Jan 26, 2014

Snow covered ground tells of wildlife activity



GREENVILLE – “See the crows?” On the other side of the trail above the trees, about 20 or 30 crows were circling. “They found an owl nesting area. I don’t know why they do it but crows are smart… they could be just teasing the owls.”

Rob Clifford, Senior Naturalist and Educator for Darke County Parks, pointed out the types of wildlife teeming throughout Shawnee Prairie, noting the snow covered ground is a good way to see the activity without actually seeing the animals.

“They don’t want to be seen,” he said. He mentioned a group of youngsters had complained on a tour they didn’t see any animals. “That’s because they heard you coming. They’re avoiding us.”

A snowfall, however, offers opportunities to see their activity. On a recent walk around the back of the Nature Center, past the Prairie House and the Blacksmith Shop, animal tracks and other signs of prairie life could be seen on a regular basis.

“That’s a mouse tunnel,” Clifford said, pointing at a small hole. It was the entrance to a tunnel creating a shadow as it moved horizontally under the snow’s surface. “If they stayed on the surface, they could be caught (for dinner), so they tunnel under the snow.”

Clifford pointed out different types of tracks ranging from small, slight indentations to larger, deeper ones. One set of tracks looked like an animal running or jumping. He told about a set of tracks where the snow also showed indentations from flapping wings.

“This is a good time of year to get a feel for how busy the parks really are,” he said. “The snow really helps with that. You see the trails.”

Wildlife at the parks is varied, from dozens of species of small birds and coyotes, to rodents and the great horned owl.

“We found a pair of great horned owls nesting about five years ago. It was by accident, so who knows how long they’d been there.” They will be on their nests in the next couple of weeks and have their babies (owlets) by March. “They typically have two or three.”

They only use the nest from early February until sometime in April. Then they spread out through the year. They mate for life and will use the same nest every year as long as it has been successful and nothing has happened to it.

Another critter is the coyote. They are in the park year round; they breed late January and have their pups in April.

Clifford added they have a bird watch window where visitors could see the different varieties of birds feeding. It’s scheduled from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. but anyone can come pretty much any time during the day. “It’s a fun time. We have from two to 10 people nearly every day.”

Birds and other animals also forecast the weather. If there are a lot of birds at the feeders, it’s a sign bad weather could be coming. “When they come out in the rain to eat – they’re soaking wet – it’s because the rain is likely to hang around awhile. Otherwise they’d wait it out.”

Darke County Parks Director Roger Van Frank recalled when Hurricane Ike’s winds were coming there were literally thousands of birds feeding, then heading north.

“Why? They shouldn’t be doing that this time of year,” he said. “Thirty minutes later the winds hit.”

The prairie supports a wide variety of animal life, including mice, voles (short-tail mice), rabbit, squirrel, opossum, fox, skunk, mink, beaver and muskrat. Many are part of the food chain for coyotes and great horned owls. Both feed on rabbits and mice. The owl also feeds on skunks.

“Great horned owls are opportunistic. They’ll feed on anything, and clearly aren’t impacted by the scent.”

A quick glance at the serenity of winter in Shawnee Prairie is misleading; wildlife is actually teeming for those willing to look a little more carefully. (Bob Robinson photo)
Rob Clifford, Darke County Parks naturalist, points out a snow tunnel created by a mouse attempting to keep a low profile from the many predators in the park. (Bob Robinson photo)
Clifford points out tracks of one of the animals out looking for food since the last snowfall.

Clifford loads the feeders for the visitors to the Bird Watch Window inside.

The feeding habits of birds can often predict weather.


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