The relatively warm, wet start to winter has provided us with the opportunity to see riverside tracks that might otherwise not be evident. Raccoons are known for their ability to go anywhere and get into anything and the reason for this dexterity is revealed in their tracks. Both front and hind feet have five long toes. Although the “thumb” is not opposable, it is long enough to grasp things. Because of this dexterity, raccoon tracks can vary widely. In mud and snow, they often resemble small human hands. Typically the toes of the front feet are more splayed out than those of the hind feet.
Even though a late spring frost may have reduced this year’s crop of Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra), and even though the few that made it haven’t started falling on the ground yet, squirrels have already located and started consuming this nut’s fatty meat. Inside the green husk is the actual nut, and if you look closely at the edges of the chewed hole as well as the inner surface of the nut, you will see tiny incisor marks, most likely left by red squirrels. This particular rodent typically chews a hole on both sides of the nut, so that it can gain access to both halves of the meat.
Beavers are meticulous housekeepers, in that they almost always defecate in the water, not in their lodge, and rarely on land. The best place to find their scat, should you be so inclined, is where they have been working for an extended period of time — for example, in the water adjacent to their dam. Their scat consists of kumquat-size pellets, which, as you might expect, are full of tiny bits of woody fiber. The pellets are essentially little balls of sawdust, and disintegrate easily if disturbed. Their light color makes them visible even under water. Congratulations to all who guessed correctly — I’ll make the next mystery post even more challenging!
Do you know whose scat this is? Chances are that you may never have seen the scat of this animal, but a close look at its composition will give you a large hint. An additional clue can be found by examining the log that the scat is sitting on (the log is there for display purposes – the scat was originally deposited in the water). The identity of the scat-maker will be posted tomorrow!
Contrary to their name, fishers seldom eat fish. While they prey on a wide range of animals and even plants, their preference is for small mammals (80% of their diet), snowshoe hares and porcupines. Because fishers are well equipped to kill porcupines, and because there is little competition for them, porcupines are an important prey of fishers –up to 35% of fisher diet samples contain the remains of porcupines, as this photograph of fisher scat attests to. There is no mistaking the bumpy porcupine foot pads (and quills)!
A hole 4” – 5” deep surrounded by scattered empty, dried up eggshells is a telltale sign of turtle nest predation. A painted turtle (judging from the size, depth and location of the nest) dug a hole in the bank of a beaver pond last summer and proceeded to lay roughly a dozen or more eggs in it. After covering the eggs with soil, the turtle returned to her pond. The eggs hatched in August or September. Sometimes young turtles immediately climb up through the earth and emerge above ground, but occasionally, this far north, they overwinter in their underground nest and emerge in the spring. A raccoon, fox or skunk discovered this painted turtle nest early this spring (the digging was fresh) and one can only hope that by the time the nest was raided, the young had already exited and headed for the nearby pond. Research has found that a very small percentage of turtle nests avoid detection by a predator.
Raccoons defecate in communal sites, called latrines. Often these latrines are located on a raised, flat surface or at the base of a tree. Over time, the scat accumulates. Should you come upon a latrine, it’s best not to investigate too closely, as raccoon feces harbor roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis) eggs which can be easily ingested and cause harm (serious eye disease, spinal cord or brain damage, or death) to humans. One of these roundworms can produce more than 100,000 eggs a day, and the eggs remain viable for years in the soil.
There are two subjects in this photograph – one is dark and round (left) and the other is whitish-yellow and brown, and string-like (right). One came out of a barred owl’s mouth; the other came out the opposite end. Do you know which is which? The round, brown object is an owl pellet which owls (and many other birds) cough up roughly 6 – 10 hours after consuming a meal. It is just about odorless, and consists of the indigestible parts of the owl’s prey — bones, teeth and nails wrapped in the fur of, in this case, a vole. (The fur keeps sharp bones from tearing the owl’s esophagus when the pellet is coughed up.) Different owl species have different sized pellets, and typically the larger the owl, the larger the pellet. (The average barred owl pellet is 2 ½” long and 1” wide.) A great gray owl pellet (3”-4” long and 1 ½” wide) I found contained the skulls of three small rodents, in addition to other bones. The whitish substance is the owl’s semi-solid waste. It consists of white uric acid and feces which are excreted through the bird’s cloaca, an opening that is used not only for waste disposal, but also for mating and egg laying.
