I Got the Blues (Or the Azures)

It’s very, very hard to be dignified while chasing a tiny butterfly around the forest floor with your camera, but it’s worth it when the butterfly finally gives in and poses for photographs.

(The second photo shows the detail better, but I like the light shining through the edges of the wings in the first one.)

I hadn’t seen a blue butterfly with a central dark spot in the hindwing like this before, so I thought it might be something new, but it turns out it’s another variant of the very common Spring Azure – actually the very first butterfly that I actually got a live photograph of. It’s a bit early for these guys to be out, but with last week’s unusual warm weather I guess it doesn’t surprise me that they’re ahead of schedule. Regardless, it’s always a treat to see the woods enlivened with these tiny fluttering patches of blue. I love their zebra-striped antennae.

Special bonus photo… check out the cheeks on this greedyguts who’s been raiding our birdfeeders!

Facts You Never Wanted to Know About Porcupine Sex

My coworker at my assistantship this semester just finished editing this video featuring both of us (and our friend Bob) for her web series, Cool Things in Nature.

In addition to the return of my raspberry-colored coat and dorky hat, this features me talking (again) about fisher predation… and Julia telling you more than you ever really wanted to know about porcupine mating rituals.

Winter Vocabulary Lesson: Subnivean

The following exchange happened on Twitter this morning:

I love words, and “subnivean” ranks up there ranks up there among my favorite winter-related vocabulary, despite the fact that as I type this my computer is giving it a squiggly red underline to insist that it isn’t a real word. (You’re wrong, computer. It is.) It simply means “under the snow,” in the same way that subterranean means “under the earth.” The reason it’s significant to winter ecology is that many small mammals excavate subnivean tunnels to move about more easily, hide from predators, insulate themselves, etc. I posted some photos of subnivean tunnels created by mice or voles last fall, although I didn’t use the word at the time.

I tried to take video of the squirrel that was entertaining me so much this morning, but it wouldn’t cooperate, so all I have to offer is a photo of some of the tunnel entrances themselves. I suspect that if I excavated one of these tunnels I’d find it full of sunflower seeds from the nearby feeders.

The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

My Fisher Presentation

A while ago I wrote about fishers, which were on my mind because I was preparing to give my final presentation for my Certified Interpretive Guide training, for which my topic was fishers and the fact that they’re the only predator that kills and eats porcupines. If anyone is interested in hearing me talk about fishers for ten minutes, here’s the video of that talk.

It’s always disconcerting to see and hear oneself on video. I really look and sound like that? Oh well.

Snow, Snowshoes, Snowshoe Hare

This is a Pickerel Creek phenology post.

High temp today – 37ºF, so mild and springlike!
Sunrise at 7:01AM, sunset at 5:25PM – that’s 10 hrs 25 min of daylight, another 20 minutes more than last week

Compare this photo to the last one I posted from the same place – even though we’ve had mild weather the last couple days, Pickerel Creek remains iced over for now.

Turning around on the bridge to face the other direction, I snapped this photo of tracks where something crossed the creek on top of the ice.

The “something” was a snowshoe hare. Their name comes, of course, from the enormous size of their hind paws, which are the same size as a wolf’s! Check out this photo showing a full set of tracks (the big ones are the hind paws, the smaller ones the front paws). Not only do my feet show you the scale of these tracks, but they also demonstrate how deep the snow is – I’m sinking over my ankles, while this large member of the rabbit family barely made a dent thanks to the large surface area of its feet.

I have yet to actually lay eyes on a snowshoe hare, only on their tracks. Brown in the summer, they turn white in winter to blend in with the snow. You can read more about them here.

A Wolf Kill, Right Outside My Door

It feels like wolves are everywhere right now. At the property down in Tomahawk, Wisconsin where I’m working for my assistantship this semester, we’ve been finding fresh tracks and territory-marking urine (although we have yet to get the wolves to answer our howls) And meanwhile in Land O’ Lakes, a wolf killed a deer within sight of my house. That’s how you know you really live in the wilderness. There wasn’t a lot left by the time I got home to see it last weekend, but there are lots of photos on the school blog here. While we were excitedly perusing them I asked the other Tomahawk graduate assistant, “What does it say about us that we’re this fascinated by a gory, disgusting deer carcass?” “That we picked the right career,” she answered. Very true.

Wolves are controversial in Wisconsin. They were completely eliminated from the state by 1960, but recolonized the area on their own in the late 1970s – they weren’t reintroduced by humans the way they were in Yellowstone. Despite the fact that wolves pose almost zero danger to humans (and that in the rare event that wolves kill a domestic animal, the state government reimburses the owner), there are sadly still a lot of Wisconsin residents who hate and fear them. At the movies over the weekend I overheard someone walking out of a showing of The Grey, Liam Neeson’s new action movie about people stranded in Alaska defending themselves from (completely unrealistic) bloodthirsty wolves, say disgustedly “I can’t believe the state thinks those are nice animals.”

Consider me firmly in the wolves-are-awesome camp. As someone who was a little obsessed with wolves as a kid growing up in decidedly wolf-free Ohio (I devoured Julie of the Wolves and all of its sequels), always imagining wolves in pristine far-away wildernesses like Alaska or Yellowstone, it still seems surreal that now I live somewhere with wolves literally outside my door. If I get to hear them howling in the distance at least once while I’m living in Wisconsin, I will be very, very, very happy.

How to Tell You’re in the Presence of a Porky

If you’re getting sick of hearing me go on about porcupines, feel free to skip this post. But if, like me, you think porcupines are AWESOME, then read on.

Recently I was walking along a trail when I almost stepped on these small, oblong droppings.

When I looked at the snow around me more closely, I realized that it was littered with pine needles and even a few whole pine twigs.

So I craned my neck to peer up into the pine tree above me, and discovered that most of the branches I could see had patches of bark missing.

I looked and looked and but did not actually spot the porcupine. I’m sure it was somewhere nearby, hidden in the branches, watching me. I can’t help but wonder how many porcupines I’ve walked underneath without knowing it since I moved here.

Update – I originally took these photos last Monday (February 6). On Thursday I was leading a group of home school students along this same trail and pointed out the signs of porcupine activity. A couple of the girls walked ahead, found another tree with fallen needles and fresh scat around its base, looked up, and spotted the culprit. I was so pleased that not only did the whole group get great looks at a particularly fat, impressive porcupine, but they also found it by applying what I had just taught them!