There were some extraordinarily creative guesses for this Mystery Photo, with several correct ones that identified the cottontail rabbit nest pictured yesterday. Two species of cottontails can be found in New England – the common Eastern Cottontail Rabbit and the increasingly scarce New England Cottontail Rabbit. Although the two species are very difficult to tell apart, young New England Cottontails usually have a black spot between their ears and never a white spot, which makes this nest that of an Eastern Cottontail. The female rabbit digs a nest hole about four inches deep and up to eight inches long, usually in grass or thickets where it is well concealed. She lines it with grass and fur plucked from her body. After her 3 – 9 young are born, she covers the nest with her fur and dry grasses and leaves the are in order not to draw attention to the nest. She returns at night to feed the young, squatting over the nest while her young reach up to nurse. Unlike hares, rabbits are born blind with only a sparse covering of hair and remain in the nest from three to five weeks, when the white blaze on their forehead starts to disappear. Snowshoe hares are born with eyes open, fully furred and disperse from the nest soon after birth. (Thanks to Noreen Anderson for photo.)
Periodical Cicada Brood II has gotten a lot of press this summer, as this brood of 13 and 17-year cicadas is emerging from Connecticut south to Virginia. These species are referred to as “periodical” cicadas because they are developmentally synchronized and appear in large numbers every 13 or 17 years. There are also “annual” cicadas – cicadas that appear every summer. They may spend several years as immature insects under the ground, feeding off the sap in roots, but some of them mature and appear every summer. Northern New Englanders are familiar with different species of annual cicadas, including Okanagana rimosa, which usually emerges in mid-summer and fills the air with its courtship call on hot, humid days. The emergence of cicadas is triggered by the temperature of the soil they are in — once the soil 8 inches below the surface gets to 64 degrees Fahrenheit, annual cicadas are on the move. (Thanks to Holly Lanigan for Periodical Cicada photo op.)
The highlight of a recent trip to Maine was watching a bull moose feed on submerged aquatic vegetation. It would swim a short distance, and then sink, much like a submarine, until only the top of its back was visible, and then it, too, completely disappeared, leaving no sign of a moose. Seconds later the moose’s head would reappear, with its mouth full of green plants. When these plants were consumed, the moose would submerge underwater again and come up with another mouthful. It proceeded to do this at least a dozen times before eventually swimming to shore. When moose are feeding on submerged vegetation they are capable of reaching plants in water over 18 feet deep, and they can remain under water for up to 50 seconds or longer before resurfacing. It’s thought that they remain submerged by paddling and perhaps by releasing air from their lungs.
Vermont Public Radio aired a program on black bears yesterday, and the message it conveyed is one I feel is worth repeating, as it applies to anyone living in bear country. Even though the Black Bear population in New England is growing and there is more overlap of black bear and human habitation, we can co-exist. Without enticement, bears would not be prone to visiting backyards, and thus, “nuisance” calls to Fish & Wildlife would be far fewer (as would the number of bears that are put down). Bears go where there’s food, be it bird feeders, bee hives, compost piles or pet food. After a winter of not eating, black bears are extremely hungry in the spring and early summer, and their memory is excellent. If a feeder or bee hive has been raided one night, it will most likely be revisited the next. The best way to avoid having black bears encroach on one’s back yard is to not have any food available. Birds survive very well at this time of year without any supplemental feeding, so bird feeders can be taken down. Bee hives (and compost piles) can be protected with electric fencing. Cats and dogs should be fed inside, where their food isn’t available to bears. As of July 1st, it will be against the law for anyone in Vermont to feed bears – and that includes unintentional feeding (bird feeders, bee hives, pet food, etc.). Before a “nuisance” bear will be disposed of by Vermont Fish & Wildlife, the homeowner will first have to take measures to discourage bears, such as taking bird feeders down and putting electric fencing around bee hives. Sounds like a good law to me!
Spotted Sandpipers are a relatively easy shorebird to identify, with their spotted breasts, their constant body-bobbing/teetering and the stiff beat of their wings. Although they are a shorebird, they can be found near freshwater ponds and streams throughout North America. Spotted Sandpipers differ from most birds in that the male and female roles are completely reversed when it comes to breeding – from courtship to parental care. The females establish and defend their territory, often arriving on nesting grounds before the males. Females court the males, performing display flights as well as strutting displays on the ground. Males, usually less aggressive and smaller in size, do the lion’s share of incubating the eggs and brooding the young chicks.
Typically you find this fungus growing from the base of a rotting stump, poking up through the ground like a dead man’s fingers — hence, the name. The “fingers”, or fruiting bodies, can take many forms, including individual fingers or fused fingers that resemble a hand. It’s thought that Dead Man’s Fingers, Xylaria polymorpha, is actually several species of fungi, which have yet to be identified. In the spring, this fungus is covered with light-colored, asexual spores, which give it a grayish tint. As it matures, it darkens with the production of mature spores, eventually turning black. Most fungi disperse their spores over a period of a few hours or days. Dead Man’s Fingers is much slower, releasing its spores over many months or even years. (Thanks to Marian and Charles Marrin for photo op.)
When a turtle moves its head, its eye moves to compensate, so that its eye remains in the same position – parallel to the horizon or pond surface — no matter what position the turtle’s head is in. This type of eye stabilization is called vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR). Humans have a very similar reflex, but it’s easier to detect on a Painted Turtle (pictured) because of its dark eye line. A turtle’s eye structure is stabilized to the horizon, which makes sense, as turtles spend their life close to the ground and/or the pond surface, and this reflex enables it to align its vision horizontally in order to find food, a mate and predators.
