Sunday, February 24, 2013

More Wild Night Life and Flying Foxes

A coyote is actively leaving tracks in the early morning hours

This year the nature preserve is alive with predators that are active primarily at night. Much of what I know about their behavior comes from the copious amount of footprints that they leave behind in the snow. Yesterday morning’s fresh snowfall told of a particularly lively night life for our foxes and coyotes. Tracks were laid down around all of our bird feeding stations as well as on the foot-trails.
A pair of Coyotes examine fresh rabbit tracks
Some of the footprints revealed interesting aspects of animal behavior; such as a coyote doubling back on its own track in order to reexamine the path of a rabbit that had intersected the trail. Of course, it’s not just footprints that are left behind – scat and urine marks are left as well. One impressive scat of the coyote contained a large amount of hair – mostly rabbit hair, and no, I didn't actually pull it apart in my hands.
A mink checks out some "sign" left by another animal
 Fisher and Mink tracks were also found yesterday. I followed a fisher for about a hundred yards in order to get an idea about what he was up to. His tracks described a straight line through open country, but upon entering the woods, they exhibited the animal’s more investigative skill set. He went out of his way to cross several old logs – possibly in order to stir up any small rodents that may be lurking beneath.
The fisher's tracks divert into the woods
As I continued following the fisher tracks, I got excited – it looked like he was going to pass right by my trail camera, which had been set up alongside a creek in order to catch video footage of raccoons and mink. Indeed, the fisher went through there, and even stopped to rub his long body on a mossy, snow covered log, which was quite close to the camera!

The fisher rubs his body on a snow covered log - making for an awkward looking posture
The camera data told me that the fisher came through just before dawn – and only a couple of hours before I came through myself. Unfortunately, the camera didn't trigger properly and I didn't get that much footage of the creature, but what I have is interesting enough. The fisher is indeed seen rubbing himself on the log – obviously marking territory.
2 raccoons travel together down the creek
The population of small rodents is up this winter and that helps to explain the heightened amount of predator activity at the nature preserve. The fact that we've had only shallow snow depth for many weeks has made the hunting easier, since the mice, shrews and voles must come out in the open to travel and find food. 
A raccoon checks the signs left by the mink and the fisher 
Raccoon and mink regularly travel up and down the creek. The camera caught the activities of a pair of raccoons over the course of several nights. They would move together up the stream – but each one would make their own diversions onto shore to root around near a promising brush pile or rotten tree trunk. One of the raccoons had an injured leg, but seemed to be able to keep pace with its comrade.
Most of the footprints left around the preserve are made by deer
 The mink by contrast was solitary and could be seen galloping up the stream bed at decent clip. Besides their specialized ability to pursue prey into the most narrow borough or crevice, they seem to like to use the element of surprise as well. Imagine one crashing into a mouse’s family reunion – suddenly it’s a Mink!
At the prospect of meeting me on the trail, this Gray Fox takes flight - literally
The other day I had apparently made a fox fly without even knowing it. I was coming up one of the foot trails toward the area where the camera had been mounted and unbeknownst to me, a Gray Fox was just ahead of me around the bend. The fox apparently saw or heard me, and this made her spin around and blast off in the other direction. The camera caught the fox’s lightning-fast reaction and several frames of the footage show the animal with all 4 feet off of the ground. I appear in the footage seconds later, but at the time, I was completely unaware my near close encounter with the flying fox kind.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Robins in Winter and the "Mythical" Bohemian Waxwing Returns

An American Robin in the snow covered branches of a buckthorn tree
Some say that Robins are a sign of spring. Well it can just as easily be said that they are a sign of winter, since we regularly have flocks of them that over-winter in the Northeast. Of course, contingent upon their stay is a ready supply of fruit. Fruit of many kinds can satisfy their needs, but here it’s largely crabapples, wild grapes, buckthorn berries and rose hips that they partake of. Unfortunately, this winter our region has only a poor berry crop to offer Robin “red-breast” and its fruit eating allies.
Robins and European Starlings are commonly found  feeding together 
That was not the case last year, when a flock of over 100 Robins were able to spend most of the winter with us. That year the berry crop was bountiful and able to sustain many birds besides the Robins. It may be strange for some of us to think of the Robins eating something other than Earthworms, but prospecting for worms in January in not a viable option. So an alteration in diet is the sensible course for a bird intent on surviving the northern winter. The Robins are not alone in changing their feeding habits come winter, many other insectivores make a similar change.

