A Red Fox in Late Winter

I first saw the mature Red Fox hunting around the yard in the dim light of early morning about a week ago. Our backyard wildlife habitat – spruce trees, brush piles, stone walls and a continuous supply of bird seed – supports abnormally high populations of prey species, so the presence of a small mammal predator wasn’t a surprise.

A fox looks a bit like a long-legged dog with a long, bushy tail. On the other hand, their hunting behavior – moving with great speed and agility, climbing, leaping and pouncing – is very cat-like.

There’s always a concern about diseases like sarcoptic mange and rabies (both fatal) in foxes, but this one appeared to be very healthy. The thick, fluffy winter coat is a thing of beauty, and also deceptive. A dog with this outward appearance might weigh 30 pounds, a fox less than half that.

In late winter, an opportunistic feeder like a fox will eat just about anything in front of its nose that contains precious calories, including carrion. Woodpeckers hammering into a suet (animal fat) bird feeder on the pole send small pieces flying to the ground. The fox wasn’t about to let the fallen suet go to waste.

Foxes have incredible senses; they can hear a mouse or vole under a foot of snow cover! Here, I was shooting from inside the house, doors and windows closed, 60 feet from the pole. And I’m convinced that this curious look is a response to my camera shutter.

I think this is a male (“dog”) but can’t be sure. Males are a bit larger than females (“vixen”). A pregnant female would be about a month along with her 52-day gestation period. Either way, I’m hoping for more opportunities to document the behavior of our neighborhood Red Fox.

Photos by NB Hunter (Feb. 9 and 16, 2019). All rights reserved.

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A Wildlife Smorgasbord, Served Cold

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”   – John Muir

Squirrels, both red and gray, are frequent visitors to our bird feeders. But, they must do more than eat: avoid being eaten! A Red Fox has also been cruising the neighborhood, and small mammals are a dietary staple.

Morning doves, as many as two dozen, flutter in to feed several times a day. But, they too have natural enemies. Cooper’s hawks learn to hunt bird feeders (their fly-through restaurant), and doves are a favorite target.

Coyotes prey on deer, especially young, old and unhealthy ones. However, the greatest threat to deer in winter is a population that exceeds the carrying capacity of the habitat. Over time, excessive browsing by hungry deer destroys the forest understory, which has an adverse, domino effect on plant and animal diversity.

The dense vegetation in this scene is misleading. It obviously provides bedding cover, but is virtually devoid of palatable food.

Pileated woodpeckers are thriving in our woodlands, especially where tree mortality from ash decline, beech bark disease and other pests is high. Large dead and dying trees provide habitat for woodpeckers to drill for food and create nest cavities. Later, the excavations become critical nesting habitat for dozens of bird and mammal species – including the Tufted Titmouse.

When winters are severe, with heavy snow cover, a “winter thaw” can be the difference between life and death for wildlife. Turkeys are one species that benefit greatly from a warm spell in mid winter because they mainly forage on the ground.

In winter, blackbirds form large flocks that waste little time finding concentrated food sources. Barn yards and farm fields are favorite dining locations.

Photos by NB Hunter (Jan. – Feb., 2019). © All rights reserved.

Winter Birds: the Red-tailed Hawk

Hawks and eagles are valuable, exciting elements in the winter landscapes of Central New York. Whether perching high in a roadside tree, soaring among the clouds, or evading a mob of crows, red-tails are the species of hawk that is most visible and widely known.

The red-tail’s soaring habit; large, broad wings; rufous tail and dark, broken band across the stomach take much of the guesswork out of identification, even at long distances.

 

Red-tailed hawks thrive in agricultural areas where the large, deciduous trees in farm woodlots provide nest sites and nearby fields and fence rows provide habitat for small mammals like mice, voles and cottontails – their dietary staple. However, this food source can be scarce and unreliable, especially when winters are long and deep snow cover persists. Red-tails, eagles and other predators have adapted to such scarcity by being opportunistic and scavenging on carrion. Here, that generally means road-killed deer.

As a rule, it is unethical to disturb a raptor when it’s feeding, for fear that it will lose precious energy when escaping and abandoning its food. This red-tail was the exception. It was feeding on a deer carcass in a farm field, not far from a residence, and was more or less oblivious to the presence of a solitary human. There were no signs of poisoning or bodily injury and the bird eventually flew to roost. The consensus among viewers for this highly unusual behavior was simply “old age” (?).

