Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Spring Of Life In The Winter Woods

Where can you go to find something alive when the woods is buried in snow?
Where in the winter forest is there almost constant activity?
Woods blanketed in snow
Everything seems so quiet, bleak, and very still... perhaps a squirrel scolds and an occasional flock of birds twitters along in search for food.  No cicadas.  No crickets.  No mosquitoes...  (actually, you might see some winter crane flies).
Ahhh, but, here is a spring in the middle of the woods and it is full of life!
a spring in a winter-bound woods
  The spring is an active place because of the invertebrate population that is busy processing organic material - the plentiful leaves and woody debris typically found filling headwater streams. 
watching scuds, aquatic insects, and salamanders in a spring
  We could spend hours watching the aquatic insects and minute crustaceans and their frenzy of activity.  This time we stayed long enough that my son sat on his hands to keep them warm.  Oh, for variety, there are also predators cruising the spring - predators such as Northern Spring Salamanders.
  In addition to all the activity of the aquatic insects and salamanders, the streambed itself seems to be alive.  The water springs forth through the sandy bottom in roiling, boiling, sand fountains.  This spring water  is cold, but the sand looks like it is boiling.  That's why we call this spring a boiling-sand spring.
a boiling-sand spring
    Larval salamanders and scuds seem to enjoy the sand boils.  See the scud in this photo (to the right and down from center)?  That adventurous scud is preparing to go surfing in that roiling fountain of sand.  The scud will be buried by the flowing sand for ten to twenty seconds then suddenly come shooting up through the fountain... what a ride!
   See my next post about some of the entertaining creatures living in this boiling-sand spring.

Friday, January 25, 2013

An Island Of Life In A Winter Woods, Part Two

When the woods is blanketed with snow a rock shelter can be an island of life in the winter woods... 
rock shelter in the winter
... a place to somewhat escape the jaws of winter.
rock shelter in the winter
The most noticeable thing inside the rock shelter was the greenery.  Now maybe I'm biased because I love greenhouses and ferns, especially Walking Ferns...
walking ferns in a rock shelter in the winter
 ... but, the inside of the rock shelter reminded me of a conservatory with sunlight streaming in the windows and the moss and Walking Ferns hanging from the ceiling.
walking ferns in the winter
Aren't Walking Ferns fantastic? even more so in a winter-bound rock shelter?
For most of the length of the rock shelter the many icicles had coalesced into a sheet of ice - an ice window.
rock shelter in the winter
All along the icicle window we noticed plenty of springtails crawling around on the ice.
springtails on ice in the winter
I have seen springtails on the snow before, but it is possible that we caused these springtails to land on the icicles when we disturbed their habitat by crawling around on the leaf litter on the floor of the rock shelter. 
springtails on ice in winter

Another thing crawling on the ice was this fly. 
fly on ice in winter
Just think!  There we were, in mid-winter, out in the snowy woods... in a rock shelter... and of all things, a fly was walking around on the window.
There were also midges here and there on the ice window.
midge on ice

Now, something that bordered on spectacular was the many ray spider egg sacs that hung from the ceiling of the rock shelter.
ray spider egg sac
The small, papery, globular egg sacs were suspended from short silk threads.  The spider egg sacs decorated much of the rock shelter's ceiling.
ray spider egg sacs
With all those egg sacs, this rock shelter seemed like a spider den.
I'll bet you guessed that we found a spider crawling around on this mid-January day. 
spider in winter in rock shelter
This spider was very tiny... almost small enough to miss.
We found many kinds of spider webs... I'm sure they weren't active this time of year... but notice that the spider in the photo above is on a web.

We also found animal sign.  The boys were sure this was weasel scat.
We found a blood trail leading up to the rock shelter.
The tracks along the blood trail weren't plain enough to be sure of what made them.  Our thought was that they looked like perhaps a fox was running along and carrying some bleeding prey.

We found this variety of living things in this small rock shelter.  I'm sure we could have found much more if we would have had more time.
 We could have looked for hibernating insects under the moss, leaves, and rocks.  We could have looked into the many crevices.  Anywhere in the rock shelter there could have been tiny living critters that we just missed seeing... the ones we saw on the ice were much easier to see than small critters on the other surfaces.
But, all too soon we had to leave this island of life and head back out into the jaws of winter.

