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The National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Watcher's Handbook
A Guide to Observing Animals in the Wild
By Joe La Tourrette, Cheryl Ziebert
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1997 Joe La Tourrette
All rights reserved.
Where Wildlife Lives — Habitat Regions of the United States and Canada
The United States and Canada can be divided into at least eight broad habitat regions, each with its own diversity of plant communities and wildlife (biodiversity). The boundaries of these habitat regions are not formal, official, or fixed by nature. In fact, I see them as more of a continuum, with broad transitional areas between habitat regions and large islands of other habitat types within each region. Wildlife species living within these habitat regions are usually not fixed either, but a definite relationship does exist between the plant communities and the wildlife found within each habitat region.
Eastern Deciduous Forest
The Eastern Deciduous Forest Habitat Region extends from the Atlantic Ocean to eastern Texas and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, covering roughly the eastern third of the United States and Canada. The Eastern Deciduous Forest is composed of many different forest communities, but most of them are dominated by specific groupings of broadleaved or deciduous trees that gradually blend into each other with changes in topography and climate.
When the first European settlers came ashore in this habitat region in the 1600s, they stood at the edge of an almost solid forest that extended west to the Mississippi River and slightly beyond. Although about 95 percent of this original forest was cleared for farms, cities, and transportation corridors, it is now reestablishing itself where farmland has been abandoned. In southern Canada, New England, and the Great Lakes area, the Eastern Deciduous Forest Habitat Region is characterized by hardy deciduous trees, such as sugar maple, beech, and basswood, intermingled with coniferous pine and hemlock. As the forest extends south along the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains, other tree species gradually become dominant, including shagbark hickory and many varieties of oak. The American chestnut was the most common tree in this region until about a hundred years ago, when an imported disease began killing the trees. Today, the American chestnut hovers near extinction.
As the Eastern Deciduous Forest spreads south into the Mississippi Valley and northern Florida, it gradually becomes dominated by deciduous trees typical of the Deep South, including magnolia, southern red oak, and live oak. The southern pine forests that dominate the coastal plains of the Atlantic and Gulf states are within the greater deciduous forest region, but ecologists classify them as subclimax forests, meaning that if these are left undisturbed, they eventually will be replaced by broad-leaved trees.
The Eastern Deciduous Forest region also includes many thousands of square miles of beaches, coastal marshes, and rich estuaries along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. These wetlands provide habitat for many species of resident and migratory birds, mammals, and other wildlife. Brown pelicans are common summer inhabitants of the Atlantic Coast, as are laughing gulls and Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins. The Gulf Coast, from Florida to Texas, is world famous for populations of rails, sandpipers, and other migratory shorebirds. The sole surviving natural population of whooping cranes winters on an island along the Texas Gulf Coast.
The Eastern Deciduous Forest is home to a large number and diversity of wildlife species, both resident and migratory. White-tailed deer, black bears, wild turkeys, raccoons, and opossums live in the densely forested habitats of the Eastern Deciduous Forest, as do many species of small mammals, turtles, woodpeckers, and owls — as well as warblers and other neotropical songbirds, species that winter in the tropical habitats of the New World. The Appalachian Mountains and Atlantic Coast serve as major migration corridors for many thousands of hawks, vultures, and other birds of prey each fall and spring. The coastal estuaries and marshes of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts provide nesting, resting, and wintering habitat for literally millions of shorebirds, waterfowl, and other migratory birds. The southern forested part of the Eastern Deciduous Forest — including coastal pine forests and cypress swamps — harbors many resident species of birds, small mammals, and reptiles, such as alligators, not found farther north.
Some wildlife-viewing highlights of this habitat region are:
Carter Caves State Resort Park, accessible from Interstate 64 in eastern Kentucky near the border with Ohio and West Virginia, is an excellent place to explore natural limestone caves and see the oak-hickory and mixed pine and hardwood forests described by E. Lucy Braun in her classic book Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America. Here you may see white-tailed deer, red and gray foxes, beavers, and other wetland-dependent wildlife. In the winter thousands of endangered Indiana bats hibernate in Bat Cave.
Hanging Rock State Park, about 25 miles north of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, offers more than 18 miles of hiking trails and a breathtaking panorama of the mixed deciduous and hardwood forest of the Piedmont region of North Carolina. A diverse wildlife population includes white-tailed deer, bobcats, and gray foxes, which are sometimes observed at night by campers. The park hosts a variety of neotropical songbirds, whippoorwills, and migratory raptors, including turkey vultures, black vultures, and broad-winged hawks, which can be observed from Hanging Rock in autumn and spring.
Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, a short drive west of Washington, D.C., gives motorists an excellent opportunity to observe white-tailed deer and other wildlife typical of the Eastern Deciduous Forest. The park is bisected by the 105mile-long Skyline Drive and by the Appalachian Trail. The national park boasts more than 1,100 species of flowering plants, including 18 varieties of orchids. The park is also home to almost 6,000 white-tailed deer, more than 300 black bears, and a host of small mammals. About 200 bird species have been observed in the park.
