On our back porch, in a pocket of light from the window, was what looked to be an oversized rat wearing white face powder. As it gobbled down cat food, it flashed a demented crocodile grin. My mother shrieked.
This was my first encounter with an opossum.
This species, still described as “neotropical” by some sources, has been moving north since at least the 1950’s. In many parts of the northeast, opossums (frequently shortened to “possums”) are as familiar as squirrels. Yet this is no mere rodent. » Continue Reading.
Fat gets a bad rap in the medical world, for good reason. Excessive body fat is linked to a litany of health risks, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Yet in the realm of nature, fat is a lifesaver. If certain mammals that hibernate did not get fat, they would be dead by spring.
The woodchuck is something of a fat specialist. As many an irate gardener can attest, the woodchuck’s diet consists of perishable greens. Because these can’t be stored, the animal stockpiles all the food energy it needs to survive winter in a thick layer of body fat. » Continue Reading.
Many years ago, I lived in San José, California where the weather forecast went something like this: Sunny for three weeks, one day of rain, followed by many more weeks of sun. There was a sameness to the weather that bordered on the banal and never made me wonder what was going on.
Not so here in the Northeast. The mercurial nature of our weather keeps us wondering from day to day – often hour to hour – when it’s going to change. The uncertainty is never more present than in the winter, when at times we’re blessed with that trifecta of miserable driving conditions: snow, sleet, and freezing rain.
Why is it that a day could start with a delicate snowfall and suddenly shift to a clattering sleet and end in an icy glaze – but the mercury doesn’t move? Or the temperature will be 30 degrees in both Elizabethtown and Plattsburgh, but snow will fall in one and freezing rain in the other? Clearly the thermometer is telling only part of the story. » Continue Reading.
We humans tend to cringe at winter temperatures. We put on extra layers, crank up the thermostat, and wait impatiently for the tell-tale drip of spring thaw. However, there are plenty of tiny organisms all around us that aren’t just biding their time; they’re thriving in the bitter cold. If you could listen to as well as watch them under a microscope, you wouldn’t hear a single complaint about the temperature.
Psychrophiles, literally “cold lovers,” are organisms adapted to live at extremely cold temperatures. These are single-celled life forms, most often bacteria, but also blue green algae, yeasts, and fungi that can grow at temperatures as low as -13 degrees. » Continue Reading.
In November, as the last colors of autumn are fading, the stark outlines of tree branches are revealed. During this time you might be lucky enough to see an occasional dark mass, looking from a distance like a burl.
Recently, on a hike through a dense forest, I spied one such anomaly high up in a white ash tree. Walking closer, I saw that this shape was a porcupine. It seemed asleep. After circling the area looking for quills and other markings, I shuffled noisily away. When I turned back, the porcupine was heading further up the tree. The branch it clung to bent precariously as the wind picked up, but the tenacious climber hung on. » Continue Reading.
My favorite season tends to be whatever comes next, which means, for now, deep winter. With our storm windows installed and four tons of wood pellets put up, I’m feeling smug as the ant in Aesop’s fable. But what about the furred and feathered creatures out there in the cold?
When I imagine a Canada goose on an icy pond, or a white tail knee deep in the white stuff, it makes me shiver and wonder: How do warm-blooded animals stay warm?» Continue Reading.
Hang off, thou cat, thou burr! vile thing, let loose,
Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent!
-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The aroma of wood smoke lingers as you take your evening stroll. The sun has slipped behind the hills as the moon takes its watch at the other end of the valley. It’s the moment of twilight when solid figures are no longer discernible from shadows, and so you fail to notice the tiny hitchhiker lurking beside the path.
Upon your return, you reach down to untie your shoes and feel a painful pinch. After a blood-curdling “YOWCH!” you reach the light switch. Once your eyes adjust, you see the culprit – a spine-covered bur.
It’s no easy task getting to the roots of a burdock plant (anyone who’s ever tried to pull one out of the soil will know this pun is intended). Both burdocks (in the genus Arctium), and their look-alike cousins the cockleburs (in the genus Xanthium), belong to the aster family, a huge group that includes sunflowers and goldenrods. They are also both characterized by a tendency to prick fingers and ride through the laundry cycle on socks. » Continue Reading.
Hard mast, the term used to refer to the nuts wild trees produce, is humbling this way. We know that, generally speaking, trees require a lot of energy to produce nuts, and so a tree won’t produce them every year. The books say every two or three years for beech nuts and three to seven years for oaks, but take it all with a grain of salt.
There are advantages, from a tree’s perspective, to being unpredictable. Abundant years followed by lean years keep seed predators in check. (Biologists call this predator satiation.) In a good year, the woods are flooded with nuts – more than any squirrel or mouse can eat. The next fall, when rodent populations are high thanks to all the easy living, the trees take the year off and the surplus rodents starve. » Continue Reading.
