March 30, 2015

Unwelcome Signs of Spring

By Eric D'Aleo, Naturalist

Sunlight is lengthening each day, the temperature slowly creeps upward and those of us in the northeast are eagerly looking for a sign that spring is truly on its way. Maple syrup season, mud season, even Groundhog Day all seem to fool us into tantalizing thinking that spring is on its way and winter is surely over. We keep constant tabs on the depth of the snow searching for an elusive patch of green grass in the lawn officially telling us that winter is on its way out. Once this happens we foolishly believe, all will be well. However, the melting snow also reveals a different, unwelcome sign of spring. Small tunnels rise out of the remains of snow as the white blanket melts away.As the patch of bare ground grows we discover tunnels that crisscross across the yard and even reach into the gardens. Instead of green grass tunnels of dead grass are revealed. What has happened here? What is responsible? The simple meadow vole is the culprit.

Meadow voles or meadow mice, as they are also known, are chunky mouse- like rodents, with small, rounded ears and eyes, a short, furred tail, and a fur color that is chestnut brown to dark brown. These animals are found throughout much of the northern United States. They are adaptable, inhabiting a variety of habitats, including meadows and pastures with thick grassy cover where they can find shelter and food. They are also found in orchards with good grass cover and in marshes, swamp areas, and grassy openings in forests and in gardens. Meadow voles mainly eat grass and herbs in the summer but switch to available seeds and bark and roots of small trees and shrubs during winter. They may cache roots, leaves, tubers, and other plant parts in winter and may eat 60 to 100% of their body weight in twenty-four hours.

These seldom seen small rodents are active all year long. They travel through vegetative tunnels in the growing season seeking shelter in burrows in the ground, mulch, tall grass areas, brush, and wood piles. In winter they tunnel under the snow when a significant amount has fallen and continue searching for food or resting in communal nests in their subnuvien world. The snow protects them from cold temperatures, the eyes of potential predators, and allows access to available food,. Although short-lived, meadow voles are prolific breeders throughout the year, including winter, with a female having up to ten litters of four to five young each time. The young mature quickly and are able to breed in about one month, which may explain why in some areas, vole damage to young fruit trees and other garden vegetation can be extensive.

Once homeowners irealize that they have voles on their property the natural inclination is to get rid of them, but this often proves difficult. Winters with long-lasting snow cover provide relative protection from predators although fox and coyote can often hear or smell the voles moving beneath the snow. My dogs, although not trained to hunt voles, enjoy rooting them out of the iris beds in the summer and digging through the snow in winter to find them. Weasels are another predator that enters the snow tunnels of voles. Owls may locate the rodents under the snow when perched quietly in a tree above. Other options to reduce vole numbers are to mow regularly during the growing season to provide them with less cover, to locate compost piles and brush piles well away from areas you don’t want voles, and to protect young trees and vulnerable shrubs with hardware cloth wrapped to the height of the snowline.

Although your lawn may look unsightly for a few weeks, the damage is mainly caused by feeding. Often the grass will regrow as the temperature warms. A thorough raking of the disturbed area may be all that is necessary to allow the grass to regrow.

March 23, 2015

On Wild Mushrooms

By Karlene Schwartz, Volunteer

Lobster mushroom
Copyright Karlene Schwartz
A mushroom is the above ground reproductive structure of some fungi. People hunt wild mushrooms for food, medicine, and dyes on all continents except Antarctica. Where a mushroom is rare, collectors must leave sufficient numbers of mature mushrooms to scatter their spores and initiate new colonies.

People who gather wild fungi may deplete the food supply of wildlife that derives nutrients from fungi. Animals detect irresistible aromatic compounds given off by fungi. Flying squirrels, deer, and red squirrels feed on mushrooms. Wherever the animal defecates, undigested mushroom spores land and may begin a new colony.

Some wild mushrooms are deadly. The edibility of thousands of wild mushrooms is unknown. Never, ever eat a wild mushroom unless you are positive of its identification. The only identification rule is that there is no rule; no simple test proves the edibility of a wild mushroom. To identify a mushroom with certainty, you must determine its color, shape, appearance, structure, spore color, habitat, and season.

