An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

March

Ruffed Grouse on Nests

ruffed grouse on nest  020A Ruffed Grouse’s nest is pretty basic – just a shallow bowl on the forest floor, created by the hen grouse tossing leaves over her shoulder and having them fall on her back, slip down to the ground and form a bowl. Ruffed Grouse lay anywhere from 9 to 14 eggs at intervals of 25 to 30 hours, which means it takes about two weeks for a hen to lay an average clutch of 11 eggs. Each of her eggs weighs about 4 percent of her body weight — the entire clutch will be equal to about half of her weight. Once incubation starts (when the last egg is laid) the hen’s behavior goes from wandering around and feeding voraciously, to sitting on the nest and barely moving. Because of this behavior, as well as her cryptic coloration, an incubating Ruffed Grouse hen is much more likely to see you before you see her. She will stay motionless on her nest, even in the face of danger, hiding her eggs. Once she is certain she has been spotted, she will fly off the nest, exposing her eggs. Foxes, crows, ravens, chipmunks, skunks, bobcats and raccoons are some of the predators responsible for the loss of 25% – 40% of grouse nests each year. After the precocial Ruffed Grouse chicks hatch during the first two weeks of June, they will be led away from the nest site by the hen. Within 24 hours they will be feeding on insects and within a week they may double their weight! (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo op.)

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Miterwort Flowering

5-28-14 miterwort _0328Miterwort, also known as Bishop’s–cap, is named for the resemblance of its fruits to the hats (known as miters) worn by bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. If you examine a flower closely, you will see its delicate, 5-pointed, snowflake-like beauty. Each flower is in the shape of a tiny cup, with dissected petals arising from the rim of the cup, resembling fine lacework. There is a glandular ring of nectar-producing tissue inside the cup which attracts small bees, flies and ants. Once pollinated, the flowers produce open seed-containing capsules. Water, not animals, is the dispersal agent for Miterwort’s seeds. The capsules orient themselves so that their opening faces upward. When it rains, the falling rain drops splash the seeds out of the capsules, dispersing them up to three feet away from the parent plant. The distance traveled by the seeds is dependent upon both the size of the raindrop and the distance that it has fallen before landing in a capsule.

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Red Fox Vixen & Raccoon Encounter

5-27-14 red fox & raccoon 197While observing the antics of a litter of red fox kits recently, I was witness to an encounter between the kits’ mother and a very large raccoon. The vixen started barking incessantly when she saw the raccoon, and slowly moved closer and closer to it until she was within 10 feet of it. After a short standoff, the raccoon lunged towards the fox, which ran a few feet away and then turned and chased the raccoon in the opposite direction. They took turns chasing each other until the fox eventually drove the raccoon away from her den and kits. While raccoons are omnivores, and a large part of their late spring diet is animals (mainly frogs, fish, crayfish and invertebrates, but also mammals, including squirrels, rabbits and young muskrats). I have never heard of raccoons preying on fox kits, but the mother fox’s behavior indicated that she was not comfortable with the raccoon being so close to her litter. (The following day I noticed that the nose of the runt of the litter had been bitten multiple times. Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.)

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Make Way For Ducklings

5-26-14 mallard & ducklings  470After having spent a month or so incubating her eggs, the mallard hen begins to hear her ducklings vocalizing from inside their eggs, roughly 24 hours before they start to hatch. She responds with quiet calls, and begins turning the eggs frequently. Within 36 hours the ducklings crack open (“pip”) their eggs with the help of an egg tooth that is lost soon after they hatch. The down of the ducklings dries within 12 hours and often the morning after her young hatch, the hen leads them to water (not necessarily the closest water to the nest). She encourages them to follow her by quacking up to 200 times a minute as they travel over land to their watery destination. The ducklings can feed on their own, consuming mostly invertebrates and seeds. Once in the water, if the ducklings start to scatter, the mother can be heard repeatedly and softly quacking to her brood to gather them around her. She will continue to provide them with cover and warmth for the next couple of weeks, especially at night and during cold weather.

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Avian Parents Hard At Work

robin with food 077To appreciate the parental demands on birds, consider the feeding habits of a pair of American Robins with a nest full of young. Both parents feed their 3 – 4 nestlings, delivering 6 – 7 feedings an hour, each one to a single nestling. (Parents tend to arrive with food at a particular location on the nest rim, so there is much jockeying for a position near this spot on the part of the nestlings.) Each nestling gets 35-40 feedings per day. This amounts to almost half a pound of food delivered to the nest every day for the 13 days that young are in the nest. Even then, the parents’ work is not done, as they continue to feed their fledglings for up to three weeks after the young leave the nest.

