Posts Tagged ‘Small Mammals’

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Red Squirrels: Feisty Adirondack Rodents

Who hasn’t gone for a walk in the Adirondacks and been sputtered at by a small rodent up in a tree? This russet-colored animal, the red squirrel, is probably the most commonly seen (and heard) mammal within the Blue Line. In fact, even as I write this, a red squirrel is fussing outside the window. Is another squirrel encroaching on its perceived turf? Is it trying to scare the birds away from the mother load of sunflower seeds we placed on the platform feeders? Who knows? I sometimes think these squirrels cuss at the world simply because they can.

Here in the Adirondacks we have several members of the squirrel clan. Starting with the smallest and working our way upwards, we have the eastern chipmunk (small, striped, sleeps away the winter), the red squirrel (small, reddish year-round raider of birdfeeders), the flying squirrel (northern and southern species, both of which are nocturnal), the grey (and sometimes black) squirrel (larger, more often found in villages and urban areas, as well as forests dominated by hardwoods), and (drum roll please) the woodchuck (bet you didn’t know that this was a squirrel). But today I’m focusing on the red squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, that feisty, surly, aggressive, and yet adorable rodent that calls the north woods home. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

New Otter Joins Wild Center Family

The Wild Center introduced its newest member of the family this week. Remy, a one year-old river otter from Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, joins Squeaker, Squirt and Louie at the newly expanded Otter Falls, the most popular exhibition at the Center. Remington, or Remy for short, is named for Frederic Remington, the American painter, illustrator, sculptor and writer who was born in nearby Canton, NY.

Dennis Money, who was the President of the New York River Otter Project (NYROP), officially welcomed Remy, while marking the 15th Anniversary of the River Otter Project. In 1995, the NYROP and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation launched the project that successfully released 279 river otters in Central and Western New York. Most of the released otters were trapped in the Adirondacks. Money also spoke about his experiences restoring other species, including peregrine falcons, in New York State. Money’s stories merge with the Center’s new Return of the Wild exhibition that explores how wild animals are returning to the Adirondacks.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Adirondack Wildlife Through the Seasons Lecture

Lake Placid photographer and regular Adirondack Almanack contributor Larry Master will show images of the diverse wildlife that can be seen through the cycle of an Adirondack year. Mammals, birds, and amphibians of the Adirondacks will be featured.

This special presentation of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) will be held on Saturday, July 31, at 8:00 PM at the ADK’s High Peaks Information Center, located at Heart Lake in Lake Placid. This presentation is free and open to the public.

This presentation is part of ADK’s Saturday Evening Lecture Series which offer presentations on natural history, backcountry recreation, Adirondack history, art, and music.

The Adirondack Mountain Club, founded in 1922, is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to protecting the New York State Forest Preserve and other wild lands and waters through conservation and advocacy, environmental education and responsible recreation.

For more information about programs, directions or questions about membership, contact ADK North Country office in Lake Placid (518) 523-3441 or visit our Web site at www.adk.org.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fur, Fortune, and Empire: A History of American Fur Trade

“The fur trade was a powerful force in shaping the course of American history from the early 1600s through the late 1800s,” Eric Jay Dolin writes in his new comprehensive history Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. “Millions of animals were killed for their pelts, which were used according to the dictates of fashion — and human vanity,” Dolin writes. “This relentless pursuit of furs left in its wake a dramatic, often tragic tale of clashing cultures, fluctuating fortunes, and bloody wars.”

The fur trade spurred imperial power struggles that eventually led to the expulsions of the Swedes, the Dutch, and the French from North America. Dolin’s history of the American fur trade is a workmanlike retelling of those struggles that sits well on the shelf beside Hiram Martin Chittenden’s 1902 two-volume classic The American Fur Trade of the Far West, and The Fur Trade in Colonial New York, 1686-1776., the only attempt to tell the story of the fur trade in New York. The latter volume, written by Thomas Elliot Norton, leaves no room for the Dutch period or the early national period which saw the fur trade drive American expansion west.