The larvae of moths and butterflies are very susceptible to predation, especially by birds, and they utilize many different strategies to protect themselves. Shapes, colors and behavior all contribute to their survival. Some larvae take on the appearance of less appetizing things, such as bird droppings, twigs or leaves. Some have large eye spots which presumably scare predators. Others have cryptic coloration which makes them all but invisible. The pictured green caterpillar uses both color and behavior to visually disappear on the fern it is consuming.
These mating Pearl Crescent butterflies may have used size, color, shape, vein structure and/or pheromones to recognize each other. When mating, most male butterflies provide a package (spermatophore) of sperm and nutrients the female needs to produce and lay eggs. The mated female stores the spermatophore in a sac called a bursa until she’s ready to lay eggs. She fertilizes her eggs as she lays them, using the last sperm she received first. For this reason, males of some species will leave a substance that dries into a film on the female’s abdomen in an effort to keep her from mating with other males. (Thanks to Kent McFarland for butterfly i.d.)
American Bitterns typically nest in tall, standing cattails, rushes and sedges, where they are well concealed. Like most birds, male bitterns use their voice to attract a female and to stake out their territory. Dense marshes present a challenge when it comes to being heard, however. American Bitterns overcome this challenge by having a very low-frequency call, which is audible at great distances in dense marsh vegetation. Once you’ve heard a bittern’s call, you’ll never forget it. It is very deep, and has three syllables – “oong-ka-choonk” – which are preceded by clicks and gulps. The bittern makes this call multiple times by inflating his esophagus while contorting himself quite violently. A female American Bittern couldn’t help but be impressed. (You can hear a bittern calling by visiting Cornell’s site, http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/american_bittern/sounds .
Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), also known as Moccasin Flowers, differ from Yellow and Showy Lady’s Slippers in two fairly obvious ways. One is that the stalk the single flower is borne on bears no leaves. In addition, the pouch, or labellum, has a vertical slit running the length of it, rather than an oval opening on the top. Bumblebees are the only insect strong enough to push their way through this slit and are their main pollinators. In New England, almost 25% of the Pink Lady’s Slipper population have white flowers (see insert).
The relationship between beavers and waterfowl is a strong one. In creating ponds and wetlands, beavers provide valuable waterfowl habitat. Beaver ponds are attractive to most dabbling duck species, particularly American Black Ducks and Mallards (pictured). Dead snags that are often found in beaver ponds provide Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads and Wood Ducks with nesting cavities. During spring and fall, beaver ponds are used by migrating waterfowl, such as Green-winged Teal and Ring-necked Ducks, for the fuel they provide (aquatic invertebrates, plant seeds, tubers, buds and rhizomes). Waterfowl surveys in 2002 in Wyoming found that rivers and ponds with beavers had 75 times more ducks than those without beavers.
Red and Gray Squirrels remain active year round, and thus, need to have access to food throughout the year. In order for this to happen, seeds and nuts must be stored in the warmer months for consumption during the winter and early spring, when food is much harder to find. While Gray Squirrels tend to bury nuts and seeds individually for this purpose, Red Squirrels often cache numerous seeds (mostly conifers and maples) in one spot, dispersing these caches throughout the woods. During the winter Red Squirrels use their memory (and sometimes their sense of smell) to locate these buried treasures. Inevitably some are overlooked and in many of these cases, the seeds germinate. Finding little patches of multiple seedlings, such as this miniature stand of young Sugar Maples, is a good indication that at least one Red Squirrel overwintered in the vicinity.
The chipping of hungry Hairy Woodpecker nestlings can easily be detected by human ears, even though it comes from deep within a tree cavity. One is reminded of how beneficial this species is when observing the steady delivery of food by these woodpeckers to their young. More than 75% of an adult Hairy Woodpecker’s diet consists of injurious insects, while the amount of useful insects and cultivated fruits that they destroy is insignificant. Beetle larvae (mostly wood-boring) make up 30% of the insects that are consumed, with ants ranking second, at 17%. Caterpillars, such as those pictured, comprise about 10% of an adult Hairy Woodpecker’s diet, but given this parent’s beakful, one wonders if the percentage is greater for nestlings.
Of all the insects I’ve found in milkweed patches over the years, the Hummingbird Clearwing is one of my favorites. It is a species of sphinx moth, named for its habit of hovering at flowers while it gathers nectar with its proboscis in a manner similar to that of hummingbirds. In fact, they are often mistaken for hummingbirds. The transparent wings, light brown thorax and dark chestnut abdomen are the field marks to look for. A diurnal moth, the Hummingbird Clearwing can often be found during the day in milkweed patches.
Milkweed is in full bloom right now, presenting the perfect opportunity for young and old alike to discover the multitude of butterflies, beetles, bees and other insects that are attracted to these magnificent flowers. If you visit a milkweed patch, don’t leave before getting a good whiff of the flowers’ scent – one of the sweetest on earth. How many of the insects you find are carrying milkweed’s yellow pollen “saddlebags” on their feet? You might want to check out my children’s book, MILKWEED VISITORS, which I wrote after spending the better part of one summer photographing the various insects I found visiting a milkweed patch. ( http://basrelief.org/Pages/MV.html )