Saturday, February 26, 2011

Robins and Weasels and 'Possums, oh My!

 Well, you'll have to take my word for it, but mere moments before this photo was taken, this crabapple tree, which is in front of our offices at work, was filled with robins, happily eating away at last year's shriveled fruits.  While we all know that many robins do not migrate (or perhaps only migrate a short distance), we still like to cling to the idea of robins as harbingers of spring.  I know I certainly do.

 And therefore, since I can't wow you with a crabapple full of robins, how about some mystery tracks we found out back during my Winter Wildlife Signs class today?

This is a series of small prints of an animal loping.  Loping, in the horse world, is essentially a canter.  But in tracking we call it a lope.  There's one foot print, then two in the middle (sometimes so close together that they look like one), and finally a fourth print.  This set of four is followed by a space, and then they repeat, ad nauseum or until the animal changes its mind and its gait.

Now, were I back in the Adirondacks, these are the animals that would immediately come to mind when I see this pattern:  fox, coyote, fisher.

We don't have fishers here, at least not in this part of Michigan, and these tracks are just way too small (and too close together) to have been made by a coyote or even a fox.

Snow had been falling most of the day, so any evidence of actual footprints was gone.  Even so, my mind kept trying to put five toes into the prints I could see.

Based on size (and the marginally possible toe prints), I was leaning toward this being one of the smaller members of the weasel family: either the mink or the large-tailed weasel. 

Now, large-tailed weasels are not large animals.  In fact, they don't even qualify in my book as medium-sized animals, but everything is relative.  Even if we were to think of them as medium-sized, their feet are still quite small.  These tracks really were just too big to belong to this weasel.  This is even taking into account the fact that they (the tracks) look bigger than they really are. (When measuring tracks, you want to measure the minimum outline, which is what would appear in the base of the track, made by the pads of the foot; you don't want to measure the length and width of the whole track, for that takes into account fur, melt, and even the poofing-out of snow as the foot falls, giving you a falsely large set of numbers.)

So, this left me contemplating a  mink.  The size of the footprints were about right, but the space between the groups of four tracks just seemed too small.  Maybe this animal was loping slowly, though.  The other thing that bothered me, when considering mink, was that the tracks were not all that close to water.  In fact, they were closer to the building than the stream.  However, although minks are quite often found in or near water, it is not unheard of for them to head out across the woods or even open spaces when hunting, or when traveling from one body of water to another.

Based on all these thoughts, I'm sticking with mink.

When the tracking class ended, several of the participants headed to the gift shop and exhibit space, and they were tickled to see our resident opossum at the feeders.  An hour and a half later, it was still there, so I got out my camera and went stalking.

It wasn't too happy when I came crunching along.  Was I a threat?  Was I going to try to eat it?

Ever so slowly, it decided to begin preparations for escape.   First, it lifted one paw...and held it there for a couple minutes.

 Then it crossed that foot in front of the other and stood ready for a "quick" get away...just in case.

It's a good thing, really, that I wasn't interested in catching this critter except with the camera, for "hasty retreat" didn't seem to be within its abilities.  Note also, the rounded pink tip on the tail - a casualty to frostbite.

The snow was good and packy, making some fine imprints of the 'possum's feet. 

 And off it trundled, past the birdseed bin and into the woods.  It'll be back, either tonight or tomorrow, to feast once more beneath the feeders.

All in all, a pretty good day. 

This may be the last tracking chance for a while, for rain and even thunderstorms (and flooding) are in the forecast starting sometime late tomorrow.  Ah...the joys of living in southern Michigan!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Owl Be Seeing You

I was sitting at the computer working on some permits when my phone beeped.  It was one of our naturalists calling from the trails.  A barred owl was right there by the trail!  Did I want to come and photograph it?

Well...who wouldn't!

So I abandoned the computer, grabbed my camera, and went out.  Across the bridge, by the catalpas, over near the hay field. I looked and looked, but nothing.

