chipmunks, but the bones were adult-size bones.

Perhaps these two piles are the remains of a predator’s cache – perhaps a bobcat?

The possibilities are endless as to how this chipmunk graveyard came to be.  However, none of the theories proposed here can explain the dissimilarity between the types of bones in each pile.  If any naturally curious readers have insight into this phenomenon, your thoughts are welcome!

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Ruffed Grouse Unable To Seek Refuge in Snow Caves

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Unlike much of the Northeast, central Vermont has only a few inches of snow on the ground. These conditions can affect all forms of predators and prey both negatively and positively, from exposed mice and voles to easily-satiated hawks and owls. In the case of Ruffed Grouse, which seek shelter on cold winter nights by diving into the snow, less than 10 inches of snow can spell disaster. In their snow caves they are hidden from view and well insulated (where it rarely drops below 20°F.).  A lack of snow can be life-threatening for grouse if the temperature drops too low for too long. Unable to create a sheltered cavity in the snow,  Ruffed Grouse bed down on top of it, often close to the base of a tree where there may be some shelter from the wind. Fortunately, most nights have not been extremely cold thus far this winter.

After the grouse departs in the morning, you often find scat where it bedded down. Grouse scat comes in two forms, one a dry, fibrous cylindrical pellet with a white-wash of uric acid at one end, and the other a softer, darker brown plop. The vast majority of a grouse’s diet (buds, twigs, leaves, catkins) goes directly through its digestive system and forms the dry, courser scat. Finer (and more nutritious) material such as the cambium layer of woody plants enters the caeca, two specialized pouches, before passing through the large intestine. The caeca contain bacteria which break down cellulose and produce the more digested, and therefore more liquefied, scat (see foreground in photo).

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