Gus A. Engling Wildlife Management Area, about 100 miles northeast of Waco,
Texas, is one of the most scenic and diverse places in East Texas to view wildlife of the Eastern Deciduous Forest. Rolling hills of oak, hickory, sweet gum, elm, and dogwood surround Catfish Creek, a tributary of the Trinity River. Beaver Pond and Dogwood Nature Trails provide visitors with good opportunities to view beavers and other wetland wildlife species, even alligators, as well as many native mammals and birds. The management area has active bird rookeries, a sphagnum moss bog, and many sloughs and marshes that attract wintering waterfowl and other waterbirds.
Northern Coniferous Forest
North of the Canadian border, the Eastern Deciduous Forest yields to a broad belt of coniferous, or evergreen, trees that extend west from New England and Quebec to the Canadian Rockies, north to the arctic tundra, and south into the Sierra Nevada, Cascade, and Rocky Mountain ranges of the western United States. The Northern Coniferous Forest Habitat Region, or boreal forest region, of Canada is characterized by short summers, long winters, and heavy snowfall. The dominant trees, all across the boreal forest, are white spruce, black spruce, and balsam fir. The cold climatic conditions that characterize the boreal forests also exist in western mountain ranges, but in the mountains the dominant tree species change to a mixture of western hemlock, tamarack, and various pines and firs. Aspens grow in moister canyons and draws.
Many of the wildlife species common in the Eastern Deciduous Forest continue to be found in the Northern Coniferous Forest region, including white-tailed deer and black bear, but as trees become more widely dispersed and humans less intrusive, species such as moose, wolverines, lynx, timber wolves, snowshoe hares, and northern flying squirrels become more common. Boreal forests are home to a smaller number and diversity of bird species than are other habitat regions, but some residents, such as the boreal owl and boreal chickadee, are rarely found outside the boreal forest. Other wildlife found in the Northern Coniferous Forest region includes porcupines, red squirrels, fishers, great gray owls, gray jays, and spruce grouse.
In the Western Rockies, Cascades, and Sierra Nevada mountains, the diversity of wildlife species increases along with the diversity of trees and plant communities, resulting in greater biodiversity than the boreal forest can exhibit. White-tailed deer have expanded their range into many wooded areas of the West, but the dominant large animals of the western mountains remain mule deer and Rocky Mountain elk plus many typically mountain species, such as bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mountain quail, cougar, blue grouse, mountain chickadees, pine grosbeaks, and northern goshawks. Wolves and grizzly bears were systematically eliminated from most areas south of the Canadian border but, under protection of the federal Endangered Species Act, are being reintroduced to or are reestablishing themselves naturally in areas such as Yellowstone National Park and the North Cascades of Washington.
Some wildlife-viewing highlights of this habitat region are:
Brule River State Forest, about 35 miles east and south of Duluth, Minnesota, is one of the best locations in Wisconsin to observe wildlife of the northern coniferous or boreal forest. The forest includes a mix of coniferous black spruce, white cedar, and balsam fir bogs as well as northern hardwood trees found in eastern deciduous forests. The Brule River is excellent for canoeing and kayaking, with a variety of both flat-water and white-water experiences. Bald eagles and ospreys roost along the river, which hosts runs of spawning coho and chinook salmon, as well as steelhead and anadromous brown trout, which spend most of their lives in Lake Superior. The white cedar swamps associated with the upper Bois-Brule bog contain more than 38 bird species, and the managed forest harbors bobcats, snowshoe hares, great gray owls, and other species associated with the boreal forest.
Rocky Mountain National Park, conveniently located near Estes Park, Boulder, and Fort Collins, Colorado, protects 400 square miles of Rocky Mountain coniferous forest and its wildlife. On mountainsides and in meadows you can observe herds of Rocky Mountain elk, bighorn sheep, and mule deer. Moose can sometimes be seen in willow thickets of the Kawuneeche Valley. The tundra-topped peaks within the park — some of the mountains are more than 14,000 feet tall — provide ideal habitat for alpine wildlife such as brown-capped rosy finches, white-tailed ptarmigan, bighorn sheep, and pikas (short-eared relatives of rabbits).
Mount Nebo Scenic Loop, south of Provo, Utah, offers a scenic mountain drive through many of the forest communities of the Wasatch Mountain Range. Road turnouts present many opportunities to view mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, migrating hawks, and sometimes moose. The Uinta National Forest maintains over 100 miles of hiking and horseback trails, including the Nebo Basin Trail, which winds through fields of wildflowers to the 11,877-foot summit of Nebo's north peak. Trails are also open in the winter for cross-country skiing.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, east of Fresno, California, are the best places on earth to see giant sequoias, the world's largest trees. These trees are among the oldest in the world too — the General Sherman tree is between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. The two parks, totaling almost a million acres, protect some of the most pristine forests in the Sierra Nevada Range, from oak and chaparral foothills through thick coniferous forests to the crest of 14,495-foot Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower forty-eight states. Black bear, mule deer, cougars, yellow-bellied marmots, California bighorn sheep, and more than 200 bird species range through the combined national parks.
