Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Tiny Interruption from Shorebirds

I had a little free time after breakfast yesterday so I went over to Sweetwater Wetlands and then Christopher Columbus Lake. I know pretty much what to expect at each of those places, so no surprises -- other than a Bobcat once. But, it also seems as though there is always a good photograph. So, here are a few of yesterday's photographs from these urban sights:

Great Egret
photo taken at Christopher Columbus Lake

Great Egret
photo taken at Christopher Columbus Lake

Great Egret
photo taken at Christopher Columbus Lake

Summer Tanager
photo taken at Sweetwater Wetlands

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Shorebirds: Long Billed Curlew

The Long-billed Curlew, is technically a shorebird found in Central and Western North America. However, I have seen them on fields and dry prairies as well. Their behavior seems more like a wading bird then a shorebird, but I'll leave that to the "experts." It is also called the "candlestick bird". In the winter, the species migrates southwards, as well as towards the coastline. Adults have a very long bill curved downwards, a long neck and a small head. The neck and underparts are a light cinnamon, while the crown is streaked with brown. The Long Billed Curlew displays an elaborate courtship dance during breeding season. Fast and looping display flights are also common. A small hollow is lined with various weeds and grasses to serve as the nest. Four eggs are always laid as this is a characteristic of shorebirds. The eggs vary in hue from white to olive. The Long-billed Curlew is a precocial bird, and the chicks leave the nest soon after hatching. Both parents look after the young. The bird usually feeds in flocks. Using its long bill, it probes the mud near its habitat, foraging for suitable food. The usual food consists of crabs and various other small invertebrates. The species also feeds on grasshoppers, beetles and other insects. This bird has occasionally been known to eat the eggs of other birds. The population was significantly reduced at the end of the 19th century by hunting. Numbers have rebounded somewhat in more recent times. Although formerly classified as a "Near Threatened" new research has confirmed that the Long-billed Curlew is again common and widespread. Consequently, it is downlisted to "Least Concerned" status. Candlestick Point in San Francisco was named after the large flocks of Long Billed Curlews that could be found there. Subsequently Candlestick Park Stadium inherited the nameIronically, the species had dramatically declined in the San Francisco area by the early 20th century already, being "practically extinct" by  1916 So, by the time the stadium was constructed in the 1950s no "Candlestick Birds" were left.

Long Billed Curlew
photo taken at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, California

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wading Birds: A Few Others

The American Bittern is a large brown heron 23 to 27 inches in length and a wingspan of 45 inches. Although common in much of North America the American Bittern is usually well-hidden in bogs, marshes and wet meadows. Usually solitary, it walks stealthily among the dense grass. If it senses that it has been seen, the American Bittern becomes motionless, with its bill pointed upward, causing it to blend into the reeds. (See my photo below).  It is most active at dusk. More often heard than seen, this bittern has a call that resembles a congested pump. Like other members of the heron family, the American Bittern feeds on amphibians, fish, insects, and reptiles. The Bittern's numbers have declined in the southern parts of its range due to habitat loss. The Bittern is thus protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. 

American Bittern
photo taken at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

The Double-crested Cormorant  is a member of the cormorant family of seabirds. Yet it is the only cormorant found on fresh water lakes and waterways. Thus it is widely distributed across North America. It is about 33 inches in length with a wingspan of 52 inches and weighing as much as 3.7 pounds. It is all-black except during breeding season when it gains a small double crest of black and white feathers. It has a bare patch of orange-yellow facial skin. Its feathers, like those of all cormorants, are not waterproof and it must spend time drying them out after spending time in the water. The Double-crested Cormorant swims low in the water, often with just its neck and head visible, and dives from the surface. It uses its feet for propulsion and is able to dive to a depth of 25 feet for 70 seconds. After diving, it spends long periods standing with its wings outstretched to allow them to dry, since they are not fully waterproofed. This species flies low over the water, with its bill tilted slightly upward, sometimes leaving the colony in long, single-file lines. Food can be found in the sea, freshwater lakes, and rivers. Like all cormorants, the double-crested dives to find its prey. It mainly eats fish, but will sometimes also eat amphibians and crustaceans. Fish are caught by diving under water. Smaller fish may be eaten while the bird is still beneath the surface but bigger prey is often brought to the surface before it is eaten. Cormorants regurgitate pellets containing undigested parts of their meals such as bones. 

