Sunday, December 27, 2015

Rats of the Trees: The Eastern Gray Squirrel's (Sciurius carolinensis) Life History


(A gray squirrel threatening its "picture-hunter" with roar-like yowls and rapid tail flicks deep in the cover of a white pine tree.) The Eastern Gray Squirrel, Common Gray Squirrel, Bushytail, Tree Rat or simply Grey (or Gray) Squirrel is possibly one of the most common and most overlooked creature in the US. Some people merely call these animals "tree rats" and think them boring and useless. Some people keep them as pets, but this is cruel and makes most of the the squirrels miserable with longing for their treetop territories. But wild squirrels can even become quite tame, especially those in theme parks and in the trees above outdoor restaurants, eating and begging for popcorn that is tossed to them or snatching french fries from the hands of unsuspecting observers. This, of course, makes a common animal get a new respect for its courage to approach enormous beings many times larger than itself. But some get a practical use from hunters and survivalists. Squirrel meat is common winter and spring fare in the Appalachian Mountains, and a sought-after and regularly eaten delicacy in England (where gray squirrels have recently been introduced). Squirrel Gravy, Squirrel Dumplings and Fried Squirrels are often seen as local dinner. Since there are many squirrels, and that gray squirrels are the second most hunted animal in the US (only ranking after the white-tailed deer), you can imagine that rural squirrels can be much more cautious than the squirrels of residential areas. Squirrels frightened by the approach of larger animals (humans, bobcats, wild canines, pets, raptors, etc.)  will normally do one of two things. The least common response is that the squirrel will clamber to a low, flat tree branch and squeeze into a tight ball, paws folded, and reclining on its haunches. It will then raise its tail and lay it across the back and between the ears. After it feels secure, it will make a roar-like yowl, as quoted above, that resembles an old, creaky wooden door. You have probably heard this call before in the winter, issued by angry squirrels that reject the courting displays of other squirrels, but this will be extensively discussed later in the post. The threatening squirrel, after posing and calling, will either come down the tree or ascend the tree, depending on if you back away or advance forwards, respectively. The other escape method of the squirrel, sometimes done after the first method, involves the squirrel rapidly ascending a tree. This is usually not just any tree in the woods, however. A frightened squirrel will give a short, abrupt chase that ends with the squirrel being "treed", or trapped in a forest's canopy. Why the squirrel does this is for an unapparent reason, but with deliberate contemplation, it is easy to reason that if a squirrel scales a many-branched tree, bobcats and gray foxes can scale the tree after it much too easily. If a squirrel ascends a sapling or a dead tree, predators such as squirrel-dogs, coydogs and hungry bears can fell the tree and ingest the dazed squirrel. So squirrels will normally engage a chase across deadfall such as elevated logs and exposed stones, normally retreating to the trunk of high, almost branch-less self-pruning trees such as oaks and tulip-trees, using the aid of ramps that usually are half-fallen trees, woodpiles, or powerlines.
(A gray squirrel enjoying some tasty catkins or tree pollen, one of the few foods that spring holds for seed and nut loving squirrels) Squirrels eat anything from flowers, nuts, leaves and fruits to insects, bird eggs and fledglings. Hickory nuts are the favorite food of squirrels. From late spring to early winter, squirrels collect food on the roam to eat, mainly while endeavoring on other chores. But starting in summer, gray squirrels gradually build up excess food in caches. Each squirrel may have hundreds of different caches in its territory, some only holding one or two nuts. This behavior is called "scatter-hoarding", and is a beneficial part of the propagation of forest trees because squirrels forget the location of a good portion of their food stores and caches. These caches are highly desired by crow-related jays, grackles and blackbirds. One of these birds (most of the time a jay), will watch a squirrel from a low branch, remaining silent until the squirrel has finished burying its spoils. The jay will then swoop to the ground and dig up the food, flying it into the trees where it can crack and eat the nut with its sharp, thick bill. But if a squirrel notices a jay watching it dig, it will pretend to bury its food and hide its bounty in its cheek pouches. Then, while the jay excavates the false cache, the squirrel will dig another store close by.
(A warm-weather drey high in some entangled sycamore branches)
