Cinereus Shrew

One way to increase the amount of snakes you can find is to set out pieces of plywood or sheets of tin in suitable snake habitat. We call these setups “boardlines” and in the Spring snakes often congregate under this artificial cover to get the warmth of the sun while remaining hidden from predators.

 

Boardline sites don’t have snakes to be found at them in the Winter, but sometimes other cool things can be turned up by checking under the metal or wood during the cold months. I decided to investigate one of the areas where I set out sheets of metal. What I found was a Cinereus Shrew – one of the smallest mammals in the world.

Its weight is about equal to that of a dime. This animal is found in northern pine forests and open wet areas. Though they look like mice, shrews are classified as insectivores, not rodents. They eat spiders, insect larvae, and beetles, as well as caterpillars and many other invertebrates. Here’s a photo with the shrew next to my office keys, to give an idea of its size.

Shrews have an extremely high metabolic rate (their heart beats more than 1,200 times per minute). To stay alive, the Cinereus Shrew has to eat three times its body weight daily, which means capturing prey often, day and night; a few hours without food means certain death. They lead rather frenetic lives of near-constant searching, foraging and movement.

Its head is tapered and ends in a flexible, tubular snout for sniffing out food. Its small ears are barely visible because they are covered by short, soft fur. Its fur is cinnamon colored in the Summer, but it darkens quite a bit in the Winter. Cinereus means “ash colored” in Latin.

Cinereus Shrews spend much of their life in an underground world where they are active all year long – they even tunnel through snow. Throughout the day they take short naps to recharge from their activities.

Due to their fast-paced lifestyle, shrews only live for a short time, usually a little over a year. It was definitely worth the boardline trip to encounter this elusive mammal today.

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Christmas Holly

We had the first significant snowfall of the season a few days ago, so I decided to go outside and take a look around.

When the Pilgrims landed the week before Christmas in 1620 on the coast of what is now Massachusetts, the thorny leaves and red fruit of American Holly reminded them of English Holly, a symbol of Christmas for centuries in Europe.

Since then, American Holly, also called White Holly or Christmas Holly, has been one of the most popular trees in the Eastern United States for its foliage and berries. It is widely used for Christmas decorations and for ornamental plantings.

Christmas Holly is primarily a plant of the humid Southeastern United States. There are separate male and female plants. Only females produce berries. Birds are the main consumers of the fruit, although deer, squirrels and other small mammals also eat them.

The height of Christmas Holly ranges from 25 feet to as tall as 60 feet in the warmer parts of its range. The stout, stiff branches of this broad-leafed evergreen bear dark green, non-glossy, spine-tipped leaves.

In Ohio, this tree is only grows in the extreme southeastern part of the state. So it’s a bit surprising to see one in the woods in the Greater Cleveland Area. Is it a Christmas miracle? You be the judge of that.

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Dusky Salamander

Yes, it’s cold and Winter is upon us, but there still are herps to be found. While flipping rocks along the edge of this creek, I came across an amphibian I haven’t seen in awhile. Dusky Salamanders like wooded or partially wooded moist habitats with a running source of water. They may go into the water to find cover under rocks if disturbed.

If the stream substrate does not freeze, they can remain active year-round. In extremely cold conditions, they will burrow into the ground until they are below the frostline.

Dusky Salamanders are mainly active at night, when they leave the log or rock that gives them protection during the day to find food along a steam or waterway. They hunt for insects, earthworms, slugs, snails, crustaceans and spiders.

Courtship between duskies is more romantic-looking than in other amphibians. During courtship, a male will approach a female while doing a “butterfly walk,” rotating his front limbs similar to a swimmer doing the butterfly stroke. The male then places his snout to the snout of the female. This “kiss” often results in the female choosing the male to fertilize her eggs.

The Dusky Salamander is well named, for it is rather drab in color. They are one of the most abundant and easily found salamanders, but they are also one of the most difficult to catch. Duskies are alert, slippery, run swiftly, and are surprisingly good jumpers. To achieve their impressive jumps, they have stout, muscular hind legs in comparison to their front legs.

There are about a dozen types of Dusky Salamanders in the eastern United States, including two different species that reside in Ohio. Members of this family differ from all other salamanders in having an immovable lower jaw. The dusky must lift its head in order to open its mouth.

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Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbirds are highly skilled mimics that can imitate many calls of other bird species so well that even experienced birders can be fooled. They don’t limit their abilities to just bird calls – human whistles, truck backup beeps and sirens are all in their range of sound reproduction.

Its Latin species name, polyglottos translates to meaning “many tongues.” Mockingbirds establish territories and drive off invaders including Red-tailed Hawks and cats. Ohio is the northern edge of this essentially southern bird’s range and though usually found in the southern two-thirds of the state, I’ve been seeing them regularly in Cuyahoga County lately.

These not particularly flashy, slender-bodied gray birds apparently pour all their “color” into their personalities. They sing almost endlessly, sometimes even at night. The Northern Mockingbird is a relatively unremarkable bird to look at but a spectacular one to listen to.

It enjoys making its presence known by usually sitting conspicuously on high vegetation, fences, eaves, or telephone wires. This one was in the uppermost reaches of a tree.

This bird is featured in the title and as a central metaphor of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. In the story, mockingbirds are portrayed as innocent and generous, and two of the main characters say it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because, “they don’t do one thing for us but make music for us to enjoy…they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”

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Eastern White Pine

Eastern White Pine is the tallest native conifer in eastern North America and is the state tree of Maine and Michigan. It grows to over 100 feet tall and has a straight trunk up to four feet wide.

Like all pine trees, this tree is evergreen, so it keeps its leaves (needles) year-round. Each needle can grow up to five inches long. The needle bundles cluster into brush-like formations.

Pine trees aren’t the easiest trees to identify, let’s face it – they all look the same. But there’s an easy trick for Eastern White Pines, their needles are grouped in bundles of five. It is the only eastern pine with this characteristic.

The fruits of this tree are large brown pine cones, four to eight inches long. Each cone has seeds in it. Birds eat Eastern White Pine seeds, including two types commonly seen here: Black-capped Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches. Many species of birds also nest in Eastern White Pines; they are a favorite nest site of American Bald Eagles.

Squirrels, chipmunks, voles and mice eat pine needles as well as seeds. Cottontail rabbits eat the bark from larger trees, as do beaver.

Eastern White Pine needles contain five times the amount of Vitamin C (by weight) of lemons and make an excellent herbal tea. In the past, this tree was used for ships’ masts, because of its large, straight trunk. These days it is used extensively for furniture because it is very easy to carve and has less resin than other pines. There is widespread cultivation of Eastern White Pines for Christmas trees, because they grow well, especially in the tree’s native habitat.

Mature trees can easily be 200 to 250 years old and some have lived over 400 years.

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Common Carp

Today, while walking along the Erie Canal, I saw clouds of mud in the shallow water. I decided to further investigate the cause of this.

The Common Carp is native to Europe, but was first stocked into Ohio waters in 1879 as a food fish. This species thrives in a wide variety of conditions. They are highly tolerant of poor water quality and often become very abundant in areas where few other fish species will live.

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Common Carp root around on the bottom while feeding often uprooting vegetation and making the water very murky. You know I can’t see a fish and not want to catch it – here’s a closer look at a Common Carp.

Adults are typically 15-30 inches, but occasionally can reach over 40 inches. Their scales are a bronze-golden color. A variety of carp known as koi are very colorful and often kept in decorative ponds and fountains.

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These fish are in the same family as minnows. They prefer a warm body of water with a muddy bottom. In hot weather when water dries up, Common Carp have been known to survive for weeks by burying themselves in the mud.

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