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Painted Turtle Nest Predation

5-21-14 painted turtle nest 016Painted Turtles mate in March or April, soon after emerging from hibernation, and females leave their ponds in search of a sandy spot in which to lay their eggs between May and July, usually in the late afternoon. Often they dig several 4-inch deep holes, choosing one in which to lay their 2 – 20 leathery eggs. Many turtles dig numerous “false” nests, in what is thought to be an attempt to mislead predators. If so, this tactic doesn’t appear to work very well, as skunks, foxes and raccoons have little difficulty locating Painted Turtle (or any other species of turtle) eggs, as seen in this photograph. Even though the nest is covered with soil and is well camouflaged by human standards, predation of turtle nests is very high and usually occurs within twenty-four hours of nest construction. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Joan Hadden for photo op.)

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Porcupettes Being Born

5-20-14 porcupine IMG_3143This newborn porcupine is about a foot long from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail, weighs roughly a pound and has quills about one-inch long. It will nurse from its mother for the next two months, but within two weeks will be feeding on vegetation as well. Because its offspring is precocial (capable of traveling and feeding on its own soon after birth), the porcupine’s mother provides care for her one offspring only for a week or two before leaving it to fend for itself.

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Waves of Warblers

5-19-14 -A. Redstart 012Birders wait with great anticipation for the waves of warblers that pass through New England in May. Flocks, or waves, often consist of several species, with the males’ plumages presenting a variety of brilliant colors, making the search for these fast-moving, tiny birds well worth the effort. Returning from their wintering grounds in Central and South America, some warblers make non-stop flights covering more than a thousand miles at a time. When they stop to refuel, their search for insects is incessant. As they hunt for insects in the canopy, often amongst flowering trees such as this Red Oak, American Redstart males (pictured) often flash their wings and tail, both of which have brilliant orange feathers on them, startling an insect long enough to give the Redstart a chance to consume it.

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Hobblebush Flowering

5-17-14 hobblebush flowers 070When scouring the forest floor for spring ephemerals, don’t forget to look up – one of the most dramatic flowers of spring can be found on a woodland shrub called Hobblebush, Celastrina ladon. (The common name comes from the fact that its branches often bend to the ground and become rooted at the tips, making a walk through the wood somewhat treacherous…hence, one of its other common names, “Trip-toe.”) Hobblebush’s flowers are cleverly designed to attract pollinators — the large, showy, white flowers along the margins are actually sterile, their sole purpose being to lure insects, such as the tiny, blue Spring Azure butterfly. The smaller, less conspicuous flowers in the center of the cluster (just starting to open in this photograph) have reproductive parts and are the beneficiaries of visiting pollinators.

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Shorebirds Migrating Through New England

5-15-14 greater yellowlegs 286Many of the shorebirds that overwinter in Central and South America, as well as southern North America, migrate through New England during the month of May, on their way north to their Canadian breeding grounds. Although Greater Yellowlegs (pictured) are more solitary than most shorebirds, they tend to migrate in small flocks as they head for the bogs and coniferous forests of northern Canada and southern Alaska. They are recognizable by their upright stance, bright yellow legs and piercing alarm calls (nicknames include “telltale,” “tattler,” and “yelper”). During the early 20th century, before they were protected, Greater Yellowlegs were considered an important game bird, and according to Arthur C. Bent, an ornithologist at the time, this species was often shot “by an angry gunner as a reward for its exasperating loquacity.”

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Turkey, anyone? How Red Fox Kits Entertain Themselves

5-14-14  red fox kit with turkey feather  147This two-month-old Red Fox kit (blue eyes turn brown after the age of two months) amused itself for several minutes with this Wild Turkey tail feather – tossing it up in the air, pouncing on it, chewing it and just carrying it around to impress/taunt its litter mates. Kits are old enough to spend much of their day above ground now and their antics are entertaining, to say the least. While parents are off during the day hunting and/or getting a rest from rambunctious offspring, said offspring amuse themselves by digging, scratching themselves, chasing each other, grooming themselves and chewing on any and everything, from sticks and leaves to the remains of past meals, such as feathers and bones.

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Colorful Breeding Season Changes in Heron Family

5-13-14  snowy egret3  300The changes birds experience in their appearance during the breeding season sometimes include a partial molt, resulting in a more colorful or ornate plumage in the spring. In addition, some species, such as those in the Heron family (herons, egrets and bitterns), undergo changes in the color of their bills, legs, feet and lores (area between eye and bill) during their brief period of courtship. As an example, Snowy Egrets (pictured), during most of the year, have featherless yellow patches of skin, or lores, at the base of their bill and greenish-yellow feet, but in the spring, their lores turn red and their feet a bright yellow-orange.