Dolin’s Fur Fortune, and Empire, is not as academic as last year’s Rethinking the Fur Trade: Cultures of Exchange in an Atlantic World by Susan Sleeper-Smith. It’s readable, and entertaining, ranging from Europe, following the westward march of the fur frontier across America, and beyond to China. Dolin shows how trappers, White and Indian, set the stage for the American colonialism to follow and pushed several species to the brink of extinction. Among the characters in this history are those who were killed in their millions; beaver, mink, otter, and buffalo.

Eric Jay Dolin’s focus, as it was with his last book Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, is the intersection of American history and natural history. Readers interested in the history of the New York fur trade will find this book enlightening for it’s connection of the state’s fur business with the larger world as the first third deals with the period before the American Revolution, when New York fur merchants and traders were still a dominate factor. Yet, like last year’s Sleeper-Smith book, Dolin’s newest volume is simply outlines the wider ground on which the still necessary volume on the fur trade in New York might be built.

Note: Books noticed on this site have been provided by the publishers. Purchases made through this Amazon link help support this site.


Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hawk Migration Into The Adirondacks

On a warm spring day we may look out over some open field with a mountainous backdrop, and while admiring the simple beauty of it all we might perchance see a hawk flying over the field in great spiraling flights as it rides a column of warm air from the valley below.

We learn, as we watch its flight pattern, that this hawk is hunting the fields in search of mice or other small mammals. We wonder how this bird has spent the winters because we never see it during the cold months in the Adirondacks.

Many species of hawk are migratory. Some spend several of our winter months in the warmer climes of Mexico, Central America, and even South America. But it was not until recent times that we discovered this phenomena of hawk, and falcon migration in Eastern North America.

Readers might be familiar with the broad-winged hawk. They are common throughout the lower elevations of the Adirondacks and can often be seen in hardwood forests or around open spaces.

But let’s take a look at the arduous journey this species and other hawk species have to make in order to reach the nesting grounds of our Adirondack woodlands.

Broad-wings can be found deep in Central America during our winter but by May they have completed a huge migratory pathway along the Appalachian Mts and end up nesting in our woodlands.

For the most part, broad-wings will follow the mountains along the east coast because they provide a “highway” of warm air thermals(air rising up from the valley floors) and these thermals are what the hawks soar on as they fly north. Soaring expends less energy than constantly flapping wings.

After safely negotiating the mountains and strong winds, the hawks then face another obstacle in their way. Water! Most hawks do not like to fly over large bodies of water. In our case those bodies of water are the Great Lakes.

The two eastern-most lakes, being Erie and Ontario, have become home to some of the best known spring hawkwatching areas in the United States. Hawks, while migrating, will encounter the open lakes and suddenly slam on the brakes and re-configure their flight direction….around the water.

As they adjust, they find the shoreline of these lakes more to their liking. So any wide open viewing areas along the shoreline can yield views of these hawks streaming along the shoreline on their northward march.

Places like Derby Hill, and Braddock Bay along southern Lake Ontario offer phenomenal viewing opportunities. A bit closer to home one can find some good viewing along Lake Champlain on top of Coon Mountain, just north of Westport in Essex County.

What a pleasure it is to watch these majestic raptors as they cruise their way over valleys and mountains to finally settle into quite forests, and raise a family all in the shelter of these Adirondacks.

Photo: Red-tailed hawk-Brian McAllister


Thursday, April 8, 2010

State Politics and New York’s Beavers

Like the Adirondack forest itself, New York’s beaver population had been harvested almost to the point of extinction before Albany took steps to revive it. It’s especially apt, then, that the coalition of groups lobbying to rescue the state’s Environmental Protection Fund from the Governor’s budget cuts has chosen the beaver to be its “spokesman” for the cause.

The beaver, of course, is the official animal of New York State.

A few years ago, I wrote an editorial for the Lake George Mirror about the political history of the state’s official animal. (The level of malfeasance among local governments must have been at an all-time low that week.)

