Thursday, September 27, 2012

Feet & all those dead squirrels

What: I was driving home from Sterling College last night and I hit a young male red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). I felt terrible, but at least it died immediately. I scooped it up and brought it to my CCV Natural History course today to skin with my students. It was neat to be able to see the paw prints up close, to be able to see the palm pads in such detail. All rodents (even beavers, muskrats, mice, voles, capybaras) have five toes in the rear and four in the front. Red squirrels spend a lot more time on the ground relative to grays (Sciurus carolinensis). On the ground, the front feet of reds tend to be offset far more than grays. Think about an animal who spend all that time "perched" on a branch with its feet side by side - when it runs along the ground its front feet keep that side-by-side pattern as seen below.

Red Squirrel                  Gray Squirrel
(ground dwelling)         (tree dwelling)
 H     H          H      H       /\
     f              f  f         ||  H = hind
   f                             ||  f = front

This of course is a tendency and not always true. So in general animals that spend more time on the ground tend to follow the pattern or red squirrels, with front feet landing offset, and animals that spend more time in trees, like gray squirrels, land with feet side-by-side. One of the things reds are doing with all that time spent on the ground is harvesting mushrooms. Look in a stand of hemlocks for mushrooms lodged in the crotch of a branch, left out by red squirrels to dry for a winter supply.

Rear feet, five toes, long flat foot
Front feet, four toes
Front foot, 4 toes, smaller dexterous digits
Ecological notes: Red squirrels spend this time of year in search of a territory to defend over the winter, when food resources are drastically reduced. Fall dispersal of yearlings is always a rough time for animals, with lots and lots more road kill this time of  year than at others. Below are the feet I got from a raccoon (Procyon lotor) that was road kill just north of Stowe. I surprised at how much fat was stored up in the tail.

Raccoon feet (rear feet on outside, front on inside)
Where: North Wolcott along the Wild Branch

Monday, September 24, 2012

Wind and walnuts

What: Finally got around to adding photos. Will post again on Friday. What a beautiful windstorm we had last Tuesday night. Of course this was easy to write from the comfort of my home, free of the flying debris and desiccating winds. Walking around the next morning there was so much debris that had blown down and I imagine that too early fall storms like this take its toll on plants and the still-developing fruits and nuts of things like apples, oaks, and walnuts. These windstorms are probably more helpful for deer and turkey that can't climb trees to get access to apples. The red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus; "tamias" means hoarder) seemed extra pissy about it. In about 5 minutes I had collected a 5-gallon bucket's worth of walnuts, that's 5-gallons worth of walnuts the alpha red squirrel could no longer defend from the gray squirrels and beta red squirrel. In the last week since the wind knocked the walnuts down, the red squirrel has seemed less insistent about waking up at dawn to claim his territory, as though the wind was blown from his sails.

Ecological notes: We usually get these gusty Fall storms later on in the season, typically in November. Most of the debris on the ground is likely a result of all the leaves still on the trees, which catch the wind and want to be carried away. By November the leaves have fallen and the wind has a much less dramatic effect on the trees.
A uninfected husk (left) and one hosting a healthy colony of husk fly (right).
Black walnuts (Juglans nigra) have a thick outer husk that's filled with juglone (the same allelopath - toxic chemical - found in the roots that hinders the growth of other species). The chemical stains your hands (and can dye fabrics anything from an earthy yellow to a deep green); it also stains the mouths of squirrels this time of year. The walnut husks that have black on the outside have been colonized by a fly whose larvae eat the husk but leave the nut in tact. I cracked the one below open and found one larvae and two pupae (the shiny dark brown cylinders in the photo to the right).


Gladys eating the walnut husk fly maggots (Rhagoletis sp.)
The shell of the walnut is super tough and sharp (apparently used as an industrial abrasive). It's got a complex labyrinth of groves and channels that the nut fits into, making it difficult to get out large chunks of the "meat" (see photo at top). So it's a lot of work to get at the meat, but if you have lots of time, well worth the patience as it's delicious! It has a sweet minty flavor to it.

Where: All over Vermont

Other notes: Callan and I drove back from Fairfax last Tuesday night. Before we left we heard spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer, formerly Hyla crucifera) calling. The roads were filled with frogs crossing back and forth. When I got home I was greeted by a chorus of gray treefrogs (Hyla versicolor). The wet weather has brought the young amphibians out in droves. At the fall equinox, the ratio of light to dark during a day is the same as it is during the spring equinox (March 21), which is roughly the time that amphibians first start singing. One theory is that the fall chorus of frogs is from confused young males that are cuing in to daylength.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Praying mantis

What: Meryl & Julia spotted a hitchhiker in our house today - it apparently came in on one of my sweatshirts. This adult female European mantis (Mantis religiosa) was a blast to watch. They're visual predators, focusing right now on all these late summer, early fall insects like crickets and grasshoppers fattening up for a late breeding season. They move slowly and awkwardly through lawns, relying on camouflage and stealth to ambush their prey. Their "praying" arms are really vicious graspers that clasp onto a prey and don't let go. Here, the lady is just using those forelegs to hold a rear leg that it was cleaning.