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Trout-Lily’s Pollinators

5-7-14 trout lily pollinator IMG_1725Like Bloodroot and many other spring ephemerals, Trout-Lily (also known as Dog-tooth Violet and Adder’s Tongue) remains closed at night and on overcast days. On sunny days, bees are its main pollinators, but it is visited by many other insects, including Red-necked False Blister Beetles that feed on both its pollen and ovules.

When a bee visits a Trout-Lily flower, it usually removes half of the available pollen in one visit. In no apparent hurry, it often pauses in the middle of collecting to groom itself and pack pollen into the pollen baskets on its hind legs. It then heads directly back to its hive to unload the pollen. Unfortunately for the Trout Lily, this hampers cross-pollination, as it severely limits the amount of pollen that reaches other Trout Lily flowers. As compensation, Trout Lily has two sets of anthers – one set opens one day, the other opens the next, preventing a bee from collecting all the pollen from a given flower in one day, giving other insects the opportunity to cross-pollinate. (Photo: Red-necked False Blister Beetle)

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Male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks Return

5-7-14 rose-breasted grosbeakIMG_6053Many of the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that breed in New England are thought to spend the winter in Panama and northern South America. When the time comes in the spring for their nocturnal migration, adult males depart first, flying northward at an average of 49 miles per hour (this rate includes stopovers). Upon arrival, they establish and maintain their two-acre territories primarily through song. When females arrive and one approaches a singing male, he is initially very aggressive and often attacks the female, but if she persists he eventually comes around and wins her over with courtship displays.

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Eastern Tent Caterpillars Hatching & Building Tents

eastern tent cat. FINAL 090The adult Eastern Tent Caterpillar moth lays her eggs in late spring or early summer on a tree whose leaves its larvae will eat (black cherry and apple trees are favorites). Two to three hundred eggs are deposited in a mass that encircles a thin branch. Within three weeks fully formed caterpillars develop inside the eggs. The caterpillars remain there until the following spring, when they chew their way out of the eggs just as the buds of the host tree are starting to open. As soon as the caterpillars emerge, they construct a silk tent within which they reside, enlarging it as they grow in size.

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Bloodroot A Fair-weather Friend

bloodroot in rain 336Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), utilizes contrasting white (petals) and yellow (pollen-bearing stamens) colors to attract insects and achieve pollination. The blossoms have no nectar, only pollen, and in order to protect the pollen, the petals of this member of the Poppy family close on overcast days and nights, a time when most pollinators are inactive. The reopening of the flowers depends on temperature and cloud cover. If it’s sunny out, the flowers will open when the temperature reaches 47°F. Native bees, which are Bloodroot’s main pollinators, don’t usually fly until it is 55°F., so flies, capable of flying at slightly lower temperatures, do most of the cool weather pollinating.

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Barred Owls Frequenting Feeders

4-4-14  barred owl with suet IMG_5432The number of Barred Owls seen near bird feeders recently makes one question whether these birds are, in fact, in dire need of food. Certainly the extended period of deep snow this winter has made finding prey challenging. Fortunately, the local bird rehab center (Vermont Institute of Natural Science) has not been inundated with starving owls, which indicates that other factors may be involved in the increased number of sightings near homes and feeders. One of these factors could be that Barred Owls are currently laying and incubating eggs, and a few early nesters may even be providing food for young owlets. Whatever the reason, the accessibility of rodents that are attracted to feeders and the food itself that’s in the feeders allows us an all-too-rare glimpse of this common owl. (The mystery of repeatedly finding my suet feeder on the ground every morning was finally solved when I took this photograph – look closely at what the Barred Owl is clutching in its talons.)

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Cedar Waxwings Turn to Highbush Cranberry As a Last Resort

3-28-14 cedar waxwing 159The primary food of Cedar Waxwings is fleshy fruits that have a high sugar content. Because these birds rely on ripening fruit to feed their nestlings, they are among the latest birds to nest in the Northeast. During the winter they tend to be nomadic, wandering from one sugary fruit supply to another. In the past, juniper berries have dominated their winter diet, but waxwings are increasingly turning to ornamentals such as non-native honeysuckle. (Occasionally waxwings with orange, not yellow, terminal tail bands are seen; this change in color has been attributed to their change in diet.) The fruit of Highbush Cranberry, being consumed in this photograph, is quite acidic and has a low sugar content. It is eaten by most songbirds, including Cedar Waxwings, only towards the end of winter, when sweeter fruit is in short supply.

