Critter Column: Animals We See Along the Trail

Almost nothing evokes wilderness like the yodeling cry of the Common Loon echoing over still water at the end of the day. The presence of these large black-and-white birds on Vermont’s lakes and ponds is a real success story. In the mid-80s, there were only seven breeding pairs in the entire state; now there are over 70 pairs and over 200 individual loons. Vermont Loon Recovery Project has worked with conservation groups, state agencies, landowners and hundreds of volunteers to identify and reduce threats to loons including habitat loss, lead fishing gear, mercury poisoning, and disturbance from recreational boating.

There are five species of loons in North America, but the only one that is usually seen in Vermont is the Common Loon. This is a big water bird, weighing as much as 12 pounds, over 30” in length, with a wingspan that can reach 46”. (Loons that were bred in eastern Canada sometimes show up in Vermont; they tend to be a little smaller than those hatched in Vermont.)
Loons spend almost their whole lives on water, going ashore only to nest. In many areas, they have adjusted well to man-made floating rafts for nesting sites. The fluffy black young can swim within hours of hatching. Young loons often ride on their parents’ backs to rest and for protection.

Common Loons are excellent underwater swimmers and strong fliers, but they’re very awkward on land. Loons must take off from water and need a lot of area to get airborne. They sometimes get stranded when they land on ponds that are too small.
Common Loons breed in parts of the northern United States, Canada, Greenland, Iceland and Scotland. (In Europe, the bird is called the Great Northern Diver.) Common Loons winter along both coasts of the Atlantic or on large lakes.

Loons are fiercely territorial during breeding season, sometimes even killing other loons that get too close to their young. During the nesting season, paddlers should take care not to get close to loons because the birds might abandon their nests if they’re feeling harassed by boat traffic. After the young are fledged, however, loons enter a much less anxious time of their lives. They are often seen calmly preening within a few feet of boats. In the fall and winter, Vermonters might see groups of loons swimming and fishing together in open water on Lake Champlain and other large bodies of water. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and a video that includes the bird’s haunting calls.

Bobcat
On Greenbush Road, Shelburne, near Nursery Lane (just north of Ferry Road) a juvenile Bobcat raced across the road dragging a half-dead, very large rat! Distracted by cars, the Bobcat dropped her prey on the yellow-line in the middle of the road, and hid in plain view in the grass on the east side of the road and waited for us to leave. This is my 4th Bobcat sighting since moving to VT five years ago – this one was pure luck. What a blast! Ted Albers, Shelburne

Background: From the UVM Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources: In northwestern Vermont, rocky ledges, wetlands, and corridors appear to be important habitat, based on trapper surveys and sightings. As with other species in northwestern Vermont, bobcat habitat is threatened by the rapid pace at which agricultural and forest lands are being developed , which results in loss of potential breeding habitat and loss of habitat connectivity. Additionally, increased traffic volume associated with increased development may place bobcats at risk. Roads may increase mortality of bobcats through collisions with vehicles, and may affect breeding, behavior, and movement by fragmenting bobcat habitat and by increasing human access to formerly undisturbed areas.

CRITTER COLUMN: SNOW GOOSE
Snow Geese come through Vermont in the spring and fall, on their way to and from their winter breeding grounds in the arctic tundra (far northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia). In the eastern part of North America, Snow Geese spend the winter along the mid-Atlantic coast and the Gulf Coast from Mississippi to Texas. In the west, the birds winter from southern British Columbia to Baja California.

Their dazzling white plumage makes Snow Geese easy to distinguish from Canada Geese. Snow Geese are mostly white, with pink bills and legs. The black at the end of their wings is most visible in flight.

If you watch a flock of Snow Geese, you might see some darker birds. Immature Snow Geese are gray on the tops of their bodies, with the darkest gray on the head and neck. You might also see a “Blue Goose”. They used to be considered a separate species but now they’re recognized as a regularly-occurring morph of Snow Geese. Blue Geese are bluish gray on top with gray-brown breasts and sides. They have white heads, necks and bellies.
Large flocks of Snow Geese used to congregate in Addison County during fall migration, as many as 30,000 at a time. In mid-October, the fields at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area used to look solid white for acres and acres. The air was full of the noise of geese keeping their family groups together and communicating with newcomers. When hundreds or thousands of the big white birds took to the air at once, the sound and the visual spectacle were astonishing. Unfortunately for Vermonters, Snow Geese have changed their migration pattern in recent years. We still get a few thousand Snow Geese each fall, but the largest flocks now stop to feed west of Lake Champlain in the area of Chazy, NY.

leewrigley@myfairpoint.net
On August 28 2010 I spotted my first Black Bear comming down from Butler Lodge. He was only ten feet away. I was glad he decided to go the other way.

Another in our now-and-then feature of facts and stories about Vermonters who walk on four legs, hop, bound, slither, or fly; our feature animal this time is the Peregrine Falcon. We chose the peregrine because every summer, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department closes several cliffs in the state to protect nesting peregrine falcons.

Peregrines have nested at almost forty sites in Vermont, but the state closes only the areas where there’s a good chance that hikers, rock climbers or other visitors might disturb nesting birds. That includes the parts of cliffs where the birds are nesting and the trails leading to cliff tops or overlooks. In many cases, the lower portions of trails remain open. Most closed areas are reopened the first of August.
In the past, the state has closed all or parts of trails at the following locations:
• Bolton Notch in Bolton!
• Smugglers Notch
• Deer Leap in Bristol
• Snake Mountain in Addison
• Marshfield Mountain
• Mt. Horrid in Goshen
• Rattlesnake Point in Salisbury
• Nichols Ledge in Woodbury
• Fairlee Palisades

Falcons are raptors, or birds of prey. They have longer, more pointed wings and longer tails than hawks. Three falcons regularly nest in Vermont: the peregrine and its smaller cousins, the kestrel and the merlin. (We’re also sometimes visited by the larger gyrfalcon.) The name “peregrine” means wanderer, an appropriate name for a bird that can be found nearly everywhere on Earth. Peregrines breed in just about every ice-free part of the globe except New Zealand. They’re happy in tundra, taiga, tropics, rainforests and even some deserts. In the last few decades, nesting peregrines have shown up in many major cities, where they treat skyscrapers as cliffs and urban streets as canyons. Peregrines make impressive yearly migrations. The young peregrine that’s fledged on a Vermont cliff might spend his winter in the southern United States or might even go as far as Mexico.

