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Snowshoe Hares

Snowshoe Hare Pellets

Snowshoe Hares digest their food twice in order to extract the most nutrients possible from their food.  Two kinds of pellets are produced by hares: hard pellets (twice digested) and soft pellets called cecotropes (digested once).  Food is ingested and passes through a sac-like structure between the small and large intestine called the cecum.  Bacteria in the cecum synthesize proteins and vitamins and as a result of this synthesis, cecotropes have twice the protein and half of the fiber of the typical hard pellet. They also contain high levels of vitamin K and B vitamins.  In order to obtain the nutrients produced in the cecum, Snowshoe Hares eat and redigest the soft cecotropes (often produced early in the morning which is why we rarely see them). These pellets which have been digested twice provide up to 20 percent of a hare’s daily protein.

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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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Snowshoe Hares’ Fur-covered Toes

Snowshoe Hare tracks are readily discernible because of the paired larger hind feet which land in front of the smaller front feet when a hare bounds over the snow.  When bounding, a hare’s front feet usually land side by side, unless they are traveling at great speed, when one front foot tends to land in front of the other (see photo).

Because they have hairy feet and no exposed toe pads, Snowshoe Hares usually do not leave distinct toe impressions in their tracks.  When they do, you will see four impressions, even though they have five toes on each foot.  In soft snow, the four long toes of each foot are spread widely, increasing the size of these “snowshoes” still more. The fine, sharp claws on their feet may or may not register.

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Young Snowshoe Hares Dispersing

Snowshoe Hares have up to four litters a summer (females mate within 24 hours of giving birth).  Their litters range from two to nine young (leverets), with larger litters the further north you go. Unlike cottontails, the Snowshoe Hare gives birth to precocious young – their eyes open shortly after birth, they have a dense coat of fur, and they are able to weakly move about within 30 minutes.

The female leaves the nest once she’s through giving birth, and returns once a day to nurse her young.  By the fourth day, the young hares scatter from the nest.  They reassemble at the same time each evening and their mother appears and nurses them for five to ten minutes.  She then leaves and the young disperse. This behavior continues for about a month, until the young are fully weaned.  (Thanks to Virginia Barlow and Wendell for photo op.)

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Red Elderberry Attracts Wildlife Year Round

The pollinated and fertilized white flowers of Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) have recently developed into the red fruit for which this plant is named. Many people are familiar with its relative, Common Elderberry (S. canadensis), which produces dark purple fruit that is used to make jams, jellies, pies and elderberry wine.  While Red Elderberry fruit can be used to make all of these, its raw berries are toxic.  Red Elderberry’s popularity is greatest with pollinators, birds and four-footed mammals.

The cyanide-producing toxins in its flowers, (raw) fruit, stems, bark, leaves and roots do not seem to discourage wildlife’s attraction to Red Elderberry.  The odor of its flowers, its nectar, and its highly nutritious pollen attract many ants, bees, wasps and flies.  At least 50 species of songbirds eat the bright red fruits, including red-eyed vireos, ruffed grouse, song sparrows, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, and thrushes. Squirrels, mice, raccoons, and black bears also eat the fruit. Porcupines, mice and snowshoe hares eat the buds and bark in winter. The foliage is usually avoided by herbivores, although white-tailed deer and moose browse on it occasionally.

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Don’t Let the Snow Fool You!

4-3-17 hepatica2 IMG_6088

The recent major snow storm in the Northeast inevitably confirmed climate change doubters’ convictions. However, dramatic swings in temperature are also part of the changing climate, and the overall trend is unquestionably one of shorter winters.