I reproduce it here:

When government throws money at a problem, on occasion results ensue. Just not the results government intended.

For the second spring in a row, the state Department of Environmental Conservation extended the trapping season for beavers. As farmers and homeowners know, New York has too many beavers. Less than a century ago, however, the beaver was virtually extinct in New York State, and the legislature voted to finance a program to repatriate them to the Adirondacks. Unlike programs to restock the elk and the moose, this one worked.

In the August 1904 issue of ‘Field & Stream,’ Harry V. Radford reported, “Another measure which the writer caused to be introduced in the last Legislature, and which has just become a law through the Governor’s approval, is what has been known as the Beaver Restoration Bill. It carries an appropriation of $500, with which the Forest Fish and Game Commission is authorized to purchase wild beaver and liberate them in the Adirondacks.”

Radford was the individual most responsible for a program begun three years earlier to restock the Adirondacks with moose. Shortly after his victory on behalf of the beaver, he disappeared, reportedly in the Arctic, killed by his eskimo guides.

The Beaver, however, thrived. In 1905, three pairs were liberated, two in Big Moose Lake, which they quickly abandoned for a river twenty miles to the northeast. That same year, the Fish and Game Commission reported that the remnants of an original colony had been discovered in the marshy waters northwest of Upper Saranac Lake. The combined population of natives and transplants was roughly Forty. By 1914, that population had grown to 1,500 or even 2,000. The 1914 Conservation Commission report trumpeted: “The Adirondacks today are again entitled to their old Iroquois name, for they are rapidly becoming the country of the Beaver.”

The beaver was so successful in re-establishing himself in New York State that in 1975 he became the official state animal. Oregon objected, asserting that it had already claimed the beaver for itself. The editor of The Conservationist Magazine tried to soothe bad tempers on both sides by saying “Thanks to conservation there are enough beavers to provide state mammals for both states.” More than enough, apparently.

For more news and commentary from Lake George, subscribe to the Lake George Mirror

Photo of beaver from Lake George Mirror files.


Monday, April 5, 2010

Phil Brown: ‘What’s Your Favorite Wildlife Experience?’

If you subscribe to the Adirondack Explorer, you’re probably familiar with our Brief Bio feature. For each issue, we ask some notable person to answer a list of standard questions. One of them is, What’s your most memorable wildlife experience?

I’d like to ask you the same question.

If you spend a lot of time in the Adirondacks, you probably have several wildlife stories to tell, so feel free to share more than one.

One of my favorite wildlife experiences occurred two summers ago, when I paddled with a friend and his son from Long Lake to Tupper Lake. On the first night, we canoed to a lean-to on the Cold River, where we spent the night in splendid isolation from civilization. The next day we continued our journey down a wild stretch of the Raquette and came upon a female common merganser followed by more than a dozen chicks. Whenever we approached, they would skitter ahead, roiling the water, then settle back into their lazy ways. Finally, they tired of the game and let us pass.

Later in the day we arrived at the mile-long carry around Raquette Falls. After finishing the portage, we went to the lower falls for lunch. It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and warm. As we ate, three mergansers approached the falls. When they got to the brink, they retreated to a little pool out of the current.

We watched them, wondering what they would do next. The ducks must have been pondering the same thing. After a minute or so, the bravest re-entered the current, followed by the others. One by one, they plunged over the falls, disappeared beneath the foam, and popped up like corks a few yards downstream. They then continued their merry way, bobbing through the rapids and out of sight.

It was a sudden—and surprising—solution to the ducks’ dilemma. And it cracked us up.

I have some other stories I could tell, but I’d like to hear yours.