Double Crested Cormorant
photo taken at Puget Sound, Washington

The Pelagic Cormorant is the more typical ocean going cormorant found in the North Pacific. This is a smallish cormorant, measuring 25 to 29 in in length, with a wingspan of about 40 inches and a weight of 52-86 oz. when fully grown. Adults in nonbreeding plumage are all-black with a metallic iridescence. In breeding plumage they grow two short crests (one on top of the head and one at the nape), white thighs, and scattered white filoplumes on the head and neck. (see my photo below). The long thin bill and the large feet with all-webbed toes are black throughout the year, while the patch of dark naked skin below the eye turns a vivid magenta in the breeding season. The Pelagic Cormorant breeds on rocky shores and islands. They do not form large colonies, but smaller groups may nest together. In some cases these birds alternate between two or three nesting sites in a region from one year to another. The nest is built at the cliff face, usually on ledges, less often in crevices or caves. Once the birds have found a nest site they like, they tend to remain faithful to it for the rest of their life. The nest is repaired and improved in each season if need be; it can thus grow up to 5 ft deep.

Pelagic Cormorant (breeding plumage)
photo taken on Olympic Peninsula Coast, Washington

The White-faced Ibis is a wading bird that breeds colonially in marshes, usually nesting in bushes or low trees. It can be found in the western United States into Mexico, southeastern Brazil, southeastern Bolivia, south to central Argentina, and along the coast of Central Chile. The White Faced Ibis is nearly identical to the Long Billed Curlew in size and shape (including the bill), although the plumage is quite unique. The back is dark green while the upper back, breast, and neck are a dark maroon. The bill is gray, and their is a white border around a red iris.

White Faced Ibis
photo taken at Whitewater Draw, Arizona

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wading Birds: Back to the Great Blue Heron

I thought since I showed you some of my favorite Great Egret photos, I should show you some of my favorite Great Blue Heron photos. So, here they are:
photo taken along Patagonia Creek, Arizona

photo taken on Harriett Lake, Oregon

photo taken at Hassayampa Preserve, Arizona

photo taken at Christopher Columbus Lake, Arizona

photo taken at Agua Caliente, Arizona

photo taken in Central Washington

photo taken at Agua Caliente, Arizona

photo taken at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

photo taken at Puget Sound, Washington

photo taken in Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona

photo taken at Lake Cochise, Arizona

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Wading Birds: Cattle and Snowy Egret

Two other egrets are the Cattle Egret and Snowy Egret. The Cattle Egret is found in the tropics, subtropics and warm temperate zones. Originally native to parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe it has undergone a rapid expansion in its distribution and successfully colonized much of the rest of the world. Despite the similarities in plumage to the egrets, it is more closely related to the herons. The Cattle Egret is half the size of the Great Egret and often travels in flocks. (see second photo). During the breeding season, adults develop orange-buff plumes on the back, breast and crown, and the bill, legs and irises become bright red for a brief period prior to pairing. (third photo). Like other Egrets and Herons it nests in colonies, usually near bodies of water and often with other wading birds. Unlike most other herons, it feeds in relatively dry grassy habitats, often near cattle or other large mammals, since it catches insect disturbed by these animals. It can sometimes be seen removing ticks and flies from cattle.

Cattle Egret 
photo taken in Southeastern California
Cattle Egret Flock
photo taken in Southeastern California

Breeding Cattle Egret
photo taken at Lake Cochise, Arizona

The Snowy Egret Adults are a little larger than the Cattle Egret, although still much smaller than the Great Egret. They have a slim black bill and long black legs with yellow feet. The area of the upper bill, in front of the eyes, is yellow but turns red during the breeding season, when the adults also gain recurved plumes on the back, making for a "shaggy" effect. The juvenile looks similar to the adult, but the base of the bill is paler, and a green or yellow line runs down the back of the legs. Unlike the Cattle Egret, their breeding habitat is large inland and coastal wetlands. And like the Great Egret it nests in colonies, often with other waders, usually on platforms of sticks in trees or shrubs. Snowy Egrets eat fish, crustaceans, insects, and small reptiles. They stalk prey in shallow water, often running or shuffling their feet, flushing prey into view, as well "dip-fishing" by flying with their feet just over the water. Snowy Egrets may also stand still and wait to ambush prey, or hunt for insects stirred up by domestic animals in open fields (like the Cattle Egret). At one time, the beautiful plumes of the Snowy Egret were in great demand by market hunters as decorations for women's hats. This reduced the population of the species to dangerously low levels. Now protected in the USA by law, the Snowy Egret has regained much of its population.

