Every now and then, a red fox runs through the far back of the backyard, usually too quickly to get a photo. But today a red fox trotted right in front of my porch window where I was sitting admiring the snowfall in the backyard…and my camera was close by.
There are not one, but two mammalian predators looking for the squirrels in my backyard. One of the red foxes stopped by the other day, furtively sneaking along the fence line between backyards, pausing under some evergreens for a look at the bird feeders, and then hiding next to a shed in my neighbor’s yard.
But the next day, a coyote lingered in the backyard, hunting along the edge between the grass and the forest for unsuspecting squirrels.
They are hard to see against a backdrop of fresh snow, except for the large, dark black eyes, and the black tip at the end of their tail.
The long, thin bodies of weasels are a great adaptation for hunting rodents in their burrows, but they are a disadvantage in the winter climate because thin cylindrical bodies lose heat much faster than more spherical-shaped ones do.
Weasels usually retreat to a burrow, perhaps of some animal they have recently eaten, when they are not active, and they will often cache extra food there to tide them over on days when prey are scarce.
What determines when weasels molt into their white fur? It’s thought that declining hours of daylight in the fall are the primary cue, just as it is for migratory birds to begin their preparation to fly south. Molting from brown to white fur coat takes about three weeks, but a drop in temperature can hasten the molt, and unseasonably warm fall weather can slow it. Usually the molt to the all-white ermine phase is completed just about the time of the first snowfall, so the animal is perfectly camouflaged.
We were 3 miles from our destination at Cave Creek Ranch in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona when a rear tire on our Highlander went flat (note to self: avoid driving on gravel roads!). And although this was a major inconvenience for my husband who had to drive 60 miles to the nearest Walmart to get a new tire, it meant we could stay at the ranch an extra day.
The Chiricahua Mountains rise 6,000 feet above the desert floor that surrounds them, making them an “island in a sea of desert”. A variety of life zones occur along the gradient from hot dry, desert to cool pine forest at peak elevation, and this means these montane islands are a hot spot of biodiversity. And like animals on oceanic islands, Sky Island animals are restricted to their mountain environment, and may become locally endemic, not mixing or interbreeding with the rest of their parent species.
Such”sky islands” occur in a number of locations in North America, but this one in the Chiricahuas is particularly interesting because it attracts more southern-distributed Mexican and Central American species like Trogons, Mexican Jays, coatis (raccoon relatives), Jaguars, Mexican wolves, javelinas, and some endemic races of white-tailed deer and wild turkeys.
Quite a diverse place, those Sky Islands of Arizona!
As we were pulling into the parking lot at Catalina State Park north of Tucson, my husband suddenly stopped and pointed at a badger working its way along the roadside snuffling in the weeds. I jumped out of the car and caught up with the badger for a few quick photos.
Down the road to the west of Vermejo Park Ranch on the eastern edge of the San Luis valley in south central Colorado lie the tallest sand dunes in North America, now protected in Great Sand Dune National Park.
We had an opportunity to explore some of the almost 600,000 acre mega-ranch at Vermejo Park, near Raton, New Mexico. This magnificent expanse of private lands stretches from Great Plains short grass prairie up in elevation through pinyon-juniper woodland and ponderosa woodland, into mixed coniferous forest and finally alpine tundra near the crest of the Sangre de Cristo mountains — altogether an area 3/4 the size of Rhode Island!
The ranch was part of a very large Mexican land grant, made to landholders in 1814, and since then it has passed through various owners, including some Hollywood mega-stars, until it was purchased by Ted Turner in the 1990s for managing wildlife, including the native bison that once roamed these prairies. Today the multiple goals of the Vermejo Park Ranch include bison production, luxury wildlife tourism, and hunting, with the overall goal of managing wildlife conservation sustainably in a large landscape.
On our drive to New Mexico to see one of Ted Turner’s mega-ranches, we stopped at Prairie Dog State Park in northwestern Kansas, a 1000 acre park with campsites clustered on a lake shore, and featuring its own prairie dog town. Interestingly, when the park was first established, there were no prairie dogs living there, and multiple attempts to introduce them all failed. A few years later, however, a pair of prairie dogs wandered into the park, and they successfully established their lineage, which now numbers over 300 animals.
Prairie dogs are considered a keystone species in the short grass prairies of the central plains because of their impact on so many other species that live there. Their burrows are used by a variety of other species, including the black-footed ferrets that eat them, their incessant digging turns over the soil releasing nutrients for flowering annuals and perennials, and their foraging habits selectively remove taller grasses and seedling shrubs, thereby promoting the short grass prairie landscape.
Grasslands once covered about one-fifth of North America, and although they are but a small fraction of that now, you can still get a sense of what it was like to stand in a “sea of prairie grass” at The Nature Conservancy’s Samuel Ordway Preserve near Leola, South Dakota.
This chunk of native grassland is at the bottom end of a vast 135,000 acre swath of largely unplowed, native prairie that extends northward into North Dakota, and is the center of North America’s “Duck Factory”, i.e., the undisturbed prairie-pothole lake region that provides protected breeding sites for thousands of ducks.
Driving the perimeter road around the preserve, we came upon some of the wildlife that inhabits the native prairie.
While walking along the bank of the Minnesota River south of Lac Qui Parle, we spotted a slender brown mammal scurrying between the large rocks and foliage.
But which weasel is it? According to the “ecology center“, of the three possibilities that it could be in North America, this one is most likely a Short-tailed Weasel, otherwise known as the Stoat in Europe and Asia.
Short-tailed Weasels are relatively recent immigrants to the Americas, arriving during a period when there was an ice-free land bridge between North American and Asia about 2 million years ago. Since then they have spread throughout all of the Americas, even down to the tip of South America.
Prior to that time, about 5-7 million years ago when northern temperate forests were slowly being replaced by temperate grasslands, a weasel ancestor crossed another land bridge between the continents, giving rise to the Stoat of Eurasia on that continent, and a look-alike Long-tailed Weasel in North America. Other than their body size differences, the two species are remarkably alike in looks and behavior. And both molt their brown fur to pure white in the winter in north temperate climates, making them almost undetectable in snow.