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Great Egrets Migrating

4-18-14 great egret2  055After overwintering in Central America and southern U.S., Great Egrets head as far north as the New England coast and Vermont’s Champlain Valley to breed. The peak of their spring migration occurs in April so now is a good time to look for them in wetlands where they stop to rest and refuel en route. Great Egrets eat mainly fish, but also crustaceans (see crayfish in insert), amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals.

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Determined Spotted Salamanders

4-17-14  spotted salamander in snow117It’s rare to get a glimpse of a Spotted Salamander – these secretive amphibians spend most of their lives hidden under rocks or logs or in the burrows of other forest animals, emerging only at night to feed and during spring mating. In central Vermont, the annual mass migration of Spotted Salamanders to their ancestral breeding pools began two nights ago, when the rain-soaked earth and rising temperatures signaled that it was time to emerge from hibernation. Unfortunately for the salamanders (and frogs) that answered the calling, temperatures dropped relatively early in the evening, and the rain turned to snow. Undaunted, these stout salamanders continued their trek through the woods, plowing their way through new-fallen snow, all in the name of procreation.

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Hooded Mergansers & Feeding Adaptations

4-16-14 female hooded merg eating fish IMG_9199Although most of New England has Hooded Mergansers year round, we see them most frequently in the spring and fall, when Canadian-nesting individuals are migrating north. They stop to re-fuel in wetlands where they are well adapted for capturing and eating fish, insects and crayfish. The nature of the changes their eye lenses can make, coupled with the high degree of transparency of the membrane that covers their eyes under water give them superior vision under water. Their success in holding onto the struggling prey they capture is greatly increased by the serrated edges of their slender bill. (Photo: female Hooded Merganser)

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Wood Frogs Awakening and Thawing

4-17-14 wood frog IMG_1377The duck-like quacking of recently-emerged, courting wood frogs is slightly miraculous considering that only days ago these amphibians were frozen practically rock solid. At some point in late fall or winter, as temperatures drop, they flood their bodies with blood sugar that acts as antifreeze in their circulatory system. Activity in their brains stops, their heart stops, and 45 – 60% of their body can freeze. Yet within hours of being exposed to the spring’s warming temperatures, wood frogs thaw out and start moving towards a body of water to breed.

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Link to Brown Creeper’s Song

My apologies if the previous link didn’t work. This one should! http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/brown_creeper/id 4-11-14 brown creeper2  025


Brown Creepers Singing

4-11-14 brown creeper2  025Brown Creepers –insect-eating, bark-gleaning, little brown birds — are occasionally spotted as they circle their way upwards around and around a tree trunk, probing under bark with their thin, curved beaks for their next meal. Because they are so well camouflaged it is easy to miss them. Your chances of becoming aware of their presence are increased if you become familiar with the high, thin but surprisingly rich song males sing to establish territories on their breeding grounds this time of year. Although they continue to sing through the nesting period until their young have fledged, male brown creepers are most vocal early in the season, when they are staking out their territory. You can hear their song by going to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/brown_creeper/sounds and clicking on “sound.”

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Journey North

4-11-14 ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_9466If you are curious about the status of the northward migration of Monarch Butterflies, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds or American Robins this spring, there is a wonderful organization and website that you should be aware of, if you aren’t already. Its name is Journey North ( http://www.learner.org/jnorth/ ) and they recruit citizen scientists throughout the U.S. to report sightings of certain selected species. Journey North then posts these sightings on their site, making it possible for anyone to see exactly how far each of these species has advanced in their migration north. Sightings are clumped into two week periods of time, allowing you to see not only where the birds or butterflies are currently, but how long it’s taken them to get there. A North American map for each species has sightings color-coded by date, allowing you to follow their progress closely. Migratory information on other songbirds, Whooping Cranes, Gray Whales and much more is also available. This site is the next best thing to migrating alongside these hardy creatures.