Squirrels make three kinds of homes. The first is used in cold weather, and either looks like a colossal leaf pile or a worn tree hole high in the canopy. This nest may be used by several squirrels in the same territory. These groups of squirrels are called scurries. The second type of squirrel nest is the nest of a bachelor or nut-collecting squirrel. It appears as a thick clump of dead leaves and can be exactly the same as a crow's nest, and it sometimes is the abandoned nest of one of these birds. This nest can also be used as a universal warm-weather shelter for all squirrels as well. Squirrels reside in one last shelter, one that is only used to raise young in early spring and late summer, during each breeding season. Many squirrels will make small, soft nests of leaf litter, gnawed bark, and old fur, sometimes using pieces of garbage, either in open branches or in tree holes. Squirrel nests are known as dreys or drays. Gray squirrels have some intriguing behavior as well, being extremely social with one another. Boars (males) are assertive and often tussle with their neighbors. Sows are more docile, being instructive and strict with her kits (young). Pairs of breeding squirrels isolate themselves and frighten away any squirrel or animal that may threaten them. Boar squirrels will chase sows up and down multiple trees throughout winter, sometimes being rejected and attacked by chased sows, or stopped and threatened by competing boars. Once the male and female squirrel have settled down in a breeding drey, they both work to provide food and care for the nestling squirrels. Squirrel kits, as soon as they can see, hear and run, are taken out into the trees to be taught. The mother takes the job of teaching the young, and the male normally leaves. These young squirrels will soon leave their mother and make easy targets for hunters, aiding in the creation of a "Spring Squirrel Season". Some gray squirrel look-alikes and similar species are rarer, but are often seen in their specific habitats. The Red Squirrel, Pine Squirrel, Chickaree, Fairydiddle, or in the Southern Appalachians, the Mountain Boomer, is a noisy and tiny squirrel that is also unique. It is native to only high-mountain forests in spruces, firs and pines, feeding almost exclusively on conifer cones. They are half the size of a gray squirrel, have a bright red coat, and possess long, tufted ears. Another squirrel is the fox squirrel, which can be black, red, or gray, identified by its enormous size and yellow belly. The fox squirrel normally lives alone, chasing other squirrels, even some of its own kind, away from its home in open areas. They spend the most time on the ground of any tree squirrel and are the largest squirrel in North America. Fox squirrels live in fields with fruit and nut trees, feeding mainly on walnuts, butternuts, drupes (fruit and berries), green plants, flowers and some animal matter. fox squirrels rarely venture into forests. They will kill or chase away gray squirrels to claim their own large territory. Flying squirrels (both the Northern and Southern) are also easy to confuse with gray squirrels while on the ground. Flying squirrels are secretive, nocturnal and look more like a bat than a squirrel when gliding through the air. Their glides are often from branch to branch, used to gain speed quickly. These are sometimes identified at dawn and dusk when speeding to their tiny, hidden dreys. While the other squirrels mentioned are tree squirrels, the next is the only native member of the chipmunk family (family being used only as a collective term), a group of small, striped ground squirrels. The Eastern Chipmunk, a striped relative of western ground squirrels and "striped gophers", is the only native member of its family anywhere near the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Some predators of the squirrel include raptors, snakes, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, pets and humans. Also, the least weasel, the typical European "weasel" that is also native to the Southern Appalachians, will go on killing sprees and slaughter massive amounts of rodents (including chipmunks and squirrels), birds, herptiles and anything else that moves up to the size of a rabbit. They will store these carcasses in their tunnel or the tunnel of a prey animal (such as a rabbit, ground squirrel, shrew, mouse or vole).
(A squirrel feeder set on one of two backyard hickory trees , which never drop their fruit due to hungry squirrels.)To attract squirrels, set a squirrel feeder full of deer corn. These wooden birdhouse-like structures can be nailed to a tree. I recently set one in winter and watched my backyard squirrel population grow by at least two individuals in the first couple of days, and after almost a week, there are twelve squirrels from the five that I used to see. If you are interested in getting a closer look at or catching a squirrel or chipmunk, set a small-sized live trap with some kind of nut or seed (squirrels typically prefer hickory nuts and pecans) as bait. Put it on or behind the trigger plate, and it may be good to smear a nut/peanut butter mixture on the trap's trigger plate to add the extra pressure of the eating squirrel's hands. Also, leave a trail of mediocre food in front of the trap to entice your quarry. It should take a few days, if you are lucky, to catch a squirrel (if you're lucky enough to even catch one) and caution should be taken when releasing a sharp-clawed, sharp-toothed angry squirrel.
(This trapped sow squirrel may look sodden and miserable in its rainy atmosphere, but I assure you that it was released without harm. The squirrel is actually better off; it received a fattening meal of hickory nuts and regained its freedom quickly.)
(Two gray squirrels climbing and calling just outside their cold-weather drey. Can you spot the site of the drey?)
(Here are some gray squirrel tracks in sand under the cover of winter box elder trees)
(Squirrel tracks in snow, which lead to an uncovered mast cache.)
(A gray squirrel investigating on two legs, acting much like a tiny bear.)
I hope you now appreciate squirrels for what they are and won't overlook these animals like many other people. So whenever you see a squirrel, think about its interesting lifestyle and amazing tactics. If possible, watch it as well; it shouldn't disappoint you. Happy Trails, Critter Cade