Photo of female merganser from Wikipedia.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bat Populations Plummet

In February 2006 a caver photographing hibernating bats in Howe Caverns near Albany noticed some bats with an unusual white substance on their muzzles. The following January New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) biologists documented more bats with white noses, bats behaving erratically, and numbers of dead bats. Since then NY DEC biologists have been monitoring more than 30 winter bat “hibernacula” in New York’s caves and mines. Over the past three years 93% of the bats in the Northeast, afflicted with what is known as “white-nosed syndrome,” have died. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, more than a million bats have perished from New Hampshire to Virginia in the past four years! » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Adirondack Predators: Owls in Winter

Every winter we have a barred owl that takes up watch just off the back deck here at the VIC, and we remember every visit it makes. Sometimes he (she?) is here off and on for a couple weeks, and sometimes it’s only a quick visit of a day or two. However long, or brief, its stay, it is always a welcome sight.

Barred owls (Strix varia) are fairly common around these parts. With their pale plumage, rounded heads, and big brown eyes, they seem to us mere humans to be a softer, gentler owl than their fiercer-looking cousins the great-horned owls (Bubo virginianus). Like all owls, they have nearly silent flight, thanks to the special fringed edges on their flight feathers and the extra fluffy body feathers that help muffle sound. This stealth coating, so to speak, comes in very handy when you are hunting for nocturnal prey, for food that is out at night tends to have good hearing.

Which brings up a good question. If owls are nocturnal (with some exceptions, like the snowy owl), then why is this particular bird visiting our bird feeders during the day? A couple potential answers come to mind. First, it is not uncommon to see owls active during the day, especially when that day is overcast (like much of this winter has been). A cloudy, gloomy day may seem like nothing more than an extended twilight to a hungry owl.

Second, we have made our bird feeding area a great hunting place for predators interested in small birds and small mammals. One glance at the ground in the winter brings this clearly into focus: fox, squirrel, mouse, and bird tracks are everywhere! Every winter we chuck a conifer tree over the railing to provide shelter for small birds and mammals. Mice and squirrels are particularly appreciative of this gesture, which in turn brings in the predators. When I lead tracking workshops, I can just about guarantee “fresh” fox tracks beelining from the woods towards the feeders.

I’ve watched barred owls hunting during the day along roadsides in winter. One particular time I was cruising into Minerva when a barred owl perched on a speed limit sign caught my attention. I hit the breaks, turned the car around, and parked, watching and waiting along with the bird. Although it was fully aware of my presence, its attention was focused on the snowbank beneath the sign.

After about ten minutes or so, the owl flung itself from the sign and landed with a face- and foot-plant in the snow, its outstretched wings caught on top of the snow above its head. It hopped a bit, shuffled its feet, then struggled to lift off…empty footed. There must’ve been some small rodent beneath the snow that the owl, with its hypersensitive hearing, could detect, but either the bird’s aim was off or the rodent was too fast, for it got away. Many folks don’t realize that predators tend to miss their prey more often than not. It’s a tough thing being a predator, a life full of peril (what if the prey fights back?) and potential starvation (food gets away from you, the snow is too deep for you to hunt successfully, etc.).

This is why I don’t mind too terribly much when a raptor snags a bird at my feeding stations, which invariably happens at least once every winter (and if I’m lucky I get to see it). After all, they are birds, too, and they also need to feed. If they are smart enough to realize that bird feeders are essentially convenience stores, then more power to them. Same goes for foxes and weasels. I’m an equal opportunity feeder.

This is a great time of year to go on an owl prowl, for owl mating season is upon us. Great-horned owls will soon wind down their mating, while barred owls will soon be starting. Now is the time to go out at night to listen for owl calls. The barred owl has the soft “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-allllll” pattern, while the great-horned is the typical eight-hooter: “hoo-hoohoo-hoo-hoo-hoo” (okay, that was only six, but they can do up to eight or so at a time).

If you are really lucky, you might hear the truck-backing-up “toot-toot-toot-toot” of the northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus). About three years ago we had a couple saw-whets (tiny little owls) hanging out near the golf course and every night for a week or two I would hear them tooting away when I took the dog for his evening stroll. Haven’t heard one since.

