An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

April

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.


Spring Peepers Mating & Laying Eggs

spring peepers mating DA8A0504The mating season for spring peepers lasts two months or more, and judging from the sound that is coming from ponds and woodlands these days and nights, it is in full swing. Once a singing male is successful in attracting a female, he mounts and clasps her while depositing his sperm on her eggs. She lays up to 800 eggs, either singly or in small groups, on plants within the male’s territory. The frogs remain joined (a position known as “amplexus”) for up to four hours. After egg-laying and fertilization is completed, the female peeper returns to the woods; the male remains at the pond and resumes singing.


Six- and Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetles Active

4-25-13 6 and 12-spotted tiger beetlesTiger beetles (named for their ferocity) can be easily recognized by their quick, jerky movements, huge eyes and large, multiple mandibles. Look for these voracious hunters in sunny, open spots where they can easily spot prey and potential predators. The six-spotted tiger beetle is hard to miss, thanks to its iridescent green outer wings, or elytra. Contrary to that which its name implies, this species can have five, two or even no white spots. It is most likely to be found on exposed rocks, logs and tree trunks, whereas the twelve-spotted (may have 12 or fewer spots) tiger beetle tends to prefer moist sandy spots. They both capture and liquefy their prey by masticating it with their formidable mandibles, squeezing it and swallowing the juice. Both of these species of tiger beetles have a two year life cycle, overwintering as adults their first winter, emerging early in the spring, mating and laying eggs during the summer and then overwintering as larvae.


Great Blue Herons Mating

4-22-13 great blue herons copulating2  IMG_8954Numerous displays lead up to the mating of great blue herons – neck stretching, bill clacking, wing preening, circling flights, twig shaking, crest raising, neck fluffing, to name but a few. After this elaborate courtship comes copulation, which is not nearly as showy. Copulation typically takes place on the nest. The male places one foot gently in the center of the female’s back. The female leans forward, bends her ankles and holds her wings slightly away from her sides while the male lowers himself, often flapping his wings. Once the job is done, the male flies off. If you look closely you can perhaps make out that the male is grasping the female’s head/neck while copulation takes place.


Eastern Chipmunks Soon to Give Birth

4-24-13 dirty eastern chipmunk IMG_3051It’s possible that this chipmunk is preparing a nesting chamber in her underground burrow, judging from the amount of dirt that is on her. Sometime between February and early April chipmunks mate. Roughly a month later they give birth to 3 to 5 young in a bulky nest of leaves inside a 24” x 15” x 10” chamber. Within a week, hair and stripes will be evident on the young chipmunks. In about a month, they will venture out of the burrow, looking like small adults.


Eastern Commas Flying

4-23-13 green comma IMG_9353Commas are a group of butterflies also known as anglewings (for obvious reasons). There are several species of commas in New England, all of which have a silver mark in the shape of a comma underneath each hind wing. Like mourning cloaks, these butterflies overwinter as adults in bark crevices, logs or other protected spots. You often see them in the woods, where they feed on tree sap, mud, scat and decaying organic matter. When perched with their wings closed, they are extremely well camouflaged and easily mistaken for a dead leaf.


Porcupines Giving Birth

4-18-13 porcupine IMG_9203It’s not easy being a female porcupine. You mate in the fall and are either pregnant (7 months) or lactating (4 months) for the next 11 months before you have one month’s break and begin this cycle all over again. This time of year porcupines are giving birth to one young that is covered in fur and quills and weighs about a pound. The young porcupette is born headfirst in a sac, in order to protect the mother from quill damage. Its quills are soft at birth, but harden within an hour. (Thanks to Kay and Peter Shumway for photo op.)


Hepatica Blooming

4-18-13 hepatica DA8A9542Hepatica has finally opened its hairy buds and greeted the world with its beautiful white, pink, blue and lavender blossoms. Typically the only wildflowers to appear earlier than this member of the Buttercup family are skunk cabbage and coltsfoot. Like many flowers, hepatica blossoms open on sunny days, and close at night and on cloudy days. This prevents rain from washing out the pollen and nectar which help attract pollinating insects, including early-flying bees and flies.


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