A sure sign of spring is the emergence of woodchucks, the largest members of the Squirrel family in New England, after a long winter’s sleep. Their arousal is easily noted, for when the males wake up, they do some excavating of their tunnel, scattering dirt all around it which is easily spotted on the snow (if there is still any snow left). Equally obvious is the muddy trail they leave when in search of a female. Mating takes place in March and April, and the resulting litters of 2 to 6 young are born a month later.
Porcupines leave plenty of signs where they have eaten the inner bark, or cambium layer, of a tree. Bark is missing on the trunk of the tree, leaving fresh, yellow wood exposed, which often bears incisor marks. An observation I have made over the years is that porcupines often de-bark around or near their hollow tree dens. Typically, if a tree den is used year after year, they gnaw off bark each year, sometimes eating the old, scarred portion which, due to previous chewing, lacks cambium cells. This has led me to wonder whether fresh de-barking in the vicinity of their tree den entrance might have more, or as much, to do with a porcupine’s staking out a claim on that tree than with its sustenance. I have never come across any research that even mentions this phenomenon, and would welcome feedback from anyone who has.
2-29-12 Beaver Sign of Spring
Anyone who buys and consumes the pale, relatively tasteless, store-bought tomatoes in the winter, and then, finally, can eat their own garden tomatoes right off the vine, will identify with the winter and spring diets of beavers. While they are locked under the ice, the beavers’ entire winter supply of food is a pile of branches they store at the bottom of the pond near their lodge. Once the ice on the pond begins to melt, beavers take immediate advantage of any escape holes, enlarging them if need be, in order to make their way to fresh, nutritious food. While their preferred spring food, herbaceous plants, are not yet up, the fresh cambium of living trees is most likely a welcome change from their water-logged winter food. It is always fun to come upon signs of their activity when there’s still snow on the ground – it’s one of my favorite signs of spring.
If the increased yelping of eastern coyotes hasn’t caught your attention, you may not be aware that this is the peak of their breeding season. Female coyotes come into estrus once a year, for a period of about 10 days. For the past two or three months, working up to this, male and female coyotes have been increasing their scent marking. Occasionally you can find where a female has marked with urine, leaving behind a spot of blood (see photograph). Eventually she attracts one or more sexually active males, and mating ensues. Something I’ve never witnessed, but would love to, is the howling duet of a pair of coyotes prior to mating.
When a white pine has been infected with white pine blister rust (a fungus), cankers appear on the branches and sometimes the trunk of the tree. A large amount of sap-like ooze flows from the cankered areas, sometime drying and resembling a sugary-looking crust or film. These areas are, in fact, high in sugar content, and rodents frequently chew them. It’s likely that a red squirrel visited and sampled the infected white pine in the photograph, leaving a freshly-gnawed patch in the bark.
Black bears are known for denning in a variety of locations, including under logs and stumps, under the branches of a fallen tree and inside caves and hollow trees. Occasionally they choose a site where they are fully exposed, such dense thickets. This photograph of an abandoned den is just that — a depression in the middle of a stand of almost impenetrable red spruces which bears have lined with broken spruce boughs. The imprint of two small bears (likely two year olds) in the needles, plus other nearby signs confirm that this den was inhabited fairly recently. With the mild winter we’re having and the abundance of fruits and nuts this past fall, the hibernation habits of bears may well have been altered – I know of tracks that were spotted in January as well as this month — one typically wouldn’t expect to find bears emerging from their dens much before late March or early April. (Notice bark is missing on some of the nearby spruce trunks from bears biting and tearing it.)
Like their cousins the otters, mink will slide down snowy inclines on their bellies, as the slide in this photograph illustrates. They are excellent swimmers and can swim underwater to a depth of 18 feet or for a distance of 100 yards. Look for tracks and slides along streams, in cattail marshes and in swamps, where they forage for crayfish, frogs, fish, small mammals and invertebrates. One of its largest prey is the muskrat. A male mink (larger and stronger than a female mink) captures one by wrapping its body around the muskrat and then biting its neck. Mink make the most of their meals, recycling what they can – the winter nest of one mink consisted almost entirely of the fur of muskrats.
