Posts Tagged ‘wildlife’

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Great Backyard Bird Count – Coming Soon to a Feeder Near You

One of the great family-friendly activities of the winter will soon be upon us: the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), which this year runs from Friday, 12 February, to Monday, 15 February. The brain child of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this four-day long bird watching event is one of the easiest citizen science projects out there. Anyone, regardless of age or birding ability, can participate.

Citizen science programs have a long history at the Lab of Ornithology. Back in the mid-‘90s, I signed on to do my part for their wood thrush and golden-winged warbler projects. Those projects were quite involved, requiring participants to get aerial photographs of their research areas, determine acreage of irregularly shaped plots, measure the distance to the nearest water and roads…and this was all before setting out to look for signs of the actual birds.

The GBBC, on the other hand, is very easy and user-friendly. All you have to do is look for birds in your backyard. You can do this for as little as fifteen minutes, or for as long as your interest holds. You can do it for one day of the weekend, or record observations for all four days. You can watch for birds at each of your bird feeding stations (do you have more than one?), or you can choose to observe the visitors to just one tree or shrub. As for me, I will probably spend some time watching each of my stations (I have two, with a total of about twelve feeders), as well as the feeders at work.

Maybe you are unsure about participating because you don’t know a black-capped chickadee from a black-backed woodpecker. Not to worry. You can go on-line to www.birsource.org/gbbc/ and check out their simple bird ID pages. You can also print out a checklist for the most common birds in your region, which will help narrow down your options. For example, it is highly unlikely that a flock of northern parulas will be buzzing through any Adirondack backyard in February, so you won’t have to worry about telling one warbler from another.

One of the important aspects of your observations is recording the numbers of each species you see. This can be tricky, so the Lab has put together a really simple rule to help you out. Let’s say you decide to record the birds you see between 10:00 and 10:30 AM. You see two goldfinches at 10:01. At 10:15 you see twelve. At 10:17 there are 32. By 10:30 they have all flown away. How many goldfinches do you record? Thirty-two. In other words, to eliminate the possibility of counting the same bird(s) more than once, you only report the greatest number you saw at any one time.

Counting large numbers of birds can be a bit of a challenge. Some birders are very good at estimating how many are in a flock; others are not. I read an article once that said that it is easy for humans to eyeball numbers in pairs, threes, and fours. Fives get a bit harder, and anything above five is nearly impossible. So, if you can fix in your mind what five birds look like, then you can guesstimate how many of those fives you see in the flock as it shuffles and flits about. Good luck.

You will want to keep track of your sightings on a piece of paper, and when you are ready, simply go to your computer and pull up the GBBC website (see link above). Open the tab labeled “Submit Your Checklist” and follow the easy directions for reporting your observations. Afterwards, you can “Explore the Results” to see what birds other people found. Are you wondering where all the pine siskins are this year? Here’s a good way to find out. The genuinely curious can check out the results from past years as well.

The website is chock full of all sorts of interesting bird information. There is a whole series of activities just for kids, and there’s even a page dedicated to educators. For those who enjoy looking at really great bird photographs, there’s a gallery of photos taken by past GBBC participants. My favorite is a really funny photo of a very soggy orange-crowned warbler caught in the act of taking a bath.

This year marks the thirteenth anniversary of the GBBC. If you haven’t participated in the past, I hope you will take up the challenge and participate this year. Not only is it a great way to spend time with your family and feathered friends, but it also helps provide a snapshot of where the birds are across North America, a practice that has turned up some interesting trends in population shifts and declines.

And if being a good Samaritan isn’t enough of an incentive to get you to participate, check out the list of prizes the Lab is giving away. There are plush birds that chirp when you squeeze them, assorted feeders (you can never have too many), a bird camera (takes photos for you while you stay toasty warm inside), field guides, and much, much more. So, dust off your field guide, set a comfortable chair by the window, have your beverage-of-choice close at hand, and get ready to count.


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.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Adirondack Almanack Welcomes Zoologist Larry Master

Please join me in welcoming zoologist Larry Master to Adirondack Almanack. Larry, who lives in Lake Placid, has been photographing wildlife and natural history subjects for more than 50 years. After receiving a PhD at the University of Michigan, Larry spent 20 years with The Nature Conservancy and 6 years with NatureServe, most of that time as the organization’s Chief Zoologist. Larry oversaw the development of TNC’s and NatureServe’s central zoological databases, and also served on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. He currently serves on boards of NatureServe, The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter, Northern New York Audubon, the Adirondack Council, and the Adirondack Explorer, as well as on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack Advisory Group and in an advisory role to the Biodiversity Research Institute.

