Even though there’s lots more winter ahead, February heralds hints of spring around the corner. From Star-nosed Moles to returning Red-winged Blackbirds, this month’s field guide to wildlife around you is sure to keep your spirits high, no matter what that sleepy woodchuck predicted.
By Kent McFarland
An early sign of spring to come is the annual return of the Red-winged Blackbird to Vermont. The males always arrive ahead of females, vying with each other to defend the best territories so they can attract the best females. It’s a gamble. Early males risk encountering awful weather and scant food for the chance to beat other males to the best real estate.
Spring arrival dates over many years can be a great way for us to track and understand potential climatic effects on bird migration and populations. Phenology studies like these can alert us to slowly changing trends that we might not otherwise notice.
Getting her start in 1960, Kathleen Anderson recorded spring phenology on her 100-acre property just south of Boston for over 50 years. Everyday she recorded bird arrivals, plants flowering, butterflies emerging and frogs singing. She wasn’t systematic in her efforts, but year after year she paid attention on her walks or while sitting on the back porch and noted each observation in her diary.
Years later, scientists at Boston University were curious to know if a naturalist’s diary could be valuable for detecting potential changes in spring phenology. Since the first years of Anderson’s observations, the average spring temperature in that region rose 3.6° F. Did spring phenology change too?
Anderson’s diaries showed that many bird species arrived significantly earlier, like Wood Duck, which appeared 32 days earlier and Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds that came 18 days earlier. Overall, 22 of the 24 species they examined showed trends toward earlier spring activity, including Red-winged Blackbirds, which arrived about 2.5 days earlier.
Red-winged Blackbirds are also nesting earlier. An examination of nearly 5,000 nest records reported from bird watchers from across North America collected from 1956 to 2000 showed that females laid eggs 7.5 days earlier over the 50-year period.
In 1902 Dr. Lucretius H. Ross, a physician in Bennington and a president of the Vermont Bird Club, began noting the arrival times of birds he was seeing in the town. Each section of his notebook contained the arrival times and other observations of each bird species neatly typed or handwritten. On March 27, 1902 for Red-winged Blackbird he wrote, “first seen.” The next year it wasn’t until April 11th, the latest date he recorded over the 52 years he kept records. By the early 1950s his observations trended to earlier spring arrival dates, including his earliest record on February 26, 1950.
I wondered how that compared to modern observations by Bennington County birdwatchers reporting their first Red-winged Blackbird sightings to Vermont eBird. I visited the online database and found the first sighting for each of the last 5 years.
Birders spotted blackbirds much earlier, and in several years a few red-wings were even found during winter. Ross never noted or mentioned any winter records for Red-winged Blackbirds. In 1902, from the data we predict that the spring arrival date was day 86.5. By 2019, our estimate was day 54. Over a span of 117 years, Red-winged Blackbirds appear to be arriving 32.5 days earlier in Bennington County. Of course, this was just a quick examination of one person’s observations in the past to those of many now watching in modern times. Maybe we’re better at detecting them now with more people and better equipment. Or, maybe spring is arriving, on average, a lot earlier. We’ll be digging deeper into the data to learn more.
With the incredible bird record data being united from thousands of bird watchers from across the state on our Vermont eBird project each year, and the historic data we are adding to it, we’ll be uncovering many interesting patterns and following them each year far into the future. Join Vermont eBird, a project of the Vermont Atlas of Life, and help us shed more light on the changes in bird phenology and populations across the Green Mountain State and beyond.
By Julia Pupko
If you stroll along a river on a fine February day, you may see a small, dark blob moving skillfully under the ice. At first, it may appear to be a strange fish. Upon closer examination, you will notice that the blob is around seven inches long, with a thick hairy tail and long, clawed toes—this is not a fish at all. In fact, it’s a Star-nosed Mole!
Star-nosed Moles are one of two moles species found in Vermont. Both species remain active during the winter, however, the Star-nosed Mole is the only species that you’re likely to see this time of year. Vermont’s other species of mole, the Hairy-tailed Mole, remains deep in its tunnel system, holed up below the frostline, where they hunt for food. Hairy-tailed Moles rarely emerge from their tunnels, even in summer months.
Unlike the Hairy-tailed Mole, Star-nosed Moles often hunt outside of their tunnel systems. This species prefer wet habitats, often creating their tunnel systems in moist soils near streams, ponds, wetlands, and marshes. To catch the majority of their food, Star-nosed Moles dive into water, hunting fish, amphibians, and invertebrates. In the winter, these moles will swim under the ice, probing for invertebrates in the unfrozen sediment at the bottom. The odd-looking fleshy protrusions on the Star-nosed Mole’s nose are filled with touch receptors, which help it locate its prey.
