While there are those of us struggling to get used to wearing a mask in this summer heat, there are those of the woodlands and wetlands, those who live on the edges, who wear their masks 24/7, in all seasons, and in all kinds of weather. Now, you might ask, how do they manage? Well, these are not the tie-them-around-the-breathing-orifice kind. These masks are distinguishing characteristics on their body, specifically across their eyes. Yes, that is correct, these are the Zorros of the wild.
The Masked Bandit of the Woods
The raccoon (Procyon lotor), as many know, is a robust mid-size nocturnal mammal native to North America. Though in the order of Carnivora – which means they have the sharp pointy teeth for which to eat flesh, raccoons are opportunistic omnivores, very much like humans in that they will eat just about anything. Given a chance they just might live up to a decade or more, but generally only make it to 3 or 4 years of age. They are a member of Procyonidae, a New World family (i.e. the Americas), that includes a curious batch of fellow omnivores: coatis, kinkajous, olingos, olinguitos, ringtails, and cacomistles. They are not, despite being referred to as “bear’s little cousin,” part of the Ursid family. Raccoon have thick grayish fur, a black ringed tail, and a Zorro mask to add to their mystique.
Raccoon are quite opportunistic. They can find shelter in a plethora of places, from a hollowed log to a dust-infested attic. And procure food from a variety of habitats, from the woodland stream to the backyard garbage bin. They are inquisitive and clever. They have very sensitive paws and use them to create a mind map of the area they are in. Working in the dark, in a stream for example, can prove challenging on the eyes. So, raccoons use their hands to hunt. Their paws can tolerate even cold water without it inhibiting their ability to locate food. Raccoon can tell in an instant whether what they are touching is a rock or a freshwater clam or mussel or a crayfish claw. Or how about a frog? Speaking of frogs…
The Masked Bandit of the Wetlands
Ever hear that strange “qua-acking” sound in the wetlands in the spring? That duck-like quacking comes from another masked bandit – but this little chap is an amphibian, not a mammal. The wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus or Rana sylvatica) in the family Ranidae or “true frogs” (there are fake frogs?) is a native terrestrial frog who hops around on the forest floor eating invertebrates and heads to vernal pools and other wetlands in the early spring to mate. Upon leaving their wetland nursery, adults grow to 1.5”-3.25”and live up to 3 years. Their backs are copper to brown, their bellies are cream-colored with brownish speckles, and of course, they sport their Zorro eye mask.
One of the amazing abilities of this frog is that they can freeze and yet still be alive. As winter descends their cells flood with a high concentration of glucose, serving as an antifreeze, thus protecting the frog’s cells and vital organs from freezing. And just when you thought the masked bandit was dead, nay, in the spring, he thaws and hops again!
The Masked Bandit of the Edges
“Witch-ity, witch-ity, witch,” exclaims the male aerial masked bandit of the thicket. “Yes, yes, I know, you called me out,” I sing-song back to him as I spy on this small vocal bird in the bracken.
Unlike the raccoon and wood frog, only the male common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) wears the black mask across his brow. Both males and females are yellow and olive, though the female’s colors are muted to better assist with camouflaging. So, while male sings his heart out, exposed to the world, the female secretly tends to their young and holds her tongue in regard to proclamations of love – a true old time New Englander, right? “I love him so much, it’s all I can do not to tell him.”
Common yellowthroats are a New World warbler (Parulidae) and neo-tropical migrant, which means that they spend their winters in Central America and return to North America to breed and raise their young. Though it is not clear how long-lived these songbirds are who keep returning to our neck of the woods, the oldest one on record lived to over 11 years old. While raising their chicks, harried parents are out hunting for insects and spiders for both themselves and their babes. No teeth to chew the wriggling meal, just down the gullet. These warblers live on the edges, the places where field meets forest, which means you just might find them in your backyard if you keep a motley mixture of grasses and shrubbery around.
So, keep your trusty camera at the ready and watch for Zorros. They can come at you from any direction.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News. This article appears in the July 2020 edition of The Ashfield News.
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