Ecological notes: Mantises mate in the fall and lay their eggs in a frothy mess (called an ootheca) that hardens. Eggs overwinter and hatch in the late spring. This time of year they're fattening up stores for laying all those eggs. Oh, and apparently it's a myth that they eat the bridegroom. That only happens in captive settings. They're pretty finicky when it comes to visual stimuli so a lab setting, where they're in a glass case results in some weird behavior. In the video, she responded to my movement, but seemed relatively unperturbed when I stomped my feet against the ground to try and elicit a response. The creepy part was that she was watching me, intently. I think it's extra obvious because she could move her head, but it felt like she was studying me - it reminded me of Muldoon, the Aussie hunter in Jurassic Park, who says of the raptors: "That one... when she looks at you, you can see she's working things out."

Where: My backyard

Other notes: For adult praying mantises, females have much larger thoraxes and their wings are never longer than their bodies, while males are more slender and their wings are longer than their bodies are.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Getting to know the rest of the squirrels

Stripes, the chipmunk
What: While out in my yard I also got to spend some time with the lone chipmunk (Tamias striatus) in the back, one of the two woodchucks (Marmota monax) that frequents our garden, and the two red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) that battle for dominance over the walnut (Juglans nigra). We've got another chipmunk that spends its time in the front yard, but this one has a distinguishing mark on its rear left leg that would make it easy to ID if they ever do cross paths.

The beta red squirrel is a male, but I couldn't tell about the other one yet. The alpha seems redder, and a bit more run-down, like it's tired from all the time it spends defending the walnut from intruders. This morning I watched two gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) stalk up to the tree, climb it and stealthily drop a couple of walnuts to the ground. As soon as the walnuts thudded loudly down, the red squirrel jumped to action and furiously chased the grays away. The grays sprinted down, hurriedly grabbed the two walnuts and then gleefully ran off together to cache them safely away. I was surprised to see them work together. I call the alpha the alpha because it's the one that is king of the hill, or rather king of the walnut.

Beta red squirrel approaching the alpha's territory
A few seconds later the alpha came over to bark at the beta
We also have a woodchuck that enjoys eating the chicken food. About a month ago I made a deal with the woodchuck that if it stopped eating our garden I would leave food out back for it. It paused long enough to listen to me then ran off. The next day I was back out in the yard and the woodchuck came running up. It approached me slowly, walked right up to me, nudged me on the leg with its nose, then turned around and trotted back off to where it came from. It seemed like it was accepting the terms of our agreement.

Ecological notes: All of these little critters are technically (or taxonomically) squirrels. That is, they all belong to the family Sciuridae. Squirrels are rodents (Order Rodentia), so they have an upper and lower pair of incisors that are chisel shaped and reinforced with iron, which gives them that yellowish orange tint.

Where: Still my backyard

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Diversity of Squirrels (in my backyard)

Notch-o on my roof
What: After my last post I decided I wanted to really get a handle of who is who in my backyard. It's pretty obvious who Captain Death is, since he has but one ear, but there are about 4 other gray squirrels that also use my yard at various points throughout the day. Another one has a large cyst like thing on its left side, making it another easy one to ID. The lady above has a pair of notches on her ears, presumable from a male biting them during their odd little courtship routine.

A while back I thought it would be a fun challenge to see how many wild animals I could touch. It becomes pretty obvious pretty quick that the easiest way to win an animal over is through its stomach, whether it's downy woodpeckers, woodchucks, beavers, or chickadees. So in the spirit of feeding wild animals and in order to get a better handle on the rascally little squirrels I set up a feeder in the middle of my yard. This way I can see them out in the open and watch them long enough to start to discern unique features that will allow me to recognize each individual (gender, size, coloration, scars, tail length, etc.). Next step will be to name them.