Then, suddenly, silent movement through the trees.  I could see its pale form winging through the woods away from me.  I followed, cutting into the hay field, watching it land, then take off and land again.  I finally was able to get close enough to grab a shot.

Winter can be a stressful time for owls.  Finding food is a daily struggle for any wild animal, but winter compounds the difficulties, with snow providing cover for potential prey.  Add to that the fact that January and February make up the breeding season for our largest owls.  Stress upon stress.  So, my attempt to sneak up on the bird probably just added to its stress levels, and once more it took off.

I tracked it through the woods, but finally it had enough of my clumsy efforts and flew into the tangle of trees, effectively vanishing for good.

So, since I was already out there, and this time I had brought my macro lens along, I took my time going back to the building, photographing the berries still covered with ice.



More buckthorn, in bubbly ice

I didn't take time to ID this one, but it is likely another honeysuckle.

Maple keys

Frosty, frozen droplet

And, finally, who can resist the sound of a babbling brook?  Not me, nor some of my other blogging friends, who also recently posted similar videos!  Great minds think alike.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Another Past-tense Squirrel

Again, for the faint of heart, be warned:
what follows are photos of the deceased.

Last Tuesday, while out with the Tuesday Morning Regulars, I spotted the remains of a fox squirrel just on the far side of the trail's railing.  Being me, I had to scramble over the railing and get closer - a photo op for sure!

 Whatever had ended this squirrel's life had done a pretty good job of eviscerating it.  The undesirable bits were left to the side, and the remaining skin had been partially turned inside out.  A clue to the perpetrator, perhaps?

So, imagine my surprise today to find this:

Now, I was pretty sure this wasn't a squirrel concentrating really hard on digging up an acorn frozen into the ground.  Nope - it had to be another past-tense squirrel.  We all had to get photos of this unusual sight, and then I went to pull it out.

Oops!  There wasn't anything "in" to pull "out" - it was merely the nether region of this squirrel lying on top of the snow.  On top?  With no snow on it?  Then this must've landed here fairly recently.  Hm.  What happened?   Based on the good condition of the tail, this wasn't the remains of the same remains I found last week - this was a whole new squirrel.

I pocketed the body (or what was left of it) and took it inside for further investigation.  Here was what we found - a series of paired holes:

Our conclusion?  Raptor.  We surmise that some hawk probably picked this squirrel off the side of a tree.  It then grabbed the flesh of the animal and pulled it loose from the skin - the tips of the beak pinching (putting holes in) the skin as it did so.  Grab, tug, grab, tug, grab, tug - and then fling the unwanted portion (skin, tail, back legs) away.  This would also explain why there were no signs of a predator around the discarded skin (no tracks, no wing marks).

We got to see the foot up close, too - what a beautiful structure it is!

And note the stunningly rich coloration of the fur.  That's a fox squirrel - no doubt about it.

Ah - the joy of being a naturalist.  Who else would find such a discovery so fascinating?  I love my job!

Ice on Flowers

Our walk this morning went from forest to field - we wanted to see what the ice had done with the prairie plants.  It was so beautiful.  There were marbles:

 glass fingers:

and even paperweights:

Rows of frozen droplets on branches:

and globes that reflected the world around them:

I think tomorrow, if the sun is out again, I may have to return with my macro lens and tripod.

And the Sun Rises

 The thing about blizzards and terrible weather is that when the sun finally comes back out, the world is so very beautiful.

The deer went out on the frozen stream and dug a small hole 
to get to the water...we don't know why, for the stream was running
free just a short distance away.

The ice was catching the sun and flashing back brilliant crystals of color.
The camera wouldn't catch them...unless I took it out of focus: 

What a great day to be a naturalist!

I glanced up and saw a yellow ball in the tree.  Do you see it?

It's an oak apple, one of the many many types of galls that form on 
oak trees.  I will do a post about these will see
how fascinating they are. 

Buds on the prickly ash - a brilliant rusty orange.

Now there's a Christmas Tree with real Icicles!

More to come in the next post:  Ice on Flowers.