Larry will be writing about wildlife every other Thursday at noon, opposite our birding expert Brian McAllister. The addition of Larry rounds out the Almanack‘s natural-history coverage, which includes regular field reports by Ellen Rathbone.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Adirondack Winter Resident Birds: The Kinglet

There is a tiny bird that lives in the Adirondacks whose body weight equals that of two pennies. Its overall size in not that much bigger than a hummingbird, and it does not migrate south to escape the freezing temperatures of the North Country. I often think of these birds as the late afternoon sun dips behind the mountains and the clear star-lit skies suck back up all the warm air that felt so good during the sunny day. I think of what it must take for this bird to survive just one night at 24 below zero Fahrenheit. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dinosaurs in the Adirondacks – The Wild Turkey

Anyone who doesn’t believe that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs needs only one look at a running turkey to have a change of heart. This winter a female turkey has made my back yard a daily stop in her travels, and let me tell you: there are few things in life so prehistoric-looking than a turkey going full tilt trying to escape your camera lens.

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one of two species of turkeys in the world. The other is a denizen of Central America and as such is of little importance to us here in the Adirondacks. No, we are concerned with our own native bird, the one of such character and pride that Ben Franklin thought it should be the symbol of our country.

When Europeans first descended upon the eastern shores of North America, turkeys ruled the roost, so to speak. Millions of them populated the woodlands, providing food for man and beast alike. But, as is the habit of mankind, forests were cut and turkeys were eaten. As early as 1672 keen observers of nature were already remarking that turkey populations were not what they once had been. In 1844, the last wild turkey in New York was reported in the extreme southwestern part of the state; after that, they were gone.

For years nothing was done to rectify the state of things, turkey-wise. By the turn of the century (c. 1900), approximately 75% of New York had been cleared, agriculture and development dominating where once forests grew. Without healthy forests, turkeys could not survive (hard mast, such as acorns and beechnuts, is a major part of their diet). As the century plodded along, however, many farmers left home, moving to the cities where jobs were more likely to be had. Old farmland began to revert to forests, and slowly turkeys started to come back, making their way northward from Pennsylvania. By the 1940s, the southwestern part of the state was once more populated with these large bronze birds.

To help things along, New York State converted a central New York pheasant hatchery into a turkey hatchery in 1952. Over the next several years, thousands of turkeys were released into the wild. Sadly, this operation was doomed to failure. Speculation was that the released birds were too tame and therefore lacked the brains to escape (or fight) predators. It was also thought that their natural reproduction was too low to sustain a viable population. So the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) went to Plan B: capture wild turkeys and relocate them.

This new plan began in 1959 and saw New York’s wild turkey population successfully soar from about 2000 birds to over 65,000 by 1990. The relocation program was so successful that the DEC started shipping birds to neighboring states to help them reestablish their own dwindling populations.

I saw my first wild turkey in the early ‘80s out at Letchworth State Park. There were two or three of them, and they flew up into a tree along the edge of a small ravine. Prior to this I never would’ve guessed that turkeys could fly. Three years later, a friend of mine shot a turkey and decided we should give it to my mother for Mother’s Day; so he and I and all my roommates drove to my parents’ house with the turkey in tow. It barely fit in the oven, but it was a mighty tasty bird. Ten years later, turkeys were all over the farm fields back home: whole herds of them marching along the rows of cut corn. (And yes, I use the word “herd” intentionally, for when they are walking along the ground en masse, they are definitely a herd.)

Back in the ‘80s it was believed by biologists that turkeys wouldn’t be able to survive the harsh winters the Adirondacks can dish out. Imagine their surprise when turkeys not only moved into the mountains, but thrived! Hardly a week goes by all year that I don’t see a turkey or two, or ten. Sometimes they lurk along the roadsides, picking up grit or maybe hunting insects; other times they are strutting across a neighbor’s yard.

A couple years ago, I came across a hen and her poults hiding in the shrubbery between the second and fourth holes on the local golf course. I was walking the dog, and of course he started barking, so the hen took off, dashing away into the trees with most of her progeny in hot pursuit. Two, however, were left behind. I sat the dog down and we waited. And waited. One of the poults peeped and trotted off after the long-gone parent, but the other remained behind, peeping its distress. Even though I knew better, the pitiful cries got to me and I finally decided to go “rescue” the thing. My plan was to carry it to the patch of woods in which its mother had disappeared and set it down where she could get to it without having to come near me and the dog. Big mistake. No sooner had I picked up the ungrateful bird then it let out a squawking and wailing that brought the mother running and flapping from the woods. A velociraptor had nothing on her. Fearing for my safety (I’ve heard tales of the damage a turkey can do with its spurs), I dropped the poult, snagged the dog’s leash, and we high-tailed it out of there. That was the last time I tried to help a “stranded” wildlife baby.

