Watching Winter Predators

During winter, we are all in it together–the birds and animals that choose to tough out the season here, and my husband Bruce, our son Dave, and me. Wild creatures and humans alike must have enough food to stay alive and healthy and adequate shelter from cold and wind. For us humans it is relatively easy most of the time. With frozen and canned food, heating oil and insulated houses, we are nourished and warmed. We can even choose to put on warm clothes and boots and go outside every day.

For the wild creatures it is not so easy. Many lose the struggle to survive the winter. Hunger also makes them bold and easier to watch, especially the usually wary predators.

Take sharp-shinned hawks, for instance. Every winter at least one stakes out our feeders, making frequent raids whenever the weather is especially cold and snowy. Because they are juveniles, they rarely kill anything. In fact, studies show that less than 50% of immature sharpies survive their first winter.

Last winter, though, the sharpie that visited our feeders was a bold and skilled hunter. Judging from its size and coloring, it was a mature female. She first appeared on December 9. Juncos crowded our back porch and steps that cold, clear day, and then suddenly, they were gone. There, sitting on the ground below the back steps, was the “blue darter,” and she did indeed have a bluish-gray cast to her back in the early morning light. When she saw me looking out at her, she flew to a weed head, landed, flared her tail, and took off without a meal.

Goodness knows how many more times she returned when we were not looking, but by December 22 three inches of snow covered a layer of snowy-ice, the wind blew, and the thermometer plummeted to the single digits. In midafternoon Dave shouted, “The sharpie has nabbed a junco.”

I rushed to my study window and watched as she plucked and ate her victim on the ground below the back porch. She scattered the feathers, ate the head, pulled out and consumed the entrails, and quickly finished up the remains of the little bird. I could almost hear her smacking her bill contentedly. Then she flew up into a nearby tree, shook her long, banded tail, and flew off.

The following day it was five degrees at dawn and small birds mobbed the feeders and porch floor, eager to stoke up after the bitterly cold and windy night. At 9:00 a.m. I glanced outside. Not a bird was to be seen. The Killer Extraordinaire had struck again. This time she plucked her junco victim even closer to our windows, but when she saw us watching, she picked up the remains of her kill in her talons and flew into the woods.

She showed up again after lunch, sitting in a tree below the feeders, preening and shaking her tail. I went out to chase her, figuring that one junco a day was enough. She, on the other hand, didn’t want to leave. She flew toward our front porch, swerving, I thought, around the ten-foot-high juniper tree outside our bow window. I stepped out on to the porch and peered around the side of the house at the tree. She sat hidden in its prickly midst, but she flew away when she realized I had spotted her.

The next day, at 12:10, I returned from a walk and glanced out the bow window to see the sharpie plucking and eating still another junco on the same clump of weeds she had favored during previous raids. This time, after she finished, she perched on a horizontal weed stem, picked her feet clean, and then sat there as the wind ruffled her feathers. She looked like she was perfectly at home as she glanced around comfortably before finally leaving.

She was back at 3:30 p.m. on December 27, but this time the birds escaped. She also missed on the last two days of the month. Then, shortly after 2:00 p.m. on January 5 I heard a thud against the bow window. The sharpie had again missed her target and sat on a tree branch outside my study window for several minutes. Then she flew into the juniper tree where the juncos were hidden, but she didn’t catch any. Finally, she flew to the edge of the woods and disappeared. In a few minutes the birds were back at the feeders.

Fifteen days later, I heard another thud at the bow window im mid-afternoon. The sharpie grabbed a junco that had flown into the window in a panic and carried it off into the woods to eat. That was the last we saw of her. Four meals, four misses in less than a month–the highest number of kills, by far, that we had ever witnessed, but certainly not enough to keep a female sharpie alive. Her fate, like that of so many of the creatures we watch during the winter, was a mystery.

But snow does help to solve the mystery of what animals are around and how they are doing. Last winter I found the usual tracks–porcupine highways in and out of the spruce grove, deer, ruffed grouse and wild turkeys along our trails, and squirrels, voles, and mice throughout the woods. Coyote tracks were also common, and I knew they had raised a family on our property the summer before. I easily found the smaller, neater tracks of gray foxes, but I wondered if our red fox population had been eliminated by coyotes as biologists claim happens when coyotes move in.

