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Hibernation

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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Raccoons Active During Warm Spell

1-21-14 raccoon tracks 049During the recent warm spell raccoons were actively roaming the woods, visiting open water and leaving signs of their presence. When cold weather arrives in the fall, raccoons search out hollow trees, logs, crevices, etc. in which to den. They become dormant, but do not hibernate. If the temperature rises above 30 degrees F. at night as it did during the last week, they become active, but now that the temperature has dropped to sub-zero temperatures at night, they have retreated back to their dens. During mild winters, raccoons remain active; during colder winters, they are usually dormant between late November and March. A winter with vacillating temperatures, such as the one we’re experiencing, has them going in and out of dormancy.

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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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Warmer Winters Threaten Hibernating & Torpid Mammals

12-6-13 eastern chipmunk IMG_2845Winter air temperatures have increased in the Northeast during the past 100 years. A study by Craig Frank of Fordham University has found that as winter temperatures heat up because of global warming, chipmunks in areas that have experienced warmer winters become less likely to hibernate in the coldest months. The research indicates that chipmunks that follow normal hibernation procedures enjoy a survival rate through winter of about 87 percent, while those that remain active because of warm winter weather are almost certain to die by spring (due to higher metabolism requiring more food). This finding could mean dire consequences for all mammals that hibernate or become dormant during winter months, as exceptionally high winter temperatures correlate positively with reduced hibernation, resulting in a lower winter survival rate for these animals.

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Eastern Red-backed Salamanders Headed for Hibernation

11-20-13  eastern red-backed salamander 120Unless you spend time looking beneath rotting logs or sifting through the leaf litter, you’re not apt to see an Eastern Red-backed Salamander, even though they are prolific in our woods. Studies have found over 1,000 of these salamanders inhabiting one square acre of woodlands. Eastern Red-backed Salamanders are not freeze tolerant so they must spend the winter in locations that don’t freeze if they are to survive. Once the temperature drops to the 30’s and 40’s, they migrate downwards and hibernate in deep leaf litter, under rocks or in rock crevices, and as much as 15 inches under the ground in animal burrows.

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Carpenter Ants Huddling

11-14-13 carpenter ants 028Insects that live in northern New England have different strategies for surviving the winter. Carpenter ants live in the center of both dead and living trees, in galleries that they have chewed throughout their nest. Although wood is a good insulator, it still freezes during the winter. The ants tend to cluster together and enter a state of slowed metabolism called diapause. In addition, carpenter ants also produce glycerol, a compound which acts as antifreeze preventing destructive ice crystals from forming in their bodies.

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Young Pickerel Frogs Underfoot

9-6-13 young pickerel frog 049If you remember visiting a pond last April or May and hearing a low, snoring sound (the mating call of the male Pickerel Frog) you might see the end results of those snores if you re-visit the pond now. Young Pickerel Frogs the size of quarters are currently abundant on the banks of the ponds in which they grew up, as well as in nearby vegetation. After emerging from the water sometime between July and September, many of these first year frogs move into nearby fields, meadows and damp woods. They are only a few weeks away from burying themselves in mud at the bottom of the pond, where they will hibernate all winter.

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Wood Turtles — Aquatic & Terrestrial, Depending on the Season

8-6-13 wood turtle2 046The Wood Turtle’s (Glyptemys insculpta) common name comes from the resemblance of each segment of its top shell, or carapace, to the cross-section of a tree complete with radiating growth rings. Unlike other turtles that favor either land or water, wood turtles reside in both aquatic and terrestrial habitats. They require streams and rivers for spring mating, feeding and winter hibernation, but also require terrestrial habitats for summer egg-laying and foraging. In slow moving streams and rivers (see photo insert) they feed on fish and insects. On land, usually within 300 yards of a stream, they forage for snails, slugs, berries and mushrooms. Wood Turtles are known for stomping their feet on the ground in order to presumably mimic the vibrations of rain. Earthworms then come to the surface, and the turtle snaps them up.