This past year Mary Grose of Herkimer County become a certified Sportsman Education instructor through the Department of Environmental Conservation. The Almanack asked her to relate her experience for our readers.
Hunting symbolizes tradition, family, and a fair chase. Growing up in rural New York State, I was surrounded by the sport of hunting. Friends and family would share hunting stories throughout the years and I wanted to become part of that tradition. As a young girl I was privileged to have a father and brother who taught me about hunting. Now that I am older and an educated hunter I want to share my love of the outdoors with others. » Continue Reading.
On a morning walk around the pond, the dog and I encountered a dead shrew – perhaps the unfortunate casualty of a neighborhood feline or a red fox (shrews are well-known for being distasteful to mammalian predators). When I picked it up and noticed its velvety black fur, long tail, and unusually large hind feet, I realized that this was a species I did not recognize. I tossed it on the passenger seat of the car so I could identify it later at work.
Like all shrews, this small, mouse-like mammal lying on my desk had a long pointed snout and tiny eyes. Its minuscule ears were barely visible, covered by short velvety fur. As I stroked the soft black hair, I noticed that the fur offered little resistance no matter which direction my finger passed over it, a perfect adaptation for life underground, permitting the animal to slide easily through a tight tunnel in any direction. » Continue Reading.
Who left that soccer ball on the front lawn? Come on, you know it didn’t just grow there.
Pretending to confuse a giant puffball mushroom with a soccer ball (or vice versa) is a well-worn joke among mushroom foragers. For the rest of us, finding out that there exists a common mushroom in New York, Vermont and New Hampshire that frequently grows to soccer ball size sounds like more of a hidden-camera, the-joke’s-on-you kind of gag.
Not only do these giant mushrooms exist, says Ari Rockland Miller, a Vermont based mushroom foraging expert, they are edible, even delectable, early in their lifecycle, when their flesh is white and has the consistency of Styrofoam. » Continue Reading.
Two chipmunks vie for seeds on our front lawn. One lives directly underneath the bird feeder. Another hails from the far side of the house, address unknown.
The chipmunks appear identical to me: same size, same stripes. Same interests, namely seed hoarding, aggressive chittering, jumping into the bushes and back out again, and brazen stiff-tailed standoffs with the dog.
However, some aspects of these chipmunks’ behavior are probably distinctive. Experiments have demonstrated that a chipmunks’ choosiness about what food they collect, how fully they stuff their cheek pouches, and even how quickly they stuff food in there all relate to the distance between a foraging site and a home burrow. » Continue Reading.
Fall is in full swing: foggy mornings, cold rains, and falling leaves. Time to talk about…tadpoles!? That’s right, while we may be accustomed to discussing tadpoles in spring and summer, they’re still around and they’re gearing up for winter.
Imagine your local pond. Under a slate gray autumn sky, the pond is mostly quiet. Only an occasional peep (called the “fall echo”) escapes from the reeds, where previously an amphibian chorus declared its presence. Yet despite the chill and silence, frog life continues. Most of the summer’s broods hopped onto land at least a month ago. Others will hibernate in the coming months as polliwogs.
So how do tadpoles “decide” when to change into frogs? And why do some of them stay in tadpole form all winter? » Continue Reading.
Of the many questions one is left with after listening to the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice”, none is more vexing than how three blind rodents were able to chase anything, let alone a farmer’s wife. As the three mice in question died in 1805, we’ll probably never know the full answer. There are some clues in the scientific record, though. The fact is, mice and other nocturnal rodents can take in sophisticated three dimensional information about their surroundings without using their eyes.
Rodent eyes don’t function like our eyes. Ours are on the front of our head and we see in stereo, their eyes are on the side of their head and their field of vision doesn’t overlap. Our eyes always move together, a rodent’s eyes can move in opposite directions. If a rat points its snout downward, its eyes look up, rather than where its nose is pointing. If its head tilts down to the right, the right eye looks up while the left eye looks down. » Continue Reading.
Since as far back as I can remember, the sight of a group of turtles basking on a log has made me pause to enjoy their prehistoric appearance. Most summer days during my early childhood were spent wading in neighborhood ponds to stalk painted turtles and spotted turtles with a long-handled net, while avoiding the larger snapping turtles that were lurking beneath the surface. Stumbling upon an eastern box turtle or a musk turtle, something that has happened far too infrequently, was often the natural history highlight of my year.
This summer, I had what may be my best turtle day ever when I stopped my car to help a turtle cross the road. It turned out to be a rare wood turtle, the first I had ever seen, and an animal that is unmistakable for its striking appearance. » Continue Reading.
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