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Posts Tagged ‘Mammals’

Easter bunny Spring 2014

Local bunnies are quickly changing their winter coats for brown ones these days.  Though they may still be streaked with white above their noses and along their backsides, soon the snowshoe hares will be wearing solid brown.  Make that, solid chocolate brown.

snowshoe hare spring coat

Peter Rabbit on the runActually, it’s more like tawny brown.  But let’s not split hares.

Why you ask?  Well, it’s neither because brown is the new white in the Spring fashion world.  Nor is it because Peter Rabbit wore brown in Beatrix Potter’s children’s books.  Though naughty as he was, he did look quite charming.

They’re not wearing brown because the snow has *finally* disappeared from our neck of the woods and with it, all winter season apparel.

No, the reason why the local hares are wearing brown this week is because the daylight hours are getting longer.   Snowshoe hares have the most sensitive of eyes when it comes to differences in light.  Perhaps this is why they respond so readily with a change in fur color in spring and fall.

Easter bunny in woods

And since Easter takes place in late April this year, I’m sure the Easter Bunny will also be wearing a tawny coat.  However, in years when Easter takes place in March, he may very well be wearing white.  It’s all about camouflage with bunnies, whether they’re keeping a hop ahead of predators or sneaking around to hide Easter eggs.

bunny thinking

Wondering where the best places might be to hide eggs in the yard.

Hoppy Easter to all!

Text and photographs copyright Amy-Lynn Bell 2014

 

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snowshoe hare up close

Wild snowshoe hares are frequently seen in the yard.  They’re present year-round, but most visible during the spring and summer months.

Watching a hare through the window

Watching a hare through the window

We often watch them through the window as they munch on the lawn or rest under the trees.

Snowshoe hare resting under fir trees next to driveway

Snowshoe hare resting under fir trees next to driveway

One in particular often lays under some trees next to the driveway. It was looking especially relaxed yesterday afternoon.  If we are quiet as we come up the driveway and walk into the house, it will usually just open its eyes for a moment and then go back to its rest.

Hare with blended coat of brown and white fur in early spring

Hare with blended coat of brown and white fur in early spring

Unlike most rabbits, hares don’t make underground burrows.  When startled, they either freeze or leap out of sight.  Blending into the landscape is made easier by their varying coat color which is white in winter and brown in summer, a change dictated by daylight hours rather than how much snow is on the ground.  Consequently, a lack of snow cover in winter, or snow on the ground in late spring makes them vulnerable to predators.

snowshoe hare next to deck

Lately I’ve been looking for hare nests in the yard.  Unlike rabbits, hares are born with fur and open eyes, making them more alert to their above-ground surroundings.  In the past, I’ve replaced leverets (baby hares) back into their nest as they’ve jumped out after being startled by my lawnmower.  Leverets are left unattended during the day, visited by their mother only at night.

I haven’t found any nests yet this year, but it’s still early in the season.  Unfortunately, I’m not the only one looking…

Trespassing cat on the prowl

Trespassing cat on the prowl

Text and photographs copyright Amy-Lynn Bell 2013

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porcupine quills

We all know about porcupine quills, but what about this creature’s other parts?  Like humans, there’s a lot more to porcupines than first meets the eye.

Their lovely coat for example…  Due to the odd quill embedded with the fur, bristles and hair, it doesn’t necessarily invite petting, but certainly appears quite thick and warm.  Porcupines don’t hibernate, so this heavy coat would make our cold winters more tolerable.

porcupine coat

Look at those shiny black claws.  They’d come in handy for climbing and digging up roots.  And see that soft underbelly?  This is the tender, vulnerable part of porcupines that predators such as coyotes and fishers try to expose by flipping them over.  No wonder they keep it hidden.

porcupine claws

A quick whack of a porcupine’s tail will embed quills into an unwary predator.  The quills are barbed and a likely death sentence to an animal that gets a mouthful of them and becomes unable to eat.  Yikes!

porcupine tail

Though its orange teeth may leave something to be desired by the whitestrips crowd, this is a winning smile if ever there was one.  Like the beaver, a porcupine’s ever-growing rodent teeth are kept sharp and short by constant chewing on trees.

