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Dragonfly Mystery Photo

7-23-14  dragonfly mystery photo 020Do you know what is happening in this photograph? All guesses welcome. The answer will be revealed tomorrow!. (Photo: male Chalk-fronted Corporal dragonfly, Libellula julia)

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Least Sandpipers Migrating

7-22-14 least sandpiper IMG_7923Least Sandpipers are the smallest shorebirds in the world, weighing only an ounce and measuring 5 – 6 inches long. Their fall migration has already begun, with individuals leaving their breeding grounds in the subarctic tundra and far northern boreal forest for their wintering grounds in Central and South America. Banding has revealed that the eastern population of Least Sandpipers undertakes nonstop transoceanic migrations of about 1,800 to 2,500 miles from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and New England to northeastern South America. Not much bigger than a sparrow, this common but declining shorebird can be seen refueling on mud flats throughout New England during its fall migration.

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Shade-loving Northern Pearly-Eyes Flying

7-21-14 northern pearly-eye  013To find butterflies, one usually heads for sunny fields or gardens filled with flowers, where the ample supply of nectar beckons these winged beauties. There are some species, however, such as the Northern Pearly-Eye (Enodia anthedon) that are more shade tolerant than most butterflies, and are found primarily in forests and their borders. Northern Pearly-Eyes often fly on cloudy days, and later in the day than many butterflies. The larvae eat a variety of grasses and the adults feed on tree sap (especially willows, poplars and birches), carrion and scat. These butterflies often perch head-down on tree trunks, occasionally gathering in large groups. Northern Pearly-Eyes were quite rare in New England in the mid-to late 19th century due to the large amount of land that was cleared. They have since rebounded, and you can find them during July and August in the shady understory of many New England forests.

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Hooded Mergansers Fledglings are Dispersing

7-18-14 young hooded merganser 041Within 24 hours of hatching, Hooded Merganser ducklings leap anywhere from 8 -90 feet from their arboreal cavity nest down to their mother, who is calling to them from the water below. Capable of swimming and diving right away, the ducklings begin feeding themselves immediately. Weighing little more than an ounce, they mostly eat insects, including backswimmers, water boatmen and diving beetles. Eventually, as the ducklings grow, they work their way up to fish and crustaceans — particularly crayfish, such as the pictured merganser has caught. In addition to its size, the lack of a real “hood” indicates that this Hooded Merganser is a youngster.

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Spreading Dogbane Flowering & Attracting Dogbane Beetles

7-17-14 dogbane & dogbane beetle190The tiny, pink, bell-like flowers of Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium), emit a smell reminiscent of Lilacs. Like its milkweed relatives, Spreading Dogbane has milky, white sap and is poisonous to many species (hence, its name). Monarchs occasionally lay their eggs on its leaves, but the larvae do not mature. Associated exclusively with this perennial is its namesake, the Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus). A combination of iridescent greens, blues and gold make Dogbane Beetles one of the most striking beetles found in New England. They avoid some predators by giving off a foul-smelling secretion when they are touched. Dogbane Beetles are a third to a half-an-inch long and are often found in the process of mating at this time of year.

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Common Loon Chick Update

7-16-14 loon update2 187The fluffy, black loon chick that was the subject of Naturally Curious posts a couple of weeks ago is a month old this week (original photos were taken several days before posting), and it has undergone several transformations. Two weeks ago the black down of the newborn chick was replaced with a second coat of down that is brown in color. Between three to four weeks of age, its body elongated and its bill began to lengthen. In another week or so, the first gray contour and flight feathers will begin to replace the down, a process that takes about three weeks.

Both parents are very attentive and are providing as many fish and crayfish as the chick can consume, sometimes making the chick dive for its meal, sometimes not. Because one egg failed to hatch, the lone chick receives all of both parents’ attention, guaranteeing a full stomach. It isn’t unusual to see both parents dive, come up with fish in their bills, and deliver their catch simultaneously to their chick.

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Small Cranberry Flowering

7-15-14 large cranberry2 127Small Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) can be found flowering at this time of year in bogs and fens. It is also referred to as Bog Cranberry and Swamp Cranberry. Other than having leaves with edges that are rolled under, a hairy flower stem, and slightly smaller cranberries, it is very similar to its relative, Large Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon). Both possess 3/8-inch flowers that have recurved petals, exposing the anthers and pistils to pollinating bees. One theory as to the derivation of the name “cranberry” is the superficial resemblance of the flower to the neck and head of a crane. The flowers of this creeping shrub rise a few inches above the peat or sphagnum moss. Since the peatlands in which cranberries grow are nutrient poor, Small Cranberry, as do most other members of the Heath Family, maintains a mycorrhizal or symbiotic dependency with root fungi. The fungi enable the roots to absorb nutrients that they would not otherwise be able to access.