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Spring Runoff

4-4-14 spring runoff 004With snow rapidly melting, spring runoff is very apparent everywhere you look. Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey studied the timing and volume of river flows for 27 rivers in New England several years ago. Although this year may be the exception, they found that in the last 30 years the peak flow date has advanced by one to two weeks. Snowmelt runoff has the most effect on spring rivers flows, and these peak flow dates correlate with the change in last-frost dates, lilac bloom dates, lake ice-out dates and spring air temperatures, indicating that these New England spring geophysical and biological changes all were caused by a common mechanism — temperature increases.

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Common Mergansers Taking Flight

common mergansers pattering 425Most ducks can take off nearly vertically from either water or land. However, when taking off from a body of water, unless alarmed, Common Mergansers usually patter along the surface for several yards before taking flight. One would imagine that their flight might not be any more graceful than their take-offs, but the opposite is said to be true of females looking for potential nesting sites. They have been observed maneuvering easily among tree branches seeking a suitable tree cavity in which to lay and incubate their eggs, and once they have found a nest site, they appear to enter and leave their nest holes with ease.

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Paper Wasp Queens Emerging From Hibernation

4-8-14 paper wasp2  152Paper wasps have annual colonies – only the young, fertilized queens overwinter, with the old queen, female workers and the males all perishing in the fall. The queens seek shelter behind tree bark, or in rotting logs or stumps, and emerge in the spring when temperatures rise and day length is increasing. Last year’s nest is not re-used – the queen mixes wood and plant fiber with her saliva, creating several waterproof paper cells into each of which she lays an egg — the start of her future labor force. Due to the lack of wildflowers (and therefore nectar) this early in the spring, queens rely on the sap from broken tree branches, as well as the sap found in drilled Yellow-bellied Sapsucker wells, for sustenance.

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Signs Of An Active Beaver Pond

4-7-14  floating beaver logs IMG_0159Beaver ponds have finally started to melt, making it easy to determine whether or not there have been beavers living in any existing lodges over the winter. The tell-tale sign is floating de-barked sticks and branches. During the winter, beavers leave their lodge and swim out to their underwater food supply pile and haul branches back into the lodge where they chew them into foot-long pieces for easy handling. The bark is removed and eaten as the beaver holds the stick and turns it, much as we consume corn on the cob. When little or no bark remains, the stick is discarded out in the open water. These sticks remain hidden underneath the ice on the surface of the water until warm weather arrives and the ice begins to melt. At this point the sticks and branches become visible, and often extend several feet out from the lodge. These sticks will not go to waste, but will be used for dam and lodge repairs. (Photo taken standing on lodge.)

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Winter Stoneflies Still Emerging

4-2-14 stonefly 123It seems early, especially with feet of snow still on the ground, to be seeing insects flying around, but some have actually been present all winter. An order of insects (Plecoptera) known as stoneflies spends its youth (one to four years) living in streams before emerging as winged adults. Some of these species, referred to as winter stoneflies, emerge from January through April, providing food for early-returning, insect-eating migrants, such as Eastern Phoebes, Tree Swallows and Red-winged Blackbirds. Stoneflies only live a few weeks, during which time they mate and lay eggs. Some do not feed, and others consume plant material. Because stoneflies are intolerant of polluted water, if you see one it’s a good indication that the water quality of the stream that it came from is excellent.

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Spring Has Sprung!

4-3-14 e.phoebe2 002There’s no denying the arrival of spring, even when the snow is still up to your knees in the woods, if Eastern Phoebes are back! This member of the flycatcher family is one of our earliest returning and nesting migrants, arriving on its breeding grounds in late March and early April. One might wonder what this insect-eating bird subsists on at this time of year. Wasps, bees, beetles and butterflies are not in great supply. Fortunately, there are some insects around, including stoneflies – aquatic insects, some of which mature and emerge from streams in the winter and early spring. When insects aren’t plentiful (in fall, winter and early spring) phoebes will eat small fruits, but they only make up about 11% of their diet.

