Saturday, May 31, 2014

Spawning Smallmouth Bass

As soon as the water temperatures reach 60F, the bass and the bluegills start preparing their nests for spawning. The water around the dock is now 63F, and one bass is protecting a nest, but the bluegills are nowhere to be found. 

The fish clears a patch of sandy bottom by fanning its tail.

After the female lays eggs - up to 20,000 - 
the male stays behind to guard the nest from predators. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Animal Tracks

Fresh snow makes it easy to see last night's animal tracks.

When I wake up to a fresh snow cover, the first thought that enters my mind is a snowshoe jaunt looking for animal tracks. The Adirondack woods are teeming with wildlife, but with rare exception it is wildlife that goes unseen.  Most are nocturnal, but you can easily find evidence of all those animals by tracking them, and the best time to do it is after it a fresh coat of snow powder.  Finding tracks is simple enough. Identifying the animal that made them can be a little trickier.

We started our study of animal tracking by taking a few courses.  In Greenfield Center, just east of Saratoga Springs, the Ndakinna Education Center offers day classes on Native American wilderness skills, including animal tracking. It is a most enjoyable and educational session, and winter is the perfect time to do it. (For me it was worth the price of admission just to see Mary, at the instructors insistence, crawling on all fours to smell the urine of a fox we were tracking.) The Wild Center also brings in visiting naturalists for day sessions on their land in Tupper Lake. Last winter we took a course on identifying bear sign on forest trees, and I have not been in the woods since without thinking of something that I learned that day.

Around Bullet Pond we have our fair share of bear, but we are absolutely overrun with snowshoe hare. I can count on one hand the number of times I have actually seen one while hiking, but yesterday if I saw one set of hare tracks, I saw fifty. They were all over the place (or one hare had a very, very, busy night). I suspect the reason is the mix of woodland and forest openings, with lots of fresh shoots in sunny areas for browsing.

It's quite easy to tell the difference between hare and rabbit tracks, especially if they are viewed side by side, which was easy to do yesterday.
Hare Tracks

In rabbit / hare tracks, the hind footprints appear forward of the smaller front feet. With snowshoe hare, the hind feet are enormous, and squared off straight across the four toes (unlike cottontails, where the toes are at an angle.) The large pads allow the hare to stay on top of the snow and outrun predators, and in the Adirondacks there are plenty of those: bobcats, fishers, long tail weasels, coyote, great horned owls, red tail hawks, and, if my neighbors are telling the truth, at least two local mountain lions. In the past, the primary predator was the Canada lynx, but that cat has been extirpated locally (although they have been sighted this winter in Vermont).  
Maple shoots are a favorite hare browse.
Another sign of hare is the browse that they feed on - young branches at eye level. A rabbit's eye level changes with the depth of the snow, so the sign of their feeding might be higher up than you would suspect. It is very easy to spot. When a hare chews the buds off the end of a branch, it cuts like a set of garden shears, and always at a 45 degree angle. (If a deer has been chewing on a branch, it is ripped off very unevenly, as a deer only has teeth in its bottom jaw.)

Yesterday I also found numerous fox tracks, and a pair of coyotes traveling side by side along the trail. All of these are canids, and look somewhat similar - just like dog tracks - except for the size. It is in fact almost impossible to tell the difference between the tracks of a coyote and a dog of similar size by just looking at the tracks. You can often tell, however, by looking at the path of the tracks. Coyotes tend to walk in a dead straight line. If I see canid tracks that are meandering all over the woods, that is probably my neighbors dog, Daisy, not a coyote.
Coyote paw prints, with scat.
Fox tracks look the same, only smaller. They all have four toes, and they usually show the nails. Curiously canine prints show nail imprints and cats never do. Four toes and no nails usually means some type of cat. Five toes (on at least one foot) could be a mink, fisher, skunk, racoon, opossum, or otter.