Monday, January 21, 2013

An Island Of Life In The Winter Woods

When the woods is blanketed with snow...
rock shelter in the winter
 ... where can you find something "alive"... like an insect, or perhaps a spider?
Well, a rock shelter can be an island of life in the winter woods.
rock shelter
We came upon this ice-curtained grotto while tracking a Bobcat.
ice-curtained rock shelter
 We quickly explored this sheltered spot and found a variety of things... see my next post about the rock shelter in the winter.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Tracking A Fisher, Part Two

   We followed Fisher tracks through this heavily forested stream valley in North-central Pennsylvania.  It is surprising what you can learn about a creature  -without actually seeing it-  by tracking it through the snow.
Fisher habitat in Pennsylvania
 The Fisher's tracks were fairly large with five prominent toe/claw marks.  This photo of the Fisher tracks is framed in approximately eight inches by one foot.
Fisher tracks in snow
 The footprints could almost look like little bear tracks.

Many of the tracks we found showed the Fisher's 2x2 lope.  We could picture the Fisher bounding through the woods similar to the way a very large mink or giant weasel would travel.
Fisher tracks - 2x2 lope
 Here is a photo of one set of tracks from its 2x2 lope.
 Each set of 2x2 footprints were about two feet apart.  We found a few places where it jumped much farther.  We could imagine the Fisher bopping along at a good rate of speed.
We could also see the Fisher is a lively, lithe critter by the way it navigated obstacle like these branches.  The Fisher just jumped up on the branch and back off of it as a matter of course.
 Here in this photo it did the same thing... the Fisher bounded from the foreground up onto the log and then proceeded to jump down under the next one.
 Again the Fisher demonstrated its liveliness by jumping from the creek bank onto a log and then onto another log which it then used for a bridge over the creek.
 We noticed the Fisher commonly runs on logs just like our log-running Bobcat.
Fisher tracks on log

fisher tracks on snow-covered log
  The Fisher is an inquisitive creature, from the way its tracks recorded its investigation of the upturned roots of a windfall as well as holes in the stream bank.
   We could also tell the Fisher liked these trees pictured in the background.  We surmised that because there were tracks running around in various directions.  We could also tell that it had climbed one of the trees... one with a squirrel's nest near the top.
Yes, tracking the fisher was educational and rewarding...
.... it's almost as if we were privileged to see one.
Perhaps soon we will, for the Fisher's territory here in this rugged, forested part of Pennsylvania isn't far from home.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Tracking A Fisher

Tracking a Fisher isn't something I was able to do when I was young.  These wild creatures weren't around Pennsylvania at that time.   
Fisher tracks in snow
 Fishers were expatriated here in Pennsylvania over one hundred years ago, but they were reintroduced in the mid 1990's.  We are pleased that the Fishers are re-established.  When we found these Fisher tracks in the snow, it's no wonder that we followed them for awhile through this rugged, wild country.  We tracked the Fisher along some rock ledges near a ridgetop that is forested with a mixed conifer/deciduous forest. 
   There were porcupine dens in some of the rock crevices.  We were hoping to find evidence that the Fisher was successful in hunting the porcupines.  Unfortunately, we didn't see the Fisher or any sign that it had a successful hunt.
 We did, however, find some Fisher tracks in the sand under a rock ledge.  Exclamation point.
Fisher paw print
The Fisher's footprint in this photo is about 2 1/2 inches across.  This is a front paw print.  Note the five distinct toe/claw marks.
 In the next photo my son is pointing to the Fisher's paw print that was under the rock ledge.  We could easily imagine the Fisher searching for prey among the many ledges, holes, and crevices along this sandstone outcrop.
 We have had a stretch of mild, mid-January weather that allowed this sandy soil to thaw.  This allowed us to see these tracks in the sand, but it also quickly melted the ones in the snow.
Fisher tracks in sand
The carnivore's tracks were just around the corner from a porcupine den.
porcupine den
Here my son is peering into the porcupine's den.
porcupine den
 Porcupine dens are very messy.
porcupine den
 This den was occupied... as you can see from the ball of quills in the back of the den
porcupine in den
The Fisher didn't get this porcupine... yet... oh, we expect he'll be back.  Besides, there seems to be plenty of squirrels and other animals utilizing the rock ledges as well.
Fisher footprint
    Near the rock ledges the fisher also explored windfalls and snags.  Here in this photo my son is looking at some tracks that approach the tree stump from the left.  Those tracks looked older than the ones leaving the tree on the right.  We surmise that the Fisher may have spent some time resting up there on the top of the snag.   For all we know, the fisher may have fled with our approach.
Why don't we leave the Fisher here for now?  I'll post more about tracking the Fisher through the woods in my next post.