Meadow Vole

All posts tagged Meadow Vole

By Mary Ann Levan, Teacher Naturalist

The next time the polar vortex dips down our way, here’s a way to take some pleasure from it…call to mind the forgotten joy of a “Snow Day!” announcement and head outside to look for signs of animals!  A cold winter morning can surprise you with a breathtaking pastel sunrise.

Cold, pastel sunrise.  Mary Ann Levan.

Cold, pastel sunrise. Mary Ann Levan.

Speaking of breathtaking, some folks even have a tradition of getting out on the very coldest day of the year.   This intrepid group hiked the trails of Ashland Nature Center at the beginning of the “Season of the Vortex”, fully equipped with face masks and multiple hand warmers stuffed into our mittens.

Prepared for yet another Polar Vortex!

Prepared for yet another Polar Vortex!

This snapshot of the thermometer confirms that it was at least one of the coldest days of this very cold winter.

This snapshot of the thermometer confirms that it was at least one of the coldest days of this very cold winter.

On this very cold and snowy exploration of the Ashland fields and forests, we were delighted to find a dazzling array of tracks left behind by animals also exploring the grounds in search of food and water.  After this first taste of “animals in winter”, the hunt was on!  As the snows continued to fall and the wonderful packed base developed, I made trips into open fields, past streams and woody field edges in search of signs of animals.  Amy White joined me to go out on foot, skis, and snowshoes for what has been a once in a lifetime experience of polar life at the low latitudes!  Following is a composite of some of the tracks we found on these winter explores. 

This winter has had multiple deep snowfalls, severe cold, and persistent snow cover, making it more difficult for animals to excavate to plants they rely on for food. Starting in open terrain, we find a common track of an animal that often crosses open fields but browses for food along field edges and in woods as well.  In severe winters with heavy snow cover, we find these animals in our yards as well, nibbling on ornamental plantings for survival.

Deer tough it out in the winter, and this year must have been rather stressful on them.  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Deer tough it out in the winter, and this year must have been rather stressful on them.

Deer are ungulates, or mammals with hooves.  Deer tracks are recognizable because they are often large (1.25 – 3.5 inches) and heart-shaped.  But the foot also has a pair of small digits called dewclaws that only leave an imprint in soft ground or snow.  These tracks were made in a thin layer of fluffy, new snow over a deep base of hardened snow below.  They show the dewclaws especially well.

Although these were the tracks of a single animal, White-tailed Deer often travel in groups, leaving a trail of many tracks where several animals have passed together.   Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Although these were the tracks of a single animal, White-tailed Deer often travel in groups, leaving a trail of many tracks where several animals have passed together.

A real treat in these cold, open areas were these bird tracks that appeared suddenly, strolled about in leisurely patterns and then disappeared.  These were made by a large bird that was walking in the field alone, stopping at exposed grassy spots to probe the open ground.  The tracks called to mind an American Crow, which move in small groups, but are often seen alone in open fields walking and wandering, appearing to be attending both to the ground and the sky as they move about.

Bird tracks in the snow.  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Bird tracks in the snow.

Fields and meadows are home to many types of rodent such as mice and voles.  When there is no snow cover, you can search meadow grasses for trails or “runways”, which are usually bare-ground, slightly dug routes shown by vague impressions of passage through the grass. These trails are also built under the snow; the snow provides cover from predators as the rodents seek out tender bark for winter calories.  These trails were found on the Red Clay Creek floodplain.  They were probably made by the meadow vole, and were uncovered during a period of snow melt that exposed the animals’ hidden activities!

Crazy mouse or vole trails.  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Crazy mouse or vole trails.

These tracks presented the unlikely scenario of a lone, intrepid tiny mammal, again probably a vole, crossing a vast open field in full view of aerial predators.  These prints cover about 100 feet of open ground before disappearing into a hole beneath a tree.

A brave small rodent crossed over the snow, in full view of predators that could have been watching.  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

A brave small rodent crossed over the snow, in full view of predators that could have been watching.

Canada Geese are another common visitor to the Red Clay Creek floodplain and adjacent marshlands.  The webbed feet are evident in these tracks made by quite a crowd of geese in the Ashland marsh.