If you want to find winter owls, your best bet is to go out at night and listen for their calls. But, if standing out in the cold on a clear winter night isn’t your thing, then put on some snowshoes and go for a walk in the woods on an overcast day. You want to look up in trees, where fairly good-sized branches attach to the trunk. It is here that owls will sit during the day, with their feathers fluffed up and their eyes (did you know they have feathers on their eyelids?) shut. They blend in perfectly with their trees of choice, often looking like just another bump on a limb. They can be difficult to spot.

If you want more of a sure thing, you can keep an eye on the bird hotlines for announcements of recent owl sightings: short-earred owls at the Saratoga Battlefield; snowy owls at Fort Edwards, northern hawk-owls at Bloomingdale bog, great greys in Watertown. Unusual birds get groupies, and all you need to do to find these itinerant birds is find the people with the binoculars and big camera lenses. A group of birdie nerds is a whole lot easier to spot in a snowy field than a single snowy owl, and the chances are that they will be more than happy to help you find the bird they’ve all flocked to see themselves. Birders are like that – they think everyone is a potential bird nut like themselves and they are eager to recruit.

So, find yourself a birding group and keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for the owls of winter. They are out there, and if you want to see them, you have to get out there, too.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Red and The Grey – A Look at Adirondack Foxes

Several years ago, while living in an old farm house in rural central New York, I woke one morning to a strange sound. It was somewhere between a cough and a bark, and it was coming from in front of the house. I crept through the bedrooms upstairs and peered out the window. To my surprise, I saw a red fox skulking around the sugar maples, apparently calling for its mate. Fast forward to about four years ago when someone sent in a recording to NCPR asking if anyone knew what the mysterious sound was. Although it had been several years, I recognized it immediately: the coughing bark of a red fox. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget it.

The Adirondack Mountains are home to two species of fox: the red (Vulpes vulpes) and the grey (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Both are small members of the dog family, and both, especially the grey, are considered to be cat-like canines. Their small size, their eyes with vertically contracting pupils, and the grey’s ability to climb trees certainly make them seem more like cats than dogs, yet there they sit on the taxonomic tree next to Fido, Wiley and The Wolf. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

There’s No Such Thing as a Snowshoe Rabbit

Tradition can be difficult to refute. And as often as we may disagree with our families, we tend to cling to those things that “grandpa always said,” like calling those wild canids coydogs, and referring to deer antlers as horns. One of the very common misnomers around the Adirondacks is the snowshoe rabbit. I hate to say it, but there’s no such beast; what we have is a snowshoe hare.

Now some folks may think this is splitting hairs (no pun intended), but rabbits and hares, despite looking the same, are different animals. And it’s not merely a case of one having longer (or shorter) ears than the other, or one changing color and the other not. Nope, the differences are extensive, and they include biology, physiology and behavior.

Before you get all flustered, you can rest assured that there are cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridans) in the Adirondacks, but not throughout the whole Park. The cottontail can be found in the southern, eastern and northern lowland parts of the Park. It is not a cold-hardy animal. In fact, like the opossum, it only arrived relatively recently in the Adirondack region, believed to have moved northward as agriculture opened up wilderness areas.

On the other hand, the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) has been around forever and can be found throughout the Park, at all elevations, wherever conifers are present (in wetlands, lowlands, or on mountains). It is an animal designed for the cold, from its large furry feet feet to its varying fur. But the differences are more than skin deep.

For ease of discussion, here’s a list of differences:

• Rabbits have large back feet. The snowshoe hare has enormous back feet (on significantly longer back legs).
• Rabbits live in borrows or dens underground, complete with fur-lined nests. Hares build small depressions on top of the ground for their nests; otherwise, they shelter in dense stands of conifers.
• Cottontails are always brown-ish (unless you have an albino). Snowshoe hares change color: white in winter (with black tips on their ears), and brown in summer.
• Baby rabbits are called bunnies, and they are born naked, blind, and totally helpless (altricial). Baby hares are called leverets and are born fully-furred and with their eyes open; shortly after birth they are ready to explore their surroundings (precocial).
• Bunnies stay in their cozy nests for almost two months before dispersing. Leverets hide in separate locations during the day, only coming together when the mother returns to nurse them; in about four weeks they head out on their own.
• When startled, rabbits tend to freeze, hoping danger will pass them by. When a snowshoe hare is startled, it may briefly sit still, but in a short time it takes off, dashing quickly for safety.
• Rabbits sometimes gather in loose aggregations. Like deer, male rabbits will often fight to determine who is dominant; the winner is the one who usually mates with all the females in the area. Hares, however, are mostly solitary. There is little or no fighting among hares; the males and females just pair up for mating.