The respected mycologist Nicholas Money suggests picking wild mushrooms may be bad behavior. Just leaving the mycelium, the feeding structure of a mushroom, may not suffice to ensure the fungus population. Destruction of woodlands and of undisturbed grassland surely destroys mushroom habitat. A Swiss study showed that weekly picking or cutting of all mushrooms in a plot did not affect the species richness or abundance of edible mushrooms. But trampling did reduce species richness and yield. Tread lightly when you gather.

Copyright Karlene Schwartz
If you’d like to learn to gather wild mushrooms and truffles, experienced teachers abound. City dwellers can join an urban guided mushroom walk. The North American Mycological Association ( brings together interested amateurs with skilled teachers to learn mushroom identification. A foray is a guided walk to an area during which you learn to identify mushrooms and mushroom habitat. In northern Michigan, an annual morel festival draws enthusiasts for guided morel forays, seminars with experts, and morel dining. Wherever you live, you can learn mushrooms basics, ecology, mushroom conservation, evolution, and taxonomy at a natural science center, adult and teen summer camp, mushroom club, in mushroom books, and on the web.

Hunting truffles (underground fungi) with animals dates back at least to 1481. Bartolomo Platina, author of a treatise on Italian gastronomy, mentioned that sows were unequaled for locating the potato-shaped truffles. To a sow, the truffle’s alluring aroma smells like an attractive boar. The female pigs wore muzzles to prevent them from eating their fungal finds. Also dogs can be trained to sniff out truffles. A truffle dog is distracted with a treat while its person digs up the truffle. If you are interested in having your own dog trained, the North American Truffling Association can link you and your pup to a professional truffle dog trainer.

Wild pecan truffles were discovered in orchards of southern Georgia in 1987. As their name implies, these truffles grow near pecan tree roots and are harvested from the top inch or two of soil. The gnarled pecan truffle has a marbled interior and sells for about $100/pound. University of Georgia biologists are developing pecan truffles’ potential as a delicious, precious crop.

Since its early years, Karlene has enjoyed volunteering at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. As a biologist/author/ photographer, she has written docent cards describing the natural history of eastern coyotes, fishers, mink, red foxes, weasels, barred owls, black bears, bobcat, white tail deer, river otters, skunks and beaver. Hiking with friends, kayaking, participating in BioBlitz, and caring for conservation lands each in its own way teaches her more about the fragile natural world.

March 9, 2015

Owl Versus Crow, Round Two

By Iain MacLeod

While I was out running chores on Monday February 23, I photographed another crow and owl encounter along Tenney Mountain Highway in Plymouth.

I spotted a Barred Owl sitting quietly in the sun next to the road at about 11am. After a few minutes three American Crows landed in the tree above the owl. The owl gazed up and seemed to brace for what was coming. One at a time the crows dive bombed the owl then looped up and landed above the owl, ready to strike again. I grabbed the camera and snapped a series of shots of the third attack. One photo shows the crow ON the owl’s head! That was enough for the owl and it headed off into a group of pines nearby… followed by the three crows.

This scenario is likely being played out all over New England this winter. Because of the deep snow pack and sub-zero temperatures, Barred Owls are spending more time hunting during the day because their typical nocturnal rodent prey is deep under the snow. They are actively hunting during the daylight hours in the hope of finding diurnal squirrels and perhaps a bird or two.

Crows will mob any predator that they deem to be a threat and owls are a prime target. Eric D’Aleo’s incredible account of the crow and owl locked in combat is an illustration of the animosity between these two species that can turn deadly

March 2, 2015

Till Death Do Us Part

By Eric D'Aleo

February 14, 2015

Snow was falling as I walked down the path behind my neighbor Mary, struggling to keep my footing through the white blanket on the ground. The quiet enveloped me as we moved slowly toward the copse of pines.

“Down there,” my neighbor said quietly as she pointed ahead and at ground level. “Can you see it?”

I nodded my head and started to head into the field.

“Don’t you want to move this way and come down through the pines?” she asked.

“No, I think I’d like to take photographs from the field facing the pine trees in case it flies off,” I replied and continued walking.

