Story and Photos by Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… once again, I am staying close to home and will visit the meadow, woods, and pond. It has been a rather strange winter so far as snow, or lack of it, is concerned. In November, we got several feet of snow within a two-week period. That has melted, and we have had two snowfalls of insignificant amounts. In between the snowfalls, we have received rains that have melted and washed the snow remnants away. The lack of deep snow has made it much easier for non-hibernating mammals to find food and move about. However, many small mammals can move about undetected under deep snows, and that advantage for them has been compromised. Some animals even change the color of their fur to be able to camouflage themselves from predators. Therefore the now white snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) and the now white American ermine (Mustela richardsonii), aka American stoat, are both at a disadvantage in a winter such as this one.
I mentioned in my last column that foxes only den up in extremely severe weather. They may even be observed sleeping under the shelter of a pine tree during the day with their furry tails wrapped around them for warmth. Animals’ tails are such amazing features and serve so many different functions. Some of these uses may be as a hand, a rudder, a warning device, a fly swatter, or a weapon. For the opossum, its tail is used for grasping and holding. A beaver’s tail is used to balance itself when gnawing down a tree and as a rudder when swimming. We probably have all seen a white-tailed deer use its tail as a warning signal, and hopefully, you haven’t seen a striped skunk use its raised tail warning before turning its back and spraying. Many different mammals use their tail as a fly swatter, and the porcupine uses its tail as a last resort weapon against predators. Numerous birds use their tails in courtship displays like the ruffed grouse. And still, others use it to spare their lives, such as the four-toed salamander, which can escape while the predator is left with its tail in its mouth. The salamander’s tail will grow back.
Another feature that animals have, which has always fascinated me, is their eyes, especially bird’s eyes. A number of years ago, I learned the immature Bald Eagle has brown eyes and beaks, and not until it is a fully grown adult at age five will it complete its change in appearance. Its feathers will change from brown with mottled white streaking to a dark brown torso and white head and tail feathers. Its brown eyes and beak will then both change to yellow. Many other raptors have eye color changes too. The Northern Harrier’s eyes change from brown to yellow at maturity. The Sharp-shin Hawk’s eye color changes from yellow to red, and Red-tailed Hawk’s eyes change from yellow to a reddish brown. The American Crow’s eyes change from blue to bluish-gray or brown. In addition to these birds of prey, there are many other birds that experience eye color alterations; some of these birds are the Common Loon, Ducks, Grebes, Gulls, Woodpeckers, and Vireos. The Wood Duck male has stunning red eyes, which are ringed with red, and the female has dark brown eyes, ringed with yellow. Most of the owls in the northeast have yellow eyes, except for the Barred Owl, which has dark brown eyes that make it easier to identify that species.
Predators have eyes in the front of their faces as we do, but animals that are prey have eyes on either side of their heads. Of all land-dwelling animals, horses have the largest eyes. Horses have an excellent range of “binocular” and “monocular” vision and can see everything except for what is directly in front of them, between their eyes, and a rider on their back is also in their “blind spot.” Utilizing the monocular and binocular sight capabilities, they have about three hundred degrees of vision. This allows them to see a predator sneaking up from behind them. Surprisingly Black Bears have tiny eyes compared to their body size. They have adequate vision up close but cannot see details further than thirty feet. What they lack in eyesight, they make up for in their amazing sense of smell. They can smell a steak cooking on your barbeque grill from a distance of more than a mile away.
Our sense of smell is probably one of our most significant senses. We can most likely smell smoke before we actually see a fire, which could possibly save us from a disaster. We can perhaps smell the odor of a skunk without actually seeing the animal. We can appreciate the smell of fresh air after a spring shower. We may even begin to salivate when smelling something delectable cooking in the oven. For humans, our sense of smell is very important, and it is also extremely important for animals, birds, plants, and fungi.
The sense of smell can signify life or death for many plants and animals in addition to the continuation of its species. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to find and photograph a long-sought-after fungus. While hiking with a group of fifth-grade students, one of them asked, “what was the awful smell.” After a bit of investigation, we found the source, which was a stinkhorn mushroom. It is called “skirted or netted stinkhorn” (Dictyophora duplicata). It is a large mushroom standing more than seven inches tall with a pitted head covered with olive green sticky, slimy and smelly “spore-mass.” Its putrid odor is necessary to attract flies which will eat the spore mass and carry away the spores, which will begin the reproductive progression of the fungus. Below the head of the mushroom, the “skirt,” which appears to be crocheted, provides a waiting site for more flies.
Some insects smell with their antennae, and others smell with their feet. Using pheromones (a chemical produced to send signals), they can smell food, avoid predators, find mates, and find their way to and from their habitat. An alarmed European Honeybee can release a pheromone that stimulates a response in other worker bees to attack the predator.
I hope we get an opportunity to meet on snow-covered trails soon… where you wander.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, for about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995, she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, she has been educating children and adults for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP). In 2013 and 2014, and did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of nature and photography, she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in cataloging all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016, she has been writing a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with the My Little Falls newspaper. You may reach her at email@example.com.