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Black-throated Blue Warblers Incubating Second Brood

8-1-14 -female black-throated blue warbler on nest 054Male and female Black-throated Blue Warblers differ strikingly in appearance, so much so that the two sexes were considered separate species by early naturalists, including John J. Audubon. While the male is a brilliant blue, the female is dull gray which makes her practically invisible when she’s on a nest.

Black-throated Blue Warblers have anywhere from one to three broods in a summer, the first usually in June, a second, if there is one, in July and rarely a third in late July or early August. The nest is usually within three feet of the ground, and is built out of thin strips of birch bark and bits of rotten wood bound together by cobwebs and saliva. Fibers, rootlets, needles and mammalian hair line the nest. Female Black-throated Blue Warblers are known for sitting tightly on a nest until a potential threat is very close, at which point they drop to the ground, and, similar to Killdeer, engage in a distraction display, feigning injury to their wing.

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Carrion Beetles Feeding

7-30-14 carrion beetle feeding 129When an organism dies, such as the pictured American Toad, a series of decomposers appear and break it down. Some of the first insects to arrive at the scene are blowflies, and they lose no time in laying eggs which rapidly hatch into larvae, or maggots. A bit later, carrion beetles move in. Both of these insects live in dead carcasses, where they eat raw flesh and fungi. There is great competition, believe it or not, for rotting bodies, and carrion beetles such as the pictured American Carrion Beetle (Necrophila americana) have managed to find a way to eliminate some of it. They carry tiny mites on their backs which travel from carcass to carcass with the beetles, devouring the eggs of maggots as well as the smallest maggots themselves. In addition, carrion beetles secrete a strong offensive odor that irritates other insects and predators, a second effective way to reduce the number of insects competing for a corpse.

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Blue Vervain Flowering

7-29-14  blue vervain IMG_5431Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) is a fairly tall (2 – 5 feet) flowering plant found in wet meadows. Its flower spikes branch upwards like the arms of a candelabra, and each has a ring of blue-purple flowers. The flowers at the bottom of the spike bloom first, and the ring of flowers advances upwards to the tips of the spike. Although Blue Vervain flowers have no scent, both long- and short-tongued bees are attracted to it primarily for its nectar, but also for its pollen. While Verbena Moth caterpillars feed on the foliage, most mammalian herbivores avoid eating this plant because of the bitter leaves. Various songbirds occasionally eat the seeds, including Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos.

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Common Wood Nymphs Mating

7-28-14 mating common wood nymphs 066If you’ve walked in a shrubby meadow lately, you are probably well aware that Common Wood Nymphs (Cercyonis pegala) are everywhere. Each step seems to flush one, which, after some erratic flying, settles back down beneath the grasses, hidden from view. These butterflies are in a group called “satyrs” which consists of mainly medium-sized, brown butterflies. They belong to the Nymphalidae family, also known as brush-footed butterflies, or four-footed butterflies. The reason for these common family names is immediately apparent when examining a Common Wood Nymph (or Monarch, Painted Lady, fritillaries or checkerspots). Butterflies in this family look as though they only have four feet. Being insects, however, they have six. The front two legs are folded up in front of its head, and are extremely small and bristly. These reduced legs are present in all brush-footed butterflies, and are not used for walking or clinging. Rather, the bristles on these legs are sensory organs, used for detecting smells and for tasting. The butterfly’s proboscis is coiled up between this front pair of legs.

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Bunchberry Fruiting

7-24-14 bunchberry fruit IMG_8240Bunchberry, Cornus canadensis, is among the smallest of a genus of mostly shrubs and trees, and the only dogwood species that is herbaceous. The white flowers (resembling one flower, but actually consisting of many flowers , each 2 mm in diameter, surrounded by four modified leaves, called bracts) develop into red fruits which some people and a few birds, including ruffed grouse, veeries and vireos, find tasty. Bunchberry prefers cool, acidic soil — look for it where you find partridgeberry, goldthread and twinflower. If you find it, look closely, as Nashville warblers sometimes nest beneath it.

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Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle Larva at Work

7-24-14 tiger beetle adult and larva 040Without doubt, I have one of the most erudite readerships in the land of blogs. Several people recognized this uncommon phenomenon. To clear up a few misconceptions, however, being a male, this dragonfly was not laying eggs. Neither was it fertilizing them – male dragonflies perform this act when coupled with a female. This Chalk-fronted Corporal had the misfortune to sun itself on a tiger beetle-inhabited patch of sand. One of the most aggressive groups of insect predators is the tiger beetle family. They are especially known for their speed – up to 5.6 mph, which is comparable to a human running 480 mph. If you watch an adult tiger beetle hunting, you’ll notice that it stops and starts frequently. This is because it runs so fast it goes blind — its brain has trouble processing the information it sees, and the beetle must stop to regain its sight.

The larvae of the Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle live in tunnels that they dig in the sand (some of you noticed tiny holes near the dragonfly) that can be up to a foot deep. The larvae have hooks located on the back of their abdomen to anchor them to the side of the burrow. Tiger beetle larvae are also predators, and after digging a tunnel the Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle will crawl up it until just the top of its head is visible. From this position the larva watches for prey wandering by. When it sees a potential meal, such as yesterday’s dragonfly, it flips backwards faster than you can blink an eye and grabs its prey, pulling it down as far as it can into its tunnel, where it safely feasts on its catch. The portion of the Chalk-fronted Corporal’s abdomen that was inside the tiger beetle tunnel was completely consumed except for the outer skeleton.

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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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