A Northwoods Almanac for 11/1 – 14, 2013
Bobcat or Lynx?
Mary Guenther in Minocqua wrote to tell me of a unique encounter she had early in October: “I was walking the half mile back from the mailbox on our quiet dead end road, reading the mail. I glanced up and stopped dead in my tracks. Right on the side of the road was an animal facing away from me. The first thing I noticed was its long golden tail with a black tip swishing in a cat-like fashion. Its legs were long, and its coat was sleek and beautiful, golden with black spots. It looked to be around 30#'s if I had to guess. Suddenly it turned and noticed me. Our eyes locked, no kidding, for a few seconds, and then it ran off. I think both of us were thinking, ‘Where did YOU come from!’ . . . I'm thinking it wasn't a bobcat because of the long tail. Any thoughts?”
Then a few days later on 10/24, Phil and Nancy Williams sent me some great photos of a pair of bobcats hunting in their yard. Phil noted, “I had to go out on the porch to get a better picture, and they just sat and looked at me even after one of our labs came out to see them.”
So, how does one tell the difference between a lynx and a bobcat, and even a cougar? First, a disclaimer: I’ve never seen a lynx or a cougar, so I’m using what the literature says to try to clearly draw the difference.
The problem in ID’ing a lynx from a bobcat is that both are medium-sized cats with long, tufted ears and a short, bobbed tail! Adult male bobcats and lynxes weigh 20 to 30 pounds and average 3 feet in length, though the lynx tend to be a bit larger than bobcats. Because of their similarities, bobcats (Lynx rufus) and lynxes (Lynx canadensis) both belong to the Lynx genus, but they are clearly separate species.
Here’s how to differentiate between them. The lynx sports extra-long tufts of fur on its ears – almost an inch long – and a shaggy mane of fur around its cheeks, while the bobcat’s ear tufts are perhaps a third of an inch.
A lynx also has much larger feet (3.5 inches in diameter) than a bobcat (2+ inches in diameter) and longer legs to help it navigate the deep snow common in its more northern range. In fact, lynxes are twice as effective as bobcats at supporting their weight on the snow. Their big, furry paws act like snowshoes to help then chase down food in the winter, their diet consisting of between 60-90 percent snowshoe hares, the animal most of us think of as the acknowledged master of running on top of snow. Because of the differences in paw size and leg length, the only area where the Canadian lynx and bobcat coexist is along the U.S.-Canada border.
The lynx also sports a heavier, mostly gray fur that lacks much of a pattern, whereas a bobcat’s fur is shorter with more spots and ranges from light gray to the more common brown.
Lynxes and bobcats both have short, rounded tails that appear to be cut, or "bobbed." But the bobcat's is banded with black stripes and is black at the top of the tip and white at the bottom, while the lynx's tail lacks banding and is completely black at the tip. A bobcat's tail ranges from five inches to eight inches, averaging 6.5 inches in length. Although short compared to a domestic cat, the bobcat's tail averages two inches longer than the tail of lynx. Still, a bobcat’s tail can be up to 12” long, so it may be “swishable.” The cougar is so much larger than a bobcat or lynx that there should be no confusion regarding them. Male and female cougars vary in size and weight with adult males reaching more than eight feet long and weighing 135 to 175 pounds. Adult females may be up to seven feet long and weigh between 90 and 105 pounds.
If size isn’t enough to ID a cougar, the tail length should be, measuring about one-third of their overall body length.
Sightings: Orange Peels, Snow Buntings, Hemlock Varnish Shelf, Sandhill Cranes, Northern Shrikes, and a Very Cold Hummer
Hannah Dana in Arbor Vitae sent photos of a beautiful red-orange fluted fungus that is growing in her yard despite the early snow. It’s called “orange peel” for its obvious resemblance to the remains of an orange, but it can come in a variety of shapes, from a perfectly round cup to wavy flutes to stubby, knobby projections. Orange peel grows most typically on disturbed soils, like on paths and roadsides, but is also found on woodland soils.
Because it contains carotenoids like a sugar maple leaf, the more sunlight that hits the mushroom, the brighter orange it will be.