Snowy Egret
photo taken at Cochise Lake, Arizona

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Wading Birds: Great Egret

The Great Egret is found throughout North America to varying degrees. I have found a significantly higher percent of Great Blue Herons in the Northwest versus the Great Egret. But the reverse is true in California. The Great Egret is a large bird with all-white plumage that can reach one meter in height, weigh up to 2 pounds, with a wingspan of 51 inches. Although smaller than the Great Blue Heron it is significantly larger than either the Snowy or Cattle Egret making it a little easier to identify. Apart from size, the Great Egret can be distinguished from other white egrets by its long yellow bill and black legs and feet, though the bill may become darker and the lower legs lighter in the breeding season. In breeding plumage, delicate ornamental feathers are borne on the back. Males and females are identical in appearance; juveniles look like non-breeding adults. It has a slow flight, with its neck retracted. This is characteristic of herons and bitterns, and distinguishes them from storks, cranes, ibises and spoonbills, which extend their necks in flight. The Great Egret is a year round resident along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts. Inland residents migrate to Mexico for the winter.  It breeds in colonies called "rookeries" -- just like the Great Blue Heron. These colonies are high up in trees close to water. In some places, the Great Egret will use the same nest that the Great Blue Heron uses -- a couple weeks after the Great Blue Heron. A large number of Great Egrets were killed around the end of the 19th century so that their plumes could be used to decorate hats. Numbers have since recovered as a result of conservation measures. It adapts well to human habitation and can be readily seen near wetlands and bodies of water in urban and suburban areas. The Great Egret feeds in shallow water or drier habitats, feeding mainly on fish, frogs, small mammals, and occasionally small birds and reptiles, spearing them with its long, sharp bill by standing still and allowing the prey to come within its striking distance. It will often wait motionless for prey, or slowly stalk its victim. Great Egrets are fairly easy to photograph. With care -- and a little luck -- you can get very close allowing get detail in the plumage. Here are some favorite Great Egret photos of mine:
photo taken in Southcentral California

photo taken in Central Washington

photo taken at Hassayampa Preserve, Arizona

photo taken at Christopher Columbus Lake, Arizona

photo taken at Agua Caliente, Arizona

photo taken at Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona

photo taken at Whitewater Draw, Arizona

photo taken at Sweetwater Wetlands, Arizona

Friday, September 24, 2010

Wading Birds: The Herons

For the next couple of days -- barring any any amazing new adventure -- I will show you some of the Wading Birds (excluding shorebirds that both wade and "swim" which I'll cover another time).  First up, the Herons, starting with the Great Blue Heron. I have a great many Great Blue Heron photos, some of which I have already showed you. This one I just find interesting. The Great Blue Heron is a large wading bird in the Heron family, common near the shores of open water and in wetlands over most of North and Central America, as well as the West Indies and the Galapagos Islands.  It is a rare vagrant to Europe. It is the largest North American heron, with a head-to-tail length of 36-55 in, a wingspan of 166-79 in, and a weight of 4.4-8 pounds. Notable features include slaty a pair of black plumes running from just above the eye to the back of the head. The feathers on the lower neck are long and plume-like; it also has plumes on the lower back at the start of the breeding season. 

Great Blue Heron
photo taken at Christopher Columbus Lake, Arizona

The Black-crowned Night Heron is a medium-sized heron found throughout a large part of the world, except in the coldest regions and Australia. The breeding habitat is fresh and salt-water wetlands. Black-crowned Night Herons nest in colonies on platforms of sticks in a group of trees, or on the ground in protected locations such as islands or reed beds. Three to eight eggs are laid. It is migratory in the northernmost part of its range, but otherwise resident. The North American population winters in Mexico and the southern United States. They stand still at the water's edge and wait to ambush prey, mainly at night or early morning. They primarily eat small fish, crustaceans, frogs, and aquatic insects. During the day they rest in trees or bushes. 

