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Adaptations

Goldenrod Bunch Gall

goldenrod bunch gall 144Galls are abnormal plant growths that are caused by a number of agents, including insects. Each gall-making insect has a specific host plant and location (leaf, stem, bud) on which it lays its eggs in the spring, during the growing season. The egg-laying and/or hatching and chewing of the larva causes the plant to react by forming a growth around the insect. Galls of different species of insects vary in their shape and the gall maker can often be identified as a result of this.

Goldenrods are host to about 50 species of gall-making insects, two-thirds of which are midges, or tiny flies. Goldenrod Bunch Galls, also called Rosette Galls, are the result of an egg being laid in the topmost leaf bud of Canada Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis by a midge in the genus Rhopalomyia, often Rhopalomyia solidaginis. The stem of the goldenrod stops growing, but the leaves don’t. The resulting rosette of leaves provides shelter and food for the midge larva, as well as a host of other insects, including other midges. Adult Goldenrod Bunch Gall midges emerge from the galls in the fall, and females lay eggs in the soil. The larvae hatch within one to two weeks and spend the winter underground, emerging in the spring to start the cycle all over again. Interestingly, Rhopalomyia solidaginis lays all male or all female eggs, one or the other.

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Raccoons Quick and Adept Hunters

raccoon pond scat 134Not everyone enjoys discovering what an animal eats by dissecting its scat, but for those of us who do, the revelations can be worth the effort. One quick glance at the shape and size of the pictured scat confirmed that a raccoon had been in the vicinity and bits of crayfish exoskeleton in it indicated that the raccoon fed from the nearby pond. Further examination of the contents revealed that raccoons are fast enough to catch dragonflies – something I wouldn’t have necessarily known and most likely wouldn’t observe in the field. Who would have guessed that raccoons are quick enough or interested enough in dragonflies to catch them? (NB: Do not do as I did – do not touch or dissect raccoon scat as it can contain bacteria, ticks and Baylisascaris roundworms which can cause neurological damage.)

As an aside, I thought it might be of interest for readers to know what goes into the making of a Naturally Curious post. The following describes my morning yesterday: out for a walk, visit a pond, see scat on a big, wooden raft that has floated near shore, manage to leap onto raft to take a picture of the scat, photograph scat and then look up to see that my leap has shoved the raft away from the edge of the pond, and I’ve drifted out into the middle of said pond. Balancing the camera on the raft, I paddle, first with one hand and then with both (at one corner), trying to move this 15’ x 15’ wooden structure in the direction I want it to go. Make a little progress, but not much. Beloved chocolate lab swims up to raft, I hold onto her neck and she pulls us to shore, camera intact. And I haven’t even begun to dissect, photograph, label and write about the contents of what led me on this adventure!

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Second Brood of Woolly Bears Hatches

8-18-14  woolly bear 093Typically we start seeing Woolly Bear caterpillars in October, when they are searching for sheltered spots in which to spend the winter as larvae. With only two months between now and then, it came as a surprise when my great nephew and budding naturalist Eli Holland discovered a very young Woolly Bear recently. It turns out that in New England, there are two broods of Isabella Tiger Moths (whose larval stage is the Woolly Bear). The caterpillars that hibernated last winter emerged from hibernation this past spring, pupated, transformed into adult Isabella Tiger Moths, and proceeded to mate and lay eggs. It is these eggs that have recently hatched, and the Woolly Bear caterpillars that are no bigger than the length of your baby fingernail right now will be eating dandelions, grasses, nettle and meadowsweet nonstop for the next two months in order to survive the coming winter.

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Two-month old Common Loon Chick Beginning to Look Like a Loon!

8-12-14 c.loon two months old IMG_8704Remember that little black ball of fluff that was featured in Naturally Curious loon posts two months ago? That downy Common Loon chick has lost both its black and its brown coat of down, and is now covered with smooth, gray contour feathers. Nearly the size of its parents, it is looking quite sleek. Soon the chick’s flight feathers will be completely in. In only a matter of two or three more weeks it will be flapping its wings and making take-off runs in preparation for flight, which it will be capable of in another month. (It will be two years old before it attains adult plumage.)

