Sunday Snapshots: Squirrel update

Red Squirrel baby girl

I had grand plans for productivity this weekend. And while I was, in fact, extremely productive, it was on none of the things I had really wanted to be productive on. I spent some 15 hours this weekend working on the moth guide manuscript edits… but more on that tomorrow (hopefully). At some point, I keep telling myself, life is going to calm down a little again and I can resume my normal routine. In the meantime, some photos.

On Friday I returned to the nestbox in our garden to check up on the baby Red Squirrels. They’ve grown a lot since my last check and are now covered in recognizable fur. You can even see the dark stripes along their flanks. Their eyes aren’t open yet, though, and their noses are still very underdeveloped (or overdeveloped, depending on your point of view). They’ve still got a bit of growing to do before they’re going anywhere.

Red Squirrel babies

This time I pulled them all out of the nest to see how many there were, and of what sexes. There were five: three females and two males. The individual I took the single photos of is a little girl.

Red Squirrel baby girl

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The first spring babies

(American) Red Squirrel mother

A few weeks ago, Dan commented to me that he’d seen a (American) Red Squirrel sitting atop the nestbox we have in the garden by the house. It had been chewing at the entrance hole, and when he’d peeked in there was a fair amount of soft strips of cedar bark. I kept meaning to go back out to investigate, and Dan kept meaning to look into ousting the critter in the interest of saving the box for the birds, but neither of us ever got around to it.

This afternoon, before heading out for a walk with the two dogs, I did a loop about the garden to see how things were growing. As I approached the nestbox I could see a small, fuzzy nose sticking out of it, enjoying the sunshine. She didn’t move as I approached, and only withdrew slightly when I reached the base of the box. I could see her dark eye peering cautiously out at me from the darkness.

(American) Red Squirrel mother

Curiosity piqued by the fact that she didn’t leave, I climbed onto the milk can still sitting below the box from last year. I lifted the lid slowly, not sure if she might turn around and jump out at me now that I was so close. But she didn’t move. I lowered the lid, turned my camera on and adjusted the settings, then lifted it again. Still she sat motionless, head turned slightly to glance over her shoulder at me. I snapped a photo, the camera held in the air in front of me since the nest box is just a shade too high for me to look through the viewfinder while aiming. Finally, as I opened the lid the rest of the way, she dashed out through the entrance hole, down the box to the pole, then jumped to the ground where she scurried to the nearby spruce to hide.

Baby (American) Red Squirrels

With her gone I felt safer leaning over to peer inside. All I could see was a mass of cedar, so I held the camera up directly over the open top to shoot straight down at what I couldn’t see. It wasn’t much help. Still, just a mass of cedar strips.

I was about to shrug and close the lid, figuring she was just using it as a sleeping chamber or perhaps was still building it, when I heard a few soft peeps coming from inside the box. Babies! Or I sure hoped it was babies, anyway.

We don’t seem to have a stepladder, so instead I retrieved the bar stool from the kitchen and set it up in the garden below the box. Standing on it I was just tall enough to peer over the side of the box to see the contents. I wasn’t sure whether squirrels, being mammals, would be put off by human scent (birds aren’t, but that’s because they have a lousy sense of smell), so I used a twig to manipulate the nesting material, opening up the narrow tunnel by pushing the cedar to the sides of the box (an effort that was only moderately successful as the bark strips seemed especially springy).

Down at the bottom I could see pink things wriggling. Again I heard a few peeps. Then one rolled over and there was the cutest, tiniest, most delicate little paw.

I tried taking a couple of photos from above the box, but getting the focus was difficult since I couldn’t look through the viewfinder. I tried half a dozen, putting the camera on a manual focus and moving it up and down above the box, but this was the clearest one I got. And you still couldn’t see much. It could simply be a pile of beach stones in there, for all you can tell.

Dan came around the corner then and asked what I was looking at, to which I enthusiastically replied, “She has babies!” I asked whether he thought she’d desert if I touched them. He offered his opinion, but suggested I ask Google, who always seems to know the answer. So I did. And was assured that a mother squirrel will not be put off by people-smell. (This probably makes sense, since the nestbox probably also smells a bit like people.)

Baby (American) Red Squirrel

Which meant that I could carefully lift one out for a photo without fear of repercussions. And, I’m sorry, after seeing that little pink foot, I just had to.