The U.S. Geological Survey says spring is showing up two to three weeks earlier than normal in the southeast United States this year, from Texas to Washington, and is making its way gradually north. This scientifically-proven phenology finding is based on flowering and leafing out times. In the Arctic, some grasses are flowering a month early, depriving hibernating animals of a crucial early-spring food source. Snowshoe hares and ermine are failing to molt their white winter coats before the world turns green, leading to less successful protection (and for the ermine, predation) for these animals. The climate scientists have it right, regardless of the white world outside our windows — New York City’s forecast is for the mid-60’s on Wednesday. Who knows what flowers we’ll find when the snow soon melts – perhaps the unfurling flower buds of Round-leaved Hepatic (pictured).

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Bobcats Courting & Mating

2-23-17-roger-irwins-bobcatBobcats are active at dawn and dusk, when their primary prey, rabbits and hares, are active.  However, they are very secretive and you are more likely to come across their signs than  bobcats themselves, especially at this time of year. January and February are the peak of Bobcat mating season, and females are busy rubbing their cheeks and bodies on scent posts, as well as marking their territory with urine. They also partake in yowling quite frequently, all of which enable male bobcats to readily locate females.

As a male approaches a female, he is either warmly welcomed or aggressively fought off, depending on her state of receptivity. Once she’s receptive, she becomes quite vocal, arches her back and circles around the male. Play-like behavior follows, with the pair throwing themselves at and chasing each other. Eventually mating takes place, lasting only about five minutes.  Bobcats compensate for the brevity of their mating with the frequency with which they engage in it (up to 16 times a day for several days). When copulation ceases, males disappear and play no part in raising their young. (Source: Behavior of North American Mammals, by Elbroch and Rinehart) (Thanks to Roger Irwin, wildlife photographer, for the use of his photo. You may visit his gallery at www.rogerirwinphotos.com)

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Using All Your Senses

1-26-17-deer-urine-049a2725Many wild animals are nocturnal or crepuscular, limiting our chances of firsthand observation of them. Those of us curious to learn more about their lives take advantage of whatever signs these elusive animals leave. In winter, evidence of their presence in the form of tracks and scat can tell us not only their identity, but their diet, direction of travel, size, etc. Beds, kill sites and signs of feeding also provide crucial information. There is one more sign that is often overlooked and under-utilized for identification purposes, and that is the scent of an animal’s urine.

Not everyone will necessarily wish to add this identification tool to their arsenal of naturally curious skills, but for those willing, scent-detection can be extremely useful, especially if conditions for tracking are poor, or if scat is not found. Not only is the scent of a species’ urine distinctive, it can often be detected at a distance. At this time of year (breeding season) red fox urine can easily be mistaken for striped skunk spray. Porcupine urine is strong and distinctive, but hard to describe. Once you’re familiar with it, it can guide you to the location of a den. Coyote urine is very dog-like; bobcat very cat-like. Surprisingly agreeable is the pine-like scent of White-tailed Deer urine (pictured).

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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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Meadow Voles Food for Coyotes

1-11-15 coyote  192When there is deep snow on the ground, white-tailed deer are often preferred-eating for eastern coyotes, with snowshoe hares not far behind. While small rodents are also consumed during the winter, they make up a larger proportion of a coyote’s diet during spring, summer and fall. With only a few inches of snow on the ground currently, meadow voles are still very vulnerable to predation, as the tufts of grass where they tend to nest are still visible.

Tracks indicate that a coyote stopped to investigate numerous grass tussocks scattered throughout a nearby field recently. Near several of these clumps of grass were slide marks (see foreground in photo) where the coyote had jumped, landed and slid. The groove made by the coyote’s sliding foot always ends with a foot print. At this particular site, the coyote had pounced, slid and then dug and uprooted a nest, possibly procuring a vole, but leaving no trace of success behind. What it did leave behind was scat (3 o’clock in photo), with which the coyote claimed ownership of the site.

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Snowshoe Hare Hind Feet

2-27  snowshoe hare back foot 011It is not hard to see why the individual toe pads in the tracks of a snowshoe hare’s feet are rarely very distinct. There is a 3/4”- thick layer of hair on the bottom of a hare’s 5- to 6-inch-long hind foot. This hair, along with the size of the foot and the ability of the hare to spread its toes to a width of five inches allows the hare to stay on or near the surface of the snow, and, in the right snow conditions, outrun heavier predators.