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Great Golden Digger Wasps Digging Nests & Provisioning Them with Food

8-11-15 great golden d.w.2 159The Great Golden Digger Wasp, Sphex ichneumoneus, is a solitary, predatory wasp whose hunting and nesting techniques are programmed and never vary. Having overwintered underground in a nest dug by its mother, the adult wasp emerges, often in August, and begins preparations for the next generation. She digs several nests in packed, sandy soil, using her mandibles to cut the earth. Emerging backwards from the ground with a lump of soil between her forelegs and head, she flips the soil with her forelegs beneath her body, scattering it to the sides with her hind legs. In this manner she excavates several cells off a central 4-6-inch deep tunnel.

The wasp seeks out prey — often a grasshopper, cicada or cricket – and then stings and paralyzes it. If the prey is small, she flies it directly to the nest. If prey is too large to transport aerially, the wasp will walk with it across the ground, dragging it by its antennae (see photo). She then drops the prey several inches from the nest hole. After crawling down into the nest for a brief inspection, she pulls the prey down into one of the cells while walking backwards. She then leaves to find another insect. When a cell contains paralyzed prey, the wasp lays an egg on the insect. The egg hatches within two or three days and the wasp larva begins eating the insect. Because the prey is not dead, decomposition is delayed, and the wasp larva’s food is relatively fresh. The developing wasps overwinter in the nest and emerge the following summer to begin the process all over again.

If you live near a sunny area of compacted clay and sand that has flower nectar for adults to feed on and crickets, grasshoppers and katydids for their larvae, you may well have a chance to observe this unique ritual. (Thanks to Marian Cawley for photo op.)

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Young Beavers Out and About

8-5-14 adult and young beaver2 082Most beavers are born between May and early July, weighing one pound and measuring a foot long. They are fully furred, their eyes and ears are open and they know how to swim. Even so, they don’t usually venture out of the lodge for the first month or so. Initially their fur isn’t water-repellent, but by three to four weeks of age, the young beavers’ anal glands, used in greasing their fur, are functional. When the kits weigh seven or eight pounds, they start to leave the lodge regularly to explore their pond and feed with their parents and older siblings.

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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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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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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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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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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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Fern Balls

fern ball 216At this time of year, many new sterile fern fronds have “fern balls” at their tips – something has taken the last few inches of the tip of the frond and stitched it together into a ball-shaped shelter bound with silk. If you open one of these balls, you may find frass – droppings from the immature insect that was dwelling within the ball while consuming the terminal leaflets of the fern. Sometimes, but not always, you’ll find the larva responsible for the frass. Many species of ferns, as well as other plants, are host to many species of larvae, and many of these larvae are immature moths. Pictured is Christmas Fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, which is likely the host of the larva of Herpetograma sphingealis, the Serpentine Webworm Moth, or its close relative, H. aeglealis. Larvae live in these shelters for about a month before pupating and emerging as small, brown moths.

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Pine Pollen: Nature’s Testosterone

6-12-14 pine pollen  100If you’ve noticed yellow clouds near pine trees recently, or a layer of yellow “dust” on your car or pond, you’ve witnessed the annual dispersal of pollen by male pine cones. Light and fluffy so as to be easily distributed by the wind (rather than insects), these minute pollen grains containing sperm cells can be found just about anywhere this time of year, including the nostrils of humans. All pines have separate male and female (seed) cones on the same tree. Male pine cones, which produce pollen, are much smaller, occur in clusters, are more papery, and remain on the tree for a much shorter period of time than most female pine cones. (By July they will litter the ground beneath pines before they quickly disintegrate.) Although it may mean a brief period of sneezing has to be endured by those allergic to it, this “golden smoke” not only creates beautifully intricate patterns for us to enjoy and makes it possible for pine trees to make the next generation of seeds, but it is also touted as an agent of increased testosterone and strong sexual libido, anti-aging, skin rejuvenation and improved immune systems for humans. Haste ye to a natural food store (or the closest pond!). (photo – Red Pine pollen & male cones)

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Hummingbirds Extracting Nectar