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Little Lynxes: The Territorial Bobcat

To the beginner naturalist, as a matter of fact, to any naturalist, this small tree is undeniably a redcedar. But to the experienced naturalist, this is a property boundary; one of mother nature's blazing evidences that a feline has claimed the nearby area as its home. These marks are called "scrapes", and have a variety of meanings. This one was the sign of a Bobcat (Lynx rufus). The bobcat gets its name from its "bobbed" (or short) tail. The name Lynx comes from the family of large, northern cats that share the common name lynx, though the bobcat does not. The name rufus comes from the reddish color of bobcat fur that matches the bark of trees and leaf litter. Bobcats are often plainly called "Wildcats" in the Southern Appalachians and are trapped for their luxurious furs. Bobcats hunt anything from insects, lizards and fish, to mice, rabbits, even foxes and small deer. They normally drag their prey into the trees to feast on it later. Bobcats also have ground dens, usually distinguished by worn areas leading to crevices in steep, talus slopes that are hard to access. They can be called in by hunters and naturalists by blowing on a leaf of stilt grass, or any other wide-leafed grass. It makes a hoarse, squeaky noise, similar to an injured rabbit. Hearing and sight are the bobcat's main senses, unlike the scent-oriented canines. Bobcat kittens are well guarded in secret locations that are very hard to find. In the night, bobcats will sometimes call into the night with a yowl that sounds like a "screaming woman". Bobcats can range from the size of a pet house cat to a whopping fifty inches and a report from a New Hampshire roadkill specimen was said to have reached sixty pounds! Though bobcats normally eat rabbits (in most places), hares (in the North), and cotton rats (in the South), bobcats will sometimes kill coyotes and small deer, and five non-fatal but very dangerous attacks on humans have occurred in Florida, Massachusetts and Texas. Bobcat tracks aren't deep, possessing four toes and no claw marks. Their tracks are larger and wider than feral cat tracks as well, and are most often seen through snow or mud.  Bobcat  feet are wider than feral cat tracks to help the animal tread over deep snow and loose terrain.
(Bobcat tracks across a beach, probably left from a search for cormorant eggs or dead shad and herring. The water adjoining the area is a freshwater inland reservoir. Note rain marks in the sand that suggest precipitation around the time of the bobcat's prowl.) Bobcats are strange in their behavior, being camouflaged but not very afraid. Their favorite hiding places are high in trees that match their colors. Bobcats are relatively solitary except for the breeding season, and they only make noise in the breeding season as well. I have seen three bobcats locally in East Tennessee in three different locations that varied in elevation and habitat. One was a brief glimpse of a grayish bobcat sliding in a stand of scrub pines several miles outside of Elizabethton. The next was a crouched, brownish bobcat that was watching the area from a red oak log in a patch of stilt grass at the foot of Bays Mountain in Kingsport. The next was a reddish bobcat that was standing halfway in a hedge of redcedars in between Kingsport City and Blountville. The signs of bobcats are truly much more common, and I have seen too many of those to count. Just follow the tracks, let out a call, and you may see this:
(Clyde, one of Bays Mountain's Bobcats who recently escaped, yawning to show off his long, sharp fangs. But don't worry, escaped bobcats have been caught and retrieved safely in the past.)
Happy Trails, Critter Cade