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Bobolinks Fledging and Preparing to Migrate

7-14-14 bobolinks2  234Between their striking black and white plumage and their long, bubbly song, male Bobolinks are hard to miss if they are inhabiting a field. The female’s plumage is more subtle, with lots of browns so that she blends in well when on her ground nest. The Bobolink’s most notable accomplishment is its annual migration between breeding (northern U.S. and southern Canada) and wintering (northern Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia) grounds — a round-trip distance of approximately 12,500 miles. According to Cornell’s Birds of North America Online, one female Bobolink known to be at least nine years old presumably made this trip annually, which would mean that in her lifetime she flew a distance equal to traveling 4.5 times around the earth at the equator.

Grassland birds such as Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Upland Sandpipers and numerous sparrows, which have been in decline for decades, populate New England’s hay fields, meadows, and pastures. Many of these birds build their nests on the ground, raise young, and forage for insects and grains in summer months. If you own or manage a hayfield that hosts Bobolinks (or any other grassland species), consider delaying mowing until after mid- July to allow these birds the opportunity to fledge their young and get them ready for one of the longest migratory flights of any North American songbird. (Photo: male Bobolink on rock, female on grass.) (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Terry Ross for photo op.)

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Ring-necked Snakes Laying Eggs

7-11-14 ring-necked snake 188Adult Ring-necked Snakes measure one to two feet from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail. Named for the yellow/orange ring around their neck, they also have brilliant orange scales on their belly. This snake is fairly common throughout all of New England except for the northernmost part of Maine, but not often seen due to its nocturnal habits and secretive nature. The three or four eggs that female Ring-necked Snakes lay in late June and July are deposited in and under rotting logs and stones. Several females have been known to use the same nest. The eggs hatch in late August or September and the young snakes feed on the same prey as adults — small toads, frogs, salamanders, earthworms, smaller snakes, insects and grubs.

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Eyed Click Beetle

7-10-14 eyed click beetle 789Although this Eyed Click Beetle (Alaus oculatus) looks ferocious with its large, black “eyespots” (actual eyes are below antennae), it is harmless to humans. Like all members of the click beetle, or Elateridae, family, it gets its name from the sound it makes when it flips itself upright. Click beetles possess a spine-like structure as well as a notch under their thorax. When they release the spine from the notch, it snaps and they are propelled into the air. Click beetles use this mechanism to right themselves if they are on their backs. Entomologists feel predators are deterred not only by the false eyes, but by this action. The larvae, called wireworms, spend most of their life (2 to 5 years) in the soil feeding on decaying plants and other insects in the soil before emerging as adults. (Thanks to Liz Ambros for photo op.)

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Viper’s Bugloss Flowering

7-9-14 viper's bugloss093Even if it weren’t such a beautiful and vibrantly-colored flower, Viper’s Bugloss, Echium vulgare, would be notable just for its name. “Bugloss” is of Greek origin, from a word signifying an ox’s tongue, and alludes to the roughness and shape of the plant’s leaves. Some say the dead flower-head and/or seed resemble a snake, and in the 1600’s this plant provided a popular cure for snake bites. A long-flowering (all summer and into the fall) member of the Boraginaceae family, Viper’s Bugloss is particularly popular with bees. It produces nectar throughout the day, unlike most plants which produce nectar for a short period of time. With an unlimited supply of Viper’s Bugloss, honeybees can collect between 12 and 20 pounds of nectar a day.

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Common Loons: Feeding Chicks

7-4-14 loons feeding 202Both parents provide their young with food (small fish, crayfish, etc.) several times an hour, especially early and late in the day. (This practice continues, in a more limited way, long after the young loons can provide for themselves, right up until the parents migrate — before the juveniles — in the fall.) Often food delivery takes place when the chick is in the water, but occasionally it occurs while the chick is on the parent’s back during its first week or so of life. Initially the adult loon catches prey, swims up to its chick while holding the prey in its beak until the chick grasps it and swallows it. By the third week, the parents start dropping the fish or crayfish in the water in front of the chick, forcing it to learn how to catch its own food. Needless to say, in the beginning, the adults must have great patience, retrieving and dropping the prey time after time while the chick acquires the skills necessary to catch it. (Photo: Adult with fish approaches mate while making a soft mewing sound. Mate raises wing, chick emerges and reaps the benefit of home delivery.)