Goose tracks.  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Goose tracks.

Another track common in marshes and stream corridors was that of the raccoon, which finds much of its food in “aquatic prospecting”.  Despite the cold and snowy conditions, raccoons seemed to be quite active this winter; their tracks were frequently seen.  Raccoons make tracks in pairs, a front foot together with the opposite hind foot.  The hind foot (about 3.5 inches) is markedly bigger than the front (2.25 inches), the hind looking like a foot and the front more like a hand.  Each foot leaves imprints of 5 digits, often with prints of claws, as well.

Front and rear raccoon tracks.  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Front and rear raccoon tracks.

If you have a backyard bird feeding station, you might be battling very determined and clever raccoon efforts to extract the feed intended for birds.  This design seems to be working well at defeating a very determined nocturnal visitor!

Raccoon scratch marks on my bird feeder!  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Raccoon scratch marks on my bird feeder!

Along the hedgerows of brush, vines and young trees that divide the open fields, there are many signs of Gray Squirrel activity.  Though these squirrels do build nests of twigs and leaves for warmth and protection and also make food caches of nuts and seeds, they are quite active on many winter days.  Squirrel tracks are in rows of pairs,  the distance between the track groupings depends on how fast the animal was bounding as it jumped across the ground.  The hind tracks lead the front foot tracks, showing how the back feet fall in front as the animal moves.  If the animal is moving quickly and nervously, you might not see heel marks in the track since the animal is running too fast.  Squirrels have long, curved toenails that act as hooks for tree climbing, and often leave imprints in front of the toes.

Here are tracks of both a squirrel and a fox, which seem to have passed at different times.  The squirrel tracks do not look especially hurried and the fox tracks do not look especially  interested or rushed!  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Here are tracks of both a squirrel and a fox, which seem to have passed at different times. The squirrel tracks do not look especially hurried and the fox tracks do not look especially interested or rushed!

Rarely, we came across the trail of an Eastern cottontail rabbit.  Their tracks are large (> 1 inch), with the back foot much bigger than the front and the hind foot falling in the front in the track pattern.  The feet are furry, making the toes hard to count.  In the winter when grass is covered or less available, rabbits feed on twigs, buds and bark, and stay close to their food source and protective cover.

Eastern Cottontail tracks.

Eastern Cottontail tracks.

This enchanted winter is gradually giving way to springtime, if not in warm temperatures, at least in longer hours of daylight and sunshine.  Is there more time to get in more snowfalls this season?  If so, perhaps we can capture the tracks of the springtime animals like the groundhog and the skunk in the glorious cold fluff of winter rather than in the oozy brown muck of springtime! 

Especial thanks to Amy White for her companionship, interest, patience and smart phone on many of these winter adventures.

Amy White, a Delaware Nature Society Teacher Naturalist, enjoys a recent snowfall.

Amy White, a Delaware Nature Society Teacher Naturalist, enjoys a recent snowfall.

 

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

A Meadow Vole sitting under a picnic table at Ashland, chewing grasses with its sharp incisors. Image by Derek Stoner, May 15, 2012.

On May 15, we had a very interesting visitor to the staff picnic tables at Ashland Nature Center:  a Meadow Vole!

The small rodent showed no fear of humans and allowed for close approach.  With digital camera and video camera, I recorded the tiny rodent chewing on the grasses that it gathered with its tiny forepaws.   Typically Meadow Voles hide under the grass and leaf layer of dead vegetation, in order to avoid the eyes of predators. 

The Meadow Vole clutches the blade of grass in its right paw while it pushes the vegetation into its mouth. Image by Derek Stoner, May 15, 2012.

Meadow Voles are one of the most abundant small mammals that live in this region, and they are an incredibly important part of the food chain.   Studies have shown that they can occur at densities of more than 400 per acre!  Meadow Voles have a remarkable reproductive output that earns them the distinction of the world’s most prolific mammal. Females can breed when they are a month old and produce litters of 3-10 pups every three weeks for the rest of their lives.  A captive female produced 17 litters in one year!

