Thursday, February 17, 2011

Nocturnal Adirondacks: Skunks On A Night Hike

With plenty of snow on the ground, a moon that is only a day or two past being full, and the possibility of breaks in the clouds, this weekend promises to be one of those occasions when enough natural light will exist to venture outside and explore the nocturnal side of nature in the Adirondacks.

While it may not be wise to bushwhack through a thick cedar swamp or a dense grove of hemlocks, regardless of how bright it may be, there is generally enough illumination around the time of a full moon in winter to travel through more open settings. Stretches of seasonal roads, well-used snowshoe paths, and hiking trails that extend into hardwood areas or around forest clearings are sites where travel is possible hours after the sun has set.
Taking a night time stroll can be quite exciting, especially during the latter part of February, as this is the time of year when the yelping howl of the coyote, that signals the onset of its mating season, can often be heard. Likewise, both the red and gray fox will soon be entering their breeding periods, and their vocalizations may also break the stillness of the night.

For anyone with an active imagination, hearing wildlife sounds echoing from the shadows can be quite unsettling. However, in the Adirondacks, only an encounter with a skunk would pose any real danger to a nocturnal traveler.

Among the various mammals that become dormant for the winter, the skunk is the one with the shortest period of inactivity. This relatively docile weasel typically enter its den a week or two after Thanksgiving, and then rouses from its sleep as soon as the first substantial thaw occurs in February. The warm weather that our region has experienced the past several days is enough to entice this black and white critter to temporarily leave the confines of its burrow and begin to wander for short distances around the semi-open sections of forests in which it strongly prefers to reside. (These are the same semi-open settings that are perfect for night time hikes by people around the time of a full moon.)

Even though the skunk has been dormant the past ten weeks, its body still continued to produce the evil-smelling chemical that serves as its best defense against intruders. The glands that secrete and store this amber colored fluid are small, holding an equivalent of several teaspoons. So, when a skunk exits its den during the latter part of winter, it has more than an ample supply of this substance to spray any thing that it might deem a threat to its well being.

During the warmer months of the year, the skunk uses its musk sparingly. It takes several days for a skunk’s body to replenish what is discharged in discouraging the advances of an unwelcome intruder, and repeated bursts can quickly exhaust its reserves. However, on those nights when it leaves its den in late February and during March, the skunk is never hesitant to spray this fluid in the vicinity of a potential threat. In this way, the skunk attempts to quickly re-educate the nocturnal wildlife residents of its surroundings, and any neighborhood dog, that it is serious about being left alone as it wanders through the area.

Since the black and white pattern on the skunk’s back closely matches the background of snow and shadows in a wooded setting, it is never easy to spot one of these animals when out for a walk at night. This is why it is important to exercise some caution should you decide to go for a hike this weekend. As a general rule, the Adirondacks are the safest place to spend time in the wilderness when considering attacks from wild creatures. Yet, toward the end of February, and well into the next month, an encounter with a skunk, especially if you have a pet accompanying you, may prove that there is one mammal that can transform a peaceful outing into a most unpleasant experience.

(Note: Regardless of how bright it is, it’s always a good idea to bring some type of artificial light when hiking at night, as a thick cloud layer can quickly diminish a person’s ability to see, especially in wooded settings.)

Photo: Hiking Thomas Mountain in Bolton Landing at night. Photo courtesy Almanack contributor Jeffrey Farbaniec, from his blog The Saratoga Skier and Hiker.


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Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

3 Responses

  1. Tom Kalinowski says:
    • Patricia Leadley says:

      Dear Tom,
      “. . . only an encounter with a skunk would pose any real danger . . .”? I wish you had qualified that by adding that while not dangerous to humans in the usual sense, getting sprayed by a skunk is unsettling in that their spray has a smell no one can love, and if in the eyes, it stings.
      Why do I care? I am possibly the only human for whom skunk smell has pleasant associations! As a child, in the car with my parents and two sisters, on our yearly jaunt from Staten Island to our wonderful summer home in the Catskills to spend another idyllic summer, when the sudden smell of skunk blew into the car, I knew we were nearly there! So skunk smell makes me happy!
      I know, it’s weird. But it’s true. And it’s too bad to set the idea of these harmless animals in peoples’ minds as dangerous! They really pose no real danger to people or other animals.
      Pat Leadley, Piseco, NY, year-round Adirondack resident since 1966
      PS: I saw a skunk in my yard around 6 am today. I felt a sudden rush of happiness!

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