Cedar Waxwings are common  wintertime companions of the Robin 
I said that we were short on berries this year, but we do have some – and just lately the region’s Robins have been getting around to them. A comparatively modest flock ranging from 25 to 40 birds, have been making the rounds at the nature preserve, and stripping the buckthorn trees of their scant supplies.
A female Bluebird is also spotted among the mixed crowd
The Robins are not alone; they regularly keep company with Cedar Waxwings and European Starlings. These 3 species have little in common, other than their wintertime food preferences. The Cedar Waxwings lead a nomadic existence in the winter months – traveling far and wide in search of good berry reserves. We missed them for the entire first part of this winter, only to become graced by them in recent weeks.
The nearly "mythical" Bohemian Waxwing (photo taken in 2011)
The Cedar Waxwings’ larger and more exotic looking cousin, the Bohemian Waxwing, showed up this past weekend. I was walking back to the trail-head when I heard their distinctive trilled call. It’s similar to the Cedar’s high pitched trill, but tends to be louder and has more of a purring quality to it – at least to my ears. I turned toward the sound, and sure enough there was a flock of 65 of them, mingling with a greater number of starlings.
3 Bohemians (gray bodied) together with one Cedar Waxwing (yellow bodied)
I instinctively set out to retrieve a camera, in the vain hope that the birds would still be there when I returned. Bohemian Waxwings have the well-deserved status of being near mythical birds in our area. When I do find them, they rarely remain long enough for anyone else to get a look at them. “Sure you saw Bohemian Waxwings – sure you did.”
Part of a flock of Bohemians that visited the preserve in 2011
Bohemians are the ultimate winter nomads – wandering about the northern hemisphere making unexpected forays thousands of miles south and east of their breeding range, which is in the far northwestern part of the continent. I only rarely encounter them when I have a camera with me, and even when I do, invariably, the weather or the lighting conditions prohibit good photography. Apparently, nobody is going to steal the souls of these birds – at least not in my area. 
A Bohemian Waxwing (center) flanked by 2  noticeably smaller Cedar Waxwings
When I returned with the camera, my flock of unicorns – I mean Bohemians, was gone without trace. I made an educated guess about what their next stop would be and headed for it. Well, they weren't there, but about half the flock was not far off. They were down by the beaver ponds, along with a group of starlings. From a distance, I could see them one by one, diverging from their group and ascending to the stream for a drink or to bathe. When I reached the area, I was pleased that the lighting was conducive for photography; however, I just couldn't get a clear shot. There were far too many intervening branches between me and the birds. Oh well, I’ll just have to wait for their next visit, which may be in a few days, or in a few years. Whenever that is, I will be ready for them – sure I will

Sunday, February 10, 2013

This Place Goes to the Dogs at Night & Pictures from the Frost Forest

A Gray Fox with eyes glowing in the trail camera's light

Lately the trail camera has been capturing video of the various kinds of wild dogs as they prowl the nature preserve at night. Several nights ago it caught a pair of Gray Foxes as they were traveling together along one of our foot trails. I say together, but they were more working their own assigned sections of the trail. I’m not sure if they had any kind of sharing arrangement worked out –that is, if one of them came up with something, would they be obligated to share it with the other?

A Coyote turns around to wait for its companion to catch up

The very next night, a pair of coyotes was doing nearly exactly the same thing in the very same area. They were working different sections of the trail –both making quick forays into the surrounding field. This entailed rushing through the brush and trying to scare up some mouse or other kind of creature.

After a quick foray into the brush, the second Coyote walks up the trail
Even in the poor lighting, distinguishing coyotes from Gray Foxes is pretty easy. The long legged appearance and loping gait of the coyote can be compared to the foxes’ relatively short-legged appearance and more even gait. Fox tails are always extremely bushy and they account for a disproportionate amount of the animals' overall size and length. Foxes are small animals with feet that are not much bigger than those of a domestic cat. Their weight too, is comparable to that of a medium sized cat.

A Red Fox is recognizable even in poor light by the black on its legs
Gray Foxes have always been the most common fox species at our nature preserve, but in recent years, the Red Fox has been literally gaining ground. Still, I was surprised to see the Red Fox show up on the trail camera several times. A good way to tell the Red species from the Gray in these poor quality night pictures is to look at the legs. The Red Fox has very dark fur on the lower parts of its legs. This is most pronounced on the animal’s front legs. The Gray Fox does not usually have dark legs.

