An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

April

American Bitterns Displaying

5-3-14  American Bittern3  058American Bitterns are very secretive marsh-dwelling birds and have coloration so cryptic that you can be looking right at one and not see it, especially if it employs its “look like a reed” stance, with bill raised towards the sky. Like other members of the Heron family, American Bitterns possess plumes. These large, white shoulder feathers are visible only at this time of year, during territorial and courtship displays and just prior to copulation, when they are erected. Not only do these plumes impress female bitterns, but they make it much easier for humans to spot the displaying males.

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Trailing Arbutus in Bloom

5-1-14 trailing arbutus 109Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) is said to have heralded spring to the winter-weary Pilgrims in 1621 and thus is known as “Mayflower” by many. (It is also the Massachusetts state flower.) Creeping along the ground where the soil is typically quite acidic are Trailing Arbutus’s hairy, woody stems bearing evergreen, aromatic leaves that are present year round. Only in the early spring are we treated to its fragrant pink flowers, often nestled under these leathery leaves. Abundant nectar is found by overwintering bumblebee queens that are attracted to Trailing Arbutus’s indescribably delicate and sweet-smelling scent.

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Great Blue Heron Casting Pellet

great blue heron casting pellet 205Great Blue Herons swallow their prey whole, which means they consume not only flesh, but also bones and fur (if they eat a mouse or a vole). They are able to digest almost all of the prey that they eat due to acidic stomach secretions that are capable of softening even bones. However, they are not able to digest hair, or fur. This indigestible matter is formed into pellets which Great Blue Herons regurgitate – much like owls and many other birds.

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Muskrats Mating

4-29-14 mating muskrats2  099 Muskrats breed year round in southern U.S., but in New England ice-out usually determines when they first breed. These largely monogamous rodents take to the water to copulate after a mad chase that often lasts several minutes. Successive breedings take place all summer. By the time one litter is weaned and independent (about four weeks), the mother is about to give birth again. Several litters of five or six young are produced each year, with the mother caring for her young up until they are weaned, and the father then taking over.

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Coltsfoot Flowers A Welcome Source of Nectar for Bees

4-25-14  coltsfoot 125Even though they are not rare and they are not especially known for their beauty, the dandelion-like flowers of Coltsfoot beckon like no others. To humans, the brilliant yellow petals of this member of the Aster family are a bright beacon in the relatively drab brown world revealed after the snow melts. But they are an even more compelling sight for bees at this time of year, for these flowers are a very early source of nectar in the spring, when there are few other wildflowers blooming.

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Hungry Black Bears

4-25-14 black bear IMG_3624When Black Bears emerge from their dens in the spring, they have lost between 15 and 40 percent of their weight, and food is in short supply. About 85% of a bear’s diet is vegetation, and most trees and shrubs have not leafed out yet. Black Bears often head to wetlands, where grasses and sedges are beginning to sprout. Nutritionally the shoots of these plants provide them with some of the protein they need, but this source of nutrients is short-lived, as the shoots are tender for only a few days before hardening with cellulose. Roots, bulbs, corms and tubers of plants such as Skunk Cabbage and Jack-in-the-Pulpit are sought after, as are the buds of trees, but bears must wait for the bountiful supply of berries and nuts that mature in summer and fall. Those bears living near humans come to rely on foods inadvertently provided by these humans, such as highly nutritional sunflower seeds being fed to birds. One can hardly blame bears for taking advantage of this available source of food during this challenging time. Feeders and cans containing seed should be put in a bear-proof location if you don’t want to encourage “nuisance” bears which, unfortunately, are sometimes killed just for trying not to starve to death.