This species can sometimes be found moving around on top of the snow, especially when food is scarce. When alarmed, they can run up to five miles an hour over short distances. Keep your eye out for these furry little creatures this winter and report any you may find to the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist!
By Spencer Hardy
For most insects, winter is all about survival, either tucked away in a protected spot or by migrating to warmer climates (yes, insects from several orders migrate 1, 2). Yet not all insects shun the cold–in fact the Snow Scorpionflies (Family Boreidae) are most active during the coldest months. These wingless insects can be found crawling over the surface of the snow from November to March. Both adults and larvae eat moss and liverworts, with the larvae active during the summer months. This family of insects is limited to the northern latitudes of the northern hemisphere, with most diversity occurring in the mountains of the Western U.S. In the northeast, there are only two species, which can readily be separated by experts on iNaturalist. So, next time you find yourself dreaming of butterflies and other summer insects, take a walk to the nearest moss outcrop to see if you can find one of these bizarre Chionophiles. If you are lucky enough to find one, refrain from picking it up as the warmth from your hand may be enough to kill it!
By Julia Pupko
While I’m out cruising the banks of the Connecticut River looking for birds, I frequently see people out on the river, ice fishing. This got me thinking about how little I know about Vermont’s fish species, specifically how species that reside primarily in forest streams survive the winter. I decided to do some research on the Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), Vermont’s smallest native salmonid and only native trout species.
Brook Trout thrive in Vermont’s cold forest streams. They require streams with temperatures that do not increase much past 65°F in the summer. Optimal streams for Brook Trout are spring-fed with stable temperatures, have a combination of pools and riffles (shallow sections with choppy water), a rocky bottom with little to no silt, and stable banks with a lot of plant growth and in-stream cover. Brook Trout prefer to inhabit pools out of the main stream flow, with boulders, large woody debris, and undercut banks for protection.
To find out more about how Brook Trout survive the winter, I talked to my friend, Sam McClellan. Sam grew up in Vermont, and is an avid conservationist and fisherman. He shared the following:
“During cold winter months, such as February, Brook Trout metabolism slows down and growth almost completely ceases. Since their metabolism slows down, they don’t need to eat much. This is an important survival strategy since food availability decreases in winter. Brook Trout primarily eat stream invertebrates, which are greatly reduced in numbers during the winter. As a result, many Brook Trout shift to eating drifting insects, which has a secondary advantage of reducing energetic output required to obtain food.”
“Typically, schools of larger Brook Trout will move into slower, deeper pools within the stream to conserve energy and avoid predators. Stable ice coverage above these pools is important for maintaining temperature stability, which increases the survival of these fish. However, the fish do not typically stay in the same pool the entire time, as harsh winter conditions often necessitate moving between different pools. In addition to these survival strategies, Brook Trout feast heavily in the fall to build up fat stores before the winter sets in. Despite all of these strategies, many fish still die.”
Like many other species in Vermont, Brook Trout are threatened by climate change. Shifting weather patterns cause changes in streamflow, discharge, and ice formation. Ice instability can reduce the ability of fish to move around in the stream, increasing fish mortality if schools of fish get trapped in their respective pools. Changes in streamflow can cause sediment buildup along the bottom, which reduces winter habitat for juvenile fish by filling the spaces between cobbles where they hide.
“Sadly, climate change is not the only factor that negatively affects Brook Trout,” said Sam. “Habitat degradation, in the form of cutting trees surrounding the streams that they inhabit, causes stream temperatures to increase to dangerous levels. Additionally, artificial stocking of Vermont’s streams with Rainbow (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and Brown (Salmo trutta) Trout for anglers increases competition, reducing habitat and food availability for Brook Trout.” Both Rainbow and Brown Trout eat other fish once they are large enough, and both species are larger than Brook Trout once they are mature. This places further strain on Brook Trout populations, as Rainbow and Brown Trout consume the smaller Brook Trout.
If you fish or spend time investigating Vermont’s streams, keep your eye out for Brook Trout. Report sightings to the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist, to help map their distribution in Vermont’s streams!
By Pete Kerby-Miller
Love is on my mind. Not for a particular person, but for the plethora of organisms that practice what is perhaps the most common life-history strategy – parasitism. Yes, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I am sitting down to write a love letter to parasites.
Now, I recognize that most folks might not wax romantic about the blood-sucking biota that make a living on other’s fluids. Rather than blush when confronted with a tick or leech, many people grimace or even flinch. And for good reason: here in Vermont, parasites could be considered the top predator of the state’s most dangerous animal. There’s a lot to love about parasites though. In some ecosystems, they’ve been shown to contribute substantially to the flow of energy or even food-web stability. You don’t have to travel far to find evidence of parasites’ important contribution to biodiversity; among the 309 species cataloged by VCE’s Vermont wild bee survey, nearly a quarter engage in a form of parasitism.