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White Admiral/Red-spotted Purple Caterpillars Emerge from Hibernation

5-15-13 white admiral larva 133Butterflies in the family Nymphalidae are also referred to as brush-footed butterflies (their front pair of legs are much reduced, brush-like and nonfunctional). Several species of Admiral butterflies belong to this family, and one of the most common in New England is the White Admiral, also known as the Red-spotted Purple. White Admirals overwinter as caterpillars and emerge in late April to feed for several weeks on the young leaves of cherries, willows, poplars and birches, as well as other trees, before forming chrysalises and transforming into butterflies. It is relatively easy to recognize the larva of any species of Admiral butterfly, as they are our only horned bird-dropping mimics. Quite an effective way to discourage predators!


Spring Peepers Emerging

4-8-13 spring peeper2 IMG_7463Sitting on top of the snow, still as a statue, a spring peeper gathers strength to make the long trek to open water, where, if it is a male, it will exercise its voice for the first time in many months. Like the gray treefrog and wood frog, spring peepers can freeze as solid as a rock for several months during hibernation and then, on a warm day, thaw out in a few hours and resume a normal, active life.  The formation of glucose and ice crystals that form outside of cells enable this phenomenon to occur.  Once hibernation has come to an end, peepers seek out wetlands, vernal pools and ponds to breed and lay eggs before they return to their home on the forest floor.


Painted Turtles Basking

3-27-13 painted turtle IMG_7777Hibernation has come to an end for painted turtles in central Vermont, or at least for the early risers. Painted turtles actually became active a while ago, beneath the ice before ponds were completely thawed. Once some of the ice melts, they are quick to climb up and bask in the sun on any available floating log or rock, or even on the melting edge of the ice. Having spent the winter in the mud at the bottom of the pond at the rather brisk temperature of 39 degrees F. (at 39 degrees F. water achieves its greatest density and sinks to the bottom of ponds, which is where the turtles are), painted turtles are more than ready to get warm. Like black bears, painted turtles find March and April the most challenging months of the year. More of them die now than at any other time, due primarily to a shortage of food.


Black Bear Hibernation Ends

3-20-13 black bear track IMG_7204Recent discovery of black bear tracks and scat confirm that hibernation has come to an end, at least for some bears. During the winter black bears lose an average of 23% of their body weight. Because there is a scarcity of food when they emerge from their dens, black bears continue to subsist off the fat that they put on last fall, and thus continue to lose weight. The diet of black bears is high in carbohydrates and low in proteins and fats. When hibernation is over, they head for any available succulents and protein-rich food, including bird feeders.


Hibernating Queen Wasps

2-7-13 hibernating wasp queen2 IMG_2680The queen is the only wasp in a colony to live through the winter (the others all die), and she usually does so in a sheltered spot such as a rotting log or under the loose bark of a tree (pictured). I wasn’t aware, until discovering this wasp, that queens actually chew a cavity in which to hibernate, but that appears to be the case in some instances. You can see the woody bits of fiber under the wasp that accumulated from her excavating the chamber. The cavity is roughly one inch long and ¼-inch deep. As a rule, hibernating queen wasps protect their wings and antennae by tucking them under their bodies. Some species produce glycerol, which acts as an antifreeze, while others allow ice to form around their cell walls and simply freeze solid. Most queen wasps die over the winter, primarily from predation by other insects and spiders, not the cold. (The pictured wasp had succumbed.) Warm winters are more likely to affect queens, as they emerge from hibernation too soon and starve due to lack of food.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Common Gartersnakes Basking

This is the time of year when snakes take advantage of sunny, mild days by basking in the sun and warming their bodies.  It’s possible to come across basking Common Gartersnakes as late as November, as they are more cold tolerant than many species of snakes.  All too soon, however, they will be retreating into their hibernacula (hibernation site), where they are protected from severe cold (being ectothermic, snakes cannot control their body temperature).   To further protect them, a high level of glucose acts as antifreeze in snakes.  The ideal hibernaculum not only serves as a temperature buffer, but also conceals its occupant from potential predators, permits gas exchange, and prevents excessive desiccation.  Rock crevices, abandoned woodchuck burrows, rotting tree stumps and old foundations are favorite hibernacula for snakes and other hibernating animals.  Gartersnakes typically overwinter in groups, and some even share their hibernacula with other species of snakes, including Smooth Greensnakes, Ring-necked Snakes and Red-bellied Snakes.