I trudged through the snow trying to maintain my distance and not spook the bird. Then I could see it, a buff colored ghost with dark markings covering its body. It was a barred owl with perfect camouflage for hiding against a tree trunk, but starkly evident in the brush below, only inches above the snow. I crept forward to take a photo and could see the crow that the owl had killed hanging below it, yet something seemed wrong. I continued to move closer, waiting for the owl to flush; only it didn’t.

“I think the bird is trapped,” Mary said.

I was only a few feet away and could see the bird’s head rolling back as if it was looking up at the trees but it didn’t move. I gently prodded the owl with the base of my monopod and it faintly stirred. Two branches from the sapling it perched on seemed to stick up through its feathered chest as if it had been impaled. But how could that happen? The branches were long and flexible and there was no blood on them. The owl appeared to be holding on to its prize, the crow, for all it was worth or so it seemed. Suddenly I realized this was not a photography mission, it was a rescue mission.

I told Mary that the bird looked to be in rough shape but it was still alive. I explained we could try and put it in a crate so I could take it the Science Center to see if it could recover, or we could let nature take its course, but I didn’t think the bird would survive through the afternoon.

She said that she had a carry kennel that I could use to transport the bird and had clippers as well as heavy gloves so I could extricate the owl from the brush. As Mary walked back to get the materials we needed, I propped my camera among the branches of nearby shrubs to prevent it from lying in the snow.

I looked at the owl more closely as I waited and began to wonder what I was thinking. I had the flu and was spending this day resting when I received Mary’s phone call shortly after lunch. When I heard that there was an owl with a crow it had killed in the brush I completely disregarded being sick, grabbed my camera, put on my boots, and drove the quarter mile down the road. Wildlife waits for no one. This was a lesson I had learned many times before.

Upon closer inspection I noticed the owl wasn’t actually holding the dead bird, it was the other way around. The crow, in death had clasped its left foot around the owl’s right leg and was locked in place, pulling on the owl like an albatross. Even if the owl was healthy and strong, it would be a herculean feat to fly out of the thick brush with the crow attached. There also was blood around the owl’s face and some feathers on its chest, which were frozen with snow around a branch locking the bird to the young tree. Glancing around I could see fading marks of feathers, bodies, and feet in the snow that were slowly being covered by the new snowfall.

Mary arrived with the kennel, clippers, and gloves a few minutes later. I removed the branches so we could get closer to the owl. The first snip was to the crow’s leg. The body dropped to the snow without a sound while its foot held onto the owl’s leg like some avian anklet. The second snip removed a branch that rested against the bird’s chest. I could see that the other branch was indeed somehow frozen in place. Quietly, I leaned forward and placed the clippers above the legs of the owl to try and cut the branch near the chest. With a final clip the owl’s body leaned back and its wings spread out as in a reflex to falling through air. However, its talons remained firmly grasped to the branch upon which it had been perched. Holding the legs between the gloved fingers of one hand, I pried the talons loose with the other. During this time the owl seemed to become more aware of me and its surroundings, looking at my face while I worked. Once the bird was in my hands I noticed how light it felt, like a wisp of smoke, possibly emaciated from the harsh winter and heavy snowfall, which favored owls’ rodent prey, that were able to tunnel safely underneath the thick snow.

I placed the bird in the kennel and gathered up my camera as Mary and I walked back toward her house.

“It seems to be more aware and sitting upright,” she noted as I loaded the kennel into my car.

“I’ll let you know what happens,“ I said as I shut the door. “Thanks for your help.”

I drove along the back roads to the Science Center noting its condition along the way. I dropped the bird off with Lauren Moulis, a member of our animal care staff and filled out the appropriate paperwork, promptly leaving as I started feeling like I had overexerted myself. Before I left, I asked Lauren to email me with the preliminary findings on the status of the owl and to keep me updated if anything significant should happen. I spent the next several days in bed battling the flu bug, occasionally wondering how the owl was doing. On Sunday evening, I briefly checked my email to see if there was an update. Lauren’s comment was that it was sitting up and more alert, clicking its beak at her when she opened the crate to feed it. The blood on its feathers turned out to be that of the crow and the branches were only frozen to the feathers. Her biggest concern was how long the circulation was restricted to the owl’s right foot from the crow’s “death grip.” She had given it some medication for the pain, but mainly had it resting and eating. I went back to bed to continue my recovery knowing that the barred owl was doing the same.