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Water Witch and the Snakebird (The Pied-billed Grebe and Double-crested Cormorant)

(Picture: A Pied-billed Grebe wintering inside Steele Creek Municipal Park)
One of the strangest birds that I look forward to seeing during the migration of waterfowl in East Tennessee throughout winter is the Pied-billed Grebe (Podylimbus podiceps). It is a tiny, goose-like bird and is seldom seen flying. The reason is that it migrates at night. Instead, it paddles in lakes and rivers during the day, diving underwater quickly to escape predators. They can stay underwater for quite a while, only to pop up in another place that may be in dense cover. In more detail, the bird resembles a gosling more than an adult goose; their feathers are soft and downy for their whole lives. More grebes also flock to Tennessee; the Eared, Horned and Red-necked Grebe, but the Pied-billed is the only common resident, with the exception of the Red-necked Grebe spike of March 2014. But yes, the Pied-billed Grebe does breed and nest in Tennessee. The pair of birds call with monkey-like yodels and join in secluded marshes. There, they build a floating nest that they anchor in the water under the dense cover of cattails and sedges. After incubating the eggs, the parents carry their young atop their backs and will feed them their own feathers. But this charming bird, possessing names such as Carolina Dabchick, for its resemblance of a baby bird, and Dive-dapper or Dipper for its underwater swimming abilities, is also thought of as shy and secretive, earning it names such as Hell-diver, Devil-diver and Water Witch for its abilities to seemingly disappear while swimming. All in all, however, the tiny grebe is a harmless migrant bird that eats minnows, crayfish, dragonfly larvae and other small aquatic creatures.
(Picture: A glossy male water turkey flying over a reservoir in Northeast Tennessee.)
The Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), or "Shag" is a bird that's not all that well-known. It is falsely accused of damaging sport fisheries, though they impressively do eat some large game fish. They are large with shiny blue-black feathers and a bare yellow face, complete with beady blue eyes and two crests. Cormorants are large birds as well, earning them the name "Water Turkey". This bird is a member of the heron family, customarily nesting in rookeries with Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets. The young birds are often exposed to direct sunlight, so the parents will shield them with their wings. Also during the breeding season, the adults make deep grunting sounds which can startle one into thinking that they are confronted by a feral pig. Another name, "Snakebird", originated in its serpentine methods of swimming: only the cormorant's large neck is at the surface, while the body drags along underwater. They also have impressive deep dives. However, after several of these dives, the cormorant becomes waterlogged. You see, unlike the ducks that have waterproof feathers, the heron-related cormorant does not. Instead, the birds have to spread their wings like a sail and expose their body, sliding in slight breezes over lakes to sun and wind dry. This display is often seen, especially on cloudy days where little sun is present. Another very unusual habit of this bird is also commonly seen in vultures. They make roosts in a certain tree, and many adult birds flock there to sleep. After a while, the processed-fish droppings coat the leaves so badly that it kills the roost tree. The white marks from droppings, or "chalk", helps you locate a roost.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Largest Native Land Snail in the Appalachians