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Snowshoe Hare Runs

2-23-15 hare run IMG_1978In northern New England we have hare “runs” rather than rabbit runs, but they serve the same purpose. They are well-maintained escape routes, and the snowshoe hare’s life depends on the hare’s knowing every twist and turn they take.

During the summer, hares keep their runs free of branches by pruning them back. In the winter, hares also have to prune as the snow gets higher and the runs encounter more branches. They also spend a lot of time and energy packing down the snow on these runways so they will have a clear, hard surface on which, if it’s necessary, they can make their escape. This runway construction is done by hopping up and down, progressing slowly, inch by inch. It looks like many hares have passed by, but it’s usually done by one individual and runs through its territory. Snowshoe hares are nocturnal, but during long or heavy snowstorms, they will come out and pack their run during the day.

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Fisher Scat

1-21-15  fisher scat-crayfish 012For seekers of animal signs, tracking a fisher is a most rewarding endeavor. Fishers are constantly marking their territory – rolling on and breaking limbs of conifer saplings as well as urinating and defecating on or near saplings or on prominent, elevated stumps or rocks.

More than other members of the weasel family, Fishers can control the amount of scat they deposit, so that there can be a minuscule amount, or a full-size scat (2” – 7” long). Perhaps because of their predilection for marking with their scat frequently, they often use this medium sparingly.

The color of Fisher scat is usually dark brown or black, but once in a great while one happens upon fisher scat that is bright orange – a sure sign that the fisher has lived up to its aquatic name and has dined on crayfish in the recent past. Fishers primarily prey on snowshoe hares, porcupines, ground-nesting birds and smaller rodents. However, they do frequent streams that remain open in the winter, where they hunt for crayfish and, very rarely, fish.

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The Effects of An Icy Crust on Wildlife

1-19-15  ruffed grouse snow cave IMG_8590This winter has brought us several storms that have ended in rain and were followed by plummeting temperatures. Just a few inches down into the powdery snow on top of the ground there is a ¼”-thick crust, and if you dig down several more inches, there is a second layer of ice, roughly 1/8”-thick. When a thick, icy layer of crust forms, it can have a dramatic effect on the lives of wildlife both above and below it.

Some animals are relatively unaffected by the presence of a crust but many predators and prey are significantly helped or hindered by it. Ruffed grouse cannot seek overnight shelter from the bitter cold and/or predators by diving into a foot of soft snow and creating a snow cave (see photo). On the other hand, small rodents have a distinct advantage — mice and voles have several layers of ice between themselves and hungry coyotes, foxes and owls. Snowshoe hares lose the advantage they usually have on deep, soft snow — “snowshoes” that keep them on top of the snow when the bobcat or fisher chasing them has to flounder through it. Turkeys don’t have the strength to dig down through one thick crust, much less two or more, in order to reach hidden acorns. If a deer is being chased, its pointed hooves will break through the crust, slowing the deer down, whereas the crust may well support a lighter predator, allowing it to outrun the deer. Red squirrels have to work much harder to reach their cached winter cones and to create tunnels.

What is a mere inconvenience to us humans literally is costing as well as saving the lives of wildlife this winter.

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Snowshoe Hare Succumbs to Avian Predator

1-14-15 snowshoe hare kill site 076The drama that goes on in our woodlands is never-ending, and winter provides us with a window into life and death scenarios. One of the most sought-after prey animals in northern New England is the snowshoe hare. Bobcats, lynxes, coyotes, foxes and fishers are some of the mammalian predators of this lagomorph. In this particular case, however, the predator had wings (determined by wing imprints in the snow and lack of tracks). While great horned owls do prey on hares, there was a tell-tale sign that it was a hawk, not an owl, which produced this pile of fur and bones. If you look to the upper left of the photograph, and to the upper right, you will see lengthy curved lines of bird droppings, or sprays, that were left by the predator as it plucked its prey. Because it was ejected forcibly, and didn’t just drop down on the snow where the bird was situated, the scat leads one to the conclusion that it was a hawk, not an owl, which deposited it. A woodland accipiter capable of capturing a snowshoe hare after an extensive chase, which this was, is the northern goshawk. (Thanks to Nicole Cormen for photo op.)