porcupine smile showing orange teeth

Who knew there was so much more to porcupines than just their quills?  This porcupine was more than generous with its willingness to pose before 6 am, especially while doing chin-ups for its early morning exercise routine.  Oops!  Since porcupines are nocturnal, better make that a late night exercise routine.

porcupine doing chin-ups

For more on porcupines, see:
Bark Nibblers
Porcupines in Apple Trees
Porcupines Along the Salt Marsh Trail

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porcupine ball

Why would a porcupine go so far out on a limb?  Wouldn’t it be safer closer to the trunk?  Although porcupines are quite good at balancing themselves, many fall to their death by venturing out on limbs.  I’ve seen porcupines on trees in the salt marsh before, but they were always clinging to thicker branches or resting on top of large evergreen boughs.

You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.
~ Will Rogers

porcupine head alb
Rogers’ quotation might apply to porcupines in apple trees, but this porcupine wasn’t on a fruit tree.  Porcupines will eat the inner bark of fir trees in winter when other food is more scarce, but although there are many fir trees in the marsh, this wasn’t one of them.  The porcupine was also hanging out on an island that’s a common roost for bald eagles in the marsh.  Eagles, coyotes and bobcats, all marsh residents, are known to prey on porcupines.   

porcupine on a limb

Why is this porcupine so far out on a limb?

This tree looks like a maple and it does appear as though some of its bark has been chewed.  Perhaps, with its acute sense of smell, the porcupine was lured by the scent of tender leaf buds that might be just beginning to emerge at the tips of the branches.  I can only wonder.

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Sparkles on this morning’s fresh layer of snow hint at the magic concealed beneath the white covering. Hidden under is a fantastical network of tunnels, best revealed in photos taken prior to this latest snowfall…

Look just below the pheasant tracks in the photo above.  Do you see those lines beneath the snow?  Although they look snake-like, these tunnels were made by voles, little rodents with tiny ears and short tails, also known as field mice.

Meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) are active year round and make tunnels in tall grass or under the snow as they travel from one part of their territory to another.  These super highways make for speedier trips, even in unclement weather.  They also allow voles to travel undetected by predators such as foxes, coyotes, bobcats and birds of prey.

Because a thin layer of snow has melted since the tunnels were made,  it’s possible to either see through their thin top layer or, where the top layer has melted completely, see straight down through to the tunnel itself.   

Voles are mostly nocturnal herbivores that supplement their grass diet with bark and seeds in the winter months.  Although one female vole may give birth to as many as 25 pups in one year, their life expectancy is quite short .  Most voles live for less than a year due to high predation.  Their population density can range from 14 to 500 per acre.

If you’re a foodie who’s keen on wild edibles and you’ve noticed some of these tunnels in your backyard, you might be inspired to try something new by reading my previous post on Vole Holes and Recipes.

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A fresh cover of snow on the ground usually reveals where snowshoe hares have been travelling.  Their numerous tracks often overlap in the woods where ‘bunny trails’ lead to and from favorite resting and feeding areas.  But not this year.  There isn’t a snowshoe hare track to be found. 

Snowshoe Hares

It’s been several months since I’ve caught sight of a single hare in the yard or along the Salt Marsh Trail.  Up until this past summer, it seemed like their numbers were growing.  They were visible on lawns and in the woods and parks.  However, snowshoe hare populations are known to rise and fall, usually every ten years or so.  This phenomenon takes place all across Canada.  In northern regions, their cycle coincides with that of the lynx.

Over the past year, bobcats have been sighted in Cow Bay.  Like the lynx,  they too prey on snowshoe hares, as do coyotes, foxes and eagles.  With so many predators in the area, as well as loss of habitat due to deforestation, it’s no wonder that hare numbers are low.  

Another factor that may have affected hare populations is that we didn’t have snow until recently, making any hares sporting winter coats easy targets for predators.  Hare coloring becomes whiter as daylight hours decrease in number.  

