February 25, 2014

Think You Know Your Animal Tracks?

On yesterday's snowshoeing trip, I saw a set of animal tracks that neither of us have ever seen in over twenty years of skiing and snowshoeing in the Rockies.

What mystery creature left these marks? If you've snowshoed with us, maybe you can figure it out.  Or maybe you just have a brain like Sherlock Holmes.  The first person to get the correct answer will get a major shout out from us (we'll bow down in praise of your tracking skills!).  The tracks started in the middle of a small clearing, then continued for about 10 metres through some brush before ending at a tree trunk. The space between the tracks was about 15 cm, or 6 inches.

If no one gets it by the weekend, we'll leave a revealing clue on our Facebook page.  All will be revealed in one week.

Have fun!

February 19, 2014

Cone Crop of the Century, Part II – How it Happens and Who's Cashing In

In September, we wrote about the huge cone crop in evergreen trees in the Rockies in 2013, especially in spruce and fir trees. We wanted to follow up.

A forester friend of ours sent us a scientific paper on synchronous crops of cones or nuts across entire forests. Cone crops can be synchronous among many species of trees for as much as 2500 km! This can add up to millions of square kilometres in which trees are all doing the same thing!

The jury is still out on how the trees all do the same thing, but the leading theory is the “Moran Effect.” (Have you noticed that theories sound more impressive when you give them a name that ends in “Effect”?)  Patrick Moran, an Australian bloke, showed that some external factor – for example, above average temperatures in May – could stimulate the some kind of identical effect in millions of organisms spread across huge distances.

Male white-winged crossbill
Does anything benefit from a jumbo cone crop here in the Rockies? Well, the trees probably do, as there are more seeds that can potentially sprout into future trees. But the other obvious winners are any animals that eat the seeds in evergreen cones. Squirrels had a banner year.  We saw lots of youngsters, including a litter of four, which we'd never seen before.  And, in the last few weeks in Lake Louise, another species has been cashing in: white-winged crossbills.

These little finches are super charming, and have the most amazing beaks: they look like curved pliers with the tongs out of alignment. So, no good for a carpentry project, but great for opening cones and eating the seeds. You've got to see it to believe it.

Crossbills can gobble up as many as 3000 per day, and when the food is abundant, it will stimulate breeding, even in the middle of winter! Last week, we started to hear the cheerful songs of courting male crossbills, just in time for Valentine's Day. This is a little sample of their love song.

February 10, 2014

Murder mystery in the snow

The crime scene, February 8, 2014.
Nadine was out with a group on the weekend, and found a crime scene in the woods: the skin and fur of a snowshoe hare, as well as some entrails and a few drops of blood.

We went back to the site yesterday, and looked around more carefully.  There were lots of hare tracks, and lots of lynx tracks, but we could finally connect the two when we found a set of tracks from a lynx in full gallop.  We could see where it had switched from a slow stalking mode into a sprint.  It was the proof of the chase.

The lynx must have been going full speed: one pair of tracks were easily eight feet apart, with a snow covered log between the two tracks.  The log was at least two feet off the ground, and the lynx had easily cleared it.  If this were an Olympic event, the lynx would own the podium!  It was an exciting insight into what goes on in the forest when we're not around to see it.

The tracks of a galloping lynx.

The part we never get to see: the lynx and the hare
in the life or death chase.