Wednesday, February 18 was the first opportunity I had to see the bird when I returned to work. I learned from Nancy Kitchen, our Animal Care Manager, that the barred owl had a clean bill of health and was fit to be released back into the wild. I was very pleased and excited that it had recovered so well, but was also somewhat stressed as I tried to coordinate help in returning the owl to the area it had been found. Another winter snowstorm was approaching Wednesday evening and I wanted to give the bird the most time to reorient itself to its territory.

I arrived home at 2:20 pm with the barred owl and contacted my wife and neighbor who would help me with the release. Ten minutes later the bird was in place along the edge of a large wooded area near the Baker River. The afternoon was bright and clear, a distinct contrast to the snowy, gray day when the owl had been found. We opened the crate door. Initially the bird did not come out. However, once it did, the barred owl flew directly up to a large, low branch of a red maple. It perched there, sitting quietly, seeming to take in the familiar surroundings for a minute. As it sat there the owl was greeted by a raucous cacophony of calls from a flock of crows in the distance. Surely, these birds were associated with the deceased crow that we had found on Saturday. Their calls became louder and more incessant as they approached. Not wanting to draw any attention to itself the barred owl hesitated only a moment before it turned toward the woods, spread its wings, and silently glided between the trunks of the trees to settle on a cherry tree tucked under the cover of pines and hemlocks. I walked around to where I could get a clearer view and watched the three crows land in the nearby trees scolding the owl. The barred owl seemed to melt into the tree using its camouflage to seemingly disappear. It appeared that this bird had made a vow to avoid the old “black” ball and chain.

February 15, 2015

Life in Hollow Trees

By Margaret Gillespie

My dog, Mica, discovered this arched hole carved in the base of an old sugar maple. Joining in her excitement, I peeked inside and was immediately relieved that the hole was too small for Mica to enter. In this den, you can just make out the prickly tail and dark back of a porcupine! Porcupines are active all winter, feeding mainly on the inner bark of trees. They do need adequate shelter which can range from space in a jumble of rocks, an unused outbuilding or, in this case, a hollow tree. When I returned a few days later to explore the site with my niece, Yesi and her friend Mary, we were disappointed to find no porcupine in residence. However, the girls were delighted to find a nearby hollow sugar maple just their size!
The porcupine tail is just visible inside the den.

January 21, 2015

Red and Blue Winter

By Dave Erler

As I write this we are nearly half way through the season and it’s turning into a red and blue winter. I’m not referring to politics in this case but the apparent number of Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays that have been visiting the Science Center feeding station. I have witnessed the same trend at my home and heard similar stories from other bird feeders in the area. If you have feeders at your home you may have noticed the same.

The question you may have is, “How do I know I’m not just seeing the same birds over and over as they come in for a free handout of sunflower seed?” It is usually pretty tough to tell one bird from another of the same species. (They probably say the same about us.) One way you can identify individual birds is to place a uniquely numbered metal band on one of their legs. For the past 36 years I’ve been banding birds at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. From the data collected over the years this winter stands out. In an average winter of banding at the Center’s winter feeding station next to the Webster Education Building I might band three or four Northern Cardinals and a dozen Blue Jays. In the past three weeks we have captured, banded, and released 16 Cardinals and 28 Blue Jays and we still have two more months to go!

There are some interesting theories as to why we are seeing this change. If you’d like to find out what those theories are and are interested in learning more about banding, join us for Winter Bird Banding on any of the dates listed below. It’s a great opportunity to actively learn, see some of our winter birds close in hand, and quite possibly get to hold and release the birds we encounter. If the trend continues you may also see some of these blue and red birds of winter. Make a reservation as space is limited (call 603-968-7194 option 7). It’s been a fun year so far so I hope you will join us.
  • Saturday, January 31, 10:00 a.m. to Noon 
  • Saturday, February 14, 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. 
  • Wednesday, February 25, 10:00 a.m. to Noon 
  • Saturday, February 28, 10:00 a.m. to Noon 
  • Saturday, March 14, 10:00 a.m. to Noon

December 16, 2014

Built for Winter

When it’s cold out people can put on a coat, snow pants, hat, gloves, and scarf. We have skis and snowshoes to help us move on the snow. When we come inside we turn up the heat or light a fire. Humans have found ways to overcome our weaknesses in relation to winter weather. But animals that remain active in the winter must find ways to survive the changing landscape.