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Snowshoe Hares

1-21-14 snowshoe hare by Patsy Fortney IMG_4140 (3)You’re most likely to see Snowshoe Hares at dawn or dusk, when they are most active. That is, if you can detect them before they detect you. Snowshoe Hares depend upon camouflage as their first line of defense, with seasonal coats to match their environment. They sometimes freeze where they are, making no movement, or take shelter in a protected spot or “form” and sit quietly, with their feet tucked out of sight and their ears pressed tightly against their back, making them all but invisible. If threatened, they can break into a full run leaping up to 12 feet at a time, reaching 30 or more miles per hour thanks to their powerful hind legs. (Photo by Patsy Fortney)

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Northern Hawk Owl

n. hawk owl3- 231The Northern Hawk Owl is a bird of the remote Alaskan and Canadian boreal forests. Its name reflects the fact that this diurnal owl has both the appearance and behavior of a hawk, specifically, an accipiter. Although the Northern Hawk Owl winters throughout its breeding range, it periodically erupts southward into southern Canada and the northern United States. Sightings of this bird are rare in Vermont, but in recent winters, including the current one, there have been some. As with Snowy Owls, the magnitude and extent of these winter irruptions are thought to correlate with high reproductive success followed by severe winter conditions and decreased prey availability, but much remains to be understood about their winter dispersal habits. What we do know is that the Northern Hawk Owl’s skills as a hunter are very impressive. It can detect prey (small rodents, grouse, hares) by sight at a distance of half a mile and just using its ears can find prey under a foot of snow.

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Canada Lynx “Snowshoes”

12-16-13 lynx & bobcat feet IMG_3811Bobcats and Canada Lynx are in the same genus, and are roughly the same size (averaging 15 to 35 pounds), with Bobcats usually weighing a bit more than Lynx. The size of their feet is vastly different, however, and not proportional to their relative weights. A Lynx has much larger feet and longer legs than a Bobcat. Its range extends further north, which means it must be well equipped to deal with snow much of the year. A Lynx has big, furry paws, and when its feet land the toes spread way out. Both of these adaptations help a Lynx’s feet act like snowshoes, helping it to chase down food in the winter. Much of the time, this food consists of Snowshoe Hares –anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of the diet of Lynx is made up of hares. The soles of Snowshoe Hare feet are also well-furred, particularly in winter, enabling them to run on soft, deep snow without sinking in very far. Because Snowshoe Hares are extremely fast and agile (reaching speeds of 30 mph and jumping 12 feet in a single bound), the feet of any serious predator must also be well adapted to traveling on snow.

Note: Bobcat sightings are much more frequent than Lynx in northern New England (the southern tip of the Lynx’s range) but breeding populations of Lynx have been documented in the last two years in the boreal forests of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

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Snowshoe Hare Urine

2-28-13 hare urine IMG_4070Snowshoe hare scat is very distinctive – round, brown, pea-size fibrous pellets. Equally, if not more, distinct is their urine, which sometimes is orange, red or pinkish, depending on their diet. Often mistaken for blood, snowshoe hare urine has this color because of chemical compounds called porphyrins which are present in the chlorophyll molecules of green plants that hares consume. These compounds have such vibrant pigments that they were originally extracted from plants and used as dye for clothing. If you’re interested in seeing this colorful phenomenon, now is the time to do so, for it’s obviously a lot easier to find when there is snow on the ground!