For the first time this winter, there is enough snow for ruffed grouse to find shelter from the cold by flying into it and creating a burrow that keeps them relatively warm and invisible to predators. When not resting in their snow burrows on cold nights, or “budding” on nearby aspen buds at dawn and dusk, ruffed grouse do a considerable amount of walking on top of the snow. Their feet are well equipped for this (see Naturally Curious post for 11/4/11) and leave a chain of two-inch, three-toed imprints, one directly in front of the other. (The grouse that left these tracks was walking toward the bottom of the photograph.)
The first of hopefully many nature mysteries was interpreted and documented with photographs taken by the observers. A brief explanation of this story in the snow accompanies the photographs. Mystery photos are welcome–please check the submission guidelines (see link in menu at the top of my blog) prior to sending your photograph/questions.
This story took place in Sharon, Vermont, where Francie and Ron Schmidt commonly observe a pair of mallards on or near their pond. One morning this winter they spotted a red-tailed hawk perched in a tree, feeding on something. Being naturally curious, they decided to buckle on their snowshoes and see if they could find any signs of the kill in order to determine exactly what the hawk was dining on. The pictures they took tell the tale of the misfortune of one mallard drake.
After killing the mallard, the hawk proceeded to pluck many of its feathers while standing on the surface of the snow. It ate some of the duck’s organs and then took off for the tree with the front end of the duck in its talons, leaving the hind portion behind on the snow along with all the plucked feathers. The repeated indentations in the snow made by the hawk’s feet and wings indicate that the hawk had a bit of a struggle trying to take off with such a heavy load. However, it succeeded in reaching the tree, where they had initially seen it. Having documented this entire story with their camera, the Schmidts decided to return home. On their way back, they happened to notice a female mallard, most likely the other member of the mallard pair, hiding in a nearby shrub. Later, they photographed the hawk off the corner of their deck when he returned to the kill site