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Winter Survival

Raccoons Preparing For Winter

Much like black bears, raccoons develop a voracious appetite in the fall and accumulate a life-sustaining layer of fat as a result (which comprises 50% of their weight).  Although raccoons are opportunists and will eat just about anything (except tomatoes), nuts (acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts and hazelnuts, especially) and corn are the food of choice at this time of year.

When the temperature consistently drops to 26-28° F. raccoons typically seek shelter in dens (hollow trees, woodchuck and fox burrows). They are not true hibernators, but do enter a state of torpor for weeks and even months at a time when the temperature is low, the snow is deep and the wind is blowing.  It’s not unusual for several raccoons, usually relatives, to den together.

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Pectination Growth Started

10-12-17 pectinations 049A5827Every fall Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) grow skin-like fringes called pectinations on either side of each toe. They serve as snowshoes, helping grouse stay on top of the snow when walking, as well as cling to icy branches while eating the buds of poplars and other trees in the winter. In the spring grouse shed these adaptive fringes.

Ornithological texts describe these growths as appearing in the fall, but usually do not specify exactly when they develop.  A recent look at a road-killed grouse’s foot (photo) showed that pectinations have begun to develop, but have not completed their growth. The pectinations shown here will double their length by the time snow flies.

 

 


Ruffed Grouse Snow Roosting

 

2-20-17-grouse-bed-028

I recently had an experience while snowshoeing which I have always hoped to have, but which has escaped me during all these years of tromping through the woods. I was following the tracks of a Ruffed Grouse and all of a sudden it exploded out of the snow about two feet in front of me as it left its night time shelter. Now that we have over ten inches of fluffy snow, grouse can dive into the snow and spend the night in their self-made snow roosts. Finding a grouse’s snow roost is a relatively common experience; being startled by a grouse exiting one is not.

Diving head first into the snow, the grouse works its way anywhere from three to ten feet, creating a 4-inch-wide tunnel through the snow before it hollows out a small cavity and settles down for the night in its own little igloo. Up until recently, a hard crust prevented grouse from seeking shelter this winter in this manner. Had temperatures been very cold, many grouse would have suffered and even perished under these conditions. Fortunately, they can now roost in the snow, where temperatures are much warmer (as high as 32°F.), and rarely fall below 20°F. regardless of how cold it gets outside. Not only do these roosts hide the occupants from predators, but they provide an energy savings of 30 percent or more for grouse.

(Photo: Snow roost entrance hole (nearest the bottom of photo) where a grouse dove into the snow, and the exit hole (nearest top of photo), three feet from entrance hole, which a Ruffed Grouse created when it exploded out of its roost. If you look closely at the exit hole, you may be able to detect wing marks.)

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Leopard Frogs – Too Little, Too Late

leopard-frogs-in-puddle-by-kelly-maginnis-northampton-ma-12-10-16At this time of year one would expect to find Leopard Frogs lying on the bottom of a pond, partially but not completely covered with leaves or mud as they hibernate their way through winter. Because of the depth of a pond, and the fact that in winter the water temperature is around 39°F., ice isn’t an issue at the bottom of a pond, and the frogs and turtles that overwinter there don’t usually freeze.

However, sometimes ponds freeze over before amphibians or reptiles that overwinter in them arrive at their hibernacula. Apparently this is what happened to these Leopard Frogs, and they took refuge in the only open body of water they could find – a large but shallow puddle about 10’ wide by 20’ long in a dirt road. Shortly after they arrived temperatures dropped and the frogs were trapped under (and eventually will be encased in) the ice. Unlike Wood Frogs, Spring Peepers and Gray Treefrogs, Leopard Frogs are not freeze tolerant, so their demise is inevitable. (Thanks to Kelly Maginnis for photo, and Jim Andrews for his herpetological expertise.)

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Winter Mouse House

11-14-16-mouse-house2-049a1332One of my very favorite animal signs is the winterized home of a Deer or White-footed Mouse. Most songbirds do not re-use their nests. Once the nestlings have fledged, what doesn’t get recycled directly from the nest by other birds or critters slowly disintegrates from rain and snow. That is, unless an agile mouse discovers it and renovates it first. Deer and White-footed Mice are known for using abandoned nests as larders (see  https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/mice-preparing-for-winter/) or as homes for the winter. For the latter, a roof is constructed, usually out of milkweed or cattail fluff, but I have even found man-made insulation used as construction material for a roof. (The pictured nest has been well insulated with a roof of cattail fluff.)