Tundra Habitat Region
North of Canada's coniferous forest lies the tundra, an almost treeless belt of frozen land that encircles the top of the globe. Tundra vegetation begins where the tree line ends. It is composed of low-growing shrubs, grasses, sedges, and lichens that are able to withstand the constant wind and to grow in the shallow soils that overlie a perennially frozen stratum called permafrost. During the tundra's short summer season, surface ice melts, creating a huge system of shallow lakes and bogs useful to many wildlife species.
Tundra also occurs as a habitat type at elevations above tree line on western mountains, where ecologists call it alpine, rather than arctic, tundra.
Wildlife of the arctic tundra must be adapted to long, cold winters and very short summers. Year-round residents include musk oxen, barren-ground caribou, tundra wolves, and polar bears, as well as smaller wildlife such as arctic fox, snowy owls, rock ptarmigan, snow buntings, and Lapland larkspurs. Many arctic tundra species hibernate during the coldest winter months. Some, such as the arctic fox and the ptarmigan, grow white fur or plumage as camouflage against snow. Hundreds of thousands of ducks, geese, and other migratory birds spend summers nesting in potholes and other open water created by melting permafrost.
Wildlife of the alpine tundra, in the Rockies and other western mountain ranges, includes Dall's bighorn sheep, hoary marmots, and mountain goats (which aren't really goats at all but are closely related to antelope).
The arctic tundra is so remote, difficult to get to, and potentially hazardous that most outdoor enthusiasts are best advised to visit there with a professional guide or as part of an organized tour. The tundra is vast and improved road access is limited. The summer season is very short, and travel to the arctic wilderness at any other time of the year is difficult, if not foolhardy. If you want to observe arctic tundra wildlife, two places in particular are definitely worth the effort of getting to them:
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in the far north of Alaska, offers a unique opportunity to observe thousands of barren-ground caribou in May and June, when the animals congregate on the coastal plain to give birth and to fatten up for the long winter. The short, three-month warm season also offers 24-hour daylight viewing of other wildlife, including snowy owls, arctic foxes, and thousands of nesting waterfowl and migratory shorebirds. In August and September, lesser snow geese stop here on their long southward migration to wintering habitat.
Wood Buffalo National Park, just south of Great Slave Lake, straddles the Canadian provinces of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. This is Canada's largest national park, and includes elements of both the tundra and the boreal forest habitat regions. The park protects one of North America's two remaining herds of wild bison (the other is in Yellowstone National Park) and is the only nesting site in the world for whooping cranes. In addition to bison, wolves, and other tundra wildlife, the park's Athabasca — Peace River delta provides nesting habitat for many thousands of waterfowl and other migratory birds.
Pacific Coast Forest
The Pacific Coast Forest Habitat Region extends along the Pacific Coast from southeast Alaska to just north of San Francisco Bay in California. Rainfall is abundant in this region, ranging from about 40 inches in Eureka, California, to 130 inches in Kodiak, Alaska. This high rainfall, coupled with moderate temperatures, has created an extensive forest and wildlife community quite different from that of the Northern Coniferous Forest, even though many of the same tree species are found in the Rockies and on the drier slopes of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada.
In coastal Alaska, the Pacific Coast Forest region is dominated by western hemlock, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce. As you travel south through the region, other tree species, such as grand fir, Pacific silver fir, and Douglas fir become more dominant. Coastal redwood trees were once dominant in the Coast Range of northern California, but most of the large stands of redwood forest were commercially logged many years ago.
The range of wildlife species that occurs in the Pacific Coast Forest region differs from that of the Northern Coniferous Forest region, although, as in the case of trees, many of the same species are found in both. The Pacific Coast is protected from extremes of hot and cold by offshore currents, and such a climate attracts wildlife adapted to wet, generally moderate weather.
Coastal forest wildlife species include Roosevelt elk, black-tailed deer (a subspecies of mule deer), black bear, cougars, Douglas squirrels, northern flying squirrels, blue grouse, and the most famous denizen of Pacific Northwest mature forests, the northern spotted owl. Other common birds include the Steller's jay, the red-breasted nuthatch, the brown creeper, the rufous-sided towhee, the Oregon junco, and the ubiquitous common crow.
Excerpted from The National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Watcher's Handbook by Joe La Tourrette, Cheryl Ziebert. Copyright © 1997 Joe La Tourrette. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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