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The Eyes of Common Goldeneyes

3-31-14 lone common goldeneye on ice 380Common Goldeneyes, birds of the boreal forest, overwinter as far north as open water permits, which includes parts of northern New England most years. These birds get their common name from the color of their eyes, but their eyes don’t attain this golden color until their first winter. When they hatch, Common Goldeneye ducklings have gray-brown eyes. Their eyes turn purple-blue, then blue, then green-blue as the ducks age. By the time they are five months old, their eyes are pale green-yellow. They turn bright yellow in males and pale yellow to white in females by mid-winter.

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Where Do Slugs Spend the Winter?

4-1-14  slug under bark 223Slugs mate and lay eggs in the spring and fall, and can live 12 to 15 months. Eggs laid in the fall overwinter in this stage, and hatch in the spring. Some members of this generation of slugs may die in the fall, while others hibernate underground or beneath loose bark. The survival rate of the hibernators depends upon the harshness of the winter. Look in and under rotting logs to find slug eggs, and behind the bark of dying trees to find slug hibernacula.

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Barred Owls Frequenting Feeders

4-4-14  barred owl with suet IMG_5432The number of Barred Owls seen near bird feeders recently makes one question whether these birds are, in fact, in dire need of food. Certainly the extended period of deep snow this winter has made finding prey challenging. Fortunately, the local bird rehab center (Vermont Institute of Natural Science) has not been inundated with starving owls, which indicates that other factors may be involved in the increased number of sightings near homes and feeders. One of these factors could be that Barred Owls are currently laying and incubating eggs, and a few early nesters may even be providing food for young owlets. Whatever the reason, the accessibility of rodents that are attracted to feeders and the food itself that’s in the feeders allows us an all-too-rare glimpse of this common owl. (The mystery of repeatedly finding my suet feeder on the ground every morning was finally solved when I took this photograph – look closely at what the Barred Owl is clutching in its talons.)

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Cedar Waxwings Turn to Highbush Cranberry As a Last Resort

3-28-14 cedar waxwing 159The primary food of Cedar Waxwings is fleshy fruits that have a high sugar content. Because these birds rely on ripening fruit to feed their nestlings, they are among the latest birds to nest in the Northeast. During the winter they tend to be nomadic, wandering from one sugary fruit supply to another. In the past, juniper berries have dominated their winter diet, but waxwings are increasingly turning to ornamentals such as non-native honeysuckle. (Occasionally waxwings with orange, not yellow, terminal tail bands are seen; this change in color has been attributed to their change in diet.) The fruit of Highbush Cranberry, being consumed in this photograph, is quite acidic and has a low sugar content. It is eaten by most songbirds, including Cedar Waxwings, only towards the end of winter, when sweeter fruit is in short supply.

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Cavities Provide Shelter for Birds in Winter

3-27-14  pileated hole with bird droppings 045Birds often seek protected places to roost or sleep at night, especially in the winter. Dense vegetation found in thickets or the interior branches of evergreens serve as a windbreak and conceal the birds from predators. A few species of songbirds – the ones that nest in tree cavities or bird houses – will also roost in cavities in the winter. Research has shown that these shelters, through reduction of wind speed, can increase the temperature by 40°F. Energy savings in one study ranged from 25% – 38% for birds roosting in cavities and resulted in an increased fasting endurance of six to seven hours in winter. Sometimes more than a dozen birds will pile into a single box or cavity to conserve heat. This may well have been the case in this pileated woodpecker cavity, given the amount of bird droppings found in it, or perhaps one lone chickadee took up residence night after night. (Judging from the droppings usually found in such cavities, mice use them for shelter even more than birds.)