When I place the small, squirming body on my palm I just about melted from the cute factor. It was so tiny! With little bitty ears and little bitty toes and a little bitty tail. Its eyes were still firmly closed, and if it had teeth it didn’t recognize the need to use them. It paddled a bit with its paws (awwww!), pulling itself across my hand, but that was all.

Baby squirrels open their eyes at age 4 weeks, which makes this guy younger than that – not that that’s a surprise. One chart I found suggested that at the point where their pink skin starts to darken on the head and back they’re between 2 to 3 weeks. That might be about right, if it took the mother a few days to a week to build the nest.

Baby (American) Red Squirrel

Look at that face, those tiny ears! The wrinkles of skin at his neck! You can see the down starting to cover his head. He’s even starting to get whiskers, at his muzzle and below his eyes.

Baby Red Squirrels grow at a rate of nearly 2 grams (1/14 oz) per day (from a starting birth weight of 10 grams / 1/3 oz); at just past 40 days old, about six weeks, they’ll leave the nest with their mother. They stay with her for some time yet after that, even continuing to nurse for up to another month. They don’t reach adult size till four months; we’ll have baby squirrels to look forward to seeing.

Dan joked that we’ve been doing a great service for the local Red Squirrel population, helping them to increase their numbers. When we moved in, we were lucky if we even saw one on the property, and they never hung out by the house. Then we put out birdfeeders. Then the squirrels discovered the feeders.

Good thing they’re cute.

Daytime bat

Swamp

For some reason, I don’t know why, I managed to remain completely clueless about the existence of Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) until a couple of years ago, and I only actually figured out what they sound like last night. This might be excused if I had no knowledge of any of the frogs or their calls, but I grew up beside a swamp; Spring Peepers, American Toads, Wood Frogs and Gray Treefrogs were all a much-anticipated part of spring. I would fall asleep at night with my window cracked open, listening to the (sometimes very loud) choir from the swamp. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, I never picked up on Chorus Frogs. It’s not even like they lack a distinct voice; when I listened to the recordings last night, I surprised myself in saying “I know that! I could swear I grew up hearing that in our swamp.”

So when I heard some this afternoon, calling from some wetland over in the neighbour’s woods, I decided to grab my camera and go check it out. It was a gorgeous day and I was looking for an excuse not to go back inside; maybe, if I was lucky, I could spot one. I made the mistake of letting Raven tag along, however. She was already outside, and though it did cross my mind that she might be a little disruptive, I thought I could just have her sit-stay by the water while I poked around. I’d forgotten how much fun she has in water, and she hasn’t really seen much water since last fall. So when we got there, it was just too much. She tried her best, she really did; she sat-stayed for as long as her quivering muscles would let her. And then she couldn’t hold herself back any longer, and leapt into the water, tuning out all attempts by me to call her back (which, really, is rather ineffectual unless you’ve got one of those remote-controlled collars on them that’ll vibrate when you press a button. Otherwise, what do they care if you yell?).

So the frogs didn’t happen. I could hear them, but I had trouble getting close enough to any to even have a chance of seeing one, since inevitably Raven would bound through just as I thought I might be getting closeish to one. But I found something just as good, or even better.

brown bat, prob. Myotis sp.

I didn’t notice it at first, until it left the tree it had been hanging on on one of Raven’s drive-bys. It was a bat. It swooped down toward the water’s surface, skimming along and touching down once or twice, scooping insects from its surface (presumably; possibly it might have been drinking, although these shots suggest a different posture for that). Then it would return to the tree trunk to eat, hanging upside-down.

I was absolutely fascinated, and this made the entire trek worthwhile. I’m not sure how long I stood there, watching it, but probably fifteen or twenty minutes. It moved to the far side of the swamp for a little bit, and I watched it fly back and forth over the water over there, while a Hairy Woodpecker worked a tree and a couple of robins moved through the branches above.

(Naturally, I didn’t have my telephoto lens, but at least I had my mid-sized lens, my 100mm, and not my short landscape lens, the 55mm. These are all 100% crops, which, in combination with the moving target, accounts for the low image quality.)

brown bat, prob. Myotis sp.

I was standing at the northeast side of the water, so as it swooped back and forth the sun would shine through its thin wing membrane, illuminating it and highlighting the bone structure. That’s not something you get to see too often!