On January 22, in five inches of new snow, I followed two sets of coyote tracks all over the Far Field, where red foxes had always lived. They were classic coyote tracks, between two and two-and-a-half inches long with distinctive toenail marks and heel pads. I saw where the coyotes had sniffed at the bases of trees and poked their heads under blowdowns. Neither burrow I knew of had tracks going in and out, but above Pennyroyal Trail, the tracks converged on a hole beneath an uprooted tree.

Later, as we sat in the kitchen finishing lunch, I looked out across First Field at Sapsucker Ridge and, against the revealing blanket of white, I spotted what looked like a red fox trotting down the ridge.

“Get my binoculars, quick!” I asked Bruce and Dave as I kept my eyes glued on the moving animal.

Through my binoculars I could see that it was a large red fox. Unlike most red foxes, though, it had black along its back and tail as well as on its legs, which made it a cross red fox, according to a color photograph in J. David Henry’s book, RED FOX:THE CATLIKE CANINE. Because of its size, I assumed it was a male.

As we watched from the veranda, he reached the edge of the field and sat down next to a large tree where he groomed his tail and chest before moving back up the slope into the thickets. After a few minutes, he reappeared, trotting along the side of the hill, behind a fallen log, and into thick brush near the powerline right-of-way.

Although red foxes are primarily nocturnal hunters, in the winter they are more likely to hunt during the day as well as in the night because prey is harder to catch. Excited by the sighting, I waited nearly an hour to give him a head start before setting out to track him.

Following up the edge of the woods along the right-of-way, he had crossed it about halfway up Sapsucker Ridge. On the other side he had sniffed around an uprooted tree before continuing into the Sapsucker Ridge woods and then back down into the grapevines and American bittersweet hanging from the trees along the edge of First Field. From there he had meandered the field border for a couple hundred feet before turning up the hillside into the woods.

His tracks were nearly as large as those I had seen at the Far Field, but because red foxes have a lot of hair growing on the bottoms of their feet, they were blurry and the toenail marks were not visible. But I could see his distinctive heel pads, which were shaped like an inverted V.

Halfway up the slope he had turned left and continued straight ahead for several hundred feet before swerving right and going up to the top of the ridge. At the top he had headed toward the vernal ponds but then veered toward the top of First Field, staying well within the woods, even at the corner of the field beyond the spruce grove. There he had looked under an uprooted tree with a nice cavity below.

Finally, he had turned left, putting his tracks precisely into the oval-shaped grooves made by porcupines that led into the spruce grove. Then I lost his tracks in a maze of deer tracks. It was as if he had simply vanished. Or had he realized that I was tracking him and deliberately threw me off his trail? Whatever the case, I was jubilant to learn that at least one red fox still roamed our property.

Probably our most thrilling predator sighting occurred back on January 13, 1999. It was a particularly dismal day–27 degrees and raining. But in mid-afternoon our son Dave stepped out on the guesthouse porch and spotted a least weasel hunting voles near the springhouse. He rushed over for a closer look as the weasel ran through the dried goldenrod stalks to the old well behind the springhouse and disappeared into a vole burrow. Then he alerted his brother Mark who was visiting and while Mark kept an eye on the burrow entrance, Dave ran up to our house to tell me about the weasel.

In the meantime, Mark saw first the vole, then the weasel, zip out of the burrow. The weasel chased the vole up the slope where we caught a glimpse of it just as it disappeared down another vole burrow near the juniper tree outside the bow window. Although we watched that entrance, we didn’t see the weasel again. Probably it had finally caught its victim.

Because least weasels are primarily nocturnal and highly secretive, few people have seen them at any time of the year. For that reason, they are classified as an “at risk” or “status undetermined” species in Pennsylvania. The smallest carnivores, least weasels are only slightly larger than meadow voles, their preferred prey. Most least weasels in northern Pennsylvania turn white in winter, while in central and western Pennsylvania they are usually pale brown as was the one we watched. Their elongated bodies are aptly suited for chasing voles through their runways and like other weasel species, they are efficient killers.

What had been a dull day had certainly been brightened by our close encounter with a least weasel. Like our sighting of the red fox and our visits from the sharpie, we never know what we will see when we look out our windows in the winter. But we know it is the best of times for predator watchers like us.