I slowly and cautiously worked my way around the bird, shooting all the while. I hoped to capture feeding behavior in detail, without pushing the hawk off the carcass. One behavior in particular caught my attention. Initially, it turned its back to me, hunched over the carcass and covered it with wings and tail. This was classic “mantling” behavior, a strategy to conceal and guard food from other predators that might attempt to steal it. In this case, I was the threat.

Mantling behavior by a Red-tailed Hawk while feeding on a deer carcass

The final images illustrate the challenge of ripping frozen meat from carrion!

Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.

A Winter Wonderland in January, 2019

Snowstorms, wind and bitter cold can greatly reduce wildlife sightings in our winter landscapes. Wildlife numbers reach an annual low, most surface waters freeze, and  animals conserve energy by moving less and living in sheltered habitats. Adding to the difficulty of wildlife viewing in winter is the ethical constraint that demands minimum disturbance of animals that are trying to survive four or five months of resource scarcity.

Sometimes I respond to the challenges of winter by photographing wildlife around backyard feeders, then shifting my focus to landscapes when out and about. Such was the case most of this month.

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Wave ice on a partially frozen pond

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The peace, quiet and virgin landscape that follow a heavy snow create the illusion of  the isolation and solitude associated with a wildland journey

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With the right perspective, blue skies dress up surface waters, adding color to otherwise monochromatic scenes

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Over time, spring water seeping and freezing over a limestone rock face takes on a life of its own

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A favorite cattail marsh, the tussocks accented with a blanket of deep, fluffy snow

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A small, nondescript creek morphs into a thing of beauty when buried in snow

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The visual effects of subzero temperatures and morning sun on local waters

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Dense vegetation along a fence row, performing double duty: wildlife habitat and wind reduction; these are drifts on the lee side (1 of 2 images)

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Powdery snow, blown and drifted across corn stubble on the lee side of a brushy fence row

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The sentinel: An old, battered sugar maple tree that refuses to concede to wind, snow, ice, salt and grazing cattle. She still sparkles in a coating of frost.

Photos by NB Hunter (January, 2019). © All rights reserved.

 

 

“Bird” Feeder Survey, December 2018

In the snow belt, harsh winter weather and snow cover trigger aggressive feeding by resident wildlife. Bird counts and squirrel activity at artificial feeding stations reach an annual peak, a phenomenon that is most apparent in the midst of a snow storm. At various times throughout the day, chaos reigns as dozens of birds and mammals converge at feeders, providing wonderful opportunities for “wildlife watching” …and photography.

Chickadee and Downy Woodpecker feeding on a block of suet and grain.

Red-breasted Nuthatch at rest near feeders on a frigid winter morning

Blue Jay evaluating its feeding options

A pleasantly plump Gray Squirrel eating …. because it can!

White-breasted Nuthatch, an upside-down favorite

Red Squirrel digging for grain under a layer of fresh snow

Squirrels are notorious for their creative gymnastics around elevated “bird” feeders

Perhaps our most popular winter resident, cardinal sightings are down this year, and we don’t know why

Woodpeckers (Hairy and Red-bellied) squabbling over access to a suet block.

The Tufted Titmouse is expanding its range northward, influenced by artificial feeding and global warming

Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.

The Great Outdoors in September, 2018

There are seasons, and then there are seasons within seasons. The final three weeks of summer that define the month of September provide vivid proof of the latter.

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Banded Woolly Bear caterpillar, the larval stage of a tiger moth

Sulphur butterflies probing for nutrients in the wet, trampled soil of a cow pasture

Chicken of the Woods fruiting body (fried in butter by the landowner after I captured it alive!)

Monarch caterpillar feeding on Common Milkweed

A “fresh” Monarch nectaring on New England Aster (a September staple) in a weedy meadow

A good crop of Red Oak acorns has this squirrel busy all day long!

A young cottontail, now about half the size of its parents

Gray Dogwood, a favorite fuel of migrating birds like robins and catbirds

Most bucks rub their antlers free of dried velvet during the first three weeks of September, an event triggered by decreasing day length and increased testosterone

Foraging wildlife in a hay field in fading light (September 18 – the same date and location as the previous image)

Lastly, a message from my friend’s milk house kittens: Thanks for visiting!!!

Photos by NB Hunter (September, 2018). © All rights reserved.