I was a little surprised to see a bat out in plain daylight, and in the sun, no less, not even the deep shade of the forest (or what might pass for deep shade in the leafless deciduous woods). Googling it, though, it seems this isn’t an altogether unusual occurrence. Most of our bats hibernate over the winter. In the spring, as the temperatures are just starting to rise, the nights can often still be quite cool or even freezing, even while the days are fairly warm. Early-risers may take advantage of these warmer daytime temperatures to do some foraging, choosing to sleep at night instead, at least until the nights start to warm up, too. Not only are there a lot more insects out flying during the day (if the temperature’s really cold, there might not be any insects at all at night), but it’s a lot easier on the bat, too. Once the nights are warm enough they’ll return to their nocturnal habits.

brown bat, prob. Myotis sp.

I couldn’t tell you what species it was. According to the Atlas of the Mammals of Ontario, there are 8 species of bat in the province. I know Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis), Silver-haired Bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans) and Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus), but the rest of Ontario’s bats all sort of blend in together – especially when you’re seeing them from a slight distance, while they’re on the wing. The remaining possibilities are Eastern Small-footed Bat (Myotis leibii), Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifuga), Northern Long-eared Bat (aka Northern Myotis; Myotis septentrionalis), Eastern Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus), and Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus). From what I can tell, ID between these species depends primarily on structural details of the ears and head that can’t be seen in flight or from a distance (unless you have a really good camera).

brown bat, prob. Myotis sp.

The two brown bats are the most common, judging from the mammal atlas, and the Big Brown in particular. I read through all of the descriptions in my Peterson mammal guide, though, just in case it offered any clues there. It was the habitat and habits I was most interested in. The habits of Eastern Small-footed Bat and Northern Myotis didn’t seem to match, but the other three had possible similarities:

For Little Brown, it comments: “Forests and rural areas, usually near streams and lakes” and “Emerges at dusk or later, usually flying to water to forage and drink. … Feeds mainly on emerging aquatic insects”.

For Eastern Pipistrelle: “Woodland or mixed farmland” and “Feeds on tiny flies and beetles, hunting over water or at forest edge”.

And for Big Brown: “Forests, farms, cities” and “Feeds on beetles and other insects, hunting over fields or streams … Will awake and become active in response to temperature change – a bat seen out and about in midwinter is almost sure to be this species.”

brown bat, prob. Myotis sp.

It’s the note about Little Brown feeding on emerging aquatic insects that causes me to lean toward that species as the most likely candidate, although Big Brown seems like a pretty good possibility as well. Being completely subjective about it, the shape and relative size of the head in the first photo, where it’s hanging on the tree, seem a better match for the Little Brown in my guide. But it’s probably one of those things that has to be left without a definitive ID. Pretty cool, regardless!

brown bat, prob. Myotis sp.

Star-nosed Mole

Star-nosed Mole

The second-most interesting thing of the seed-exchange weekend was the rather unfortunate encounter with this creature. My mom and I had spent a half hour or so at the mudpuppy event, then, because the night was still young and we weren’t too far, decided to drop by my sister’s place to meet her new puppy, which she’d brought home only the day before.

She lives on a horse farm on a rural sideroad, surrounded by many acres of both natural and cultivated habitats. As we were pulling up her long driveway, I noticed a dark shape waddling in circles in one of the tire tracks. Unfortunately, the driveway was icy and slippery, and while we might have stopped the car in time in dry conditions, on the ice the wheels locked and it slid. I hopped out to check on the animal, but we hadn’t been able to avoid him.

Making the best of sad circumstances, however, I grabbed my camera from the car and took a couple dozen shots of the creature. The dark bundle of fur turned out to be a Star-nosed Mole, Condylura cristata. Despite the poor thing’s untimely demise, I was pretty excited to actually see one up close and be able to get a good look at it. I’d only ever seen a mole once before, and it was a fleeting glimpse insufficient to identify the animal to species. I’d never been able to check it out in detail.

Star-nosed Mole

The mole is, of course, named for the wildly unique appendage found at the end of its snout. There are 22 fleshy “fingers”, 11 on each side of the nose. The mole is effectively blind, visually, and the star acts as the mole’s eyes. Over its surface are spread some 25,000 mechanoreceptors that are exceptionally sensitive to touch (consider that in our entire hand we have about 17,000 similar receptors).

