The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is a solitary nocturnal animal about the size of a domestic cat and a successful opportunist, so adaptable that it is the northernmost marsupial in the world.
It’s hard to take a bad picture of an American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). When they pose they look so cute that it’s hard to believe they are asocial, combative and confrontational.
This sleeping squirrel seems to be saying, “I love you, tree.”
Ready to fight? Still cute.
Though they rarely encounter each other — perhaps for their own safety — red squirrels fight when there’s more than one. Most of their battles are a lot of shouting and chasing while the resident squirrel defends his territory.
Defending the midden (food store) is a matter of survival that’s learned in the first year of life. Juvenile red squirrels must find a territory and midden before their first winter or they won’t make it to next spring. Only 22% survive to one year old.
For a few, just 15%, their mothers bequeath them a territory but it still has to be defended. The red squirrels who survive are the most confrontational.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)
We can know this because of the focus on pine cones, how the cones were denuded, and the sizeable midden. Conifer seeds make up the majority of the red squirrel’s diet and he defends his midden territory year-round against every other red squirrel.
Red squirrels are highly territorial and asocial with very few non-reproductive physical interactions. The majority of physical interactions are in male-female matings and between females and their offspring before the offspring disperse to their own territories. The non-reproductive physical interactions recorded (0.6% of all recorded behaviors in one 19-year study) were all instances of chasing an intruder from a territory.
Today is Candlemas, Groundhog Day, and the astronomical halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. This halfway point, called a cross-quarter day, is the reason the holidays exist.
In the astronomical year there are four halfway points between the solstices and equinoxes (green arrowheads in diagram; click on diagram for larger version).
February’s cross-quarter day is especially significant because we are coming out of darkness into longer daylight and the growing season. Our ancestors were so excited by the prospect that they created holidays on 2 February to celebrate the halfway point.
For the ancient Celts this day is Imbolc, the beginning of the spring.
And in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania it’s Groundhog Day. If the groundhog “Punxsutawney Phil” sees his shadow today (because the sun is shining) winter will go on for six more weeks. If he doesn’t (because it’s overcast) then we’re in for an early spring.
The sun rose and so did the groundhog to make his prediction. Here is today’s sunrise in Pittsburgh, about 80 miles from Punxsutawney.
I’ve often noticed that in winter there are more birds in the city than the countryside. Though we may not have “quality” birds we make up for it in quantity with large numbers of fruit-eating birds drawn to our ornamental trees.
In the past two weeks hundreds of American robins have been feasting in Oakland. Some of the fruits were inedible until the deep freeze softened them so the robins circled back to finish the Bradford pears last weekend. This week they started on pyracantha berries and the red fruits of this (hawthorn?) tree next to the Cathedral of Learning.
Was half the fruit wasted when birds and squirrels knocked it out of the trees?
Look closely and you can see that deer walked among the fallen fruit. They must have crossed Forbes or Fifth Avenue after dark to browse on the Cathedral of Learning lawn.
Nearby, the sweetgum balls were coated in snow on Monday, all melted by Wednesday.
American goldfinches arrived to pull seeds out of the balls. Some fell on the snow.
You may remember this news on 23 December 2021: “Three days before Christmas a 260 pound black bear was trapped behind Boy Scout Headquarters in Downtown Pittsburgh where he’d been living for more than two weeks on a wooded hillside.”
How did a black bear end up in a city that’s nearly surrounded by rivers? Did he walk through the East End neighborhoods?
The clue comes from the bear’s first sighting in the Strip District, a neighborhood built on the Allegheny River floodplain. He probably came from the north and swam across the Allegheny.
The sun was shining and the temperature was in the mid 30s when six of us arrived at Beaver Meadows Recreation Area in the Allegheny National Forest on 12 Jan 2022. We were there to find 40 red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) reported on 29 December. Just one perched in profile would be enough for me. I had to see the beak.
This one dragged his tail as he bounded across the path, planting his back feet in the prints of his front feet as he hurried from one subnivean hole to the next.
Since meadow voles have relatively short tails my guess is that the print was made by a white-footed mouse, (Peromyscus leucopus) pictured below. Notice the long tail.
We saw many other tracks including:
Fox on the lake ice
Otters slid on lake ice near their den. A local man helped us with this ID and showed us a photo of the otters.
Red squirrels made small highways between trees.
This was my first ever look at snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) tracks but I recognized the distinctive large hind feet that spread like “snowshoes” to help them walk on snow. (An optical illusion may make the footprints appear to bulge. My boot is at bottom of the photo for scale.)
Here are two sets of snowshoe hare prints, plain and marked up with notes. In the smaller track the hind feet are just less than 4″ long. In the larger the hind feet are about 6″ long.
And here’s the mammal that makes these prints. Snowshoe hares are active at night, dusk and dawn so of course we didn’t see any.
Ultimately we saw 10 species of birds, only 26 individuals, five of which were red crossbills. It was worth the trip for the snowshoe hares. Yes I did see a crossbill beak.
Three days before Christmas a 260 pound black bear was trapped behind Boy Scout Headquarters in Downtown Pittsburgh where he’d been living for more than two weeks on a wooded hillside. He would have gone unnoticed except for the huge mess he left at the dumpsters every night.
The Energy Innovation Center, next door to the Boy Scouts, set up a surveillance camera and caught him in the act.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission trapped a 200-pound bear next to a dumpster in the Energy Innovation Center’s parking lot along Bedford Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh Wednesday morning. pic.twitter.com/TRLSpiZyDR
After four months on the loose the wild zebras of Maryland are back on the farm from which they escaped in August. News of their return was announced on Tuesday 14 December 2021.
Spokesmen for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment confirmed that the zebras have been captured, but they could not provide details on when the recovery took place.
Neither the USDA nor Prince George’s County Animal Services were involved in the capture. They said they were notified Monday that the zebras had been recovered and returned to their herd last week.