White tailed Deer are the most frequently photographed animal by the trail camera

Discerning a Gray Fox from a Red Fox by looking at its tracks is very difficult. They are the same size and the same shape. Coyote tracks are noticeable larger, but they can be mistaken for the tracks of domestic dogs. Foot prints tell a lot about the behavior of these animals, and if you follow a set of tracks for a few hundred feet, you can learn much about these wild dogs’ investigative methods.

Someone is curious about the strange machine hanging from the buckthorn tree

Several weeks ago our area was in the midst of a deep freeze. This fostered the formation of impressive ice crystals on our hill top trees. Some of the trees were especially laden with long white crystals, so much so that it looked like their branches were actually made out of spun white glass. In the bright sunshine, it made for an impressive effect and it was well worth my hand-freezing efforts to get pictures of it in the sub-zero temperatures.

A well frosted tree border

The morning sunlight kindles the ice crystals

These tree tops resemble cloud formations - many of which are also composed of ice crystals

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Recent Dam Collapse is a Serious Problem for our Beaver Colony

Julia surveys the area around the now exposed food cache
Our beaver colony has already had their share of bad luck over the past year, and now they are faced with a new daunting challenge. Late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, heavy rain fall combined with already high water from a rapid snow melt, burst the dam at Secret Pond. Since Secret Pond is where the beavers’ food cache and main lodge are, this disaster presents a major threat to the colony.

Secret Pond is now down by over 3 feet
Water flows freely out  of the 12 foot gap in the dam
They made a start at repairing the 12 foot gap in the dam, but they appear to in a losing race against time. If they can’t manage to get the water levels up above their stored food supplies before the pond freezes over, those reserves may become inaccessible. As a rule, the beavers’ food reserves or "food cache" is kept below water. They do this so the supplies can be drawn on after the pond freezes over, and food on shore becomes unobtainable.

Repairs begun on the dam are unlikely to be completed any time soon
The entire food cache is now exposed  and  subject to being covered with snow and ice
As far as I know, no beavers were injured by this dam rupture, though I have yet to account one or 2 of the younger beavers. Certainly the scale of the dam collapse was not as large as the one that happened back in June. Back then, their main pond (Sarah’s Pond) was quite large and held at least 20 times the water volume of Secret Pond.4 beavers including the colony’s patriarch were not seen again following the June collapse.

Towing building materials meant for the lodge, Blueberry heads up the  exposed stream channel 
At least 3 feet of water level loss at Secret Pond has left all entrances to the beaver lodge above the water line, which has essentially rendered the lodge uninhabitable as far as the beavers are concerned. As a rule, lodge entrances are kept well below water –this effectively keeps out predators and other creatures that may prey on young beavers or seek to use the lodge as their own den site.
With its entrances now above water, the lodge at Secret Pond is abandoned

Directly beneath the lodge entrances are piles of peeled branches - leftovers from  many dinners
The beavers have now moved into a lodge at an adjacent pond (May Pond). This particular lodge is not in good shape, but its entrances ways are at least submerged. Lodges that beavers use as their winter dwellings are normally plastered over with a thick coat of mud. This winterizing effort, plus any accumulating layers of snow and ice, helps to keep the temperature inside the lodge much warmer than the outside ambient temperature. The beavers perform this task in the fall before the snow flies and the ponds freeze. Now, however, our beavers have been forced into a lodge that has not been prepared in any way for winter.
The beavers have moved into the old  dilapidated lodge at May Pond
The most serious part of this situation is the fact that the beavers may now be effectively isolated from their food supplies. If they are forced to remain at May Pond, and the water there freezes up tight, they will not be able to leave that pond to search for food. Of course, my hope is that they will be able to repair the dam at Secret Pond, and once again gain access to their food reserves and their winterized lodge. This is probably a tall order since during the winter it’s generally more difficult to come up with all of the building materials needed for a large scale building project. However, one thing I've learned from 13 years studying this colony, is that where there’s a beaver, there’s a way.

3 beavers swim together  at May Pond
Of course, I will help them out wherever I can. I can certainly lug food over to May Pond and cut holes in the ice, but repairing Secret Pond is something that only the beavers can do. Whatever way we look at it seems that the beavers will have a difficult period to get through. I’ll be sure to keep close tabs on them.
Blueberry swims by one of last year's kits
Julia comes in close to see if I brought anything
We've had only 3 major dam collapses in the 13 ½ year history of this beaver colony. None of them have happened in the winter.