One of these animals is the ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus). They are built for survival. Their feathers are mottled browns and white that helps them to blend with their surroundings during any season. This coloration mimics the shadowing effect on the forest floor of light coming through branches where ruffed grouse eat food from crabapple trees (Malus species) or aspens. Grouse usually remain still as you pass by until the final instant, when they suddenly fly away, startling you as you enjoy a stroll.

In winter, ruffed grouse are protected from the cold by their feathers. Feathers are very effective insulators. The legs of grouse are partially covered with feathers and feathers also extend out past their nostrils so they breathe in warmed air. Ruffed grouse will often spend an evening or cold day under low-hanging branches of coniferous trees for added warmth. When snow is deep (10 inches or more) they will even make snow caves by diving into the snow. The added insulation of snow can keep the temperatures near 0 degrees Celsius even during extreme cold conditions.

Being rather bulky birds that spend much of their time on the ground, walking in deeper snow may pose some problems. The grouse has evolved to combat this problem by growing pectines, or comb-like structures, around their toes, which act as snowshoes.

Even though ruffed grouse are fairly large birds, they do not store much fat on their body. Hanging out in trees can be a dangerous activity with no leaves to keep you hidden and safe from predators. Ruffed grouse will eat very quickly, stuffing their crops with enough food to survive a day in less than 25 minutes. This, combined with the energy-saving physical and behavioral adaptations, make the ruffed grouse built for winter.

November 24, 2014

Animal Facts: White-tailed Deer

Odocoileus virginianus 

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Cervidae
Genus: Odocoileus
Species: O. virginianus

Fast Facts
Lifespan: 4-5 years in the wild; 15-20 years in captivity
Size: up to 80 inches long, 39 inches at the shoulder, weight 50-300 pounds
Offspring: 1-2 fawns, sometimes 3
Speed: 30 mph, 25 mph over long distances
Status: Common, widespread

What are some special characteristics of white-tailed deer?
In summer, deer fur is reddish brown, short and wiry while in winter they grow a thick, gray coat. Winter guard hairs are hollow, providing extra insulation. The belly, throat and underside of the tail are white. Deer are ungulates or hoofed mammals and have pointed cloven hooves. Their large ears and dark nose are distinctive. How can you tell a buck and doe apart? Bucks are larger and vary from 75 to 300 pounds whereas does range from 50 to 200 pounds. Antlers distinguish bucks but each year antlers are shed in early winter.

What is the habitat of the White-tailed Deer?
Deer are found in mixed forest, along the edges of old fields and forest as well as in thicket areas. Depending upon the quality of their habitat, they may have a home range of two to three square miles. In winter, if snow depths exceed 15” deer gather in “deer yards” – areas often with coniferous cover where the snow is less deep and there is protection from wind. Packed trails lead to their winter food supply.

Deer are called browsers. What does that mean?
Browsers eat twigs and buds and a deer’s preferred winter browse comes from white cedar, hemlock and maple. They need about five to nine pounds of food per day in winter. Acorns are a staple food in the fall, with a bonus coming from the fruit of wild apple trees. During the warm months deer will eat tender green grass shoots.

How about the rutting season and raising of the young?
The breeding season or “rut” runs from October to December during this time bucks compete for does. In September the males rub off the velvet that covered their antlers. Healthier bucks have larger antlers and usually this visual sign is enough proof of their strength to other bucks without the need of physical contact, although similar sized bucks may spar with their antlers. Fawns are born in May or June. At first fawns lie hidden, and having no scent initially, their spotted camouflaged coats hide them well. Spots disappear with the first winter coat and fawns remain with the doe for about a year.

Fun Facts!
  • Deer have no upper incisors so browsed twig ends are ragged rather than clipped cleanly as by a rabbit or hare.
  • Deer have amazing jumping abilities and can soar over an eight foot fence.
  • Deer’s eyes are located toward the sides of their head so they have good vision behind them to see predators.
  • Noises? There are a wide variety including bleats, whistles, whining sounds, loud snorts and squawks.