Thursday, February 22, 2018

Along a Frozen Stream

A few weeks ago the streams in the Big Woods were frozen, some of them bank to bank with barely any open water for long distances.

Others were at least partially open, especially where they flow through hemlock forests and the overhead evergreen cover moderates the cold winter temperatures. Walking along the frozen streams was a real pleasure, a pleasure brought by the beautiful designs of the openings in the ice, icicles and the tracks of wildlife that had crossed or followed the frozen stream.

First a sampling of cold holes in the ice cover –

There were also icicles, some at the edges of those cold holes, some where water seeps from the steep stream banks –

Along the stream there were areas of bare ice, areas with just the barest dusting of snow and some places with about two inches of snow. Wherever there was snow there was an opportunity for tracks of passing wildlife to be displayed –

Gray Squirrel
Dark-eyed Junco
Wild Turkey

Walking along a frozen stream is always an adventure; now the ice has melted under record-setting heat and spring is on the way. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Trail Camera on the Trail

Most people call them trail cameras, I prefer to call them camera traps – in any case they’re either commercial or homemade digital cameras that utilize one of several different kinds of motion detectors to turn the camera on and trigger photos or videos. Last fall I set one of my homemade camera traps along a wildlife trail on a rather steep hillside to see what used the trail – so this really was a trail camera.

The first image the camera captured was of a black bear –

Then came several white-tailed deer searching for acorns beneath the larger oak trees on the hillside –

A porcupine also searched for those nutritious acorns –

In late October a white-tail buck thrashed a small white pine as the rut was about to reach its peak. The camera captured a number of photographs of the buck in action –

That wasn’t the only buck on the hillside, but this one was just a young fellow –

Almost a month later another impressive buck passed the camera. At first I thought it was the same deer as the one in the collage, but a closer look revealed that this one's antlers were different –

In mid-December more snow fell and deer continued to use the trail –

A couple of weeks later, after a bit more snow had accumulated, a bobcat walked the trail –

And deer continued to use the trail through the end of January when I changed the camera's memory card –

The trail camera along the trail will remain in place  to capture more photos of wildlife on the hillside.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

A Pair of Peregrines

On an absolutely beautiful winter morning I walked along the river; in an area of fast ice-free water a large group of male common mergansers repeatedly dove in search of fish. A quarter mile further along and there was a peregrine falcon in the tree where I’ve seen them for years and posted about them – here and here.

The bird turned to look downstream and there was another peregrine flying across the river in our direction. It made a wide circle and then came in for a landing in the same tree in which its mate was perched.
The yellow ovals make it easier to locate the birds –

With them both in the same tree it became obvious that the first bird was the female –

And the newcomer was the smaller male (in all species of hawks the females are larger than males) –

I slowly walked further along until I was directly opposite their tree which afforded closer photographs –

Suddenly the male took off more quickly than I could reactwin some, lose some –

He landed on a branch nearer the female –

There they stayed until both birds suddenly took
flight, to fly across the river –

They’ll be back in the tree, the same tree they’ve used for at least six years, and I’ll be back to see them.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Watch Out in the Winter Woods

Several weeks ago on a gray, gray day with gently falling snow I took a long walk in the Big Woods. Several miles from the road I came across two young ladies taking advantage of the four inches of snow to cross-country ski through the forest. Due to the tracks I had seen along the way I thought of alerting them to a potential danger – but thought better of it after I realized that they probably would ignore the old codger.

Because most people don’t venture outdoors in the coldest weather and, at best, have only a rudimentary understanding of biology, they've never heard of two creatures that inhabit woodlands in the colder portions of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada. Two species (Palteris mendacious and P.  pseudofictivous) of what are commonly called snow snakes occur throughout those snowy regions. Snow snakes leave clearly defined tracks when there are only a few inches of snow on the ground, and those tracks are what I had seen

Both species are closely related to, and apparently highly evolved from, the coral snakes of the southeast, which in turn are related to the cobras of Asia and Africa. It appears that during the Illinoian glaciation (240,000-140,000 years ago) some of the higher peaks of the Appalachian Mountains remained ice free, and that is where isolated populations of coral snakes rapidly evolved into the two species of snow snakes. Then, as the glaciers melted the snakes spread from their ancestral homes. They managed to survive the more recent Wisconsinan glaciation which ended about 10,000 years ago and now occupy areas where winter snow cover normally exceeds 45 days; here in northcentral Pennsylvania we’re close to the southern limit of their range.

As both species evolved they lost all pigment other than in the eyes and thus appear white, although some individuals have a slight pinkish cast due to the hemoglobin in their blood, great camouflage in snow. They also evolved to be partially warm-blooded which enables them to be active and catch prey in a cold environment. These snakes are so intolerant of high temperatures that they must estivate (the warm-weather equivalent of hibernation) from April to November. Being only partially warm-blooded, they must catch and subdue their prey quickly so their poison is even more toxic than that of coral snakes and they are extremely fast over short distances.

The two species inhabit extensive forests of mixed hardwoods and conifers where they hunt small mammals up to the size of gray squirrels, but have very different hunting techniques. P. mendacious, the larger species, is an ambush predator, climbing trees and shrubs to lie on horizontal limbs from which it drops onto its prey. P. pseudofictivous pursues its prey on the ground, typically following voles and mice through the rodents’ tunnels beneath the snow.

As much time as I’ve spent in the winter woods over the last 50 years I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing a live snow snake, but their tracks are readily apparent –

Since the snakes are partially warm-blooded I’ve hoped my camera traps would capture a photo during a snow-free period as one did of a weasel in its white winter coat several years ago, but no such luck. Snow snakes are nowhere common and are certain to become even less so as the climate warms – they will probably be extirpated from Pennsylvania by mid-century.

So, when you’re out in the winter woods watch out for snow snakes and watch out for those who would go through an elaborate spoof  like this one just to spin a tall tale and interject a bit of humor into an otherwise colorless winter day.