These receptors are linked directly to the brain, and signals from the star are received and interpreted at lightning speed. It takes the mole only about 25 milliseconds (1/40th of a second) to detect a potential food item and decide if it’s good to eat. Consider that it takes us about 600 milliseconds (3/5ths of a second) to detect something jumping out on the road in front of our car and stomp on the brake. Nearly half of the mole’s brain is dedicated to interpreting the signals from its sensory star. Some scientists have also hypothesized that these receptors might also be able to detect the natural electrical impulses that living creatures produce, though there is currently little data to back this up.

(These facts primarily taken from, and more info on the mole’s fascinating nervous system arrangement available at, this excellent ScienceBlogs post.)

Star-nosed Mole

Star-nosed Moles are active all year. They’re excellent swimmers and spend a lot of time in or near water, especially during the winter months when the ground’s too hard to do any foraging in the soil. Because of their amazing nose, they’re the only known creature able to smell underwater. They accomplish this by blowing out tiny bubbles then re-inhaling them, detecting the scents that the bubbles pick up from the water. They have long, relatively thick tails that they use to store fat during the leaner winter months.

They’re also pretty darn good diggers, too, as expected with paws like that. The oversized forelimbs are broader than long and angled sideways, equipped with massive claws for tearing through dirt. They function as big scoops, allowing the mole to move large quantities of earth quickly. They can and do make molehills, though these are more typically the product of its land-dwelling cousin species, the Eastern Mole, Scalopus aquaticus (the scientific name is clearly a misnomer; the original specimen from which the species was named had been found dead in water).

I spent much longer than intended reading up on the Star-nosed Mole – what a fascinating species! A shame about this unfortunate individual, but at least you and I got to benefit from it.

Hare fare

Snowshoe hare feeding sign in brambles

Earlier this week we had a one-day warm front come through. The day before had been around -14°C (7°F), and the day following was only a degree or two warmer. But that day it was 2°C (36°F) – balmy! It seemed like a perfect opportunity to take a jaunt over to the 100-acre woods and mosey about. I didn’t need my long johns, or my second toque, or my inside vest, and my mittens remained stuffed in my pocket most of the time. It should’ve been a really pleasant outing.

The problem was, I hadn’t accounted for the above-freezing temperatures making the snow heavy and wet. I wore my snowshoes, because the snow was just deep enough that I’d be disinclined to hike off-trail without them (and the 100-acre woods is all, pretty much, off-trail). And found their first (and to-date only) flaw: the built-in crampons on the underside of the snowshoe were spaced just perfectly to pack in and hold the wet snow. In half a dozen steps I had large snowballs underneath each foot. It was nearly impossible to walk on the packed trail, and even in the loose snow my feet would plant at funny angles.

I thought this simply annoying at first, but soon felt otherwise. It’s roughly 1 km (0.6 mi) from our house to the entrance to the 100-acre woods. By the time I reached there, I had blisters forming on the backs of my heels from rubbing unusual spots in the boots. I discovered that our neighbour, who maintains the trails in the woods, had been through recently on his ATV; I took my snowshoes off, limping the 2 km through the woods and back to our house along the packed snow of his tracks. I didn’t do much nature observation.

But the weather was nice.

The one thing I did notice was at the foot of our 30 acres, before the blisters had gotten too bad. It was the above scene. In a patch of brambles, there were several long, narrow depressions in the snow, most of them filled with bunny droppings. (The contrast in the photo is increased to emphasize the tracks). Snowshoe hares, by default; I have yet to notice any evidence of cottontails around here. The long depressions suggested they’d paused in the one spot for a while; the droppings that they’d perhaps hopped forward slowly as they left the depression. I bent down to investigate more closely.

Snowshoe hare feeding sign on brambles

And that’s when I noticed that many of the twigs had been snipped off at the end, sheared cleanly by sharp teeth. Obviously the hare(s – I couldn’t really tell if there’d been only one or if there were more, though hares are usually independent) had dallied here browsing. I was rather surprised by this. While I know that in the winter, when tender greens are scarce, hares will turn to twigs and evergreen needles for food, I thought there surely must be easier plants to target than the prickly stems of brambles.

Snowshoe hare feeding sign on brambles

Quite a few of the stems were nibbled, so the hares must have found them tasty. I wonder how they keep from getting poked in the mouth as they eat?

Snowshoe hare feeding sign on juniper

A short distance away I found a couple more depressions alongside a juniper bush. The tips of many of the juniper twigs were also trimmed off. This didn’t surprise me nearly as much as the brambles; although the junipers are pretty prickly, as evergreen needles go, they’re not the same sort of sharp as the needle-points of the bramble thorns.