If you ever think you work hard for the food you eat, try tracking a fisher! I would estimate that I followed a fisher’s tracks for at least three miles today and other than stopping to mark its territory once, and investigate a log or two, there was not a sign of its finding a thing to eat. Fishers travel widely in search of prey — one was recorded travelling 56 miles in three days. The fisher I followed traveled through prime snowshoe hare (their most common prey item) habitat, as well as areas where porcupines have been known to den. A fisher’s food requirements are about one snowshoe hare per week, a squirrel or two per week, or 2 – 22 mice per day. A porcupine will feed a fisher for a month or so. (Note snowshoe hare tracks on bottom left of photograph, and fisher tracks running diagonally across the image, where the fisher left its mark.)
Typically, male porcupines spend days at a time up in eastern hemlocks, eating the tender buds and leaves of branches, while females tend to spend the day in a den, and head for nearby food at night. In the photograph, a porcupine den tree is on the left, with scat from the den having fallen on the snow below. The trail you see was made by the porcupine, as she went from her den tree to a nearby feeding tree. Usually a den is chosen within a short distance of food, as was this one. If you look closely at the uppermost quarter of the photograph, you will see a sign that indicates recent porcupine activity – nipped hemlock branches in the snow, that have been discarded by a porcupine, who’s feeding in the branches up above them. It’s much safer to remain on a large limb and pull the desired tip of a branch in to you than it is to attempt to climb out on a thin branch. Once the porcupine nips the tip of the branch off and eats the tender buds and leaves, it drops the branch to the ground below.
Hard to believe as it may be, red foxes spend most nights curled up in the open air — winter, summer, fall and spring–regardless of the temperature. Often they sleep in open fields, in an elevated area, where they can keep an eye out for approaching danger. When making a bed, they curl up in a ball and wrap their bushy tail around themselves, covering their faces. According to Leonard Lee Rue, when foxes sleep in the open, they usually doze for 15 to 25 seconds and then wake up, look around carefully, and nap again. Only when a fox sleeps in dense cover does it go into a heavy sleep, waking every hour or so. If you look closely, you can see two fox beds in this photograph — one at about one o’clock and one at about seven o’clock. Each is about a foot in diameter.
This is the common bounding pattern of a red squirrel in snow. When it bounds, or hops, its smaller front feet land first, and then the larger hind feet pass to the outside and around the front feet to land in front of them. In this photograph the squirrel is headed towards the top of the photograph . There are many exceptions to the rule, but often bounding animals that are tree climbers, such as squirrels, often place their front feet more or less side by side, whereas animals such as rabbits and hares, which do not climb trees, often place their front feet diagonally, one in front of the other.
It may be possible to tell the difference between white-footed and deer mouse tracks, but I certainly can’t. The only clue that sometimes works is to note the habitat in which you see the tracks– they are somewhat more likely to be those of a deer mouse if they are in a coniferous forest, but not always! White-footed and deer mice often travel on top of the snow. They are bounders, leaving tracks that resemble those of a miniature rabbit, with the larger back feet landing in front of the smaller front feet. There is often a tail mark, but not always, as they can and do hold their tails vertically at times.
Beavers, like many mammals, communicate with chemical signals. In scent marking, beavers actually build a mound of mud on which to place their scent. First they dive down to the bottom of their pond, dig up an armful of mud with their front feet and swim to shore with the mud held against their chest. Walking on to the shore on its two front legs, the beaver deposits this mud next to the water. Beaver scent mounds can be quite small, or as high as three feet or more, depending on how many loads of mud they contain. The beaver straddles this pile of mud and applies castoreum from its castor glands, or anal gland secretions, or both. The purpose of building a mound is to elevate the odor (helps with scent dispersal), to intensify the odor by putting it on a moist substrate, and to protect it from flooding when the pond level fluctuates. Beavers build most of their scent mounds in the spring, when young beavers are dispersing and claiming new ponds, but I have found several fresh ones this fall, including the one in the photograph. (Click on photo to enlarge.)
If you wake up and your lawn is full of small (1”-2” diameter) conical holes you can be sure of two things. One is that you have an infestation of grubs in your lawn. Secondly, a striped skunk has done you the favor of decreasing your grub population. Skunks are omnivorous, eating everything from snails and birds’ eggs to nuts and berries. In the summer, roughly half of their diet consists of insects. One of their favorites is beetle larvae (grubs), particularly the immature June bug larvae, which reside an inch or so beneath the surface of the soil. When skunks have been feeding under a pine tree, the circular motion with which they presumably dig the hole is obvious in the circular arrangement of the needles surrounding the hole.