And just in case you needed further convincing that turkeys are dinosaurs in disguise, watch a herd of them come trotting across a lawn or field when the early morning fog is lying close to the ground. All you need is to cue up the music and you are staring at a living tableau from Jurassic Park. Add a rock wall for them to jump on, and the scene is complete.

It was -7 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, but I don’t think the local turkeys were much fazed by this. Indeed, I think they are here to stay, and that’s a nice thing, for every patch of wilderness should have its resident dinosaurs, and for us the wild turkey fills the bill nicely.


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, January 13, 2010

Taking A Closer Look: Blueberry Stem Gall

One of the plants that make the Adirondacks special is the blueberry, which likes to grow in, or alongside, a variety of wetlands. I recall one of the highlights of summer camp was when the nature counselor made her blueberry fritters. Campers and counselors alike would flock to her nature room as the rumor of fritters spread like wildfire. Her “Live off the Land” camping trips were never complete without blueberry fritters for breakfast.

But blueberries aren’t just special to people; lots of wildlife benefit from the fingertip-sized fruits, not least among them birds and bears. Not all blueberry fanciers are after the fruits, though. The blueberry stem gall wasp (Hemadas nubilipennis) is more interested in the stems of the plant. Highbush, lowbush, the variety probably doesn’t matter, not when reproduction is on the line. » Continue Reading.


Monday, January 4, 2010

The Almanack’s 10 Most Popular Stories of 2009

Here is our list of the Adirondack Almanack‘s ten most popular stories of 2009, in descending order.

History of Adirondack Airplane Crashes
This year’s tragic death of two in the crash of a Piper Cherokee 140 single engine aircraft en route from Saratoga to Malone spawned this look at the some 30 major plane crashes that have happened in the Adirondacks since 1912. Adirondack danger and disaster stories have always been an Adirondack Almanack reader favorite. I’ve covered thin ice, earthquakes, drownings, bridge collapses, mining, boating, and of course, our 10 Deadliest Accidents in The Adirondack Mountain Region.

New Study: Coy-Wolves Evolved To Hunt Local Deer
A new study by scientists from the New York State Museum showed how local coyotes have evolved to be bigger and stronger over the last 90 years, both expanding their geographic range and becoming the top predator in the Northeast – by interbreeding with wolves. 2009 was also notable at the Almanack for our addition new natural history contributor Ellen Rathbone. Ellen’s regular looks at our natural world have included how feral cats impact wildlife, the joys of macro wildlife photography, local unique trees like the Black Tupelo; she has stuck up for skunks, pondered porcupines, and even gave three cheers for carrion beetles (“nature’s sanitary engineers”).

Kids Enter Big Tupper Ski Area Fight
One of the big stories in the region in 2009 has been the reopening of the Big Tupper Ski Area. Back in March, when reopening the old slopes was still very much tied to a development plan that included 652 high-end home and townhouses, a 60-room hotel, and more, Mary Thill took a look at the movement to enlist kids in the plan to make the development happen. “The project has become a sensitive issue, drawing questions about its scale, financing, tax breaks, new utilities and backcountry building lots,” Mary wrote, “Inside Tupper Lake, there have been shows of political and public support. Some have questioned whether asking kids to wear ski jackets and carry signs shills them into a much larger debate. And to miss a point. Nobody is against skiing.” Indeed, nobody was against skiing, and Tupper Lakers eventually worked diligently, apolitically and successfully to reopen their slopes.

Upper Hudson Rail Trail Planned: North Creek to Tahawus
When the Almanack broke the news in October that there were plans afoot to transform the northern end of the Upper Hudson Railroad into a 29-mile multi-use trail from the North Creek Railroad Station to Tahawus, it sparked a great discussion between supporters and critics of the plan the spilled over into a follow-up post by new Almanack contributor Alan Wechsler. “We already have a paved path from North Creek to Newcomb – it’s called State Route 28N,” the first commenter opined. The ensuing debate covered the history of the rail line, the role of the federal government in seizing Forest Preserve land in war time, and the legal questions surrounding its subsequent abandonment.

Adirondack Park Agency Releases 2009 Land Use Plan Map
The release of the Adirondack Park Agency’s 2009 Adirondack Park Official Map was a very popular post this year. The new map (the first since 2003) includes recent state land acquisitions and the overall framework for protection of the Adirondack Park’s public and private land resources. More than a dozen times our contributors wrote about maps and geography this past year. The Almanack looked at the digitization of the reports and surveys of Verplanck Colvin, the disappearance, and then reappearance of the Adirondack Park on Google Maps, the longest Adirondack rivers, and lakes and ponds of the Forest Preserve. Two highlights came from our resident paddling guru and regular Almanack contributor Don Morris who offered Adirondack Waterbody Trivia, and a geographic look at the Adirondack eskers paddlers often see in their travels.

