Now is the time when your garden is most likely to have visits from resident woodchucks. These large, herbivorous rodents are eating fast and furiously as the days get shorter, in an effort to put on a layer of fat that will sustain them through hibernation. The middle of the day is typically spent sunning themselves, but early morning and evening will find woodchucks eating and putting on a layer of fat equaling about a third of their weight. They lose anywhere from 20% – 37% of their body weight during hibernation. If they don’t gain enough weight now, they won’t survive until green grass and other plants are available again in the spring. Hopefully knowing this will make sharing your garden with an uninvited guest a bit easier.
Remember those sand-colored, fuzzy fox pups of two months ago? They have grown in their third coat since birth (finally they are really “red” foxes!), their noses have lengthened and their size makes them hard to distinguish them from their parents. Even though they appear adult-like, the kits’ continued playfulness gives away their age.
Beavers are constantly grooming and oiling their fur to waterproof it. Typically when grooming, a beaver sits upright with its tail curled under its body and extended in front of it between its two hind legs. This allows the cloaca (an opening which contains ducts for everything from evacuation to reproduction, plus oil and castoreum glands) to be exposed. The beaver uses its front feet to retrieve creamy-yellow waterproofing oil from its inverted oil glands and then rubs it carefully over all of its body. Without constant waterproofing the beaver’s fur would soon become soaking wet and the beaver would not be able to tolerate the cold water.
Eastern chipmunks typically have two litters a year, each consisting of 1 to 8 young (4 to 5 is usual). They give birth mid-April to mid-May and mid-July to mid-August. The chipmunk in the accompanying photograph has a mouth full of dead leaves which it is carrying back to its underground tunnel where it makes a bulky, leaf nest for its young. When they are born, the young chipmunks are roughly 2 ½ inches long and weigh .11 oz. In about a month start looking for tiny chipmunks – the young are weaned and start venturing out of their tunnels in mid-June.
When red fox kits are roughly five weeks old, not only do they begin spending time outside of their den, but they also start eating solid food and weaning begins. This mother is still nursing her young, but soon she will start discouraging them by not always giving them access to her milk through tactics such as lying on her stomach when they approach her for a meal. Within three weeks the kits will be completely weaned.
For the first month or so of their lives, red fox kits remain in their den. They are born with a coat of dark gray fur, which is replaced when they are about a month old and starting to emerge from their den. Their second coat is sandy-colored and blends in well with the soil surrounding the den entrance, where the kits spend most of their time. By late June they will have acquired the red coat we associate with adult red foxes. Meanwhile, if you know the whereabouts of an active den, there is no better or more fun time of year to watch the antics of young kits than right now – they entertain themselves while their parents are out hunting by pouncing on each other, having mock fights, playing tag and chewing on all kinds of things from sticks to feathers – all of which is interspersed with frequent naps.
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 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.
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.
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.
Every track you see in this photograph was made by a red fox. Coming from every direction, they all lead to the tree stump. This stump is to foxes what our general stores, post offices and libraries are to us – a place to catch up on all the local news. Red foxes have these “bulletin boards” scattered throughout their territories. By marking a stump, they convey information such as their age, sex, availability, and much more to every other fox that passes by. Foxes will revisit these posts regularly in order to refresh their scent and update the information they’ve left. They also mark the boundaries of their territory to keep other foxes out. To save themselves unnecessary hunting, they mark spots where they have previously searched for prey or cached prey and eaten it, as a signal not to bother to investigate that area. During mating season, which we are in the height of, the fox also uses a scent from a gland on its tail to mark objects. At this time of year the combination of fox urine and glandular secretions create a skunk-like fragrance discernible by the human nose.
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.
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.)
There’s a period of time in the fall, and again in the spring, when pond ice is thin enough to break under the pressure of a beaver’s head punching it from underneath, but is not quite hard enough to support the beaver’s weight. After an audible crack, a beaver’s head emerges from the recently-made hole in the ice, and immediately the beaver lifts its front feet up onto the edge of the ice in front of it and then lunges forward, breaking a path with its body through the ice to where the beaver wishes to go. Over and over the beaver lunges, pausing periodically to catch its breath. Why the beaver doesn’t swim under water from point A to point B (beavers can swim up to half a mile underwater, and remain submerged for up to 15 minutes), which would mean having to break through the ice only once, when it gets to where it’s headed, instead of laboriously breaking trail through the ice is unknown to me, but the process is great fun to observe.
In March and April, beavers consume a lot of tree bark, but come summer, approximately 90 % of a beaver’s diet consists of grasses, aquatic plants, and other herbaceous vegetation. Of the woody plants that they do eat during the warmer months, aspen/poplar (in photograph) and willow are favorites. It appears that beavers use their sense of smell in order to find their tree of choice. The greater the distance from the pond, the more selective beavers are in terms of species chosen – they go as far as a tenth of a mile away and up steep slopes for aspen!
If there’s any species that knows how to survive a heat wave, it’s beavers! More at home in water than on land, the beaver can hold its breath for up to 15 minutes, and swim up to half a mile under water. Beavers also have valves in their nose and ears that automatically close when beavers are submerged, and transparent nictitating membranes that act as a third eyelid, covering and protecting their eyes under water.
In the past century, gray foxes have become nearly as common as red foxes in New England; due to their secret nature, we don’t see them as often. Because of their mixed coloration of gray and red, gray foxes are often mistaken for red foxes, but there are two easy ways to distinguish them. Only the red fox has black feet, and the red fox has a white-tipped tail, whereas the tip of the gray fox’s tail is black. The gray fox is the only member of the dog family capable of climbing trees; its semi-retractable claws enable it to pursue tree-dwelling animals such as squirrels. Gray fox kits are now coming out of their subterranean den, and can be seen investigating and playing with nearby objects such as feathers left over from previous meals.