Black Crowned Night Heron
photo taken at Agua Caliente Arizona

The Green Heron lives in the wetlands of North and Central America. It is relatively small; adult body length is about 17 in. The neck is often pulled in tight against the body. Adults have a glossy, greenish-black cap, a greenish back and wings that are grey-black grading into green or blue, a chestnut colored neck with a white line down the front, grey underparts and short yellow legs. The bill is dark with a long, sharp point. Female adults tend to be smaller than males, and have duller and lighter plumage, particularly in the breeding season. Juveniles are duller, with the head sides, neck and underparts streaked brown and white, tan-splotched back and wing covets and greenish-yellow legs and bill. Hatchlings are covered in down feathers which are light grey above and white on the belly. The species is most conspicuous during dusk and dawn, and typically retreats to sheltered areas in daytime. They will feed actively during the day, however, if hungry or provisioning young. Shore-living individuals adapt to the rhythm of the tides. They mainly eat small fish, frogs and aquatic arthropods, but may take any invertebrate or vertebrate prey they can catch, including such animals like leeches and mice. Green Herons are intolerant of other birds when feeding and are not seen to forage in groups. They typically stand still on shore or in shallow water or perch upon branches and await prey. Sometimes they drop food, insects, or other small objects on the water's surface to attract fish, making them one of the few known "tool using" species. They are able to hover briefly to catch prey.
Green Heron
photo taken at Agua Caliente, Arizona

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Intermediate Mammals - Part IV

My two brothers have been here the past week. One is from South Carolina and sees Dolphins and Alligators regularly, and once in a while a Manatee appears in their bay. My other brother lives in Bolivia and that is a whole new ballgame. I am mindful of the opportunities people have to see animals in the area they live that most people have never seen (other than a zoo or sea life park). People who live and boat along the Oregon Coast get a marvelous opportunity to see Tufted Puffins for example. When I was looking for Mountain Goats on Mount Evans,  I realized that people who live in the area -- and hike or bike up Mount Evans often have an opportunity that few other people have. With that caveat, I'll continue with my rather meager collection of "aquatic mammals". I took some photos of Sea Lions that were in a cave along the Oregon Coast once. But, even with 400 ASA film the photos weren't good enough to show you.  I would love to go back now that I have my Canon 5D Mark II that is capable of shooting ASA 3200 equivalent. First up today, Harbour Seals. Harbour Seals (also know as the Common Seal) are found along temperate and Arctic marine coastlines of the Northern Hemisphere. An adult can attain a length of six feet and weigh 290 pounds. Harbour Seals "hang out" in familiar resting spots, generally rocky areas where land predators can't reach them, near a steady supply of fish to eat.   Females live 30 to 35 years, males 20–25 years. Males fight over mates underwater. Females mate with the strongest males, then bear single pups, which they care for alone. Pups are able to swim and dive within hours of birth, and they grow quickly on their mothers' milk. While the Otters have very dense "fur" to keep them warm, Seals have fatty tissue - "blubber"  - to keep them warm. They are able to dive for up to ten minutes, reaching depths of 1500 feet, but average dives may be three minutes long at depths of about 65 feet. Seal hunting, once a common practice, is now mostly illegal. There are exceptions in some countries where they interfere with commercial fishing areas.

Habour Seal Pups
photo taken Oyhut Wildlife Area, Washington

On to the America Beaver which is the largest rodent in North America.  Adults can weigh up to 75 pounds. The beaver is semi-aquatic and has many traits suited to this lifestyle. It has a large flat paddle-shaped tail and large, webbed hind feet. The unwebbed front paws are smaller and have claws. The eyes are covered by a nictitating membrane which allows the beaver to see underwater. The nostrils and ears are sealed while submerged. A thick layer of fat under the skin insulates the beaver from its cold water environment. The beaver's fur consists of long, coarse outer hairs and short, fine inner hairs. The fur has a range of colors but usually is dark brown. Scent glands near the genitals secrete an oily substance known as castoreum, which the beaver uses to waterproof its fur. Beavers are mainly active at night. They are excellent swimmers but are more vulnerable on land and tend to remain in the water as much as possible. They are able to remain submerged for up to 15 minutes. Beavers are most famous, and infamous, for their dam-building. They maintain their pond-habitat by reacting quickly to the sound of running water, and damming it up with tree branches and mud.  The largest beaver dam is 2,790 ft in length — over twice the width of the Hoover Dam - located on the southern edge of Wood Buffalo National Park in Northern Alberta.

American Beaver
photo taken in Colorado State Forest

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Intermediate Mammals - Part III

My collection of water mammals is somewhat limited. I had both a mink and a couple of nutrias but, cannot find them, so ....  (Thank goodness for Digital and iPhoto now). 