The Whitelip, an enormous land snail
A live Helix aspersa crawling across two empty Whitelip shells
The Whitelip (Neohelix albolabris) is a treat to observe in its native Northern Hardwood Forest. On a humid, cool morning, you may see a large, spiral-patterned brown pebble sitting or crawling on the ground. Upon flipping the pebble over, you may see an empty cavity surrounded by a white rim, or a slimy blob retracted in the apparent snail shell. "What kind of snail is this?" is a logical question to be asking mentally. Well, it is a Whitelip. The Whitelip is a large and peaceful snail, feeding on mushrooms and maybe some low vegetation and is not bothered by many predators. Moles and shrews are the main attackers of the Whitelip, ambushing it from underground with needle-like teeth. Whitelips, as well as many other snails, will also feed on carrion and droppings, making them important for cleaning the environment. And if you are sweaty, most snails like the small quantities of salt (probably gastropod thrill-seekers) that is found in human sweat. By placing a Whitelip snail in your hand, you can feel a calcareous plate scrape the salts and oils off of your skin. Be sure to make sure there is moisture on your hands as well, snails get dry and sticky very easily. Other than that, the Whitelip is a mostly harmless highland snail. Oh, and ingesting a non-purged snail or its slime can transmit deadly diseases. Be careful. In fact, all snails are edible to some extent if purged and cooked well. Still, only snails in the genus Helix such as the invasive Common European Brown Garden Snail (Helix aspersa) are really any good as food to modern knowledge. Some highland gardeners and mushroom hunters are mad at Whitelips for eating their desired foods or food sources. Whitelips are an overall good species though, and it is mostly snails like the Common European Brown Garden Snail that do damage. Whitelips enjoy white pines and rhododendron underbrush. Happy Trails, Critter Cade



Two nicely sized living Whitelip specimens

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Miscellany of Interesting and Common Roan Mtn. Invertebrates

Green-legged Grasshopper (Melanopus viridipes)
Lots of interesting bugs are hiding and living on Roan Mountain, and there are several great naturalists there who can teach many others a love and expertise for invertebrates. Some insects and molluscs that I have learned from them or identified myself are favored by me over the vibrant  tropical rainforest bugs. You really just have to see what I mean. Take the colorful grasshopper in the picture above. They aren't one of the most amazing bugs, but a common and beautiful insect found near the Miller Farmstead and the Roan Balds, as well as other fields, in summer.
(Micrathena gracilis) Spined Micrathena
The Micrathenas (or Thorny-backed Spiders) are interesting arachnids that are some of the most common woodland spiders. It is easy to walk through one of their webs on a walk or hike, but luckily, they very rarely bite unless physically harmed. This allows a person to hold them (with caution, they still may bite). The reason for this is that their main defense is their spiky back, making a predator that bites into one feel like it is eating a chestnut shell.  Find these in deciduous forests almost everywhere in the Appalachians.
(Actias luna) Luna Moth
Luna moths are part of the Saturnid group, or the Royal and Giant Silkworm Moths. These are huge moths, usually with beautiful patterns. Males have feathery antennae, while females do not, and neither of them can eat as adults. At night, they are not that uncommon seen at porch lights or camping lanterns, as well as alighting on the back of a person's neck or in their hair, making the start of many a falsely accused bat myths. They can be seen in the day floundering helplessly on the ground or resting by hanging on the underside of a leaf. Even though they are graceful fliers in open air, taking off is not one of their strong points. A lot of saturnids are more common than the Luna Moth, which increases the odds of you seeing one.
(Papillio glaucus) Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
The tiger swallowtails are beautiful and large butterflies, another insect with a tropical appearance. Flying gracefully between trees and across glades, the butterflies most commonly identified are the yellow males. The females are usually black with a little yellow and blue, even though you can see yellow females. Earlier in the year, a hybrid with the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail can be seen throughout the Appalachians, called the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail, a larger, paler butterfly. These beautiful butterflies prodded the Irish to make legend about them, saying that following one will bring you good luck. This is true to some extent, because these butterflies are relatively long-lived (up to a few weeks) and don't land often, its seems that something along that journey will be a good thing, whether worth the walk or not!
(Vitrizonites latissimus) Glassy Grapeskin
The Glassy Grapeskin is a sight to behold. A high elevation species, it likes cooler temperatures. Its favorite food is a dead carcass or sleeping or sick prey, whether other snail, invertebrate, or even something such as a mammal. It can also "bite" when threatened by scratching the calcareous plate against its captor's skin. This ridged plate is also used to scrape meat from its meal. It gets its name from its shell which is translucent, glossy, and almost rubbery like the skin of a grape, revealing the unusually blue skin of this snail. Its shell also is the only high elevation land snail shell to resemble the ocean-dwelling nautilus.
(Arilus cristatus) Wheel Bug
This is probably the least or 2nd least common bug on this post, so if you don't see one of these on your first adventure or trek through a field, it shouldn't surprise you. I added this for an introduction of the even more bizarre native bugs. These bugs are very beneficial to the garden, as well, eating stinkbugs and Japanese beetles because the defensive scents of these pests doesn't bother them. They are one of the largest true bugs (stinkbugs, squash bugs, etc.) in North America. The nymph, or young stage, is iridescent blue and an orange-ish red. It has no wheel at this stage, but its abdomen stands up vertically and has a crowned top. The adult is various shades of brown, with wings and a wheel. They are a type of Assassin bug, waiting for their prey to land, then slurping its insides out and leaving the exoskeleton. The picture above is of a vulnerable, newly shed adult. It has barely visible red and yellow candy-stripes on the abdomen, if you can't see them. But be cautious around them; their bite is supposed to be 10x worse than a hornet's sting. Plantain (Plantago spp.) is supposed to heal the bite.
Hope you enjoyed the post,
                                          Happy Trails, Critter Cade

