Reflections in Nature

At the beginning of January, we experienced an old-time winter, with deep snow cover on the ground and frigid daytime temperatures. On one such afternoon, we were traveling along Route 14, just south of Troy, when my wife, Mary Alice, mentioned that the countryside looked like a winter wonderland.

Her next sentence was, “Wouldn’t it be neat to see a snowy owl?”

We had only traveled about a mile when I yelled, “There is one!”

However, the owl turned out to be a small pile of leaves covered with snow. In my defense, the snow at the top was shaped like the round head of a snowy owl.

While watching television that evening, we heard there has been an irruption of snowy owls coming down from the far north. An irruption, which is different than a migration, is a large-scale irregular migration of larger than usual numbers of predatory birds.

This occurs about every four years and is linked to the low population of lemmings on which the snowy owls feed. Records that go back to 1833 show that irruptions of snowy owls occur into the United States at about four-year intervals.

In an old Game News from February 1951, I read in an article that here in the northeast United States, we have had a marked invasion of snowy owls in 1926, 1930, 1934, 1937, 1941, 1945 and 1949. By using this formula, an invasion of these majestic white birds should be seen during late December, January and February of 2013-14.

The snowy owl is unique among owls in that it hunts during daylight hours and not at night, with its peak feeding time at dusk and dawn.

The owl is well suited for the snowy tundra because the overall plumage of the adult male is pure white, with three tail bands, which enables it to blend into the snowy background.

The females and juveniles are more heavily marked with brown so they can blend in with the rocks and melting snow surrounding the nest. The female is slightly larger than the male.

Most of the snowy owl’s hunting is done by sitting and waiting and, since there are no trees, this waiting usually is done from a pingaluk, which is a rise in the tundra.

Although the snowy owl probably is the most well known of birds that make irruptions, there are 13 other species that also make these trips. Evening grosbeaks have made irruptions so often that they almost have become regular visitors from the north.

The eastward and southward movements of evening grosbeaks have been attributed to high populations and the failure (about every two years) of spruce, pines and other coniferous trees in the north, on which the grosbeaks mainly depend on for their food.

Another type of migration occurs with the male population of waterfowl. All waterfowl migrate, and it is believed that most return to the same area where they were born to mate and raise their young.

Many ducks that winter in the southern United States will pair up before the northward migrationbegins. Instead of flying northward to the areas where they were hatched, the males that pair up with females on their wintering grounds will accompany the females back to the area where the females were born to raise their young. This type of migration is known as an abmigration, a migration that is peculiar to certain male ducks.

The squirrel is an animal that has irruptions. Every so often, a phenomenon occurs when the squirrel population has a mass movement. These squirrel irruptions, which are not as famous as those of the lemmings of the far north, are accompanied by widespread damage of farmlands as large numbers of squirrels pass through.

In 1842, an estimated 500 million squirrels swept across southern Wisconsin. In 1933, thousands of squirrels in Connecticut fled by swimming across the Hudson River to New York.

In 1958, the squirrels in Minnesota left after an acorn crop failure.

Perhaps some readers remember back in 1968 when 20 million squirrels were on the move along the east coast from Vermont to Georgia. This movement was so great that The Center for the Study of Short Lived Phenomena (an organization that investigates unusual events) investigated the squirrel movement; however, it was unable to come up with an explanation for the squirrel irruption.

Be sure to keep on the lookout for a snowy owl while they are visiting us from the far north. You might see one sitting on a pole just as Scott Crandell, of Mifflinburg, did.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.

Reflections in Nature

After returning from our son’s home on the day after Christmas, I began checking phone messages. One message was from Greg Case, of East Troy, who sounded quite excited, saying that he and his daughter, Rebecca, had checked their traps on Christmas Day to find that each had caught a bobcat.

Although only beginners at trapping last year, they had been very excited to find an ermine in one of their traps.

Back in the fall while preparing their traps, the two had talked about how great it would be to catch a bobcat and, from that time on, the anticipation of the upcoming bobcat trapping season was foremost in their thoughts. Several seasoned trappers gave them pointers on where and how to make their sets.

The season opened on Saturday, Dec. 21, and immediately after daybreak, the duo began to set their trap line between East Troy and Austinville, where Greg’s parents live.

For the next four days, Rebecca and Greg crawled out of bed very early to check their traps. On Christmas Eve, with the family all together, the conversation included bobcat trapping.

Bright and early on Christmas morning, dad and daughter were walking into the area where the first trap had been set when they saw bobcat tracks in the snow. They also noticed a dead vole that the cat had killed but did not eat.

The duo continued to follow the tracks into the swamp, unsure of whether or not the cat had gone near their trap. However, as they approached the trap, the two were greatly surprised when they saw a bobcat in a trap that Rebecca had set.

They continued to check the trap line, finding only empty traps, that is until they went to check the last trap, one that Greg had set, and much to their surprise they saw another bobcat.

Both bobcat hides will be tanned and hung in the Case home to remind them of Christmas Day 2013. However, I doubt that they ever will forget the experience.

In Pennsylvania, the bobcat has had quite a colorful history. In 1915, the state Game Commission began paying a $6 bounty on the bobcat. This continued until 1919 when the bounty was increased to $8 and then to $15 dollars in 1923.

From 1916 until 1938, more than 7,000 bobcats were killed for the bounty. In 1937-38, only three bobcat pelts were turned in for the bounty; however, the bobcat remained unprotected.

Then, in 1970, the bobcat was reclassified as a furbearer, and the commission protected the bobcat for the next 30 years.