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Many Beavers Still Locked Under Ice

3-20-14 beaver on ice IMG_3980Although there have been sightings of beavers this spring, precious few beaver ponds have openings or ice thin enough for beavers to break through in order to procure fresh food. This photograph was taken one year ago, and one can only hope, for the beavers’ sake as well as our own, that temperatures rise soon. The winter supply of food beavers store under the ice in the fall may well be as low as many people’s wood piles are this spring, in which case, many beavers’ lives depend on the ice thinning soon.

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Snowy Owl Pellet

3-25-14 snowy owl  203Your knowledgeable ID skills regarding yesterday’s Mystery Photo were most impressive!

Snowy Owls are the heaviest owls in North America, weighing roughly 4 pounds (a Great Gray Owl is only 2.4 pounds). A lot of fuel is needed to power this magnificent raptor. In the Arctic, where they live, lemmings are their preferred prey — one owl may eat more than 1,600 of these small rodents in a single year. This winter the Northeast has experienced record numbers of visiting Snowy Owls. A banner year for the Arctic lemming population followed by prolific nesting success for Snowy Owls resulted in an unprecedented “irruption” of these owls further south this winter.

While we do have lemmings in New England, they are uncommon, so Snowy Owls have relied on our small rodent, squirrel, rabbit and hare populations for food. Those owls wintering on the coast, where dunes and moors closely resemble their tundra habitat, have also taken advantage of the large number of sea ducks. As witnessed and described by Nantucket ornithologist Edie Ray, the owls fly up to great heights over the sea, spot waterfowl and then plummet down to just above the surface of the ocean where they sink their talons into a “sitting duck.” As a result, the indigestible bones, teeth and nails of prey are protectively wrapped in feathers as well as fur in the large pellets coughed up by these owls. (Snowy Owl locators: Edie Ray and Sadie Richards; Snowy Owl pellet finder: Sadie Richards)

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Mystery Photo

3-24-14 mystery photo 009Do you know what this is and what created it? Hint: Most winters this would be a rare find in New England, but not this one. All guesses welcome!

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Avian Toe Arrangment

3-17-14 mourning dove tracks 004As opposed to humans, who use the entire bottom of their feet for support, birds stand and walk only on the ball of their foot and with their toes. When you look at a bird’s leg, what appears to be its knee, bending backward instead of forward as it does in humans, is actually its heel.

Most birds have four toes, arranged differently according to the life style of the bird. Songbirds, as well as most other birds, have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back. Most woodpeckers, being active climbers, have two toes pointing in each direction, which provides added clinging support. The outer toe (of the three forward toes) of ospreys and owls is reversible, so that they can have two toes in back should they need to get a better grasp on slippery fish or other prey. Some birds that do a lot of running, such as sanderlings and most plovers, have only the three forward toes. (Photo: Mourning Dove tracks)

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Opossums Scrounging

3-19-14 opossum2  021Within the last century the Virginia Opossum has extended its range northeastward and now occurs sporadically throughout most of New England. Its adaptability to a great variety of habitats and its omnivorous diet (is there anything an opossum won’t eat?) have enabled this marsupial to live in much colder climates than it initially inhabited. As long as food can be found,the opossum’s greatest challenge is dealing with New England’s cold winters. Lacking much hair, the ears and tail of an opossum often suffer from frostbite, turning black at the edges (ears) and tip (tail). Look for signs of this nocturnal scavenger under bird feeders – in the winter it can even be seen foraging in the daylight, as the opossum in this photograph was earlier this week. (Thanks to Dotty Cummings for photo op.)

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How Are Red-winged Blackbirds Surviving?

3-17-14 red-winged blackbird2 IMG_2063The first reports of Red-winged Blackbird sightings are coming in, and with two feet of snow in some places, frigid temperatures, and very few insects in flight, one can’t help but wonder how they are surviving. A number of factors allow Red-wings to sustain themselves in these conditions, including the fact that their foraging is not restricted to one habitat – they look for food in marshes, pastures, overgrown fields, shores of lakes and ponds and windblown, exposed corn fields and crop lands. Secondly, they look for food in and on a variety of substrates, including but not limited to tree trunks and vegetation, which are accessible even with snow on the ground. Thirdly, they are very adept at gaping – forcing their bill open against the resistance of bark, etc. in order to reach into the crooks and crannies where insects are overwintering. And lastly, their diet fluctuates with the food that is available. During the breeding season, the majority of a Red-winged Blackbird’s diet is insects, and during fall, winter and early spring, Red-wings are primarily plant eaters – weed seeds, tree seeds and in agricultural areas, grains. In many ways, Red-winged blackbirds are more successfully adapted than humans are to this interminable winter!

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