Is the world going to grind to a halt if you call a snowshoe hare a rabbit? Probably not, but isn’t it nicer to call a spade a spade? It clarifies things and shows the world that you actually know what you are talking about. Credibility – it’s what it’s all about.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Trapper’s Rebuttal: Leg-Hold Traps Part II

In response to last week’s post on leg-hold traps, the wife of the trapper who inadvertently snared a bald eagle earlier this month sent the following comment today, run here in full:

“I’ve made coonskin hats our of hides we tanned ourselves. So now for the rebuttal from the trapper (my husband) who caught the eagle (and in fact played a big part in the rescue). Ranger Eakin cut a pole and with the help of Deputy Wilt lifted the trap drag off the branch so that the eagle could fall to the ground where my husband and I were waiting with the net that we threw over the bird to keep him from flying off again. The bird was so cooperative as to flip over onto his belly on the blanket Eakin provided so that we keep him off the snow, and cover him with the blanket we provided. Having caught his own finger in the same trap we know that it doesn’t break bones or do any damage in and of itself.

“It didn’t even really hurt so the traps are as gentle as is possible. In over 30 yrs. of trapping the only animal he’s ever seen chew off it’s leg was a muskrat that the trap failed to drown. And having caught many rats missing legs – they recover and live just fine without it. He’s never had anything other than a squirrel or rabbit that was caught in the trap become a meal for a predator – and that’s natural. Nobody should be commenting on the trap set because nobody ever looked at it. The carcass was buried, although the coyote that was also caught the same time exposed part of it.

“There are two types of traps, leg grippers and body grippers (conibers). Instead of complaining that leg grippers should be outlawed (leaving only body grippers available for use) you should realize that an animal caught in a body gripper is dead when the trapper arrives – a much worse situation for the dog, cat, eagle who sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong. Caught a dog and a cat this year in different leg grippers. They were released without injury to grateful and understanding owners. Dog was off leash, owner accepted responsibility. Cat belonged to a former trapper. Most domestics don’t run off and fight the trap (which causes some pain) rather they lay there and wait for assistance. Ever stepped on your dog’s toe? Probably more painful than the snap of the trap jaws.

“Oh, and the eagle was released two days after being rescued. And the rehabilitator told the ECO on scene that this was the first eagle in a trap she’d seen in 15 yrs as a rehabilitator. So let’s direct that righteous indignation toward all those abused and neglected domestic animals in our communities rather than making such a big deal out of a once in a lifetime mishap that had a happy outcome – no permanent injury and a happy reunion with his mate, who happened to have been waiting nearby while he was in the tree. And an awesome memory to have had my hand a mere few inches from his majestic head.

“A truly magnificent bird with no fear, nor anger toward the humans I’m sure he knew were trying to help. Just an amazing calm and patience in those all-seeing eyes that commanded respect. And to think I’ve heard mention that our national bird was almost the turkey?”


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Adirondack Lemmings

When I think of lemmings, the first thing that comes to mind is Gary Larson’s FarSide cartoon with all the rodents rushing towards the edge of a cliff, one wearing an inner tube. What I don’t immediately think of is the fact that we have lemmings right here in our own back yards. Yes, Virginia, there are lemmings in the Adirondacks.

Admittedly, our lemmings are a different genus that those of movie and cartoon fame. Adirondack lemmings come in two flavors: the southern bog lemming, Synaptomys cooperi, and the northern bog lemming, Synaptomys borealis. They are small rodents, related to, and looking an awful lot like, voles: chunky bodies, beady little eyes, smallish rounded ears that are mostly hidden by shaggy fur. They have short tails and grooved upper incisors, which are the two characteristics that distinguish them from the other voles that live in our mountains.