Peregrine falcons are about the same size as crows but have a wider wingspan, as much as 39 inches. They are incredibly fast flyers. Peregrines have been clocked at 200 miles per hour when they’re diving on prey. They eat primarily birds and usually catch their prey in midair.

Peregrine falcons usually nest on high rocky ledges close enough to open hunting areas so they can easily leave their young for food expeditions. Their nests are just hollows in the loose gravel or soil, without any additional material. Females generally lay 3 to 4 eggs that are whitish with heavy brown markings.

Peregrines in the United States were almost wiped out in the 1950s and 1960s by DDT, which was widely used as an insecticide. DDT in the environment resulted in very thin eggshells and reduced nesting success. After DDT was banned in the 1970s, the population of many bird species (including peregrines, osprey and loons) rebounded.

The State of Vermont, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Wildlife Federation, Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS), Green Mountain National Forest, The Nature Conservancy, the Peregrine Fund, Inc. and the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife have joined forces on several projects to help peregrines. From 1982 to 1987, young peregrines hatched in captivity were raised in artificial nest boxes and released at various locations in the state. The young birds were banded so that scientists could get information about their migration and life span.

The Nongame Wildlife Fund was created in 1986. Vermonters check a box on their state tax returns to donate money that will benefit the state’s nongame species. Dollars raised are used to study and manage specific species and their habitats and to provide educational programs. In addition to the check-off box on tax returns, Vermonters can make direct donations by sending checks to:
Nongame Wildlife Fund Vermont Fish & Wildlife Dept. 103 S. Main St., Waterbury, VT 05671-0501

Hikers can do their part by following these guidelines: Look for and obey signs about closed trails and cliffs.
Even if you don’t see a sign, stay at least a quarter of a mile from a known nest site during the breeding season (March-July).
If you see a peregrine falcon and it starts making a loud noise like “kek-kek-kek”, back off immediately. (That’s the bird’s danger call, indicating that it is feeling stressed.)

If you see a peregrine falcon, or if you’re lucky enough to see nesting activity, share your findings with the
Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. The easiest way is to go to their website and click on “contact us”.
image source: Vermont Center For Ecostudies
Image: http://www.vtecostudies.org/


Chipmunk Love
(March, 2010: another installment in our now-and-then feature of facts and stories about Vermonters who walk on four legs, hop, bound, slither, or fly)
by Maeve Kim
My friend John doesn’t really mind having furry critters share the seed he sets out for the birds, but far too many squirrels and chipmunks take up permanent residence around his home. To keep the numbers down, John dedicates a few days every summer to “REP” – his Rodent Emigration Program. He baits Hav-a-Hart traps with peanut butter and then releases the captured critters on a large piece of wooded property that he owns, about fifteen miles from where he lives. The drop-off point is on a dirt logging road, right at the end of a narrow animal trail. Every rodent he releases scampers right down the animal trail and disappears into the woods.
One day last summer, he dropped off a chipmunk. A week later, he “emigrated” a second one. As usual, the little animal took off like a shot down the narrow trail. But then John saw another chipmunk coming up the trail toward the logging road. The two critters caught sight of each other at the same instant. They both leapt straight up in the air, ran to each other with excited squeaking, and did a lot of touching noses to faces. Then they whirled around and raced off into the woods together. John feels there can be no explanation for their behavior other than recognition and delighted reunion!
If you have a critter story you’d like to share with other Ridge Lines readers, enter it in a comment,below.


Learn about the Bobcat, and the Fisher
Bobcat– Reddish brown with brown spots; darker overall in the winter
– From as little as 10 pounds to as much as 75 pounds – generally largest in the northern parts of their range
– Found in most of the lower 48 states and Canada (except in areas that are heavily urbanized)
Bobcats have traditionally been found in remote rocky parts of Vermont but have been seen in the Champlain Valley.
– Territory: minimum of a square mile, in any warm to moderate environment with good cover, prey and enough space to avoid humans
– Prefers cottontails and snowshoe hares, but known to eat fawns, beavers, muskrats, squirrels, opossums, shrews, voles, fish, birds, insects
– Usually hunts by stealth, ambush and patient waiting; almost always hunts at night
– Solitary and reclusive
– Mates in early spring; kittens born around the end of April or beginning of May
– Sometimes makes scent posts by pawing forest debris into a mound and spraying on it

The Fisher – Friend of the GMC!
The fisher (called a “fisher cat” by many older Vermonters) is a member of the weasel family. It’s usually solitary and rarely seen. Males are a little over 3’ long and 15” tall; females are smaller. Fishers have dark brown fur, often with a “frosted” look because of white tips. They had almost disappeared from Vermont but now their population and range are increasing. The return of fishers has led to a decline in porcupines, which used to be a significant pest along the Long Trail. Porkies ate privy seats, bed platforms, ax handles, and anything else touched by people. Fishers can flip porcupines and eat from the belly in, leaving nothing but the skin and the quills. Fishers also eat hares, grouse, raccoons, rodents, carrion and sometimes fish.


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