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Posts Tagged ‘Mammals’

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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