An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

December

Hairy and Downy Woodpecker Bills

12-31-13 woodpecker billsDistinguishing Hairy Woodpeckers (Picoides villosus) from their smaller relatives, Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens), can be challenging if you don’t have a chance to view both species at the same time. The easiest way to tell them apart is to note the relative size of their bills. The Hairy Woodpecker’s bill is proportionately much larger than the Downy Woodpecker’s – it’s almost as long as its head — whereas the Downy Woodpecker’s bill is not nearly as impressive. Although a Downy Woodpecker can’t drill or probe as deeply into trees as a Hairy Woodpecker, it does have at least one advantage due to its overall smaller size; it is light enough to balance on the stems of goldenrods, which usually aren’t strong enough to support Hairy Woodpeckers. It is here that Downy Woodpeckers drill for overwintering goldenrod fly larvae inside goldenrod ball galls – a popular winter snack for this species.

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Black Bears Still Active

12-27-13  black bear tracks by GinnyFinding Black Bear tracks in late December shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it often does if you’re unaware of the true timing of hibernation. Most of us assume Black Bears are fast asleep by November, but entrance into hibernation is usually considerably later than this. According to Ben Kilham, a New Hampshire bear biologist , pregnant female black bears den first, around the middle of December, followed by unbred females in late December. Males stay active as long as there is a supply of food available and the weather isn’t too severe. Young males remaining active the longest, often into January, in order to put on as much weight as possible in order to compete with older males the following spring. Occasionally when a winter is particularly mild, and it’s a good year for mast crops such as acorns or beechnuts, you hear or see signs of Black Bear through the winter, but this is the exception rather than the rule. (Photo by Ginny Barlow – Black Bear hind foot on left, front foot on right.)

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Northern Hawk Owl

n. hawk owl3- 231The Northern Hawk Owl is a bird of the remote Alaskan and Canadian boreal forests. Its name reflects the fact that this diurnal owl has both the appearance and behavior of a hawk, specifically, an accipiter. Although the Northern Hawk Owl winters throughout its breeding range, it periodically erupts southward into southern Canada and the northern United States. Sightings of this bird are rare in Vermont, but in recent winters, including the current one, there have been some. As with Snowy Owls, the magnitude and extent of these winter irruptions are thought to correlate with high reproductive success followed by severe winter conditions and decreased prey availability, but much remains to be understood about their winter dispersal habits. What we do know is that the Northern Hawk Owl’s skills as a hunter are very impressive. It can detect prey (small rodents, grouse, hares) by sight at a distance of half a mile and just using its ears can find prey under a foot of snow.

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Pileated Woodpecker Sign

12-26-13 pileated sign2 IMG_8246Pileated Woodpeckers typically make rectangular holes in trees in order to reach the carpenter ants that live in galleries they’ve created deep within a tree. While ants are high on a Pileated Woodpecker’s list of preferred food, wood-boring beetle larvae are not far behind. Sometimes the exertion of jackhammering isn’t necessary in order to reach insect larvae – removal of the outer bark is enough to expose tasty morsels.

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Weasel Tracks

12-24-13 weasel & stonewall IMG_9602When looking for signs of weasel– Long-tailed or Ermine (formerly called Short-tailed Weasel) – in winter, stonewalls are a good place to head. Both of these nocturnal mustelids prey on small rodents such as mice and voles, which frequent the nooks and crannies of stonewalls. In winter weasels cover a lot of ground looking for prey – the home range of an Ermine is between 30 and 40 square acres, but when food is scarce, they may travel two or three miles in one night. Often their tracks will run the length of a stonewall on one side and then back the other side. Intermittent pauses are made as the Ermine stands on its hind feet and stretches its neck out, searching the landscape for both movement and sound.

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Snowflea Air Bags

12-23-13 snowflea IMG_0947Snowfleas are such remarkable little arthropods that they merit at least an annual post. The recent warm weather brought them up out of the leaf litter to the surface of the snow, where they constantly hurl themselves from one spot to another. If you don’t mind getting your knees wet, you can watch as snowfleas tuck their head down and catapult themselves through the air. Just before launching themselves, the snowflea everts three anal sacs from its anus. When the snowflea lands, these sticky appendages act like automobile air bags, absorbing the shock of landing as well as preventing the snowflea from bouncing around. There may be another function that they perform, but it is not known at this time what that might be. While there are many genera of snowfleas, only species in the genus Hypogastrura possess anal sacs.

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American Yew Female Cones

12-20-13  American Yew female cones IMG_6118Being a gymnosperm (its seeds are not enclosed in an ovary), American Yew, Taxus canadensis, lacks true flowers or fruits and possesses separate male and female (seed) cones. Each male cone produces up to 100 pollen sacs or more. The modified female cones do not resemble the typical woody cones of evergreens. Yews are the only conifers that produce seed cones that consist of a fleshy (and mucilaginous), scarlet, cup-shaped structure called an aril, each of which holds one seed. The seeds (not the aril) are poisonous to humans, but thrushes, waxwings and other birds consume them and aid in their dispersal.

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