Anyway, starting with the Otters.  The Sea Otter  is found along the northern coasts of the Pacific Ocean. Adult Sea Otters weigh between 30 and 100 pounds making them the heaviest members of the weasel family, although still one of the smallest marine mammals. Unlike most marine mammals, the Sea Otter's primary form of insulation is an exceptionally thick coat of fur, the densest in the animal kingdom. Although it can walk on land, the sea otter lives mostly in the ocean. The Sea Otter inhabits nearshore environments where it dives to the sea floor to forage. It preys mostly upon marine invertebrates such as sea urchins, molluscs, and crustaceans. Sea Otters were hunted extensively for their fur between 1741 and 1911, and the world population fell to 1,000–2,000 (from about 300,000). Oil spills in the North Pacific have also taken its toll. Consequently the Sea Otter is classified as an "endangered species" and there is an international ban on hunting them.
Sea Otter
photo taken in Puget Sound, Washington

The Northern River Otter is a semi-aquatic (equally versatile in the water and on land) member of the weasel family found in and along the waterways and coasts of North America.  An adult River Otter can weigh up to 30 pounds making it much smaller than the Sea Otter. Like the Sea Otter, the River Otter is protected and insulated by a thick, water-repellent coat of fur. The River Ottter makes a burrow close to the water's edge in river, lake, swamp, coastal shoreline, tidal flat, or estuary ecosystems. Their dens have many tunnel openings—one of which generally allows the otter to enter and exit the body of water. Female otters give birth in these underground burrows, producing litters of one to six young. North American River Otters prey mostly upon fish, but also consume various amphibians, turtles, and crayfish. Also like the Sea Otter, the River Otter's population has declined significantly due to trapping and habitat loss. A number of reintroduction projects have been initiated to help stabilize the reduction in the overall River Otter population. The River Otter is more social than the Sea Otter as evidence by this photo of three adult River Otters sharing what appears to be a 30 pound King Salmon:
Northern River Otter
photo taken on the Columbia River
in the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge
in Southwest Washington / Northwest Oregon

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Intermediate Mammals - Part II

How 'bout Skunks? I remember going to some business event 30 miles east of Seattle. It was a BBQ party at one of the team member's home in the "country." We had turned on to a back road (no stripes or markings on the road) when just ahead of us came two adult skunks and 6(!) little ones. It was one of those "Kodak" moments passed by without a photo. I must say, though, I have been lucky since. The Hooded Skunk below is one of my favorite animal encounters as well as favorite photos. The Hooded Skunk ranges from Southwest US to Central America but is most abundant in Mexico. It is found in grasslands,  deserts, and in mountain canyons, avoiding high elevations. It tends to live near a water source, such as a river, stream, or wash. The diet of the Hooded Skunk consists mostly of vegetation, especially prickly pear, but it will readily eat insects and small rodents as well. The Skunk in the photo below was searching for insects. It shelters in a burrow or a nest of thick plant cover during the day and is active at night or under cloudy days. Its breeding season is in the late winter and the female bears an average litter of three young.
Hooded Skunk
photo taken in the Galiuro Mountains of Arizona

The Striped Skunk is omnivorous and found over most of the United States and Canada. The Striped Skunk has a black body with a white stripe along each side of its body; the two stripes join into a broader white area at thenape. Its forehead has a narrow white stripe. It is about the size of a house cat weighing up to 14 pounds although the average weight is 6-8 pounds. The bushy tail is 7 to 10 inches long. The presence of a Striped Skunk is often first made apparent by its odor. It has well-developed anal scent glands (characteristic of all skunks) that can emit a highly unpleasant odor when the skunk feels threatened by another animal. I must say that I often encounter the skunk smell while in the wilderness, however had never seen one that I smelled first. Whenever I have seen a skunk there is no smell. The Striped Skunk feeds on mice, eggs, carrion, insects, grubs, and berries. At sunrise, it retires to its den, which may be in a ground burrow or beneath a building, boulder, or rock pile. While the male dens by itself, several females may live together. The Striped Skunk does not hibernate but instead goes into a dormant or semi-active state.In February or March, mating occurs, and by early May a litter of about five or six young is born. The young are born blind, and follow their mother until late June or July.

