Three Things, April 27, 2015

I’m working on an article about Nature Journals and reminding myself that if I’m going to encourage getting outside and writing regularly, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do that more myself. So, I wandered today and snapped photos and paused to “ooh” and “ahh” over all the small lives going about their business.

This lovely little damselfly sat patiently for photos while soaking up the morning sun.

This lovely little damselfly sat patiently for photos while soaking up the morning sun. Click to enlarge.

Three Things

The chickadee songs have changed
To tender chitchat between partners.

The thimbleberry blossoms–
Making orange-bottomed bumblebees vibrate with delight.

And a housefly sparkles
Like a newly-minted penny.

Masked Neighbor—The Raccoon

Fruit and veggie compost makes a nice snack. Photo credit: Bob Tuck

Fruit and veggie compost makes a nice snack. Click to enlarge. Photo credit: Bob Tuck

by Bob Tuck

Late at night, as you drive through your neighborhood at the end of a long day, you may spot a brownish animal as it scurries across the street. Or maybe you look out your living room window and see several dark shapes moving across your lawn in the moonlight. Not to mention that the dog food you leave out overnight keeps disappearing. After a while, you begin to realize that you have elusive neighbors, complete with black mask.

Perhaps no other mammal in North America is more widely recognized than the raccoon (Procyon lotor). The shuffling brown and grey animal with the black mask and black rings on its tail is distributed across the continent from southern Canada south to Panama. Originally inhabiting forests, particularly along streams and rivers (primarily in eastern North America), the raccoon has greatly expanded its range over the past century. In addition to expanding its range, it has found urban and suburban areas much to its liking—so much so that cities and towns support large raccoon populations. As a result, the present raccoon population may be 10-20 times larger than it was 70 or 80 years ago.

An adult raccoon weighs from 12 to over 30 pounds and has a total length of approximately 2-3 feet, including a tail that may measure up to 15 inches. Where available, raccoons prefer a den in a hollow tree or log, but spaces under buildings, in attics, or other protected areas are more than acceptable to this adaptable species.

Raccoons are omnivorous, which means that they eat both plant and animal matter. Their broad diet is another reason that they have adapted so well to human landscapes—they’ll eat anything. Nuts, fruit, berries, rodents, bird eggs, fish, crayfish, frogs, insects, snails, clams, and worms are all on the menu. In the summer and fall, they will invite themselves into your garden and dine on corn, watermelon, peas, pumpkins, grapes, and other tasty fare. Ditto with any dog or cat food that you leave out. And that left over casserole you put in the garbage can—dinner for five, corner table.

A masked crusader in the Tweets & Tree Frogs backyard. Photo credit: Christy Peterson

A masked crusader in the Tweets & Tree Frogs backyard. Click to enlarge. Photo credit: Christy Peterson

Raccoons have an extremely well developed sense of touch. They are constantly examining objects with their front paws, especially when they are searching for food. Raccoons often hunt for food along rivers or streams. When they capture a prospective food item, a crayfish, for example, they examine it carefully with their sensitive paws, often underwater, or submerging it several times as they use their extraordinary tactile sense. This behavior is called “dousing,” and gives the appearance that it is “washing” the food item. This behavior resulted in part of the raccoon’s scientific name. “Lotor” is a Latin derivative that means “washer.”

In the spring, female raccoons produce a litter of 2-7 young; three or four is the usual number. When the young are about two months old, they begin to accompany their mother on nightly forays to locate food. Young raccoons may stay with their mother until the following spring, when they set out to seek their own territories.

As with all wildlife, raccoons should not be molested or harassed. If you see one, or a female with young, give them room to go about their business. If a raccoon is causing problems or has become a nuisance, call the local office of your state fish and wildlife agency.

Raccoons are fascinating animals, so enjoy the occasional sighting of these elusive neighbors with the black mask.

Celebrate the Beauty of Rain with Raindrops Roll

Click photo to view description from IndieBound. Photo credit: IndieBound

Raindrops Roll is a lovely new nature book by April Pulley Sayre (Beach Lane Books). Sayre pairs a lyrical description of a rain storm’s progression with beautiful photographs. The text and photos together are a celebration of all things drippy, muddy, and sloppy. At the same time, the book highlights rain’s ability to decorate the world with jewel-like, magnifying splendor.

The book includes a nice roundup of water- and weather-related science in the author’s notes, as well as recommendations for further reading. The text is short, making the book suitable for sharing with the very youngest readers, but the fabulous photos will please readers of all ages.


Ruler of the Night—The Great Horned Owl

Tweets & Tree Frogs is participating this the 2015 PNW Nature Blog Scavenger Hunt. For more details, click on the logo.

Tweets & Tree Frogs is participating this the 2015 PNW Nature Blog Scavenger Hunt. For more details, click on the logo.

by Bob Tuck

Urban residents are sometimes startled by the sight of a large, dark bird silently gliding across a moon-lite residential street. How, they may wonder, does such a large bird find a place to live among houses, schools, businesses, and other human structures?

Great horned owl

Photo credit: Bob Tuck

The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is one of the largest owls in North America, and one of the widest distributed bird species in the world. From the treeline in northern Alaska and Canada, coast to coast south to Central America, and then further south throughout South America down to Tierra del Fuego. Other members of the genus Bubo are found worldwide, except for Australia and islands in the Southwest Pacific.

These large raptors stand almost 2 feet tall and have a wingspan of nearly four feet. They are more common in urban areas than many people realize. Any park or open area with large conifers where they can roost out of sight during the day may well harbor a pair. I have heard the familiar, deep voice in urban Vancouver, WA, for example.

The key to this wide distribution is their versatility. Great horned owls do not build their own nests. Instead, they use what is available in their area. In rural areas, they commonly nest in the abandoned nests of other large raptors, such as red-tailed hawks, or crows and ravens. They also nest on cliff ledges, the broken tops of large trees, or large tree cavities. In urban areas, they nest in old crow nest, ledges on large buildings, in lofts or attics, or any place that provides seclusion and protection for their 2-4 eggs.

These large predators also make use of a wide variety of prey, which also contributes to their use of many habitats. They can take large prey, such as skunks, jackrabbits, pheasants, opossums, or other medium-sized birds and mammals. They also can make use of smaller prey such as mice, rats, gophers, squirrels, bats, snakes, frogs, fish, and large insects. In urban areas, their prey is largely mice and rats, frogs, large insects, and birds such as sparrows, starlings, and pigeons. Given the large numbers of rodents and several species of birds in urban areas, it is not hard to understand how great horned owls may find such areas inviting places to call home.

Even if you don’t hear or see them, you may find their large pellets on the ground beneath their roost or other prominent perch. Like other raptors, owls swallow their prey whole or in large pieces—bones, hair, teeth and all. Within 24 hours, these indigestible parts are formed into oblong-shaped pellets with the fur and hair on the outside and bones and teeth in the center, and then “cast,” or regurgitated. Pellets provide a record of the prey consumed by the owls and are an invaluable source of information for wildlife biologists.

Even though you may live in an urban area, many species of interesting wildlife call your neighborhood home. These large owls are one of the most interesting.

Great Horned Owl Books and Resources