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Common Loons: Brooding Chicks

7-2-14 common loon with chicks-broodingIMG_3215While loon chicks can swim as soon as their down dries, they are not able to regulate their body heat for their first two weeks of life and are dependent upon their parents for warmth. (A lot of the chick’s heat is lost through its feet when it is in the water.) Whereas most birds provide this warmth (in a process called brooding) in the nest, Common Loons brood their young on the water during this period. The chicks simply climb up the backs or sides of a parent while the parent raises its wing. Once the chicks are situated on the back of the loon, the adult lowers its wing, sheltering the vulnerable chicks from the elements. If the sun is out, the wind is slight and the temperature is warm, the chicks will come out from underneath the wing(s) and ride around enjoying the view. If the wind picks up or the temperature drops, the chicks will crawl back under their parent’s wings, totally hidden from view.

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Common Loons: Hatching

7-2-14  loons #3-hatching  395Peeps can be heard from inside an egg before the chick starts to crack it open (a process referred to as “pipping”) with its temporary “egg tooth.” The eggs hatch in the order laid, not at the same time. The chicks are covered with sooty black down which is often dry within an hour of hatching. While waiting for the second egg to hatch, the parent loon often takes the firstborn chick for its maiden swim, returning to the nest with the chick to incubate the remaining egg until it hatches. By the third week, the chick’s black down is replaced by brownish-gray down.

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Common Loons: Egg-laying & Incubation

7-1-14  Loons #2 - incubating 404Typically Common Loons lay two eggs, each of which is roughly four inches long and olive green to brown in color, with brown or black splotches. The eggs are laid one to three days apart with the 28-day incubation period beginning when both eggs have been laid. Both parents incubate, turning the eggs when they switch places or during long periods of incubation. If the loon on the nest is anxious for relief, it will give a “wail” call, and if its mate does not respond, it continues wailing, even after leaving the nest to find its mate.

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Common Loons: Nest-building

6-30-14  Loons #1 - nest building 496Naturally Curious posts for the next four days will be devoted to Common Loons. They are nesting now, eggs are hatching, chicks are swimming, parents are feeding – life is good on ponds and lakes in the north woods, and I would love to share this magical time with you.

Both members of a pair of Common Loons contribute to nest-building in May or June. Their ground nest is often built on the sheltered side of an island, facing the mainland. It is usually within just a few feet of the water, eliminating the necessity for the loons to walk very far. (The position of their legs far back on their bodies is advantageous when it comes to diving and swimming, but makes walking very challenging.) Both male and female share the building of the nest, throwing submerged vegetation from the water onto the nest site or pulling it from the water while sitting on the nest. Material continues to be added to the nest throughout incubation. Nearly two feet in diameter, a nest can take a week or so to build. Successful nests (those that produce chicks) are often re-used from year to year.

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Ovenbirds Nesting

6-27-14 ovenbird nest2  071Ovenbirds, the warblers responsible for the “teacher–teacher-teacher- TEACHER” song that reverberates throughout deciduous woods at this time of year, are known not only for their distinctive song, but also for their unique domed, ground nests (see dead center of photo). It is the resemblance of their nest to an old-fashioned domed oven that is the source of the Ovenbird’s common name. The materials used to build the nest (bulk of nest is made up of leaves, with additional bits of plant stems, bark, pine needles, rootlets , moss and a lining of deer and/or horse hair), as well as the roofed structure make it all but invisible to most passersby. More often than not the female Ovenbird chooses a site with an especially thick leaf layer on which to build her 6 ½-inch-diameter nest. She enters and exits through a side entrance that is roughly 2 inches wide. The female incubates and broods the young, but both parents feed them, approaching and leaving the nest on foot along a few partially concealed routes. As the nestlings grow, the top of the nest is frequently pushed back, exposing the nest cup. No attempt is made by either parent to reconstruct the roof before the young fledge in about a week to ten days. (Thanks to Tii McLane for photo op.)

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Gray Treefrogs Calling

gray treefrog 021At this time of year, bird-like trills are often heard in wetlands, where male gray treefrogs (Hyla versicolor) are calling to potential mates. The chorus ramps up at night, but the songsters can be hard to find during the day, when they often hide in tree cavities or high up in the canopy. (Their large toe pads produce mucous which allows them to adhere to smooth bark.) The colors of a gray treefrog vary with the colors of its background and environmental factors such as season and humidity, but shades of gray are most common, with black blotches on the back. Variations of brown, green, and pearl-gray colors have been noted, with green being more prominent during the breeding season. Warm, humid weather seems to elicit calls from these well-camouflaged amphibians. To watch and hear a calling gray treefrog, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kd5c4p8-0M. (Thanks to Rachael Cohen for photo op.)