In 2000, a highly regulated trapping season was implemented.

Although bobcats were not significant in the fur trade, the passage of the Endangered Species Conservation Act, which prohibited the importation of endangered felids, created a demand for the bobcat pelt in the fur industry, with the price per pelt soaring from $10 to $125. Today, a Pennsylvania bobcat pelt could bring $42.

During the period of 1986 until 1995, the commission did a complete field study on the bobcat population, and it was decided that radio collars were to be attached to cats that were trapped. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to be part of this study.

Charlie Fox, who now is one of the state game commissioners, and I set many traps for bobcats and attached electronic collars on both the bobcats that we trapped and those accidentally trapped by trappers.

A trapped bobcat would be put in a barrel (the easy part because the cat would run into the barrel, thinking it was an escape); the barrel then was turned upside down, and the trap removed from the cat’s leg; the lid of the barrel was opened slightly so that a blanket could be stuffed in the barrel on top of the cat.

After this was done, the lid was removed; the cat was held down by the blanket, which was carefully moved around until the cat’s rump was found, and then the drug was injected.

The bobcat was removed from the barrel to determine sex, weight, measurements and have a radio collar put on. When finished the cat was put back in the barrel; the lid put back on and the cat was taken back to the area where it was originally trapped to be released when fully recovered from the drug.

Over the following weeks and months, we tracked the cat’s movements, using a radiotelemetry unit, which would be marked on a map.

With the bobcat’s population increasing so much from 2000 through 2010, the commission issued a lottery-type drawing to award a limited number of permits.

In 2010, the bobcat permits were unlimited; however, the hunting and trapping season for bobcats was shortened.

The first bobcat that I saw in the wild was on Barclay Mountain (state game land 36). I was on night patrol when I saw two young bobcats playing in the middle of the road. Naturally. I stopped my vehicle to watch. What a thrill!

Although bobcats are secretive predators, the sighting of one is not all that unusual. To outdoor enthusiasts, a sighting of a bobcat is a great wilderness experience, and one that won’t be forgotten.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.

Reflections in Nature

During late fall, I found the chrysalis of a praying mantis and, after taking a few pictures, I put the chrysalis in a safe place so the flower gardens of my wife, Mary Alice, will benefit this coming summer from these amazing insects.

Our praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) accidentally was introduced into our country in 1899 on nursery stock from southern Europe. The word mantis is a Greek word meaning a prophet or fortune teller.

The praying mantis is a predator, with a diet consisting of living insects, even each other; hence, the name also of preying mantis.

Each praying mantis egg case will hatch between 100 to 200 tiny mantises. In order to hatch, several weeks of warm weather will be needed.

The reason for hatching at the end of June is that insects will be readily available for food. When hatching, the young crawl from between tiny flaps in the case and hang from silken threads about 2 inches below the case.

After drying out, the long-legged young disperse into the vegetation, leaving no evidence of their appearance. This takes place within an hour or two, and it’s very difficult to know hatching has occurred unless the elusive and well camouflaged young are found. The egg case does not change appearance in any way.

The praying mantis is a most remarkable creature, with a striking appearance and curious habits! The praying mantis does not bite humans, damage household furnishings or spread disease. However, if handled, their spiny-like forelegs can be readily felt as a sharp pinch.

The insects most commonly are seen in late September and early October, while either resting on a plant or fluttering through the air. The common name comes from the manner in which the mantis holds up the forepart of its body, with its enormous front legs, as though in prayer.

There are 22 species of the praying mantis in North America, and I’ve seen both green and brown mantises. Ornithologists are not sure of the reason for the different colors. Some will say that as the mantises grow they change colors, from being transparent to light green to dark green and brown when mature. Others believe the color depends on the presence of moisture – green when wet and brown when dry. Still others say the color change is so the mantises can blend in with leaves, sticks and other plant matter.

As the young mantis grows, it will go through seven molts before the summer is over. Another source stated that after each molt, the mantis gradually changes its color from a creamy white to a light brown and then to green.

The mantis hunts for food by lying in ambush, while perched on a limb, with head erect and praying arms raised. Its two large compound eyes watch the surrounding area for an approaching meal.

The head of a praying mantis is remarkably flexible, allowing the insect to turn nearly 300 degrees. The insect relies heavily on its vision to notice even the slightest movement. Also, the mantis has sensitive antennas that respond to odors and vibrations in the air.

In the fall, mating season occurs, with the male cautiously approaching the female for fear he might end up as a meal. He usually approaches the female from behind and climbs upon her back; holds on to her with his front legs and then tips his abdomen to join hers, allowing the sperm cells to pass to the female’s body.

It’s possible that the female could attack the male while mating; however, if this occurs, the male does not resist but will try to finish mating before the attack.

If the male survives the mating, he will live for only a few more weeks until cold weather ends his natural life cycle.

After mating, the female will seek out nourishing food to give her strength. She then looks for a spot to lay her eggs and begins to make the egg case (ootheca) on a branch or twig. This is done by releasing a frothy material from a gland in her abdomen.

The material is whipped into a foamy mass, into which her eggs are deposited. As each egg passes through her reproductive system (ovipositor), it is united with the male sperm. After the tasks of building the egg case and laying the eggs, the female dies.

Throughout the winter months, the egg case hangs from either the branch of a shrub or tree The eggs inside are protected from the wet and cold weather by the hard outer surface of the egg case.

In early spring, the young praying mantises begin to develop inside the eggs.

I hope that I’m able to take some pictures when the young hatch out next June.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.