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Woodchucks Active

3-15-17 woodchuck burrow IMG_0618Our recent snowstorm will make it a bit more challenging for male Woodchucks intent on mating, for they must work their way up through a foot or more of snow upon wakening. In March and April they come out of hibernation having lost 20 – 40 percent of their weight over the winter. Even so, sex is the driving force, not food, which is fortunate, as there is little for them to eat this early in the spring. Males dig their way out of their burrows and head straight for the burrows of females.   After mating, the female goes back to sleep for several weeks and the male returns to his burrow and does the same. Snow makes these tunnels much more obvious and thus easier to find, as dirt is scattered around their entrances. Equally obvious are the muddy trails males leave when in search of females.

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The Feathered Feet of Northern Owls

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Most owls have feathered legs, but the feet and toes of some owls, especially those living in colder, higher latitudes, are also densely feathered. The feathers keep the feet of these birds warm, allowing them to hunt where snow is on the ground and temperatures are very low. Great Gray Owls (pictured), Snowy Owls and Northern Hawk Owls are all examples of this phenomenon. Owls living in warmer climes, such as Barn Owls, have sparsely feathered feet and toes, and tropical owls have nearly featherless feet. This variation can also be found within a given species that has a range that extends over many degrees of latitude, such as the Barred Owl.

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Eastern Chipmunks Emerging & Mating

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All winter long, Eastern Chipmunks have been intermittently napping and running to their underground larder to snack every week or two. As spring approaches, the timing of their emergence above ground is affected by the weather, even though their tunnels are 18” – 36” below the surface. Within the last week chipmunks have been seen above ground.  One would think they must be in a state of confusion, given the erratic weather we’ve experienced this spring.

Chipmunks waste no time once they are active.  Most adult females are in breeding condition when they emerge (as opposed to males, which are in a state of constant readiness) and mate within a week. This involves 10-30 couplings within about a 6-7 hour receptive period.  In a month or so, the results of these efforts will be born.

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Hooded Mergansers Courting

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Before Hooded Mergansers seek out their nesting cavities in snags and stumps they engage in extensive courtship displays. Males tend to outdo females when it comes to these displays. As the accompanying photograph illustrates, courtship occurs in small groups consisting of at least one female and several males. Males engage in many more types of displays than females. The extent of female courtship consists mainly of head-bobbing and head-pumping. Male displays include crest-raising, head-throws with turn-the-back-of-the-head, head-pumping, head-shaking, upward-stretch, upward-stretch with wing-flap and ritualized (repeated) drinking.

Head-throws  (see male in foreground of photo) are the most elaborate display. With crest raised, males bring their head abruptly backward touching their back. A rolling frog-like crraaa-crrrooooo call is given as the head is returned to the upright position and turned away from the intended female. This call sounds so much like a frog that the first time I observed courting Hooded Mergansers I thought it was pure coincidence that I was watching male mergansers display while Leopard Frogs were simultaneously giving their snore-like call. In actuality, the displays as well as the vocal accompaniment were being produced by the mergansers.  (Note that one female Hooded Merganser appears not to be all that impressed.)

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Striped Skunks Seeking Mates

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Striped Skunks are on the prowl, as your nose may have told you recently – males are eagerly seeking out the company of females at this time of year and are often hit by cars traveling at night. The peak of the Striped Skunk breeding season — the third week of March — will soon be upon us. Males will mate with several females in succession and then they often protect their harem against other males by hitting them (other males) with their shoulders or biting their legs. Once a female has been successfully bred, she will not allow further mating activity and will viciously fight any male that attempts it.

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Eastern Cottonwoods & European Honey Bees

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One species of tree you might encounter if you’re in a floodplain is the Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoids), a member of the Willow family and the Poplar genus. Because it can tolerate flooding, it often grows near river banks and disturbed wet areas. The buds of Eastern Cottonwood are large and somewhat sticky, due to the resin that they contain. Resin exudes from the buds during the fall as well as the spring, and is evident even in winter when you see it frozen in droplets on the buds (see photo). In trees, resin serves to seal wounds and defend against bacteria, fungi and insects.

European Honey Bees discovered that the properties of cottonwood resin which benefitted cottonwood trees could also benefit them. They collect the resin from the outside of Eastern Cottonwood buds, mix it with wax and apply it to the walls of their nest cavity. This “bee glue” is referred to as propolis, and, as it turns out, serves as an antimicrobial barrier as well as a sealant. Various bacteria, fungi and other harmful microbes are kept at bay by the resin contained in propolis. It also directly reduces two diseases of Honey Bees, chalkbrood and American foulbrood.

Interestingly, if a mouse or small rodent happens to die inside a hive, and the bees can’t remove it through the hive entrance, they often seal the carcass inside an envelope of propolis.  This prevents the hive from being affected by the mouse’s decomposition.

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Rare Winter Visitors – Great Gray Owls

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Great Gray Owls are impressive birds – at 27” in length, they are our largest owl (Great Horned Owl – 22”, Snowy – 23”) but at 2.4 pounds, not our heaviest (Great Horned Owl – 3.1 pounds, Snowy – 4 pounds). The feathers that make a Great Gray Owl look so massive are what keep it warm during winters in the northern boreal forests where it resides.

Most of a Great Gray Owl’s diet consists of rodents, and some winters, when prey is scarce, individuals wander south to southern Canada and northern U.S. to sustain themselves. Sometimes Great Gray Owls are highly irruptive, and the number of sightings in the Northeast is high. In the winter of 1978-79 there were over 150 sightings in New England and Quebec. While there were numerous sightings in southern Canada this winter, northern New England was visited by only a few individuals, including the one pictured (in central New Hampshire).

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