Despite contributing so significantly to biodiversity, parasites are not a well-loved bunch. In the popular imagination it is birds, not worms, that perch as the feathered mascots of Valentine’s Day. Whether we’re smiling at young lovebirds holding hands in the park or literal birds traveling in pairs, avifauna dominate our language of love. I’m not here to impose hierarchies of love, but I will cede that many bird species appear to conform to the monogamous partnership celebrated by February’s Hallmark holiday. Mourning Doves can be seen traveling in a bonded pair throughout their life, foraging, nesting, and feeding chicks together. Close to 95% of bird species pair up, but when researchers began conducting paternity tests on nestlings they mostly found that, within a single nest, chicks might have several different fathers. Seemingly exclusive pairs do still get around. The practice of raising offspring in a pair is still referred to as monogamy, but it is social monogamy rather than the rarer and more romanticized genetic monogamy.
In birds, feathered infidelity might be the norm rather than the exception, but the animal kingdom is not without loyalty. While amorous humans trade gifts and vows of eternal companionship, there’s an aquatic parasite that makes those promises seem… watery. Diplozoon paradoxum clamp themselves to the gills of minnows, then feed off of the minnow’s blood. They’ll continue this monotonous blood-sucking life unchanged until a companion–any companion–clamps on nearby. Once these parasitic flatworms touch, they are wholly committed to life together. Call it love at first bite. Each individual will attach itself to the other with a specialized sucker, at which point the suckers entirely dissolve, leaving the worms permanently fused. Each side then goes about developing the appropriate genitals to reproduce with their better half. There might be plenty of fish in the sea but nothing beats minnow blood for these faithful flatworms.
By Julia Pupko
February is a special month for Fishers (Pekania pennanti), since they are beginning their breeding season. Fishers are large members of the Mustelid family, cousins of martens, minks, and others. They live in Vermont’s forests and across North America, preying on rodents (including porcupines), birds, and shrews, in addition to fruits, nuts, and berries. Fishers are the only predator in North America to have a specialized method for hunting porcupines to avoid their quills.
Fishers make their dens in logs or tree cavities. They begin breeding at one year of age, and usually give birth to one to three young. Fishers have a very interesting breeding system. Following mating, the implantation of the fertilized embryo is delayed for 10 months. After 10 months, the embryo implants and gestation occurs, lasting for roughly 30 days. This means that Fishers give birth almost a year after they breed! Females will mate again roughly 10 days after giving birth, so they can rear another litter the following year.
Fishers are very elusive animals, and are most active at twilight. However, you can keep your eye out for Fisher tracks in the snow while you enjoy the woods this February. Fisher tracks are roughly 2.25” long, with five narrow toes and a heart-shaped foot pad. The innermost toe will not always leave a mark. They look similar to fox tracks, but will not be found in a straight line, as fox tracks are (foxes place their rear foot where their front foot was as they trot along). Tracks are not always well-defined, because Fishers have very hairy feet. In some Fisher tracks, you may see four deeper indents within the foot pad mark. These are from glands on their rear feet, which they use for scent marking. Tracks may be spaced out, appearing to be in groups of two at first glance, as Fishers will place their back feet where their front feet were when navigating through deeper snow. They also may appear in offset groups of four when they are loping along in shallow snow.
By Nathaniel Sharp
Throughout the state this winter, Vermont eBirders have been keeping tabs on the bird species they see in their backyards, neighborhoods, and local natural areas. The month of February provides Vermont with a mix of species that signal the very early beginnings of the change of seasons. This year in particular finds us in the midst of a winter finch invasion, with Common Redpolls, Evening Grosbeaks, and Red-breasted Nuthatches (not a finch, but we’ll let that slide), descending on bird feeders across the state. Unless food sources run out, expect these birds to stick around through the month, and pay close attention to those Common Redpoll flocks for the lighter, larger, and more northerly Hoary Redpoll, a big-time rarity most years that has been appearing with surprising regularity this winter.
February also sees the arrival of some of the earliest spring migrants, such as Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Turkey Vultures, and even the earliest of the American Woodcocks, a rotund and recognizable harbinger of spring. Unusually, several of these species normally associated with spring’s arrival have managed to stick around through the winter, visiting bird feeders and finding whatever open water is available. Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and even Rusty Blackbirds have been surprising birders who normally expect to see these species in late February. Birders in the Burlington area have even sighted a family of Black Vultures overwintering; this more southern vulture species was documented nesting for the first time in the state last summer.
Will these overwintering birds be joined by southern migrants earlier than usual this year, or are they simply hardy outliers? Only continued documentation of trends like these through the community science network of Vermont eBird will help us learn more about these interesting phenomena. As you wander the woods or watch your backyard bird feeders this month, keep an eye and an ear out for this months’ unique mix of hardy winter birds and brave early migrants.