Next month, February 3rd will mark the first day of the Chinese New Year.  The 12 year cycle of animal years makes this coming year one of the rabbit.  Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll be seeing many bunnies this year.   At least not in Cow Bay.

Each thing is of like form from everlasting and comes round again in its cycle.
~  Marcus Aurelius

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Red foxes are sometimes visible early in the morning as they return to their dens after a long night of hunting.  Here in Cow Bay, I’ve seen them at dawn in my backyard, along Dyke and Cow Bay Roads and near Rainbow Haven Beach.

This morning some fox kits could be seen wrestling outside their den.  They were born earlier this spring and appear curious about the big world beyond the fox hole.  They were likely waiting for their mother to return from her hunt and are probably near the age when live food is brought back to the den for them to practice killing prey.  If you’ve ever returned from grocery shopping to a house full of hungry teenagers, you can imagine their anticipation.

Recently I saw and heard  a lone adult fox screaming loudly near the entrance to Rainbow Haven Park.  Though ‘screaming vixens’ are known to announce their availability during mating season, this usually takes place in winter, so there had to be some other reason why it was screaming so loudly.  Was it proclaiming its territory?   Coyotes and bobcats will both compete with foxes for food.  Residential development in the area is likely encroaching on everyone’s territory and food supply.

A quarter of a fox’s diet consists of invertebrates such as grasshoppers and beetles.  They are omnivorous canids that will also eat berries, grass, mice, birds and hares.  I’ve found caches of seagull and hare carcasses near their dens in past years. But a hungry litter of four to eight kits, that are regularly expending energy by wrestling, wouldn’t allow for too many leftovers. 

However, the woods are full of creatures at the bottom of the food chain and these are reproducing as well.  A vole scurried ahead of me as I was walking in the woods yesterday.  This hare also leapt across my path.  Considering how frequently small rodents and snowshoe hares are finding themselves on the menu of not just foxes, but coyotes and bobcats these days, I’m surely the least of their worries.

By August, the fox kits will have left the maternal den and be out on their own.  Which should give their mother a nice long break as she’ll only have to hunt for herself.  Until next spring.

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Many creatures rip up lawns.  In Nova Scotia, moles, voles, birds, skunks and raccoons are often the culprits.  Though you might have some suspicions as to what is doing the ripping, the only way to be sure is to catch the lawn ripper in action.  This morning I was lucky.

Though usually nocturnal, this raccoon was still looking for a meal as the sun was rising.  Raccoons have the manual dexterity to peel back the grass and moss to reveal tasty grubs and worms living beneath the surface.  Their ripping actions can leave large enough areas bare that a lawn is damaged.

Moles and voles, being smaller creatures, do smaller damage.  They also typically make trails or furrows in the grass.

Northern Flickers are birds that will also make holes in the lawn by digging  for ants with their beaks.  Their holes are made by a digging action rather than a peeling back.

This little darling gave me a good look before deciding to head for cover in the woods.  It was probably also tired after a long night of foraging.

A former neighbor told me much of her beautiful lawn was peeled back by raccoons some years ago.  After many attempts to deter them, she ended up live-trapping the critters.  They were then re-located by the Ministry of Natural Resources.

I don’t take the appearance of my lawn too seriously, so the lawn ripper is welcome to the insects in my yard.  I just wish it would have the courtesy to replace the divots.

For more information on dealing with nuisance raccoons in Nova Scotia, visit Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources.

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Hearing loud splashes in the deeper waters of the marsh is not unusual.  Fish are frequently active at the water’s surface and birds such as cormorants and ospreys will often dive under in search of food.  But this morning’s splash was much louder than usual and the surrounding ripples revealed that the diver was indeed quite large.

For several minutes, my eyes darted across the grey water, looking to see what would surface.  Once the creature emerged, I was not disappointed.  It was a harbor seal.

This is the first time I’ve seen a seal in the salt marsh.  Apparently it’s not uncommon for harbor seals to follow fish inland during high tide.  They’ll also feed on clams and crabs which are plentiful in the marsh.

The winter before last I managed to see a seal on the iced inlet behind Rainbow Haven Beach.  It was the first time I’d seen a live seal.  

