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).
Bobcats 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)
Many 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).
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.
When 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.
It 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.
In 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.