Striped Skunk
photo taken in the Galiuro Mountains of Arizona

Monday, September 20, 2010

Intermediate Mammals or Something Like That

Intermediate Mammals, not a very scientific name, but I mean bigger that a rabbit, but smaller than a deer. Well, close enough. First up: The American Marten. The photo of the American Marten was taken in Canada, which is only fair since most of the Canada Geese I photograph, I have taken in America. Of course, it is an American Marten but not a Canadian Goose -- it is a Canada Goose. However, I think I am really digressing and probably loosing people by the word. The Marten lives in mature mixed or coniferous forests from the Sierra Nevada's, Colorado Rockies, Northcentral and Northeaster US up through Canada to Alaska.  Trapping and destruction of forest habitat have reduced its numbers, but it is still much more abundant than the larger fisher.  Like cats, its claws are semi-retractable to aid in climbing trees. It also has very large foot pads in relation to body weight allowing it to walk on hard snow. This provides the Marten with a distinct advantage in areas that receive heavy snows. I saw one in Northern Colorado while I was photographing a Bull Moose. The Marten was behind me an in the trees. The snow was about 18 inches deep which made it very difficult for me to get close enough, quickly enough to get the best photo. The Marten is omnivorous, preferring to catch and eat small mammals, especially squirrels as seen in the photo below. But it will also eat fish, frogs, insects, carrion, and fruit and other vegetation when available. It is most active at night, early morning, and late afternoon. It is usually solitary outside of the mating season. Males defend a territory of one to three square miles, and can be very aggressive toward other males. Mating occurs during the summer, but implantation of the fertilized egg is delayed. Up to five "kits" are born the following spring in a den in a hollow tree or rock cavity. The fur of the American Marten is shiny and luxuriant, resembling that of the closely related sable or mink. At the turn of the twentieth century, the American Marten population was depleted due to the fur trade. Numerous protection measures and reintroduction efforts have allowed the population to increase, but deforestation is still reducing its habitat.
American Marten
photo taken in British Columbia

The Coatimundi or Coati is one of my favorite animals to photograph in Arizona. Actually, it is a White Nosed Coati here in Arizona (as you can see from the photo). They are found in Southeastern Arizona and New Mexico south to Ecuador. They are omnivores, preferring small vertebrates, fruit, carrion, insects, and eggs. They can climb trees easily, where the tail is used for balance, but they are most often on the ground foraging. I have seen as many as fifteen in a single tree. Their predators include bobcats, mountain lions, raptors, and (in Central America) boas. They readily adapt to human presence; like Raccoons, they will raid campsites and trash receptacles. They can be domesticated easily. They are primarily diurnal, retiring during the night to a specific tree and descending at dawn to begin their daily search for food. However, their habits are adjustable, and in areas where they are hunted by humans for food, or where they raid human settlements for their own food, they become more nocturnal. Adult males are solitary, but females and sexually immature males form social groups (troops) of up to 40. They use many vocal signals to communicate with one another, and also spend time grooming themselves and each other with their teeth and claws. 

Coatimundi or Coati
photo taken in the Galiuro Mountains of Arizona

The Common Porcupine is next. Although the name "Common" doesn't seem very appropriate. Out of the countless hours I have spent in the wilderness I have come across maybe five. Their range is from the Arctic Tundra south through mixed and coniferous forests, through the deserts and shrublands to northern Mexico. The Porcupine makes its den in a hole in a tree or in a rocky area. Their upper parts are covered with thousands of sharp, barbed hollow spines or quills, which are used for defense. Porcupines do not throw their quills, but the quills detach easily and the barbs make them difficult to remove once lodged in an attacker. The quills are normally flattened against the body unless the animal is disturbed. The porcupine also swings its quilled tail towards a perceived threat. The porcupine is the only native North American mammal with antibiotics in its skin. Those antibiotics prevent infection when a porcupine falls out of a tree and is stuck with its own quills upon hitting the ground. Porcupines fall out of trees fairly often because they are highly tempted by the tender buds and twigs at the ends of the branches. Porcupines and Skunks are the only North American mammals that are black and white, because they are the only mammals that benefit from letting other animals know where and who they are in the dark of the night. Porcupines are mainly active at night; on summer days, they often rest in trees. During the summer, they eat twigs, roots, stems, berries and other vegetation. In the winter, they mainly eat conifer needles and tree bark. They do not hibernate but sleep a lot and stay close to their dens in winter. Natural predators include fishers, wolverines, coyotes, and mountain lions.  The porcupine, however, is much less an object of predation than other small mammals are. They move slowly and death is more often by vehicles than predators. 

