Roadside attraction

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitat

Roads are both a blessing and a curse for wildlife (Photo: Colleen Greene, Creative Commons license)

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Ever dreamed of going on a safari? Then fasten your seat belt, start the engine, and hit the road. Any road. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts—take the time to look and you’ll spy enough wildlife to satisfy, Bwana.

Sure, some of the creatures will be easier to spot than others… for the simple reason they’re no longer moving.  But I’m not proposing a road-kill road-trip. Trust me, the city streets, shady neighborhood boulevards, highways and byways offer plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching. Naturally, the species on display depend on the size of the road, its location, the season, time of day, and the speed limit.

wildlife and roads, vultures, wildlife watchingLet’s say your motoring down a divided highway, a conduit to and through the all-American suburbs. The big stuff (aka megafauna), such as deer, elk, moose, bears, and even coyotes, can be seen at 65+ mph (although not always in time to either admire or avoid them). Certain birds of prey, red-tailed hawks in particular, can be seen at both speed and distance due to their habit of hanging out high on handy utility poles to scout for snacks. Anything more petite will be visible only if it’s on the shoulder or trying to cross the road. Scavengers looking for a free lunch can be seen out on the open road day (crows, ravens, vultures) and night (opossums, coyotes). That meal ticket can quickly turn the diner into dinner for someone else… and so on.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, groundhogBeyond mowed blacktop borders, in the woods and taller grasses, you’ll find rabbits, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and groundhogs. Based on my own non-scientific observation, to improve your chances of seeing these meso– (medium-sized) species as well as small but brightly colored male songbirds in situ you’ll have to ease up on the gas pedal and let the speedometer drop to 35-45 mph, tops.

A bicycle (or even a horse if you have access to one) would probably set the right pace for a rider to notice mice and voles, lizards, turtles, frogs and toads, as well as female songbirds (who tend to have less flashy wardrobes than their ready-for-the-disco menfolk). The truly diminutive critters—insects, spiders, snails and slugs—are hard to spot at more than arm’s length so it’s best to set off on foot and plan for a leisurely pace if spineless quarry is your goal.  A general rule: the slower you go, the more you’ll see—that’s what makes the backroads more appealing for this kind of trip than a superhighway.

In poetry, novels, song, and cinema people often speak of the allure and romance of roads—the ones that calls us, the ones less traveled, the ones that go on forever, choosing between high ones and low ones. Wild animals rarely have access to books and mp3 players and RedBox kiosks, though, and I’ve never found them to be all that interested in popular culture… so what’s the attraction?

To build a road through a previously undeveloped area, the first thing that happens is clearing a swath of the existing plant community, be that trees and shrubs or grasses or cacti. Once the project is completed (or even while it’s still in progress) new plants begin to colonize the bare soil, creating a plant community that’s different from the surrounding landscape along with an edge where new and old meet.  Disturbing the soil stimulates the germination of seeds that may have sat dormant for a long time waiting for the right conditions. Soil may be brought in from somewhere else as part of the construction process along with seeds from plants that are completely novel in this setting.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitatSince the plants predict what kind of animals will be found in any ecosystem, the new habitat creates opportunities certain wildlife species will exploit… but in most cases it won’t be the species that were living happily in the pre-construction habitat. Edge species will colonize the area, often using the right-of-way as a travel corridor before and after the road is completed. Some organisms will hitchhike to their new home on and in the bodies of larger animals or even motor vehicles. Birds, bats, and flying insects will drop in from above. Wild things are always jockeying for space and there’s no such thing as a vacant lot in nature—at least, not for long.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, pronghornMake no mistake—roads are a significant cause of habitat loss and their presence is detrimental to many types of wildlife. For others, though, the resulting edge provides exactly what they need to thrive. This includes our most familiar next-door nature species. In fact, the reason blue jays, robins, white-tailed deer and other edge-loving species are so common in human communities is because Homo sapiens is also an edge-loving species. Our roads are simply one very conspicuous example of that fact.

The natural world is never static; it’s always in flux and each day there are new winners and losers.  Are roads good or bad for wildlife? It depends on the species. But there’s no doubt they are a boon for wildlife watchers.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Colleen Greene (black bear); e_monk (black vulture); Matt Reinbold (groundhog); MoDOT Photos (edge habitat); Allan Harris (pronghorn).