Black Bear Signs & Hyperphagia

Black bears are omnivores as well as opportunists.  They will eat almost anything that they can find, but the majority of their diet consists of  grasses, roots, berries, nuts and insects (particularly the larvae).  In the fall, prior to going into hibernation, black bears enter a stage called “hyperphagia,” which literally means “excessive eating.”  They forage practically non-stop — up to 20 hours a day, building up fat reserves for hibernation, increasing their body weight by 35% in some cases.  Their daily food intake goes from 8,000 to 15-20,000 calories (that’s roughly equivalent to 70 McDonald’s cheeseburgers).  Signs of their foraging for grubs and beetles, such as the excavated base of the snag in the photograph, can be found with relative ease at this time of year, if you live where there are black bears.  If you do share their territory with them, be forewarned that they have excellent memories, especially for food sources.  Be sure not to leave food scraps or pet food outside (my compost bin was destroyed last year but I have no solution for that particular problem), and if you really don’t want any ursine visitors, it’s best to not start feeding birds until most black bears have entered hibernation – late December would be safe most years.


Woodchucks

Now is the time when your garden is most likely to have visits from resident woodchucks. These large, herbivorous rodents are eating fast and furiously as the days get shorter, in an effort to put on a layer of fat that will sustain them through hibernation.  The middle of the day is typically spent sunning themselves, but early morning and evening will find woodchucks eating and putting on a layer of fat equaling about a third of their weight.  They lose anywhere from 20% – 37% of their body weight during hibernation.  If they don’t gain enough weight now, they won’t survive until green grass and other plants are available again in the spring.  Hopefully knowing this will make sharing your garden with an uninvited guest a bit easier.


Painted Turtles Basking

After spending several months hibernating in the mud at the bottom of ponds, painted turtles are out, basking in the sun.  Because they are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, they are the same temperature as the air around them.  In order to warm up and also to properly digest their food, painted turtles bask in the sun, and there is great competition for safe basking locations, such as rocks and floating logs. When these ideal basking sites are limited, the turtles will pile up one on top of the other, staying that way until the bottom turtle gets good and tired of supporting the turtles on top of it, and wobbles enough to make the turtle tower tumble.


Woodchucks Emerging and Mating

A sure sign of spring is the emergence of woodchucks, the largest members of the Squirrel family in New England, after a long winter’s sleep. Their arousal is easily noted, for when the males wake up, they do some excavating of their tunnel, scattering dirt all around it which is easily spotted on the snow (if there is still any snow left).  Equally obvious is the muddy trail they leave when in search of a female.  Mating takes place in March and April, and the resulting  litters of 2 to 6 young are born a month later.  


Abandoned Black Bear Den

Black bears are known for denning in a variety of locations, including under logs and stumps, under the branches of a fallen tree and inside caves and hollow trees. Occasionally they choose a site where they are fully exposed, such dense thickets.  This photograph of an abandoned den is just that — a depression in the middle of a stand of almost impenetrable red spruces which bears have lined with broken spruce boughs.  The imprint of two small bears (likely two year olds) in the needles, plus other nearby signs confirm that this den was inhabited fairly recently. With the mild winter we’re having and the abundance of fruits and nuts this past fall, the hibernation habits of bears may well have been altered –  I know of tracks that were spotted in January as well as this month — one typically wouldn’t expect to find bears emerging from their dens much before late March or early April.  (Notice bark is  missing on some of the nearby spruce trunks from bears biting and tearing it.)


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