Common Porcupine
photo taken at Dry Falls, Washington

Sunday, September 19, 2010


On now to some of the rabbits found in the Southwest: We have two jackrabbits, the Antelope and the Black Tail. First, the Antelope Jackrabbit. The Antelope Jackrabbit is found in Arizona and Northern Mexico. It has a body length that ranges from 18 to 24 inches long. Its tail will grow to lengths of 1 to 4 inches long.  Its front legs grow 4 to 8 inches while their back legs grow from 8 to 12 inches long. The legs are where the Antelope Jackrabbit gets its name, after the fast, leaping antelopes of Africa. The Antelope Jackrabbit's ears grow to be 2 to 8 inches when fully grown. The ears of the Antelope Jackrabbit are not only used to hear but are also used to reduce and regulate body heat for survival in the hot conditions they live in. We don't see as many Antelope Jackrabbits as we do Black Tail Jackrabbits.

Antelope Jackrabbit
photo taken in the Galiuro Mountains

The Black Tail Jackrabbit, also known as the Desert Hare, is a common to the Western United States and Mexico. It has adapted to elevations from sea level to up to 10,000 feet. Like the Antelope Jackrabbit the Black Tail has distinctive long ears, and the long, powerful rear legs characteristic of hares. Reaching a length of about 2 feet, and a weight from 3 to 6 pounds, the Black Tail Jackrabbit is not quite as large as the Antelope Jackrabbit.  The ears are black-tipped on the outer surface, and unpigmented inside. The Black Tail Jackrabbit loves mesquite pods. (Well as do the Harris Antelope and Round Tailed Ground Squirrels). But, we can count on seeing the Black Tail when the pods drop in July/August.

Black Tail Jackrabbit
photo taken at The Azure Gate

The Desert Cottontail is found throughout the western United States and Mexico. It is found at elevations of up to 6000 feet. It likes the dry near-desert grasslands of the American southwest, though it is also found in less arid habitats such as pinyon-juniper forest. The Desert Cottontail is quite similar in appearance to the European Rabbit though its ears are larger and are more often carried erect. It is also much less of a social animal, and makes much less use of burrows. Like all the cottontail rabbits, the Desert Cottontail has a rounded tail with white fur on the underside which is visible as it runs away. Adults are 13 to 17 inches long and weigh up to 3.3 lb. The ears are 3.1 to 3.9 inches long. The hind feet while large (about 3.0 inches in length) aren't nearly as large as the Jackrabbits.  The females tend to be larger than the males. The female's "home range" is about one acre, while the males "home range" is about 20 acres. The Desert Cottontail is not usually active in the middle of the day, but it can be seen in the early morning or late afternoon. It eats grass, but will eat many other plants, even cacti. Although it rarely needs to drink, getting its water mostly from the plants it eats or from dew. However, in the hot summer days of Southern Arizona, it comes to our water bowls frequently. Many desert animals prey on cottontails, including hawks, bobcats, and coyotes. The cottontail's normal anti-predator behavior is running away in zig zag motion; it can reach speeds of 19 mph. Against small predators it will defend itself by kicking. The young are born in a shallow burrow or above ground, but they are helpless when born, and do not leave the nest until they are three weeks old. Where climate and food supply permit, females can produce several litters a year. Unlike the European Rabbit, they do not form social burrow systems.The Desert Cottontail is the rabbit that we see the most of. At any one time there may be as many as 50 on our property. Early morning or early evening there maybe 8 right outside my office eating from underneath a big mesquite tree. 

Desert Cottontail
photo taken at The Azure Gate

The Mountain Cottontail is a little larger than the Desert Cottontail. Hind legs are long; the feet are densely covered with long hair. Ears are rounded at the tips and relatively short; the inner surfaces are noticeably haired. It has pale brown fur on the back, a distinct pale brown nape on the back of the head, black-tipped ears, a white gray tail, and a white underside. The Mountain Cottontail is confined to the inter mountain area of North America. It ranges from just above the Canadian border south to Arizona and New Mexico, and from the foothills of the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and west to the eastern slopes of the Cascade-Sierra Nevada RangeMountain.  Like the Desert Cottontail its diet is primarily grasses, but will eat other vegetation as well. As food source becomes more limited in the winter months the diet may turn to more woody plants, bark, and twigs. They are typically inactive during the day. They are not a social species and spend the largest quantity of time solitary. The most common social behavior seen is during reproductive actions or courting. 

