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.
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.
Roughly a month ago woodchucks were at the peak of their mating season. New England’s largest member of the Squirrel family is about to give birth to two to six young chucks. In preparation for this event, dead grasses are gathered and carried by mouth to the underground nest chamber, which is about 15 inches in diameter. Woodchucks are tidy rodents — the female covers her young’s waste with new bedding placed directly over the old, and when the nest becomes too bulky or unsanitary, the matted material is removed and fresh bedding is added.
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)!
Given the amount of time porcupines spend in trees, it’s not surprising to see that their feet are well adapted for climbing. Long, curved nails that grip the bark, as well as “pebbly” foot pads designed to prevent slipping allow this prickly rodent to climb just about anywhere it wants to. (Hind foot pictured.)
Although some ponds have had open water in spots all winter, many have remained frozen over until the recent warm weather started to melt the ice. The first open water often appears close to the lodge and along the dam of a beaver pond. It doesn’t take long for resident beavers to detect an opening, for it’s a ticket to fresh food! The first plant that beavers head for, if it’s growing in the area, is skunk cabbage. Being the first wildflower to push up through the snow, it’s usually available when ponds first open up. Aspen, willow and alder leaves, grasses, the rhizomes, leaves and flowers of water lilies, sedges, ferns, fungi, berries, mushrooms, duckweed and algae are eaten in the spring and summer by these large rodents we think of as strictly bark eaters. Photograph by Kay Shumway.
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.
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.
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.