But before I get into too much detail about these little guys, I’d like to first address the idea that lemmings, obeying some preordained internal message, make massive migrations to the sea and throw themselves into the churning water at the base of towering cliffs, a furry mass-suicide. Don’t you believe it. This whole lemming suicide thing (there’s no better word for it) is entirely fictitious and we can thank Disney for its creation.

Those of us of a certain generation grew up with “The Wonderful World of Disney” and “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” as mainstays of our Sunday nights. Looking back on many of the nature programs of that era, it’s kind of amazing what we swallowed as fact. In 1958 (before my time), Disney came out with a movie titled “White Wilderness,” a documentary about some of the animals in the far north. The lemming section was filmed in Alberta, a landlocked portion of Canada. Not only is there no sea in Alberta, there are also no lemmings. So, the film crew bought pet lemmings from nearby Inuit kids, and using fancy camera angles and other tricks of the trade, they made these few animals look like thousands. Then, and here’s the kicker, they put the animals on a snow-covered turntable that flung them off the cliff and into the water (a river, not the sea) below. With the narrator using a dramatic voice and just the right words, the stage for the birth of a myth: lemming suicides.

Fifty-one years later, people still believe it.

As stated above, the lemmings depicted in this erroneous film are a different genus from our bog lemmings, but I just wanted to clear the air ahead of time that lemmings do not make massive migrations to the sea to commit suicide. What we do see, however, in lemming populations all over the world, regardless of species, is dramatic rises and falls in the population. For a few years the numbers climb, and then suddenly they plummet, taking the species to near-extinction, only to start climbing again before they bottom out. This could be a reflection of a predator-prey cycle (more prey means more predators; more predators means fewer prey; fewer prey mean fewer predators; fewer predators means more prey, and so on), or it could be because as the rodent’s numbers increase, they consume more food, and soon food becomes scarce. Then the population declines due to lack of food, food supplies begin to increase, leading once more to an inevitable rise in the rodent population. Either way, it’s a cycle and one that is a natural part of population dynamics everywhere.

Back to our bog lemmings. Both the northern and southern have an historic presence in the Adirondacks, but according to D. Andrew Saunders’ Adirondack Mammals, the northern has only been verified recently (in the ‘80s) by one specimen from Whiteface Mountain. Since, based on this evidence, the northern is not that common here, I’m going to focus strictly on the southern.

The big burning questions is: do bog lemmings really live in bogs? The simple answer is not so much in the Adirondacks. Our southern bog lemmings (henceforth referred to as “SBL”) are found mostly in deciduous and mixed deciduous-conifer forests, hanging out in grassy openings and areas where tall sedges, ferns and shrubs grow, providing good cover and easily accessible food. (I caught one once, back in the summer of ’95, just about a mile from the VIC. It was a momentous event in my graduate advisor’s eyes, and he added the animal to his collection of study skins.) Like other small mammals, the SBL creates a maze of connected trails and tunnels to navigate through its chosen home, the former above ground, the latter just below the surface. A distinguishing part of the SBL’s home is the globular nest it builds of various plant fibers. In the summer these nests are found tucked away on top of the ground, sometimes near stumps, other times hidden in clumps of sedges. In the winter, though, the lemmings build their nests below ground, in a side chamber off their tunnel systems.

One of the things I find fascinating about SBLs in the fact that their scats are green, like goose scat! And like geese, this is because lemmings are herbivores that eat a lot of green material (as opposed to lots of twigs and nuts). Grasses and other green leaves make up the bulk of their diet, although mosses, fungi, fruits and roots are also consumed. I even read that sometimes they’ll eat invertebrates, like snails and slugs, but these are a very minor part of the diet.