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Porcupines Foraging

10-1-15  porcupine in leaves IMG_2537There are a few weeks in September and October when acorns (and beechnuts) are mature enough to eat, but haven’t yet fallen to the ground. Porcupines take advantage of this nutritious supply of food that is not yet accessible to small rodents, deer and turkeys, and climb oak trees to consume acorns. Because an average porcupine weighs between 12 and 35 pounds, it is unable to climb all the way out to the end of a branch, where acorns are located, so it nips off the tips of fruit-bearing branches and then scoops out the acorn, leaving the cap still attached to the branch (diagnostic porcupine sign). When all the acorns on a branch have been eaten, the branch is discarded. You can often find many of these branch tips, or “nip twigs,” in the canopy of large oaks on a good mast year, but inevitably some fall to the ground. The end of the twig is usually cut at a 45° angle, and often you can see the lines made by the porcupine’s incisors. (Beechnuts are also harvested in this manner, as are the cones and terminal buds of eastern hemlock in winter.) Red squirrels also nip twigs in order to reach fruit, but typically do so when they harvest the cones and terminal buds of conifers. (Thanks to Ethel & Michael Weinberger for photo opportunity)

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Exposed Honeybee Colony

honeycomb IMG_5036In the Northeast, honeybees typically choose a protected site such as a hollow tree in which to build their hive. Harsh winters demand this protection. Infrequently you will see where an attempt has been made to survive the elements without anything to contain the heat that the honeybees produce by shivering, or to block the wind, snow or sleet. Inevitably, this far north, the colony does not survive the winter.

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Deer Mice And The Rigors of Winter

2-5-15  deer mouse 022Even though Deer Mice are active year round, we don’t often see them, as they are active from dusk until dawn. During the winter, when it’s very cold, they commonly resort to short periods of torpor (4 to 9 hours) during the day to conserve energy. While torpid, their body temperature may fall to 55° F. from a normal temperature of 98°F.

When active, Deer Mice travel both under and on top of the snow. When travelling under the snow, they tunnel through it or use tunnels created by other small mammals. When travelling on top of the snow, their tracks, and often the drag mark from their tail, are evident. The pictured Deer Mouse was found curled up, frozen, at the end of a very lengthy trail of tracks and tunnels that ran over and through woods. Where the tracks began there was a slight depression in the snow (no tunnel, no tracks), indicating that the mouse might have fallen from the air after escaping from the talons of a bird of prey.

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A Bobcat’s White-tailed Deer Cache

1-21-15  bobcat2 cache by Otto Wurzburg 009 (3)Rabbits and hares comprise much of a Bobcat’s diet, but when prey is scarce or hard to capture, adult male or sometimes large adult female Bobcats will attack bedded, weak or injured adult White-tailed Deer. Bobcats often cache prey (such as a deer) that is too large to eat in one feeding, returning to feed on it for an extended period of time. They scrape up leaves, bark, twigs, soil. snow – whatever is available – and cover their prey. When feeding on a deer, Bobcats bite away the hair to avoid eating it, and this discarded hair is frequently mixed with the debris that the cat drags over the kill to cover it (see main photo – taken the day after the deer was cached), or is left windblown around the carcass. A characteristic sign of Bobcat feeding is the amount of hair strewn around the carcass and the lack of broken long bones (Bobcats don’t have the strength to break them with their teeth).

Typically a Bobcat rests near its cache to protect it, but it doesn’t take long for other animals to detect and take advantage of an easy meal. Within three days of this deer being cached, Coyotes and Common Ravens had discovered it, and both they and the Bobcat had eaten enough of it to expose the deer’s rib cage (see insert).

Other predators that occasionally cache and cover their kills include Mountain Lions, Black Bears and Fishers. Large caches found in the winter in the Northeast are likely to belong to a Bobcat or Fisher (Fishers typically cache and feed on deer that they find as carrion).

(Cache discovered by Lynn & Otto Wurzburg, who observed the Bobcat leaving after caching the deer; photograph by Lynn Wurzburg)

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Huddling to Keep Warm

flying squirrel3 IMG_8550Animals which remain active year round in northern New England use different strategies to survive the cold winter temperatures. Lowering metabolism through torpidity (on cold nights black-capped chickadees and other species reduce their body temperature as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit from their daytime level in a process called regulated hypothermia), shivering, caching food in the fall, puffing out feathers to create insulating pockets of air, excavating tunnels under the snow, seeking protection in cavities – these are just a few of the life-saving techniques used by mammals and birds which neither migrate nor hibernate.