Adirondack Trout And Salmon Season Opener Tips
One of the great things I love about the Almanack is the variety of readers we have. Readers from all walks of life. Hunters, trappers, and fishermen and women, are right there with vegans, animal rights activists, and just plain folks who appreciate wildlife too much to kill and eat it. Mary Thill’s report on a Bald Eagle’s awful encounter with a leg hold trap brought out both sides, and the wife of the man who set the trap. We considered the near extinction and reintroduction of beaver, the battle (some success, some distress) over reducing mercury pollution in fish, and a major crackdown on deer poaching.

Adirondack Fall Foliage Seen from Space
Sometimes short and simple, fun and interesting, are just the ticket. Our discovery of a NASA satellite photo of the Northern Forest and parts of southeastern Canada taken several years ago at the peak of fall color was hugely popular.

Opinion: Hiking, Drinking and News at Adirondack Papers
Mary Thill struck a nerve with local media folks (and even sparked some hate mail) when she questioned the wisdom of two new publications by local newspapers, including the Post-Star‘s leap into the weekly entertainment rag business, what she called a “crayon-font attempt to take ad share away from the excellent but shoestring real community newspaper.” The post inspired a collaboration with the Lake George Mirror‘s publisher and editor Tony Hall. Hall has offered some enlightening insight into the origins of the APA, the question over whether State Senator Ron Stafford was really an environmentalist, and some great expanded coverage of Lake George. The partnership with the Lake George Mirror opened the door for a similar weekly contribution from Adirondack Explorer editor Phil Brown, who has come forward with a return to the Battle of Crane Pond Road, some insight into Clarence Petty, and when it’s alright to call it a day. The jury is still out on the Adirondack Daily Enterprise better-designed hikey new outdoor-recreation publication as a business decision, but the bimonthly, called Embark, is gradually growing a low ad percentage; it appears to be helping keep at least one reporter employed, so we wish it well in 2010.

Canton Eddie: Turn-of-the-Century Safecracker
Adirondack history has always been a forte of the Almanack. When someone robbed a Tupper Lake bank it inspired a look at one of the region’s most infamous thieves. Canton Eddie was the perpetrator of a string of at least 30 robberies in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Another highlight of 2009 at the Almanack was the publication of Historic Tales from the Adirondack Almanack, which included Canton Eddie’s story, and a whole lot more Adirondack history.

The Adirondacks: Gateway for Quebec Hydroponic Marijuana
Whether a measure of what Adirondackers are really doing behind closed doors, or a testament to our fascination with crime drama, when Mary Thill (clearly the winner of this years “readers’ choice” award!) covered the July story of the largest border drug bust ever, readership went off the charts. “A billion dollars worth of this weed funnels through Clinton, Franklin, and St. Lawrence counties annually, according to Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne,” Mary wrote. “A look at the map is all it takes to see that much of it travels through the Adirondack Park on its way to Albany, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and as far south as Florida.” The news was a fascinating inside look at where some American marijuana comes from, but probably no surprise to those who were following the other big drug story of the year: the discovery of some 800 marijuana plants growing in Essex County.


Saturday, January 2, 2010

Winter Wildays at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake

The Wild Center’s Winter Wildays return in every Saturday and Sunday from January 9th until March 28th 2010 with an entertaining and enlightening schedule for the whole family. Here is the announcement from a Wild Center press release:

Saturday events grow your skills. Learn more about easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint with Home Composting, Heating with Biomass or Small Windpower in the Adirondacks. Admire some of the wildlife, like Boreal Birds or the Timber Rattlesnake, that make their home in the Adirondacks. Improve your photography skills with leading photographer Carl Heilman or discover what it takes to raise chickens in your own backyard. » 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


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Museum Seeks to Acquire Boreal Paintings

A series of paintings of Adirondack animals and trees affected by airborne pollutants may find a home at the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake.

The collection, entitled “Boreal Relationships,” comprises seven watercolors by Rebecca Richman. Richman made the paintings between 2003 and 2006, and wrote narratives on how acid rain and mercury deposition affect each subject: brook trout, red-backed salamander, red spruce, Bicknell’s thrush, common loon, sugar maple and mayfly.

The artist says she hopes the paintings will encourage people to think about connections between places and species—and lead to action to stop Midwestern pollutants from destroying habitats downwind in the Northeast. She has always hoped the originals could  “remain together as an educational force, helping to abate the threat of acid rain to the Adirondacks, a land I truly love.” Richman lived in the Adirondacks from 2000 to 2006, much of that time working for the Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter. She now lives in Colorado, where she works as a seasonal park ranger and continues to paint. » Continue Reading.


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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