Mammal Encounters

Surprise encounters with the wonderful world of mammals must be shared, even if there is no particular theme to tie it all together!

Serious birders know that a slice of orange attracts orioles to backyard feeders. My orioles are still singing and foraging in the tree tops!

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Cottontail at rest in the protective cover of a fencerow thicket

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This groundhog was caught off guard and didn’t have a clear path to its den. It hid under a log, then came out to see if I was still a threat. Had I been a fox or coyote, it would have been dinner.

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The gestation period for White-tailed Deer is about 200 days. This doe will soon be giving birth to a fawn or two. The lush herbaceous vegetation of stream bottoms is preferred habitat for fawning.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

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Woodchucks

The ubiquitous Woodchuck or Groundhog (Marmota monax) is a common component of summer landscapes. Woodchucks often emerge from hibernation when there is still snow on the ground, then spend most of the growing season foraging in fields, along forest edges…and in gardens, preparing for another winter underground.

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On rare occasions, woodchucks are apt to remind us that they belong to the squirrel family, and have respectable climbing skills. I have seen them perched atop fence posts and watched them scurry up a small tree when surprised, too far away from their burrow to run for it. This recent sighting, a Woodchuck on the limb of a large Black Willow tree, seven feet in the air, was  quite a surprise to both of us. Had I been stealthier and able to observe undetected, I might have been able to determine if it was browsing willow leaves, exploring or just enjoying its domain from the sunny overlook!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Rushing Spring

One of the more common rodents in North America is the Groundhog (Marmota monax; also called Woodchuck, Whistle-pig). True hibernators, they eat continuously in the warm season to maximize fat reserves before going into their underground burrows. The hibernation period is 5 or 6 months, October to March.

I often see Groundhog tracks in the snow in March, but this year I’ve already had several early sightings of animals out and about, wandering across open  fields in the snow. They must be hungry, because I see little survival value in a large brown rodent, a favorite food of coyotes and foxes, wandering around in the middle of a snow-covered field with no escape holes.

This animal actually stopped in the middle of a field and tried to dig through the snow and frozen ground to open a burrow. It then continued wandering, this time in the general direction of some farm structures.

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Groundhogs will eat the bark of woody plants at this time of year, but they’re much too early for the fresh greens that they’re seeking. Under these conditions, some will probably crawl back into a burrow, accepting the fact that the life of a vegetarian living off the land can be pretty challenging in the snow belt!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Signs of Spring

Winter is in retreat. The snow is gone from the lower elevations and receding slowly, but surely, from the colder areas at higher elevations and on north-facing slopes. I enjoy following the natural events associated with this transitional time and the advance of spring. Animal behavior is especially fascinating.

The Groundhog (Woodchuck), having lived off fat reserves while hibernating in its burrow for six months at a near-death metabolic rate, is ready for a change of scenery and a good meal. However, some are in for a surprise when they emerge, finding snow-covered fields rather than fresh greens.

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Groundhog on the 27th of March

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Waterfowl, particularly Mallards, dabble in cut corn fields flooded with water from melting snow, finding something to eat between the rows of stubble.

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Hen and drake Mallard feeding in a flooded field

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For months, whitetails have subsisted largely on woody browse such as the twigs of apple, ash, and Red-osier Dogwood. If available, the evergreen foliage of hemlock and Northern White-cedar was also consumed . Having exhausted most of this food supply, in many instances over-browsing it and damaging the plants, they’re searching snow-free fields for a dietary shift that includes emerging weeds and grasses. Hungry deer are feeding throughout the day, just about anywhere that nutritious, herbaceous food is available. Overall, the deer in this locale appear to be in fairly good condition, although some of the young deer, last year’s fawns, look gaunt.

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Small herd of White-tailed Deer feeding in mid-day; late March, after snow melt

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Adult White-tailed Deer feeding in a harvested corn field

Perhaps the most notable harbinger of spring and the changing seasons is the Red-winged Blackbird. They arrive in early to mid-March, usually in noisy winter flocks that are easily seen and heard. One such flock, about 30 birds, arrived here in mid-March. Throughout the day they repeatedly swooped into the feeders, fed briefly, then burst into flight and settled in the large, mature oak and maple trees nearby.

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Part of a small flock of two dozen Red-wings, bursting into flight after feeding

When feeding socially, males on the ground show just the white or yellow edge of their shoulder patches. However, the red shoulder patches typically displayed by males in the breeding season are visible in flight.

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Male Red-wings feeding, with their red shoulder plumage hidden except for the bird in flight

The females are entirely different (sexual dimorphism) – mostly brown with pronounced streaking and a light cream or pale orange throat.

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Female Red-winged Blackbirds

When the snow and stormy weather subsided, the backyard flock dwindled in size. The birds moved on to traditional feeding grounds and to establish breeding territories (they may continue to feed in flocks during the breeding season). I’ll continue to see a few birds at the feeders, but the more common sighting at this time is that of a territorial male, perched on a cattail stalk or other low vegetation in marshes, fields, roadside ditches and other suitable habitat, doing everything possible to attract females (as many as possible) and defend its breeding territory..

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Male Red-wing perched on a cattail stalk, investigating a marshy wetland and potential breeding territory

When defending territories, the males are conspicuous in color and voice. Their bright red shoulder patches are in full display during the breeding season, serving to establish dominance and attract mates.

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Territorial male Red-wing Blackbird showing the “song spread display” (1 of 3)

 

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A male Red-wing in early May, singing in the brush at the edge of an uncultivated field

All photos by NB Hunter