Another strategy which some of these animals use is to huddle together to conserve warmth. Huddling reduces the animal’s surface-area-to-volume ratio, since it turns many small animals into a single big animal. The larger the animal, the smaller the surface-area to volume ratio and the less relative area there is to lose heat.

Bluebirds and flying squirrels are two animals which huddle to keep warm. Eastern bluebirds may huddle together in a tree cavity or hollow log in groups of up to ten. Flying squirrels often huddle together in large communal nests, sometimes with populations numbering over two dozen squirrels, in an effort to keep warm. If this is not sufficient, the squirrels will enter a state of torpor until temperatures return to normal. (Thanks to Susan Parmenter for photo op.)

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Ruffed Grouse Nostril Feathers

12-16-14 ruffed grouse nostrils IMG_2376Ruffed Grouse have adapted to cold winter months in a number of ways, from growing “snowshoe” pectinations on their toes to having their legs covered with fine feathers. Equally effective are the feathers covering a grouse’s nostrils, which are thought to heat cold air as the bird breathes in. (Thanks to Sara and Warren Demont for photo op.)


Wild Turkeys’ Struggle for Food Begins

wild turkey in snow121Wild Turkeys do not migrate. During the winter they often separate into three distinct groups — adult males (toms), young males (jakes) and females (hens) of all ages — and spend their days seeking out plant (90 percent of diet) and animal (10 percent of diet) matter. In the summer, greens and insects make up much of their diet; in the winter, Wild Turkeys rely heavily on acorns, beechnuts, crabapples and hawthorn fruit, as well as agricultural grains such as corn, buckwheat, soybeans and oats.

The winter survival of Wild Turkeys depends much more on snow conditions that impact the procuring of food than on the temperature. While research has shown that turkeys can tolerate very cold temperatures, they need adequate food to keep from losing significant body weight and eventually starving to death. In parts of northern New England, the current Nor’easter has dumped a large amount of deep, loose fluffy snow, which turkeys can’t walk on or dig through in order to reach nutritious nuts. For this reason, turkeys frequently seek out agricultural fields that are windblown and provide relatively easy access to grains.

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Spiders Hibernating

11-24-14  spider 050Spiders that don’t lay eggs and die in the fall have developed several adaptations to survive the cold temperatures and lack of food that winter presents. They seek out microhabitats for protection, increase their resistance to cold and reduce their metabolic rate.

About 85% of spiders that overwinter do so in leaf litter, where they are well insulated against the cold. Most of these spiders assume a rigid position, with their legs drawn close to their body so that the amount of exposed body surface is kept to a minimum. Leaf litter protects spiders from extreme temperature fluctuations and from desiccation. A heavy snow cover ensures a fairly steady temperature of 32° F. regardless of the air temperature, even in weather as extreme as -40 ° F. below zero.

Many of the remaining overwintering spiders can be found under the loose bark of dead trees. Some have no further protection, others, such as the pictured Eastern Parson Spider, spin a silk case within which they spend the winter.

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Millipedes Migrating

11-11-14 millipede IMG_8982We don’t often see millipedes because of their preference for secluded, moist sites where they feed on decaying vegetation and other organic matter. Compost piles, heavily mulched shrub or flower beds, rotting logs, or the soil under logs and stones are likely spots to find these arthropods. Millipedes overwinter as adults, and have been seen migrating in the fall, presumably in search of overwintering sites that will provide them with some protection.

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Big Brown Bats Entering Hibernation

11-7-14  big brown bat IMG_7011Big Brown Bats, one of the most widespread mammals of North America, are one of the last species of bat to be seen flying in the fall. A relatively hardy species, the Big Brown Bat can tolerate conditions that other bats can’t. However, once cold weather arrives in the late fall and the nighttime temperatures dip down into the 30’s, they go into hibernation.

Both the Big Brown Bat and the endangered Little Brown Bat are considered “house bats,” because they are the most common bats found in houses in both summer and winter. During October, November and December, Big Brown Bats seek out caves, buildings and mines in which to hibernate. Some may migrate short distances to find an appropriate location for hibernating, but many find hibernacula close to their summer residence. Individuals often become active for brief periods during the winter months, sometimes even changing hibernation sites. Big Brown Bats can live up to 18-20 years in the wild but, unfortunately, most Big Brown Bats die during their first winter because they did not store enough fat to survive through their entire hibernation period.