Animals like Red Foxes, Striped Skunks, Red-tailed Hawks, Great-horned Owls, Barred Owls, and  Barn Owls all rely heavily on Meadow Voles as a prey item.  These rodents are perfect “protein packages” that supply the majority of meat to predators in our local meadow ecosystems.   

Enjoy this video of the Meadow Vole munching away under the lunch table– matched to appropriate music for this mysterious hero of meadow habitats!

Photos and story by Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

A group of 8 birders accompanied me this morning on a walk around Ashland to look for birds and other natural wonders.  We observed migration, a recently hibernating animal, courtship, a secretive mammal, edible plants, poisonous plants, nest building, and lots of birds.  Once spring starts unfurling, its progress is quick.  Day to day, plants and animals race forward with growth and reproduction.  This morning, we enjoyed being  witnesses.

All eyes were glued to nature this morning, as there was a lot to see around Ashland Nature Center, and spring is revealing itself quickly.

Today’s group contained every skill of birder, from a past President of the Delmarva Ornithological Society to someone who had never gone birding.  When a new birder comes on a walk, it is exciting for everyone.  People want to share in the excitement when someone sees a Bluebird or Tree Swallow for the first time.  It is fun to help less experienced birders locate something they have never seen and hear, “Wow…thank you!”.  Everything gets attention, even a European Starling building a nest, which we saw today.  Starlings are gorgeous this time of year.

Even plain-looking birds have a litte extra zip in the spring. Look for the slight bit of irridescent gold on the neck of this Mourning Dove. The powder blue eye ring is also a nice touch.

It was a surprise to see a Box Turtle out and about today.  I don’t recall ever seeing one in March.  Usually at this time of year, they are hidden somewhere, still deep in hibernation.  Then again, this spring is not typical.

We came across a groggy Box Turtle on the walk today. It was a male that had not even opened his eyes from his winter sleep. If you recall, we have a Box Turtle marking and recapture program at Ashland that is over 25 years old. This turtle was unmarked. Was it new on the scene?

Small mammals are usually very hard to find and see in nature.  During the walk today, I heard some rustling in the leaves within a blackberry patch.  I thought it was going to be a White-throated Sparrow scratching for food.  It turned out to be a small mammal called a Meadow Vole.  This rodent is smaller than a rat and looks like a fat, overstuffed mouse with a short tail.  Meadow Voles are rather cute, as you can see below.  It was tough to get a photo of this one deep in the thicket.

The Meadow Vole is one of the most common mammals in our area. It is a major source of food for hawks, owls, foxes, and other predators.

WARNING:  The following content contains explicit material that has to do with courtship and mating animals.  Proceed only if you are: 1. over 18 years of age, or 2. a salamander.

Upon reaching the wetland at Ashland, we searched for tadpoles and frogs.  We found plenty of Wood Frog tadpoles, and very tiny tadpoles of the American Toad.  Then we discovered the Red-spotted Newts.  Newts are large salamanders that live in the wetlands and pond at Ashland.  We found two of them that were engaged in some kind of ritualistic activity. 

These Red-spotted Newts were up to something. But what??

According to Jim and Amy White’s book, Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva (published in 2002 and available for sale at the Delaware Nature Society), this is what our newts were doing…”The more typical type of courtship behavior (of Red-spotted Newts) occurs if a male encounters an unresponsive female, in which case the male swims above the female, grasps her with his enlarged hind legs just in front of her forelegs, and then whips his tail erratically [the hula dance] and rubs his forelegs alternately on pitlike glands on the side of his head and on the female’s snout, presumably transferring chemicals that stimulate the female to mate.  In this type of coursthip, the male may remain clasped to the female for several hours before he finally releases her, deposits one or more spermatophores, and then tries to guide her over the spermatophore so that she can pick up the sperm capsule with her cloacal lips”.  This was on page 53 of a book you seriously need to purchase.

There will be free bird walks at Ashland Nature Center every other Thursday at 8am on these dates: April 12 & 26, and May 10 & 24.  Alternately, there will be free bird walks at the Middle Run Natural Area (Possum Hollow Road entrance) at 8am on April 3 & 17, and May 1, 15, & 29.

Of course, we saw birds on today’s bird walk as well.  If you want to see the list, please click this link: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S10293545