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Many Beavers Still Locked Under Ice

3-20-14 beaver on ice IMG_3980Although there have been sightings of beavers this spring, precious few beaver ponds have openings or ice thin enough for beavers to break through in order to procure fresh food. This photograph was taken one year ago, and one can only hope, for the beavers’ sake as well as our own, that temperatures rise soon. The winter supply of food beavers store under the ice in the fall may well be as low as many people’s wood piles are this spring, in which case, many beavers’ lives depend on the ice thinning soon.

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Snowy Owl Pellet

3-25-14 snowy owl  203Your knowledgeable ID skills regarding yesterday’s Mystery Photo were most impressive!

Snowy Owls are the heaviest owls in North America, weighing roughly 4 pounds (a Great Gray Owl is only 2.4 pounds). A lot of fuel is needed to power this magnificent raptor. In the Arctic, where they live, lemmings are their preferred prey — one owl may eat more than 1,600 of these small rodents in a single year. This winter the Northeast has experienced record numbers of visiting Snowy Owls. A banner year for the Arctic lemming population followed by prolific nesting success for Snowy Owls resulted in an unprecedented “irruption” of these owls further south this winter.

While we do have lemmings in New England, they are uncommon, so Snowy Owls have relied on our small rodent, squirrel, rabbit and hare populations for food. Those owls wintering on the coast, where dunes and moors closely resemble their tundra habitat, have also taken advantage of the large number of sea ducks. As witnessed and described by Nantucket ornithologist Edie Ray, the owls fly up to great heights over the sea, spot waterfowl and then plummet down to just above the surface of the ocean where they sink their talons into a “sitting duck.” As a result, the indigestible bones, teeth and nails of prey are protectively wrapped in feathers as well as fur in the large pellets coughed up by these owls. (Snowy Owl locators: Edie Ray and Sadie Richards; Snowy Owl pellet finder: Sadie Richards)

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Mystery Photo

3-24-14 mystery photo 009Do you know what this is and what created it? Hint: Most winters this would be a rare find in New England, but not this one. All guesses welcome!

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Avian Toe Arrangment

3-17-14 mourning dove tracks 004As opposed to humans, who use the entire bottom of their feet for support, birds stand and walk only on the ball of their foot and with their toes. When you look at a bird’s leg, what appears to be its knee, bending backward instead of forward as it does in humans, is actually its heel.

Most birds have four toes, arranged differently according to the life style of the bird. Songbirds, as well as most other birds, have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back. Most woodpeckers, being active climbers, have two toes pointing in each direction, which provides added clinging support. The outer toe (of the three forward toes) of ospreys and owls is reversible, so that they can have two toes in back should they need to get a better grasp on slippery fish or other prey. Some birds that do a lot of running, such as sanderlings and most plovers, have only the three forward toes. (Photo: Mourning Dove tracks)

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Opossums Scrounging

3-19-14 opossum2  021Within the last century the Virginia Opossum has extended its range northeastward and now occurs sporadically throughout most of New England. Its adaptability to a great variety of habitats and its omnivorous diet (is there anything an opossum won’t eat?) have enabled this marsupial to live in much colder climates than it initially inhabited. As long as food can be found,the opossum’s greatest challenge is dealing with New England’s cold winters. Lacking much hair, the ears and tail of an opossum often suffer from frostbite, turning black at the edges (ears) and tip (tail). Look for signs of this nocturnal scavenger under bird feeders – in the winter it can even be seen foraging in the daylight, as the opossum in this photograph was earlier this week. (Thanks to Dotty Cummings for photo op.)

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Usnea Photo Mis-identified

email-possible Usnea 036Thanks to the readers of my blog, more knowledgeable than I, who made me aware that the photograph of the lichen in today’s post is of a lichen in the genus Ramalina. While Usnea does bear a resemblance to Ramalina, Usnea’s rounded branches are more thread-like than the flattened branches of Ramalina. Thanks to Tom Stearns, Peggy Willey and Jean Bergstrom for their sharp eyes. (Photo: Usnea (circled in red) is surrounded by Ramalina.


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