A male American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) shows off its summer yellow and gold. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Nature: Wildlife leave telling signatures for us to decipher



Spring is officially here and lots of wonderful things happen this month. Flickers fly up from the sides of the road and clearly show the white patches on their lower backs. Male goldfinches have changed, or almost have changedinto their summer gold and black feathers that brighten up any landscape that may still be a bit drab.  

This photo shows the unusual diagonal paw prints of a skunk. PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSAN MADIERA

My column mail recently has been full of questions about, and sightings of, animal tracks. One photo especially caught my eye. It very clearly shows the unusual diagonal paw prints of a skunk in the snow. Look this one up on your computer or in a good mammal book.  

Seeing this photo took me back a few years to when I took an excellent college course in tracks and scatology. My friends and family laughed at me for taking such a course at the time but through the years, it has proven to have been a very good idea. As I have taught nature classesled field trips and written books and articles about wildlife, the course has been a big help. 

Wildlife prints and scat leave signatures. Scat not only gives a glimpse of what food an animal has eaten, but it also can tell you how old the creature is, its health status, what animal it is, how fast it was goingfoot habits and size. 

Pellets spit out of the mouth tell you what the creature was eatingI remember finding a sparkling pellet clearly showing that asnowy owl had killed and eaten a snowshoe hare. The indigestible parts had been spat out of the mouth or beak. Take time to notice and solve such mysteries as you examine the clues. One industrious college student I knew collected all the owl pellets he found in the woods under a favorite owl perch and very carefully identified the various rodents and other creatures the owl had caught. They were mounted and all identified correctly. 

During the winter, wood frogs have been spending their time beneath a stone or log. As spring temperatures awaken them, they head for the nearest small pond or other wet spot where there is shallow water. This frog’s call can be heard even in the daytime. It sounds a bit like a croaking or quacking of a duck and carries only a short distance, unlike the loud, far-reaching peeper’s call.   

Female wood frogs lay thousands of eggs in a gelatinous mass, measuring 2-4 inches in diameter, attached to an underwater stick or other submerged vegetation. Of coursenot all of these eggs hatch. Some are frozen by a sudden cold snap or the pool is too small and dries up or they get eaten by predators. Without complications and if the water stays about 50 degrees, the eggs hatch in less than two weeks once they are laid. Adult wood frogs are pretty frogs. 

Their coloring ranges from dark brown to reddish brown and they have a dark facial mask that is very characteristic. 

Egrets may appear in island marshes this monthWatch especially for snowy egrets (black bill and legs with bright yellow feet). Also watch for the larger American egret with its dark legs and feet and yellow bill. 

Let me know what you’re seeing. Birds are singing a mighty chorus here in South Carolina that is nice to hear all day and into the twilight hours. An ovenbird’s ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’ call is one I have not heard for quite a while. 

Send any sightings or questions to [email protected] 

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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