Friday, February 7, 2014

Wildlife Stories in Snow

The bobcat track followed the stream bed, crossed a field, led into a floodplain forest, and then the wild cat jumped down to the frozen edge of the Cockermouth River in Hebron, New Hampshire
Above left: the bobcat sat to look out over the Cockermouth River, got up and walked along the log, then jumped down to the Cockermouth River: Above right: the bobcat walks along the river; Below right: a close-up of the bobcat track in the snow--no claws showing & more rounded than a canid.

We followed the bobcat tracks along the river a short distance, then we paused at the stump of a tree sticking out of the ice along the shore. Our leader for this wildlife tracking workshop, Dan Gardoqui of White Pine Programs in Cape Neddick Maine, said that the bobcat stopped here to mark the stump.
Dan stands in front of the marked stump; I knelt down to sniff about half way up the stump
and got a strong whiff of cat urine. Powerful stuff.

We saw the tracks of several other predators, crisscrossing the same territory of fields, forest, and river. This included coyote, red fox, gray fox, mink, weasel. There were red and gray squirrel tracks, and signs of flying squirrel, and mice and voles, but not enough, it didn't seem, to satisfy this crowd of meat-eaters. 

The small mammals take risks. A large field held a network of tiny tracks--either meadow voles or short-tailed shrews (they have similar track patterns). Some of the trails stretched across the entire field--more than 150 feet. That is a long way for a dark-colored animal to travel at night on white snow. There's danger afoot.

Short-tailed shrews maintain a larger home range than voles and they have a toxic venom for catching prey and they smell bad to other animals that might try to eat them. So, I am thinking that the risky behavior we observed on this snow-covered field was indeed that of shrews, as they likely travel farther and have more protections than voles.

We saw signs of birds too. A ruffed grouse left its print in the snow. Mostly it walked slowly, but then in one spot it put on a burst of speed-walking--you can tell in the photo below when grouse walked slowly and then faster--maybe to reach the safe cover of a hemlock bough.

We found the droppings from a pileated woodpecker beneath a dead white pine tree. In the photo below, the tree worked over by the woodpecker is on the right. On the left, zoomed into the pile of wood chips flicked off by the woodpecker, is its bird dropping. The picture doesn't show it properly, but the dropping is full of wings and skeletons of carpenter ants, the pileated's favorite food.

Throughout the day we took time away from looking at the tracks at our feet to look up at the buds of shrubs and trees, and the gorgeous winter, blue sky overhead.
So many stories painted in the snow on that day earlier this week. Yesterday's snowstorm would have erased those stories and now new ones are surely written in the fresh snow.

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