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Promethea Moth Cocoon

4-22-14  promethea cocoon 478When a Promethea Moth caterpillar, one of our giant silk moths, is ready to pupate at the end of the summer, it strengthens the stem, or petiole, of a leaf on its host plant with silk and then attaches the silk to a nearby branch, assuring that the leaf will remain attached to the tree. (Imagine having the instinctive foresight in your youth that this caterpillar had!) The caterpillar then curls the leaf around itself and spins its cocoon inside the curled leaf. The cocoon dangles from the host plant throughout the winter and in early summer the moth emerges. Now is the perfect time for finding a Promethea Moth cocoon, as last year’s leaves are gone on most trees, and this year’s buds have yet to open. Look for a tree or shrub that has just one dead leaf hanging from one of its branches. (Cecropia caterpillars favor black cherry, poplar, ash, maple, oak and willows trees among others.)

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Belted Kingfisher Snags, Stuns & Swallows Prey

4-23-14 b. kingfisher & crayfish 147Watching the hunting antics of a Belted Kingfisher can be highly entertaining. They often swoop down from a branch to grab prey which is near the surface of the water and they are also one of few birds capable of hovering– beating their wings while staying stationary long enough to focus on prey in the water. Once they’ve grabbed their prey, which is mostly fish, but also crustaceans, frogs, snakes, young birds and small mammals, in their pincer-like bill, the fun really begins. The kingfisher flies to a nearby perch with its prey in its bill and then proceeds to pound the prey against the perch with repeated sideways movements of its head. The kingfisher does this in order to stun the fish (or other prey) so that it can eventually turn it and swallow the fish head first. The kingfisher in this photograph was giving the crayfish it just captured a real beating before devouring it (head first).

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Poison Ivy Fruit An Important Spring Resource for Birds

4-9-14 poison ivy fruit 138There are a number of birds that have returned to New England from their southern wintering grounds and are working hard to find enough to sustain themselves until food is more plentiful. Eastern Bluebirds, Hermit Thrushes, Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Phoebes and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers adapt their diets to whatever is available at this time of year, which can mean going from eating insects to consuming fruit. Fruits that persist through the winter are few and far between, but one of the plants that provides the most sustenance to birds in early spring is Poison Ivy. The off-white, berry-like fruits are extremely popular with at least 60 species of birds, including the early returning migrants previously mentioned, as well as Gray Catbirds, Yellow-shafted Flickers, Wild Turkeys, and Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers. The popularity of Poison Ivy fruit with birds explains why this plant is common along fencerows and other areas where birds roost (and pass the seeds). (Caution – irritating urushiol, an oily resin found in the sap of Poison Ivy, is present in the leaves, stems, flowers, roots and fruit of this plant.)

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Snowy Owls Headed North

4-21-14 flying snowy 046The record number of Snowy Owls that spent the winter in New England are turning up in all sorts of new locations now that they are on their way back to their breeding grounds on the open tundra and stopping to refuel along the way. Although many were young birds, and won’t breed this year, the adult owls will when they reach the Arctic in a few weeks. First, the males perform aerial and ground displays. After mating, the female selects a nest site. In addition to having a sufficient food supply, the site must be snow-free, not subject to flooding, and command a view of its surroundings. The latter is achieved by making their nest on a hummock, or slightly raised surface of bare ground. The female scrapes a shallow depression in the earth with her claws, twirling around to make a form-fitted hollow. No insulating material is added to this depression – no vegetation, no feather lining. Eggs and nestlings are totally dependent upon the mother’s warmth, transmitted via the large, featherless, pink patch of skin on her belly known as an “incubation patch.” The female alone incubates the eggs and broods the young chicks while the male provides food for his entire family.

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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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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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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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Beaver Scent Mounds

4-30-13 beaver scent moundsThis is the time of year when two-year-old beavers leave their lodges and strike out on their own, primarily because the woods surrounding a pond usually can’t support more than one family of beavers. Beavers are exceptionally territorial; once they’ve established a lodge, they do not take kindly to interlopers. In order to make this perfectly clear to house-hunting young beavers, in the spring resident beavers build what are called scent mounds — piles (up to three feet in height, but usually much smaller) of mud, leaves and pond-bottom debris — around the perimeter of their territory. They then smear castoreum, a substance that comes from their castor sacs, over the mound. Chemicals in the castoreum convey to roaming young beavers that this particular pond is spoken for.


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