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Caterpillars Molting

6-25-14 caterpillar molting 044A caterpillar is the larval stage of a moth or butterfly. It is the only stage that has chewing mouthparts, and therefore a caterpillar spends most of its waking hours eating. This consumption of food results in massive growth, making its skin/exoskeleton very tight. When this happens, a hormone called ecdysone is produced, prompting the caterpillar to molt, losing its old exoskeleton (to left of caterpillar in photo) under which is a new and larger exoskeleton. After the molt, while the new exoskeleton is still soft, the caterpillar swallows a lot of air, which expands its body. Then, when the exoskeleton hardens, it lets the air out and has room for growth. Caterpillars molt four or five times as they grow. Each different caterpillar stage is called an instar. (Photo: Forest Tent Caterpillar)

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Cedar Waxwings Conserving Energy

cedar waxwing at oriole nest 241Your eyes are not fooling you. A Cedar Waxwing is visiting a Baltimore Oriole nest. Why? If you had the choice between scouting the landscape for an odd board here and there with which to build your house, or going to a deteriorating, abandoned house and helping yourself to a goldmine of available lumber, which would you choose? The oriole nestlings have fledged — their nest has served its purpose. It’s highly unlikely that the parents would ever use the nest again. Waxwings, which are relatively late nesters, discovered the abandoned nest and are taking advantage of the oriole’s (female builds nest) hours of collecting raw materials. Fiber by fiber a pair of Cedar Waxwings pulled this nest apart and recycled what they removed.

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Showy Lady’s Slippers Flowering

6-23-14 showy lady's slipper 139As with Pink and Yellow Lady’s Slippers, one of Showy Lady’s Slipper’s three petals is greatly modified into a large inflated pouch called the labellum. The two other petals attract pollinators with an alluring odor, but the insects that enter into this pouch are in for a disappointment, as lady’s slippers produce little or no nectar. Once inside, visiting insects are guided by very fine, slanting hairs on the inner surface of the pouch towards the flower’s pistil and stamens. Once it has entered the constricted passageway that leads to the reproductive parts, an insect cannot turn around and must pass by the pistil and stamens. Lady’s slippers rarely self-pollinate, so it is crucial that they not only attract, but also extract pollen from insects to achieve cross-pollination. Thanks to their structure, this happens more often than not. The flowering of Showy Lady’s Slippers peaks in Mid-June in central Vermont; if you know of a nearby fen (peat wetland that gets its water from rainfall and surface water), best visit it soon, as that’s where you’re most likely to find this species of orchid.

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Sexing a Painted Turtle

painted turtle 035If you see a Painted Turtle on land at this time of year, chances are great that it’s a female on her way to or from laying her eggs. But how do you know the sex of a Painted Turtle at any other time of year? It helps to have both sexes in front of you, as it’s all relative, but in general, males have much longer nails on their front feet than females (good for gripping females during mating). Males also have longer and thicker tails. The cloaca (passageway into which the intestinal, urinary, and genital tracts open) of a male Painted Turtle is close to the tip of the tail, whereas the female’s cloaca is near the base of the tail. A super large Painted Turtle (8”-10”) is more likely to be a female, as their shells can grow to a larger dimension than those of males. (photo: female Painted Turtle)

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Avian Parental Care

yellow warbler nesting pair 078Parental care varies according to species, but usually only one sex is responsible for the care of offspring. The exception to this rule is birds, where at least 81% of species exhibit bi-parental care. It may not be shared equally, but both contribute in some way. Fairly typical are Yellow Warblers (pictured). The female Yellow Warbler builds the nest, lays the eggs, incubates the eggs, and broods the young all by herself. The male occasionally feeds his mate while she’s on the nest and when the eggs hatch, shares the delivery of food to the nestlings and the cleaning of the nest. Recent research has shown that the amount of parental care provided by males is directly related to the genetic fidelity of the female. If she’s true blue, then she may well receive a lot more help from her mate.

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Scarab Beetle Antennae

6-16-14  scarab beetle antennae 261Beetles in the family Scarabaeidae share several characteristics, including specialized antennae. The last three to seven segments of each antenna form flat plates, or lamellae, that can be expanded like a fan (see Japanese Beetle insert) or folded together into a club (see June Beetle photo). When these plates are separated they are being used as sensory devices to detect odors. When folded together, the antennae are used as clubs by some species of fighting male scarabs. The next time you see a June Beetle, Rose Chafer or Japanese Beetle, take a second to inspect its antennae before parting company.

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