1. Squirrel has one ear: Captain Death
1b. Squirrel has two ears
      2a. Has large cyst (or whatever it is) on left side: Lumplestiltskin
      2b. Does not have cyst on left side
            3a. Both ears notched: Notch-o
            3b. Both ears not notched
                  4a. One ear notched (has scraggly tufts on back): Tufts
                  4b. No notches in ear: Youngyun


Tufts, showing those clumps of scraggly fur on back
Youngyun with a walnut I set out for her
Youngyun with feet extended backwards (grays can rotate rear feet 180o)
Where: My backyard (but could just as easily be yours)

Other notes: I've noticed that their mouths all seem to be a bit darker these days, probably from the non-stop chewing of walnut husk. My hands are stained for a couple of weeks after handling walnuts, and I imagine it sticks just as well to fur as to skin.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Captain Death

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What: In college I started Ye Olde Lovable Li'l Scamps Feeding Clubbe (Y'olls FC). We collected stale bread from the dining halls and spent lunch hour on the quads hand feeding the squirrels. After a few days we could easily recognize one squirrel from the other by personality as well as by physical scars on each animal (more than not had some sort of visible scar on its face). It turns out squirrels lead a pretty tough life. One in particular, who we called Captain Death, had a large scar cutting diagonally down across his face. He was certainly the most skittish, but once we earned his trust he was the one that would approach first and stay the longest. Each time a new person joined us, Captain Death had to be won over again.

Many of the females had ragged ears or other signs of the hazards of living. Males with aggressively court females and defend access to them (see my post from May 7 for more on that). I assume that many of the scars on the squirrels were from squirrel-to-squirrel interactions during breeding season. Once we had the chance of watching a red-tailed hawk swoop down and steal a squirrel off the ground. The hawk was successful and we then watched it eat the squirrel. I imagine that not every attempt ends this way and that many a squirrel lives to climb another tree, hide another acorn, a scar as wide as a talon bears witness to the fact that squirrels are prey.

Well this morning my mom, Callan, and my sister were outside when they spotted this sad little earless squirrel. He was happily (well, as happily as he could have been) cleaning the husk from a walnut from the shell. I've been finding walnuts hidden everywhere around my backyard. The gash runs from his eye (barely visible in some of the photos) back towards his left ear (you can easily tell it's a male in the photo below), which is noticeably absent. The wound looks fresh and I haven't seen this scar before so I'm assuming it happened in the last couple of days (there's no blood on the fur, so it at least had a chance to clean that off).

Ecological notes: The squirrel was eating a walnut from our tree. This has definitely been a bumper year for walnuts and a red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) has been fiercely defending it, trying in vain to fend off the grays from stealing a snack.

Where: We spotted the squirrel on one of the wonders of the modern world of Latham Ct (the Silver Maple in my driveway).

Friday, September 7, 2012

Japanese knotweed, bees, and the end of summer

Honey bee gathering nectar
What: We'd been noticing at my house for a few days the highway of bees zipping back and forth from the Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica, formerly Polygonum cuspidatum) to their hives. The Japanese knotweed flowers just opened up last week, signaling that the season of nectar flow is nearly done.

Ecological notes: Lots of flying insects (and a couple types of ants) were making good use of the flowers. I imagine that many flying insects that rely on nectar will start disappearing in the next few weeks as food sources drastically dwindle. From top left in clockwise order: House flies, blow fly, unknown ant, and yellow jacket.

Where: Knotweed grows in disturbed sandy soils. Roadsides and river banks are great places to spot the plant. Look for dense stands with the delicate white strands of flowers poking up from the tops.

Other notes: I love knotweed. I find it tenacious, elegant, and nurturing. I have fondness for its tender shoots in the spring, the echoing resonance of its hollow chambers in winter, and the sweet scent it radiates in early fall. I find it forgivable that it might not hold the Winooski's banks in place (it was brought to the states to be used to hold banks in place), but I find it dubious that a river 500 million years old doesn't want to sway and bend in a new dance every once in a while. Cheers be to the knotweed.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The eerie glow of night

What: A beautiful respite from life brought me out to say hello to the moon. There's something about looking up that takes the breath away, as though the simple shift in perspective, lifting the gaze from one's feet up past the heart and into the heavens, shakes the body in a way that makes one's autonomous system, the unthinking mechanism that keep us alive, just shut down. For me this comes out as a small gasp when delighted by the gift of suddenly seeing the warm gaze of the sonorous moon. The sight is an ancient reminder of every moon that has cycled around the earth since there was a moon to rotate around the earth. It made me feel delightfully small, delightfully free.

The moon is waning from our blue moon (the second full moon within a calendar month). And I found particular fondness for the moon's waning bodice, which hummed a vibration softer and warmer than the cool glow of the electric lights presiding over the Lake Monster's game. With a long shadow casting over my shoulder I snapped a few shots, impressed at the brightness of the moon, its details washed out in each photograph. Looking at the photos, I'm fascinated and intrigued by the patterns of distortion that come out, from the lens flares to the double image of the moon (above).

Where: Overlooking Centennial Field on the last games of the year.