On 10/20 Judy Barnard on Pokegama Lake in Lac du Flambeau wrote, “We always plant a couple of planters of impatiens for the hummingbirds. And because of the weather, they are still in full bloom. Imagine our surprise when we had a hummingbird feeding on them YESTERDAY!!! He looked larger than usual, so hopefully he is getting ready to migrate. I was going to dismantle those planter boxes a couple of weeks ago - now I'm glad I didn't.” Judy’s sighting is why we are always encouraged to leave our hummingbird feeders up until later in the fall – there may be that one hummer which is taking its sweet time heading south.
On 10/22, the staff at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area conducted a count of sandhill cranes at Crex and Fish Lake Wildlife Areas, recording 12,201 birds! If you have an interest in going over to see these birds, the best viewing areas are on Main Dike Road on the south side of the Crex refuge.
On 10/24, Carol McKay emailed with a sighting of “a small group of birds that I thought were juncos until they took flight as a group. They were too white to be juncos, and they flew up in a group, not individually. The only birds that came close in the Peterson book were snow buntings, but our area is not their normal range.” Carol was indeed watching snow buntings, which nest in far northern Canada, and have begun migrating through our area.
Wil Conway sent me some photos of a large conk mushroom attached to a conifer. He noted, “What caught my attention was the rich mahogany color and sheen . . . I have never seen anything like it; it must have had the snow or snow melting before I got there.” The mushroom is called “hemlock varnish shelf” for its shellacked-like surface, and is most typically found on dead hemlock trees.
Finally, on 10/24, Mary spotted the first northern shrike of the year, perched in one of our crabapple trees and within 20 feet of our bird feeders. While we were delighted to see it, our songbirds surely took a much dimmer view of its appearance.
First Wave of Monarchs Now in Mexico
The first wave of migrating monarchs were reported to be entering Mexico on 10/24. If you want to keep track of where they are, pull up the Monarch Watch website at http://www.learner.org/jnorth/maps/monarch_peak_fall2013.html for a series of different maps that show the monarchs progress to their 12 overwintering sites about 50 miles west of Mexico City
The monarch colonies are located in a relatively small area at 19.5 degrees north latitude and 100 degrees west longitude, but why this latitude and longitude, and why these same locations in the forest each year to form colonies is unknown. Amazingly, the over-wintering area that the monarchs have to hit is very, very narrow, only 1.1 degrees wide in longitude (over 60 miles).
To survive from one season to the next, they migrate to oyamel fir forests above 10,500 feet, a cool habitat where the daytime temperatures seldom exceed 65°F and the nighttime lows are seldom below freezing. If the temperature is lower, the monarchs will be forced to use their fat reserves. The humidity in the oyamel forest assures the monarchs won’t dry out allowing them to conserve their energy. Monarchs remain relatively inactive through the winter, surviving by converting fats stored in the fall to blood sugars necessary to keep their bodies functioning.
Tamaracks are just past peak, glowing the most lovely gold in the slanting late afternoon light. In his book “A Natural History of Trees,” Donald Culross Peattie had this to say about tamaracks: “The tamarack goes farther north than any other tree in North America . . . growing in the summer by the light of the midnight sun. At this season, it is the most tenderly beautiful of all native trees, with its pale green needles like a rime of life and light.
“But in winter it is the deadest-looking vegetation on the globe. Many a tenderfoot has been horrified coming upon a tamarack swamp, to see miles of these trees that he concludes have been swept by fire . . .
“Then when spring comes to the North Woods . . . these same trees that one thought were but ‘crisps’ begin, soon after the wild geese have gone over, and the ice in the beaver ponds is melted, to put forth an unexpected, subtle bloom. . . . And there is no more delicate charm in the North Woods than the moment when the soft pale-green needles first begin to clothe the military sternness of the Larch.”
Planets to look for in November: At dusk, brilliant Venus can be found low in the southwest. Jupiter rises around 8 p.m. in the northeast and is high in the south by 4 a.m. At dawn, Mars is high in the southeast, while Saturn is very low in the southeast.
As of 11/3, we’ll be down to 10 hours of daylight. The new moon also occurs on this date. The mid-season mark between autumn equinox and winter solstice takes place on 11/7. Look for the peak North Taurid meteor shower well before dawn on 11/12.
Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call me at 715-476-2828, drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or snail-mail me at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI 54547.