Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina) live along the New England coast where they eat a variety of fish, shellfish, and other marine life. They often bask in small groups on rock ledges or sandbars, especially at low tide, and I've been pleasantly surprised a number of times to see the head of one pop into view while scanning for seabirds in a coastal harbor or off a sandy or rocky beach. Looking into their dark eyes always gives me pause.
Harbor Seals are more common and quite a bit smaller than the longer-nosed Gray Seals. One way to tell the two apart is by looking at their nostrils. Gray Seals have spaced out nostrils, whereas the nostrils of Harbor Seals are close together and form a v-shape. To learn more about Harbor Seals, visit Animal Diversity Web.
Mainly active at night, Northern Raccoons (Procyon lotor) often spend their days resting in trees, rock crevices, brush piles, vacant buildings, and . . . brick chimneys. These long-haired omnivores thrive in a variety of habitats including woodlands, farm edges, swamps, suburbs, and urban centers, with a preference for areas close to fresh or salt water.
These masked mammals are sometimes seen in the morning hours, but finding their footprints is often the best way to note their presence in an area. In snow, sand, or mud, their front and hind feet leave distinct impressions, each showing five digits with corresponding nail marks. Their unique walking pattern consists of alternating pairs of nearly side-by-side front and hind tracks -- a track pattern left by no other New England mammal.
Autumn is a busy time for Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) as they shore up stashes of tree seeds (often entire cones of conifers, but also seeds of Oak, Maple, Hickory, Walnut, etc.) to sustain them through the white season. In addition to these foods, Red Squirrels put up mushrooms. According to the Peterson Reference Guide to Behavior of North American Mammals (2011), "They harvest and hang [mushrooms] along branches of trees to dry, like poorly placed Christmas ornaments, before stashing them in a cache belowground" (p. 270-71). Other food sources include the buds, inner bark, sap, flowers, and fleshy fruit of certain shrubs and trees, as well as insects, small mammals, birds, and more. And where humans put out seeds and suet (usually intended to attract birds), these reddish-brown rodents may be seen enjoying the offerings.
To learn more about Red Squirrels, visit Animal Diversity Web.
Though I've been focusing much of my attention lately on birds and edible plants, occasionally the sighting of an elusive mammal puts my agenda on hold. Last week, I was walking with Jenny along a coastal shoreline in Falmouth, ME when she spotted an American Mink (Neovison vison). We watched the tubular creature sneak in and out of shadowy crevices, occasionally pausing to carefully assess the path ahead. During a moment of sun-lit stillness, we were able to see the mammal's white chin patch, a clinching field mark for an American Mink.
Learn more about this species at Animal Diversity Web. To view the following images in full-size, click here.
Note: The pavement photos below are of a different American Mink seen in late June of this year.
Jenny and I recently read a book together called Dam Builders: The natural history of beavers and their ponds (2015) by Michael Runtz. The book is 10.5" square and packed with hundreds of color photographs documenting all aspects of beaver life, including history, evolution, and habits, as well as depicting many of the plants, insects, birds, and mammals inextricably linked to beavers and the habitats they create and maintain. The book is based on the personal experience of the author who has spent decades compiling the images, stories, and research that fill the pages. Whether or not you have beavers living in your neighborhood (and this book may help you recognize their signs for the first time), Dam Builders will open your heart to this continent's largest rodent, the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).