6-10-14 hummingbird tongue 045For years scientists assumed that hummingbirds passively extracted nectar from flowers with their tongue through capillary action, but it turns out that this is not the case. A hummingbird’s forked tongue (which is twice as long as its beak) is lined with hair-like extensions or fringes called lamellae. When it is inserted into a flower and immersed in fluid, the tongue separates and the lamellae extend outwards so that open grooves (between the lamellae) lay flat. As the hummingbird pulls its tongue into its mouth, the forked tips come together and the lamellae roll inward, trapping the nectar within the tongue until it is swallowed by the hummingbird. No output of energy is necessary on the part of the bird – this process is automatic, takes all of 1/20th of a second, and occurs thousands of times a day. (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for Ruby-throated Hummingbird photo op.)

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Rosy Maple Moths Emerging

6-9-14 rosy maple moth 161This is the time of year when moths rule the nights. Many moths in the silkmoth family, Saturniidae, emerge in June, including giant silkmoths such as Luna Moths and Cecropia Moths. A smaller member of this family also appears at this time of year. While the 1 to 2-inch Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda) wingspan doesn’t come close to many of the giant silkmoths’ 5 to 6-inch wingspan, its pink and white or yellow coloring is stunning. Adults emerge mid-May through mid-July in the late afternoon, and they mate in the late evening. Females begin laying eggs at dusk the next day in groups of 10-30 on leaves of the host plants (Red, Sugar and Silver Maples, as well as Box-elder and some oak trees). The eggs hatch in about 2 weeks and the larvae are referred to as Green-striped Mapleworms. They occasionally do considerable damage to their host trees when their population soars. In New England there is only one brood per summer, with the larvae pupating and overwintering underground.

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Dragonfly Eclosure: A Vulnerable Time

newt eating dragonfly2 021Dragonfly larvae reside in ponds until the time comes for them to climb up stalks of emergent vegetation or adjacent rocks, split their larval skin and emerge as adults (a process called eclosure). Before it can take flight, a dragonfly has to cling to the substrate long enough to expand its wings by pumping fluid into them, and dry its exoskeleton as well as its wings. During this time the dragonfly is extremely vulnerable – not only can it not fly, but it is usually situated directly above the water. The slightest breeze can blow it from its precarious perch into the water below, where opportunistic predators such as this Eastern Newt are at the ready and make quick work of their helpless prey.

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Jumping Spider Guards Egg Sac

6-5-14 jumping spider2  077Spiders protect their eggs by wrapping them up in a sac they make out of silk. Some species (such as garden, or black-and-yellow argiope, spiders) then die, leaving their egg sac to withstand the elements, as well as potential parasites and predators, on their own. As you would guess, these sacs are usually fairly impenetrable. In other species, female spiders survive long enough to guard their eggs until they hatch, or even until the young spiderlings disperse, and these sacs are usually far less tough. In the species where the female protects her eggs, some females carry their egg sacs with them at all times (wolf spiders, nursery web spiders) while others (jumping spiders) simply remain with the sac. Their excellent eyesight and impressive ability to leap many times their body length gives jumping spiders an advantage over any potential predators. (Photo – jumping spider with egg sac)

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Warbling Vireo Warbles on Nest

6-4-14 warbling vireo on nest 226 As a rule, male birds do not sing near their nest. When they approach their nest, whether to take their turn incubating eggs, brooding nestlings or delivering food, they are apt to be silent, or sing much more softly than usual, so as to avoid bringing attention to the nest. There are exceptions to this rule, however – male Chipping Sparrows, House Wrens, Common Yellowthroats, Hermit Thrushes, Black-billed Cuckoos, Scarlet Tanagers, Orchard Orioles and American Goldfinches have been heard singing not just near their nest, but while sitting on it! Warbling Vireos are by far the most persistent nest singers. When the male Warbling Vireo is incubating, he sings at all times of the day, as many as 20 bursts of song during one spell on the nest. Listening for the Warbling Vireo’s song and locating the songster can often lead you to its nest. One wonders what function the song has that makes it worth drawing this kind of attention to the nest.

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