Harbor seal behind Rainbow Haven - January 2009

Whether in the water or on the shore, harbor seals blend in very well with their surroundings.  I almost tripped on a dead one at Martinique Beach a couple of summers ago.  It was perfectly camouflaged among the rocks.  I wonder how many live ones have watched me over the years as I’ve walked along the shore, absorbed in thought.  Wildlife is all around us, whether or not we have the eyes to see.

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Spring’s longer days bring about a change in the color of hare fur. A hare gradually loses its winter white guard hairs as daylight hours increase.  While a white hare may be well camouflaged in a snow covered landscape, if it still has that white fur after all the snow has melted, it becomes an easy target for predators.

This year, an earlier spring has been enjoyed across Canada.  The ground is completely bare of snow earlier than usual in the season.

Recently, I’ve noticed two hares in the yard that seem to be at different stages of shedding their winter coats.  One is much whiter than the other.  The whiter hare is barely camouflaged while sitting on light colored grass.  The browner hare seems to blend in well either on the grass or in the woods among browned leaves.

Snowshoe hares play a vital role in the ecosystem of the Northern Boreal forest by providing food for such carnivores as  coyotes, foxes, bobcats, lynx, weasels, fishers and eagles.  There’s concern in the scientific community that fewer days of snow cover due to global warming may pose a negative impact on the hare population.

Both hares have been grazing regularly in my yard together for the past couple of weeks.  I’ve often found nests of baby hares in the wild rosebushes in past years.   Having survived the winter, hopefully these hares will also survive long enough to reproduce a litter of kittens later this spring.

For more information on the effects of climate change on snowshoe hares, see:
White Snowshoe Hares Can’t Hide on Brown Earth at Science Daily

For more information on Nova Scotia’s hares, see:
The Hare Whisperer and The Advantages of Being Harebrained

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Earlier this week, I spotted this large weasel-like creature at dawn along the rocky shore of the salt marsh.  Its brown fur blended in well with its surroundings.  It stood very still when it first noticed me, then moved slowly among the rocks.  Once it was on the grass it ran quickly away. 

A sign in the marsh reveals that otters have been spotted here. Otters feed primarily on fish which would explain its proximity to the shore.  Could this be an otter

I managed to get closer to this animal than these photographs reveal, but unfortunately, none of those images turned out well.  What I did observe at close range was its large fluffy tail.  It was covered with black hairs, while its body was medium brown.  I don’t recall its tail being as tapered as that of otters.  Also, its eyes were more closely set than those wide set ones typical of otters. 

So I’m wondering… could it be a fisher?  They’re usually crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk).  Their diet consists of snowshoe hares and porcupines (both plentiful in this marsh).  The fisher population in Nova Scotia is scattered and low. 

What do you think this animal might be?  [Below I've attempted to sharpen a blurred close-up image of the animal.]

In Nova Scotia, the mustelid or weasel family consists of fishers, martens, short-tailed weasels (ermine), mink, river otters and striped skunks.

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The raccoon that absconded with the suet ball last week is back.  His paired muddy prints on the snow tell the tale.  Raccoon tracks reveal five fingers that give them their marvelous dexterity.  Their tracks are usually plantigrade or flat-footed.

He’s been crawling under the deck looking for ‘who-knows-what’ and travelling to the side of the house where he’s proceeded to rip up the lawn, most likely in search of grubs.  Apparently, raccoons can hear the grubs crunching on the roots of grass. 

He’s also been digging in the hollyhock bed next to the foundation.  I don’t know if he was able to find what he was looking for, but he sure did leave a mess.  Years ago, one of my neighbors had to use a live trap to catch and relocate raccoons that were tearing up her lawn. 

Raccoons eat a great variety of foods:  insects, amphibians, fish, small mammals, birds and eggs.  They’ll also eat roadkill, seeds and suet balls, plus whatever food humans will put out in their garbage. 

Most of the neighbors make use of garbage cans or boxes to avoid the inevitable mess that plastic bags would invite.  The city of Halifax also provides residents with large green compost containers that are picked up every second week.

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