It was interesting to see this evidence of the hares feeding. Ordinarily I see many tracks, criss-crossing back and forth through the forests, forming well-trod highways, but they’re always going from somewhere to somewhere. This was only the second time I’d noticed them spend any time in a spot, and the first time hadn’t looked to be for feeding.

Snowshoe hare feeding sign on juniper

Signs of porcupine

Porcupine den

A couple of weeks ago, Dan returned from a walk with Raven and said that they’d discovered a den. It was on the neighbour’s property about a third of the way back along our fence, visible from the fenceline. It was too dark by that point for photos, and the following day was raining, but I did manage to get out with Raven the day after that. He hadn’t been sure what it was, and given Raven’s curiosity in such things, hadn’t spent much time investigating. When I returned with Raven I made sure to have her sit and wait at a safe distance, just in case.

The den was larger than I was expecting, located halfway up a sandy bank, under the overhanging branches of a large fir. The slope had been worn down with the repeated passing of little feet, though there weren’t any obvious tracks in the soft substrate when I got closer. I’d have to look for some other clue to the identity of the owner.

Porcupine den

Fortunately, that clue wasn’t hard to find. Outside the front door, and just inside the entrance, were many dried droppings of a shape and size that I recognized immediately: the round pellet-like winter scat of a porcupine. Nearly all of them were quite old, suggesting that the den site had probably been used last winter. Whether it was being used this winter or not I wasn’t sure. As soon as the snows settle in porcupines start relieving themselves just outside the den (can you blame them? if you were all alone in your cabin in the woods, wouldn’t you just pee off the back porch instead of hiking through the snow to the outhouse, too?), but during the snow-free months, while the animal has more freedom to wander around, it’s more fastidious in its housekeeping. Normally you’re likely to encounter the pale macaroni-shaped summer scat underneath the feeding trees or in the middle of the forest floor, instead.

On occasion, when I’ve found a porcupine den before, I’ve noticed a few shed quills outside the entrance, but I didn’t see any this time. I’m not actually sure if the den is in use yet; I gather that porcupines have separate summer and winter den sites, with the latter often being at ground level and the former being in a hollow in a tree. If he hasn’t yet moved in, that would explain both the lack of fresh droppings and the absence of shed quills.

Porcupine feeding sign - snipped-off balsam fir twigs

I snapped a few photos then carried on along the fenceline, looking for a good place to hop it to cross back to our property. Along the way I passed through a grove of Balsam Fir, which we seem to have more of in the immediate vicinity of our house than any other naturally-occurring conifer (the owners had at some point planted a fair bit of spruce and pine between the house and the road as a privacy screen, but there isn’t much of it in the neighbouring woods). Eyes to the ground as I picked my way across some fallen branches, I noticed small bits of balsam twigs scattered over the forest floor beneath the trees.

Although I scanned the trees themselves and saw nothing, these are pretty clear evidence of porcupine foraging – in all likelihood, the same individual who will be using that den, come winter. I found this interesting, because it was my understanding that northern porcupines feed nearly exclusively on hemlock during the winter months, with a bit of White Pine thrown in for occasional variety. On the other hand, I noticed feeding sign on one of the tamaracks in the bog last winter, and with not too many hemlock in the immediate area, perhaps the animal was just eating what was available.

I’ll have to come back once we have some snow on the ground and see whether the den is occupied and, if so, where he’s feeding. After finding the trails of a porcupine last winter, I’ll be curious to know what this one’s home range is like.

Sunday Snapshots: The neighbours

horse

I’m just returned from a few days back in the GTA visiting my best friend (who lives too far away); today I’m catching up on a few things, so I’ll simply share a few photos from a week ago, of the horses down the rail trail a little ways. Big, beautiful animals, with sweet temperaments. The farmer has about ten of them, all appearing to be drafts or draft-crosses, and I’m not sure what their story is. I’ve occasionally seen him out on his tractor doing work about the farm, and he doesn’t work his land, so they may not be put to any practical purpose… perhaps he just like draft horses. Sometimes, that’s all the reason you need.

horses

horses

Look at the neck on this one! Three of the horses are huge, with hooves literally the diameter of dinner plates. The pinto and the black horse are both regular-sized horses (perhaps 15hh/5ft at the withers), for comparison. Gentle giants.

horses