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Amanitas on Roan Mountain

Amanita flavorubescens or Yellow Blusher
Amanita sinicoflava
Amanita flavoconia or Yellow Patches
Amanitas are unique mushrooms that truly stand out in highland areas like Roan Mountain, whether enjoying the mycorrhizal nutrients that a spruce-fir forest has to offer (like the Amanita sinicoflava mushroom at the top left) or desperately trying to thrive in mowed lawns (like the panther cap on the bottom). And it is hard to believe that the deadliest mushroom, as well as some of the most edible mushrooms, come from this same genus. The thing that makes most people stop in wonder at patches of Amanitas, though, are the regal characteristics that make identifying the mushrooms so easy. The imposing, ornamental ring, along with the strange, ovate volva at the base, and some times even patches on a viscous cap. Interestingly enough, the ring, patches and volva, all are remnants of an early stage of the Amanita's growth. At first, the universal veil covers the whole mushroom. As the mushroom grows, however, the veil splits, either forming the volva and patches, or just a volva. The ring, on quite a few amanitas is the result of the remaining veil on the inside of the mushroom. So other than that, an Amanita grows like many other gilled mushrooms. But not only are Amanitas a dark fear looming over new mushroom hunters, a pride for the experienced mushroom hunter or culinary artist, or a beautiful addition to the natural landscape, they are needed by forests to allow them to survive. The well known Showy Lady's Slipper, a highly endangered orchid, relies on mycorrhizal fungus to survive. In fact, a whole group of plants need fungal symbiosis, and they are called mycotrophs. In fact, some scientists believe that American Beech trees are somewhat mycotrophs! But as well as helping a handful of plants by symbiotic relationships, the Indian Pipe plant and Coralroot Orchids all parasitize the mycorrhizal fungus. These factors are a big help in biodiversity, and that is very important to Roan Mountain. So as summer and fall turn to winter, if you see these amazing mushrooms, remember what all they do for the forests, indirectly and sometimes even directly helping humans. Happy Trails, Critter Cade
Amanita pantherina var. velatipes or Panther Cap