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Porcupines Entering Winter Dens

porcupine IMG_2597During the summer, porcupines are almost always found out in the open. At the end of October/beginning of November porcupines den up for the winter in the Northeast, with up to a dozen porcupines sharing the same den. While some adult males will spend days at a time in a conifer, most porcupines seek out rocky crevices in which to spend the day, with a smaller number finding shelter in hollow trees. Porcupines are hardy creatures – while dens do protect porcupines from heat loss, they contain no insulation, the entrances are open and the porcupines don’t huddle together for warmth. In addition, porcupines emerge from their dens to feed at night, when outside temperatures are lowest. (And yes, that is porcupine scat that is stuck in/on the porcupine’s quills.)

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Ruffed Grouse Snow Cave

2-18-14 grouse hole 023When snow depth is over 10” Ruffed Grouse are known to dive into it and often burrow a short distance in order to seek refuge from the wind and the cold as well as from predators, a behavior known as “snow roosting.” Because the grouse flies into the snow leaving no tracks and little scent, predators have difficulty detecting them. The major risk is freezing rain which can form a crust on top of the snow, trapping the grouse. The Ruffed Grouse’s behavior allows it to conserve a great deal of energy, as the temperature inside this roost rarely falls beneath 20°F. This conservation of energy translates into less time spent up in trees eating buds, exposed to hawks and other predators. When morning comes, the grouse usually bursts out of the snow, leaving a hole and wing marks, or, as in this case, shuffles its way to the surface of the snow before taking off. The presence of scat indicates that the left-hand cavity in this photograph is where the bird bedded down and its exit was made to the right. (Thanks to Edith Hoose for photo op.)

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White-tailed Deer Scavengers

deer carcass2  028According to NPR, each year Americans waste 33 million tons of food (and much of this ends up in landfills where it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas). This situation is totally alien to that of other animals in the natural world, which seem to find a use for any and every organic particle. Great crested flycatchers incorporate shed snake skins into their nests, beavers build dams and lodges with branches they have eaten the bark off of, ermine line their nests with the fur and feathers of prey — the list goes on and on. When it comes to food, there is equally little waste. The carcasses of animals do not linger long, as almost every atom of their bodies is recycled. Fishers, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, bald eagles, hawks, woodpeckers, ravens, crows and many other animals make short work of a dead deer in winter. Come spring, if there’s anything left, the final clean-up crew consists of legions of turkey vultures, beetles, flies and bacteria, among others. How unfortunate we’ve strayed so far from a process that’s worked for so many for so long.

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Backswimmers Active Under Ice

11-18-13  backswimmers under ice 061Backswimmers are insects classified as “true bugs” and belong to the order Hemiptera. Most Hemipterans are land dwelling, such as stink bugs and assassin bugs, but there are a few, such as water striders, water boatmen and backswimmers, that are aquatic. In the fall, when most insect hatches have ceased, backswimmers come into their own. While some hibernate at the bottom of ponds in winter, others remain active, sculling through the water with their oar-like hind legs that are covered with fine hairs, preying on all forms of life up to the size of a small fish. Thanks to bubbles of oxygen that they obtain from pockets of air just under the ice and carry around with them like mini aqua lungs, backswimmers can continue to stay below the surface of the water for several minutes. Like most aquatic insects, backswimmers supercool their bodies (produce antifreeze compounds called cryprotectants that allow their body fluid to go down to 26 to 19 degrees F. without freezing). Right now, when there’s a thin layer of ice on most ponds and no snow covering it, you might want to peer through the ice at the edge of the pond to see if you can locate any of these cold-hardy creatures. Just be sure you don’t fall in, as I did two seconds after this photograph was taken. My undying gratitude for those of you who have donated to Naturally Curious, as your support enabled me to replace both camera and lens!

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Eastern Red-backed Salamanders Headed for Hibernation

11-20-13  eastern red-backed salamander 120Unless you spend time looking beneath rotting logs or sifting through the leaf litter, you’re not apt to see an Eastern Red-backed Salamander, even though they are prolific in our woods. Studies have found over 1,000 of these salamanders inhabiting one square acre of woodlands. Eastern Red-backed Salamanders are not freeze tolerant so they must spend the winter in locations that don’t freeze if they are to survive. Once the temperature drops to the 30’s and 40’s, they migrate downwards and hibernate in deep leaf litter, under rocks or in rock crevices, and as much as 15 inches under the ground in animal burrows.

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Carpenter Ants Huddling

11-14-13 carpenter ants 028Insects that live in northern New England have different strategies for surviving the winter. Carpenter ants live in the center of both dead and living trees, in galleries that they have chewed throughout their nest. Although wood is a good insulator, it still freezes during the winter. The ants tend to cluster together and enter a state of slowed metabolism called diapause. In addition, carpenter ants also produce glycerol, a compound which acts as antifreeze preventing destructive ice crystals from forming in their bodies.

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