Mountain Cottontail
photo taken in the Galiuro Mountains

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Few More Squirrels

The Columbian Ground Squirrel can be found in eastern British Columbia, western Alberta, eastern Oregon, Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana. They like open alpine meadows, dry grasslands and brushy areas. The majority of the Columbian ground squirrel's diet is made up of grasses and plant parts like stems, leaves, bulbs, fruits and seeds. Occasionally it will eat birds, insects and other small animals. Columbian ground squirrels live in colonies. Females usually stay with the colony they were born into, males will leave their birth colony. The Columbian ground squirrel hibernates seven or eight months out of the year. It may begin hibernating as early as July. It has a special hibernation chamber in its burrow that is sealed off from the rest of the burrow with a plug of dirt. It puts on fat in the summer and stores seeds and bulbs in its hibernation chamber to eat when it wakes up in the spring:
Columbian Ground Squirrel
photo taken in eastern British Columbia

John Muir described the Chickeree (or Douglas) Squirrel as "by far the most interesting and influential of the (squirrels.)" It is a small, lively, bushy-tailed tree squirrel, enchanting to watch. Their appearance varies according to the season. In the summer, they are a grayish or almost greenish brown on their backs, and pale orange on the chest and belly, while legs and feet appear brown. In the winter, the coat is browner and the underside is grayer; also, the ears appear even tuftier than they do in summer. Like many squirrels, Douglas Squirrels have a white eye ring. ouglas Squirrels live in coniferous forests, from the Sierra Nevada mountains to coastal British Columbia. They prefer old-growth or mature second-growth forest, and some authors regard them as dependent on its presence. They are active by day, throughout the year, often chattering noisily at intruders. In summer nights, they sleep in ball-shaped nests that they make in the trees, but in the winter they use holes in trees as nests. They are territorial; in winter, each squirrel occupies a territory of about 10 000 square metres, but during the breeding season a mated pair will defend a single territory together. Groups of squirrels seen together during the summer are likely to be juveniles from a single litter:
Chickeree Squirrel
photo taken in Western Oregon

Rock squirrels are one of the largest squirrels, growing to nearly a foot in length, not including their long, bushy tails which are nearly as long as their bodies. When alarmed they whistle a short, sharp oscillating call. They are found in the Sonoran Desert, and from Southern Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, and south through Arizona, New Mexico and into Mexico. Rock squirrels live in arid canyons, rocky cliff areas, and boulder piles, but have also been known to burrow in urban or suburban areas.  They avoid open flats and montain forest areas. Burrows dug with their sharp claws and muscular legs shelter them, providing safety, living space and food storage. Burrow systems can be complex and lengthy, enlarged over years. Entrances are usually hidden beneath rocks and can be greater than 3 inches in width. Rock squirrels in the northern reach of their habitat hibernate in their burrows during the colder months of the year. In southern areas, rock squirrels may not hibernate at all. They are active in the early morning and late afternoons when it is warm - when very hot, they may estivate. They are social, and live in colonies with several females and one dominant male that will fight other mature males to protect the group. There may be subordinate males at the outer boundaries of the group. Rock squirrels can climb nearly as well as tree squirrels. They have been seen at the tops of agaves, junipers and mesquites, feeding on flowers, buds and beans.

Rock Squirrel
photo taken in White Mountains, Arizona

The Western Gray Squirrel is found along the Pacific Coast of Canada and the United States. Compared to the Eastern Gray Squirrel these squirrels are shy, and will generally run up a tree and give a hoarse barking call when disturbed. They are forest dwellers, and can be found at elevations up to at 2,000 m or more. Time on the ground is spent foraging, but they prefer to travel distances from tree to tree. They are strictly diurnal and feed mainly on seeds and nuts, particularly pine seeds and acorns, though they will also take berries, fungus and insects. Pine nuts and acorns are considered critical foods because they are very high in oil and moderately high in carbohydrates, which help increase the development of body fat. They feed mostly in trees and on the ground. They generally forage in the morning and late afternoon for acorns, pine nuts, new tree buds, and fruits. When on alert, they will spread their tails lavishly, creating an umbrella effect that shields them and possibly provides cover from overhead predators:

Western Gray Squirrel
photo taken at Mercer Slough, Washington