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Eye of the Newt

"I am no beast,
Tearing through wilderness,
I am a newt,
Hiding beneath the leaves,
Trying not to get crushed,
By feet,
Of those destroying my habitat.
But sometimes,
You have to be a beast,
So I am a newt with poisonous skin"
-I am a newt
This post is where land and water clash, leaving a small, rather mystifying creature. In my previous post, Misunderstood "Fire Dwellers", I mentioned salamanders and their contribution to the Enchanted Forest, but for now, I will talk about the Red Spotted Newt (Notophalmus viridescens), another reptilian (actually amphibian) animal that has been viewed as enchanted by many ancient people, particularly associated with witchcraft. But I can assure you, no dark magic can be found in these transforming amphibians. So now, read on to find out about this poisonous, shape-shifting creature's life:
1. A larvae hatches from an egg attached to an aquatic plant. Once it hatches, it is hungry, fully
carnivorous, and will eat its brothers and sisters, as well as a variety of pond insects. It resembles most aquatic salamanders at this stage; large, red feather-like gills, four legs, and a finned tail. Slimy and hardly capable of walking, it behaves almost identically like the larval stages of frogs.
(Below: A Red Eft, found at the Miller Farmstead, Roan Mtn, Tennessee, burrowing in the mud)
2. The larvae soon grows to about an inch, and loses its gills. Its fin-like tail becomes round, and its feet lose their webbing. Now, the newt's whole body turns either a vibrant orange, or a shade of dark vermillion with bright red spots running up and down either of its sides. The larvae emerges from the water, and its skin turns warty and dry, not slimy at all. This stage is called the eft stage, or Red Eft, for this particular species. A hungry eft can ingest more than 2000  springtail insects at a time. Now on land, they can't run fast, bite, sting, or have any means of protecting themselves except one: Poisonous Skin, you guessed it. This poison is not venom found in the fangs of snakes or spiders, but deep inside the eft's skin. So handling one will not harm your health, nor the eft's, unlike the fragile skin of the salamanders. Believe it or not, at this stage the newts prefer to follow mountain springs far upstream from the water they came from (and will someday return). Staying away from the cover of logs, only to burrow in to hunt, the efts wander through mossy Enchanted Forest. After roughly two to ten years of this lifestyle, the newts head back down the mountain, now grown about an inch longer.
(An adult Red Spotted Newt, climbing on an artificial rock in an aquarium, to get a breath)
3. This is where things get bizarre. Now, unlike any other of the newt's salamander relatives, the
salamander feels homesick of its childhood in the pond, so it returns. As the eft swims out to the "sea" of green and brown that it will spend the rest of its five to twelve year lifespan, it is unfamiliar with the dangers of the pond. Hunting dragonfly nymphs, tadpoles, other newts, and minnows, the newt will fight against other top predators of the pond. Waterscorpions, Toe-Biters, Diving Beetles, Fish, Watersnakes, and Bullfrogs all will try to stop the newt's life before it hit the end, and add to their livelihood. Meanwhile, the newt readjusts to its situation. Its tail grows broad and fin-like once again. A mild coating of slime can once more be detected on the newt's skin. The gills never return, forcing the newt to swim to the surface or climb out and bask every once in a while, to keep its heart pumping smoothly. Also it turns green again, though it keeps the spots, giving it its name. Usually, newts live in communities with tons of newts in a pond with minimal or no fish. Now a fierce, cannibalistic, top predator, the newt can dart almost as quickly as a fish. If you want to catch one in this stage, find a "newt pond", first. Newt ponds are high up, usually over 3,000 ft. Next, take about a three ft. length of fishing line with a hook on the end, and troll it along the shallows. Soon, a newt should bite! Pull it up, and likely, the barb won't hold (it never has for me), and let it drop in a bucket, on your hand, or back in the water where it belongs. Now, release your inner child! One more thing, wild newts are illegal to keep as pets. They can be bought for eight to ten dollars at pet shops, though. Happy Trails,             
                                                                                                                       Critter Cade