SBLs are primarily night-active. This is most likely an adaptation to avoid run-ins with potential predators. Snakes, raptors, weasels, raccoons, foxes and coyotes are all potentially after a nice lemming snack. By moving about mostly at night, the lemming can somewhat hide its movements. On the other hand, many of these predators are well-adapted to hunting after dark. All’s fair in a dog-eat-dog world.

Are you likely to encounter a southern bog lemming in your daily travels around the Adirondacks? Probably not, but if you did, you might easily mistake it for just another vole. But rest assured, they are out there, doing their part to keep the greenery cut back and the bellies of predators full. Life is good.

Photo copyrighted by and used with permission from Phil Myers, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Leg-Hold Traps Criticized: UPDATED

Wildlife rehabilitators who helped rescue a bald eagle last week say trappers and state regulators should reconsider use of leg-hold traps.

This bald eagle became ensnared near Moffits Beach, on Sacandaga Lake in Hamilton County, but was able to fly off with the trap still attached. The five-foot-long chain it was dragging then snagged in the branch of a tree 16 feet above the ground. The bird was discovered by the trapper on December 6 hanging upside down.

The trapper contacted the Hamilton County Sheriff’s office, which called Lake Pleasant–based Forest Ranger Thomas Eakin, who used a pole to bring the bird safely to the ground. He then wrapped the bird in cargo netting from his pickup truck and kept it warm until wildlife rehabilitator Wendy Hall, of the Wilmington refuge Adirondack Wildlife, arrived. She transported the eagle to two Saratoga-based North Country Wild Care rehabbers.

Hall said that the eagle is perching and appears to be mending well from superficial wounds. She thinks its chances of release back into the wild are high. However, the prospects of a red-tailed hawk whose leg was severed this fall in a leg-hold trap in Brushton are not as good. Most raptors brought to wildlife rehabilitators have been hit by cars, Hall said, and most cannot be released. Many captives then become part of educational programs.

The trapper broke no rules and acted responsibly by reporting the injured eagle, those involved in the rescue said. But these two birds prompted Hall to write an essay, “What’s wrong with leg-hold traps?”, for her Web site, adirondackwildlife.org. She respects hunters and says they are wildlife rehabilitators’ best allies. “However, we will never understand why New York continues to permit the use of leghold traps for wildlife. They banned the use of snares and toothed leghold traps, but this does not really address the two main problems with the non-toothed clamp traps which are still legal in New York.

“The first problem is that any wildlife so trapped is going to suffer unimaginable agony, and in many documented cases, the animal will chew off its own leg to effect its escape. These traps do not legally need to be checked by the trapper more than once every 24 hours, which means the captive animal not only may suffer for long periods, but runs the additional risk of drawing in predators attracted by the noise of the creature’s struggles, and who will naturally take advantage of the creature’s inability to flee. Some folks say that’s nature. We call it interference.”

Others say the problem is not the traps themselves. There is movement to change the regulation to prohibit use of “exposed” bait, which can be seen from the air by raptors, which are sight hunters. The Moffits trap was baited with a beaver carcass with the intention of trapping a coyote. Pelts are a source of income for many Adirondackers.

Photograph by Thomas Eakin, NYS DEC


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Preparing for Winter Animal Tracking

As we sit and wait for the snow to start (and stay), I find myself chomping at the bit, anticipating another season of animal tracking. For some people winter means skiing, while other folks get excited about winter birding. For me, though, winter means we finally have obvious signs that we are not alone, that we share the Park with various animals that mostly escape our notice the rest of the year: martens and fishers, otters and mink, foxes and hares, porcupines and grouse.

Sure, there are people who see these animals during the rest of the year. We all hear the coyotes yipping and howling at dusk. Deer, well, deer and turkeys are about as common as fleas on a dog these days: anyone who’s driven through the Park has likely seen either, or both, along the side of the road. Paddlers routinely report having watched otters at play. Squirrels abound in every yard and on every tree in the forest. The woods and wetlands are full of bird songs and the calls of frogs and insects. By late summer beaver activity is painfully obvious. » Continue Reading.



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