Stick in the mud

red-eared slider by Charles Lam cc

Red-eared sliders take a less extreme approach to winter survival than hibernation (Photo: Charles Lam, Creative Commons license)

The holidays are well behind us now. Shorter days and Jack Frost nipping at your nose have lost their novelty. It’s the start of a more serious season, filled with snowplows, tire chains, and 10-pound sacks of litter that will never feel a kitty’s caress.  In many parts of the northern hemisphere, it’s a long slog through snow, sleet, and freezing rain to get from January to jonquils.

Understandably, we look to Nature for role models. Native people aren’t unique in their ability to draw a connection between human and non-human animals—Madison Avenue is especially canny at choosing charismatic creatures to impersonate our enviable and endearing (or at least humorous) characteristics.  Particularly at this time of year, when the mercury can’t seem to bootstrap its way past 32°F, you’ll find a lot of furry salespeople pitching warm and cozy wares in magazines and newspapers, on television and online. I assume the general idea behind this trend is that raw, gray days bring out the hibernator in all of us mammals.

Not to split hairs, but that’s not technically correct. Humans don’t hibernate. That’s not to say we don’t go through some behavioral changes at this time of year—we do (at least so far as jobs, school, and the other routines and rituals of modern life allow)—but those cold weather coping strategies look strangely… reptilian.

times square blizzard by Asterio Tecson ccSee for yourself—next time the Weather Channel predicts a cold front, with or without a “wintery mix,” ask yourself if the people peeking out from fleece hoodies, swaths of scarves, turned up coat collars, and balaclavas as they hunch toward the warmth of home look more like bears… or tortoises.

Now, there’s a bit of Class warfare at play here, because homeothermic (body temperature largely uninfluenced by the surrounding environmental) hominid mammals aren’t often flattered by comparisons to scaly, poikilothermic (body temperature influence by the surrounding environment) cold-bloods.  Knowing this, and well aware that my claim will face considerable skepticism, I’ll use an example to back it up: a familiar and easily identifiable semi-aquatic turtle called the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans).

r-e slider hatchling by M.W. Fisher Jr. ccEven nature neophytes will immediately recognize this species, a common resident of lakes and ponds in urban and suburban parks, as well as in pet stores. Shell, legs, head and tail are inscribed with stripes and nested ovals of green and yellow, the “elegant script” referenced in its Latin name (although the vibrant colors do tend to fade somewhat with age and a thick coat of algae). The red “ear” on either side of the head distinguishes the slider from all other North American turtle species and allows for a quick and definitive ID as they sunbathe on stones and logs. “Quick” being the operative word here; sliders don’t hear well, but they are very sensitive to vibrations that alert them to the presence of potential predators, and they can slip back into the safety of the water with surprising speed.

In the wild, the slider’s life cycle begins with courtship and mating as early as March or as late as July, depending on the region and the weather. Subsequently, the female heads for dry land to deposit a clutch of eggs, excavating with her hind legs to create a nest in the soil. Then she turns for home with nary a backward glance, and the turtles-to-be she leaves behind are on their own from that point forward. Two or three months later, depending on the average ambient temperature, hatchlings emerge from the nest and set out to conquer the world.

Most of them don’t make it past the first year—such is Testudine life… and death. Those who live to see their 2nd birthday, however, can reasonably expect a couple decades of celebrations, getting bigger with each passing year (females reach 10-13 in (25-33 cm), while males max out at 8-10 in (20-25 cm)).

In addition to predation, winter is one of the biggest barriers to longevity that young turtles must navigate in the wild (HA! I’ll bet you thought I’d lost my original train of thought, didn’t you?).  No one expects to see a slider in a snowstorm, so it’s natural to assume they use sleep as a survival strategy.  Hey, it works for two of the most diverse Orders on Earth—Chiroptera (bats) and Rodentia (rodents), so why not?

sunning r-eared sliders by Alan Vernon ccBut reptiles take a different road. Brumation is a period of decreased activity, but it doesn’t involve the extreme metabolic changes that occur during hibernation. ‘Round about October, as temperatures dip below 50°F, sliders begin to settle in at the bottom of their preferred body of water, or in some cases under stream banks and tree stumps, and just… hang out. They’re less social, they move a little more slowly, sleep a little later, watch more television (I’m sure there must be a turtle equivalent), and generally feel lethargic and unmotivated. On warmer days, they’ll drag themselves up from the depths to stretch their limbs, have some lunch, and catch some rays with a few friends… but as soon as old Sol goes into hiding they follow suit, retreating into their shells to become stick-in-the-muds until spring.

Social commentators have come up with any number of marketable catch phrases to describe the human desire to turn our backs on a less than hospitable world—cocooning, burrowing, vegging out, even hibernating. The admen (and women) may argue that it doesn’t have the same sizzle, but what we’re really talking about here is brumating.