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Glowing Ice on the Top of Roan

I have experienced lots of awestruck moments on the Roan Balds After going to the hike and presentations at the Roan Mountain Winter Naturalist Rally (It's really neat, you should check it out!), we drove up to Carver's Gap, a small nook in the cold spruce fir forests. Here's what it looked like:
Pretty snowy, can you tell? At first, the roadside was dotted with cheery, metal-roofed recreational cabins. Then, as the top of Roan neared, the trees bent with fierce winds that lashed at the side of the car. Snow made it impossible to see the mountain just across the valley. The dark spruce-firs sheltered the mountainside, and I beheld one of the most amazing sight according to my lifelong forest exploits. This was just as the fairly large snow of 2015 was starting. There, beside the road, was ice. The thick, and extremely cold kind of ice. Formidable, as tall as a man or larger, it clumped along the roadside at random intervals. A ghostly, light-blue glow was emitting from the very heart of the ice. I was struck with awe. Tunnels disappeared into the smooth surface, leading to lance-like icicles dangling downward from the mammoth forms. These, I now know, are called icefalls, the result of frozen seeps, springs, and small creeks. But this awesome glow was breathtaking to behold. But don't just believe me; look at the evidence:
Pretty amazing huh? It's glow is really prominent in the center and far left.
The strange blue glow here is rather mystifying. A similar occurrence seems to have happened on a small island called Capri, in a place called Crystal Grotto. At low tide, a cave is exposed, and inside, an opening from below lets light in through the water, creating a blue atmosphere around the finder. Maybe Roan's ice has the same capability?
Not all of the formations had highly visible glows, only a few blue-green traces are detectable in some of the central icicles. Another, more likely possibility is light being reflected from the ice, in the same way as the ocean or sky. These formations remind me, though, of the rare biodiversity of Roan Mountain. Spring salamanders (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus) only live in this habitat, feeding on smaller salamanders that also thrive in seeps. It is hard to believe that they can survive this cold! 
Notice the traces of both green and blue amongst the tunnels and icicles. This truly gargantuan specimen was visibly as large as a car, or larger. These fantastic ice formations in pictures can't do justice to them. Go see them for your self! Just remember to be prepared for wind and cold, and a lot of ice!
Happy Trails,
Critter Cade

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Tis' the season for Oyster Mushrooms! New Year's Oyster Hunt

"Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints"-Leave no Trace Motto
Today, I went on the Greenbelt Trail, Kingsport, TN and looked for Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) or Tree Oysters. This "enchanted" forest has city on both sides, yet sights and sounds change as you follow Reedy Creek through moss-covered maples, ancient sycamores, frozen rivercane marshes, and best of all, Oyster Mushrooms! Even though I didn't eat them, they can be found on grocery store shelves. And what better thing to do on a frosty New Years day!
Huge Oyster next to my finger for scale.
A clump of Oysters further up the tree.
Three clumps of Oysters around halfway up the tree.
Two clumps of Oysters on the base of the tree cloaked in late morning frost.
Some younger Oysters on a cut up log.
Careful to make sure they aren't  polypores!
Some very young, white Oysters halfway up a small tree.
A few Oysters three-fourths of the way up a small tree. Notice Decurrent gills.
An evasive Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) said goodbye to make us feel like we were finding actual oysters. The Oysters are out, so get 'em while they're fresh, not like these two:
Even a cold New Year's day doesn't stop me from completing my first New Year's resolution; to find more mushrooms! It may have been below freezing, but a clear gurgling river, mossy trees, and a frozen swamp lined with River Cane (Arundinaria gigantica) makes you forget about the city and explore some urban Sylva Magus!
Natural coop!
Oysters for free further up on the tree!
Just plain beautiful!
On solid trail I stand, all other ground is marshy land.
Hope you enjoyed the post!
                                                                                                     Happy Trails,
                                                                                                                             Critter Cade