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A February Flurry in Burlington's Centennial Woods © Nathaniel Sharp

Field Guide to February 2020

By Vermont Center for Ecostudies January 31, 2020

February marks an important turning point. You may notice that the sun remains with us for just a little longer as we edge past 10 hours of daylight. All around, the air is beginning to vibrate with birdsong from Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, and European Starlings. If you pause, you may also hear the drumming of Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers echoing among nearby tree trunks. Although winter may continue to grip us for a little while longer, the landscape is preparing for change. So here’s a Field Guide to February to keep your spirits up, no matter what that groundhog predicts.

Stars circle over the Residencia at Cerro Paranal.
Stars circle over the Residencia at Cerro Paranal.

Leap Day 2020

By Kent McFarland

Since it takes the earth 365 days, 5 hours, and 48 minutes to circle round the sun, a Leap Year with one “extra day” every four years is an adjustment that keeps our calendar in synchrony with the planetary cycle. The good news is, you have an extra day to work on your bird life list this year!

Virginia Opossum photographed in Burlington, Vermont. © Kyle Tansley
Virginia Opossum photographed in Burlington, Vermont. © Kyle Tansley

Playing ‘Possum

By Kent McFarland

The Virginia Opossum has its first litter of 5-13 young in February. The young are about the size of a bumble bee at birth, only one-fifth of a gram. As soon as they are born they crawl, blind, into the female’s pouch and begin to nurse. After 60 days of pouch life, they crawl out and may be carried on her back. When they are about 100 days old, they are on their own.

With thin fur coats and naked tail, ears, and long snout, opossums are not well adapted to a cold northern winter. Many show signs of frostbite. Yet, they have been marching slowly northward in overall distribution for decades. The first opossum was reported in Burlington in 1988. By 1995, they had reached Montreal.

“They are very opportunistic, and my guess is that global warming has something to do with pushing them farther north,” University of Vermont mammalogist Bill Kirkpatrick told the Burlington Free Press in 2000.

You can help track their range by posting your sightings of live or road-killed opossums to the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist. Meanwhile, check out the latest sightings reported from around the state.

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Pine Grosbeak © Nathaniel Sharp
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Bohemian Waxwing © Nathaniel Sharp

Where Have the Waxwings Gone?

By Nathaniel Sharp

Birders throughout Vermont and across all of New England and southern Canada were treated to the sights and sounds of roving flocks of irruptive winter birds last year, and this year could not be more different! These winter visitors include such colorful, brash birds as the Bohemian Waxwing, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, and some of the more commonly seen, but still irruptive birds such as Cedar Waxwing, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Pine Siskin. While some, such as the waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks, can be found gorging themselves on decorative fruiting trees such as hawthorn and crabapple, others, like the Evening Grosbeak and other winter finches are frequent feeder visitors.

Comparing Vermont eBird data between this winter and the winter of 2018-2019, the differences could not be more obvious. While VT birders reported flocks of Bohemian Waxwings throughout the state last winter, only a single flock of Bohemian Waxwings have been reported to Vermont eBird this winter, by VCE’s own Spencer Hardy! Vermont eBird data shows a similar story for Pine Grosbeak and Evening Grosbeak as well. These nomadic winter birds are known to tie their movements closely to food availability, and it is possible that perhaps these birds are tapped into a different food source this winter that is more abundant up north, precluding them from visiting us down in the Green Mountain State.

These year-to-year trends would only be speculation were it not for Vermont eBird data and the dedicated citizen science network of Vermont birders and naturalists. This winter and next, be on the lookout for these irruptive species, and be sure to share your sightings on Vermont eBird.

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Red Fox photographed in South Hero, Vermont. © Sean Beckett
9568, , Gray fox Feb FG - edit, , , image/jpeg, https://vtecostudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Gray-fox-Feb-FG-edit.jpg, 580, 400, Array, Array © apiltman (from iNaturalist)
Gray Fox photographed in Putney, Vermont. © apiltman (from iNaturalist)

A Tale of Two Coats

By Emily Anderson

Vermonters share their backyards with two different fox species – the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) and the Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). These two species share many similarities. Both are opportunistic hunters. Although they each have their preferred prey, both are considered omnivores who feed primarily on rodents, but are known to eat everything from berries, to insects, to birds. Their breeding seasons overlap in February, with Red Foxes beginning in late January and Gray Foxes beginning towards the end of February.

Both are highly adaptable to Vermont’s changing landscape. However, over their decades of co-existence, they have each carved out slightly different habitats. Red Foxes are more common in human-disturbed landscapes. While they prefer transition zones between forests and open areas, many people also encounter them in urban and suburban settings. On the other hand, Gray Foxes are more selective – they prefer dense forests and overgrown fields with fewer disturbances, although they can adjust to human presence.

The Gray Fox has one startling trait that makes it different from not just the Red Fox, but from all other canids – it can climb. Climbing affords it a novel escape route from ground predators and an excellent vantage point from which to attack its prey. There’s no safety for small critters among a maple’s towering branches when a Gray Fox is on the hunt!

If you want to learn more about Red and Gray Foxes in Vermont, visit the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s website. If you’re lucky enough to spot one of these crafty canids, then make sure to share your observation with the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist.

White-tailed Deer tracks photographed in Woodstock, Vermont. © Kent McFarland
White-tailed Deer tracks photographed in Woodstock, Vermont. © Kent McFarland

Stories in the Snow

By Kent McFarland

A snowy winter may be bad news for your commute to work, but it is great news when it comes to animal tracking. Anywhere from a light dusting to a few inches of snow on the ground can reveal the travels of squirrels, foxes, fishers, and numerous other animals through the woods and even right through your backyard! Animal trails can tell all kinds of stories, and following them in the snow can reveal interesting behaviors, raise new questions, and help you learn about how animals navigate the landscape, whether you know exactly what species’ tracks you’re looking at or not.

iNaturalist can help you narrow down the ID of those footprints in the snow with the help of advanced software and a massive network of tracking experts ready to lend a hand. Submit your observations of animal tracks and trails to the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist, and be sure to include something like a coin, ruler, or key in the photo as a size reference.

Comments (4)

  1. Deb says:

    This is great!

  2. Deb says:

    Have not seen this site before, enjoyed it!

  3. Erin G says:

    I love winter tracking. We have a wildlife highway through our property and I enjoy seeing who was out and about the night before every morning when out doing chores. I’ve particularly enjoyed seeing “close encounters,” e.g., when bear tracks cross deer tracks, or field mouse tracks cross coyote tracks heading in the opposite direction. I didn’t know the app could also ID tracks but cant wait to use it!

  4. Maria says:

    Just saw the most beautiful red fox in the backyard here in East Calais. On a run and flying through the snow. Gorgeous full and fluffy coat. Love this time in Vt.

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