Sound like anyone you know?

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Start your day with a little Next-Door Nature—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Asterio Tecson (blizzard people); M. W. Fisher, Jr. (hatchling); and Alan Vernon (sunning sliders).

Shell game

eastern box turgle

Eastern box turtle shells provide protection from predators, but not the hazards of life in cities and suburbs (Photo: Alan Howell © Star Path Images, used with permission)

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Sometimes you just need to shut out the world for a while, you know?

If you can’t relate, I know the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) certainly can. Whether the threat is carnivores or towers of cardboard boxes and a demanding career, there are times when nothing beats a little self-imposed solitary confinement.

Carrying your own personal isolation chamber on your back means sensory deprivation can be achieved in mere seconds. No need to call ahead for an appointment at the local day spa. Don’t bother dimming the lights, closing the blinds, and turning off your cell phone. Just pull in your extremities and slam your hinged shell shut—a little privacy, if you don’t mind!

Is it any coincidence that box turtles are one of our longest-lived species, with well-documented cases of individuals reaching the half-century mark and beyond? Stress reductions, in the form of a room of one’s own, may well be the key to attaining a ripe old age.

We shouldn’t dismiss the importance of wise food choices either—lots of lean protein, in the form of earthworms, snails, slugs, and insects, as well as fruits and veggies such as berries, grasses, and flowers.  Turtles have another favorite food that may contribute to overall longevity—they’ve been known to consume poisonous fungi, causing anyone who dines on their flesh to sicken, or worse. Of course, someone has to kill and eat said turtle, and suffer the consequences, which may not seem like much of a survival benefit unless you consider it from the standpoint of the population rather than the individual. See, all it takes is one or two bad meals and, ever after, turtles become a much less appealing meal for that particular consumer and his or her community. The technical term is adverse conditioning—that’s a polite way of saying animals (both human and non-human) tend not to keep eating things that make us vomit.

Now, it’s unlikely that turtles have any particular strategy in mind when eating wild mushrooms. Then again… certain “magical” fungi have been credited with providing, among other things, an increased sense of well-being and decreased anxiety levels. Perhaps they are self-medicating with the Terrapene equivalent of Xanax®.

One of six subspecies of the common box turtle (T. carolina), the eastern, like all its kin, has a highly domed carapace (the upper portion of the shell) and a hinged plastron (the lower half of the shell). What sets each subspecies apart is distribution and habitat, as well as certain physical characteristics.  T.c. carolina, found from southern Maine to southern Florida and as far west as central Texas, is known for colorful keeled carpaces that feature diverse combinations of spots, bars, and radiating lines.

Color provides a clue to more than a box turtle’s species. It can also help us determine the gender of that lurching, resolute reptile we stop to help cross the street.  If the eyes (irises) are bright orange or red, you’re holding a male; females have brown or light orange eyes. What if, in response to your good deed, the turtle has gone into hiding, making eye contact a moot point? Simply turn the creature over; females have a flat plastron, males are slightly concave. (Think about it. Birds do it, bees do it…).

eastern box turtles

Hello, goodbye (Photos: Doug Letterman and Bill Lynch, Creative Commons license)

The hinged plastron is what caused taxonomists to create a separate genus for North America’s box-top reptiles, and what allows the eastern and it’s relatives to retreat into a kind of biological fortress.  And for most of their history, this survival strategy worked quite well—against coyotes, raccoons, and skunks, that is.  Sadly, it doesn’t provide the same level of protection from every threat.

Box turtles are still relatively common throughout much of their range, but not even the most tightly closed shell can shield this species from the impacts of habitat loss and other interactions with Homo sapiens. These are slow moving, slow growing creatures with delayed sexual maturity and low reproduction rates, all of which puts them at risk. A female may produce hundreds of eggs during her lifetime, but less than a dozen offspring can be expected to survive to adulthood. It’s hard to even begin to estimate how many turtles are hit attempting to cross roads every year, and there are plenty of other hazard against which withdrawing into your shell is of little use—trains, lawn mowers, tractors, and bulldozers, to name but a few. Then there’s the capture of turtles for the pet trade. In many states, this practice is completely unregulated, with devastating impacts on wild populations.

Even so, there are times when coming out of your shell is the better choice. Especially for humans. Solitary confinement is used as a punishment because, unlike turtles we are social mammals. We need companionship, conversation, to touch and be touched. Hard to get any of those needs met when you retreat to your shell.

Unless, of course, you invite someone to join you there.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.