An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

March

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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Striped Skunk Mating Season

3-14-14 striped skunk 082Striped Skunks are on the prowl, as your nose may have told you recently – males are eagerly seeking out the company of females at this time of year and are often hit by cars traveling at night. The peak of Striped Skunk breeding season is typically the third week in March. Males will mate with several females in succession and then they often protect their harem against other males by hitting them (other males) with their shoulders or biting their legs. Once a female has been successfully bred, she will not allow further mating activity and will viciously fight any male that attempts it.

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Bald Eagles Refurbishing Nests

3-13-14 bald eagle on nest IMG_8514Bald Eagles in New England are repairing and adding to their nests, even as snow and cold temperatures continue. They often reuse their nest year after year – a nest in Ohio was used 34 years before the tree blew down. Although most don’t reach the record-breaking dimensions an eagle nest in Florida did (9 1/2’ wide, 20’ deep, weighing almost 3 tons), they are impressive structures, averaging five feet and three feet deep. Typically eagles will choose one of the biggest trees in an area in which to build their nest. Because their nests will be used for many years to come, eagles often choose living trees (which will remain standing longer) in which to build them. The nest is usually located in the top quarter of a tree, just below the crown. Both male and female eagles collect sticks for the nest, either finding them on the ground or breaking them off nearby trees. In parts of Alaska and northern Canada where trees are scarce and short, eagles often nest on the ground.

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Red Foxes and a Minuscule Mite

red fox IMG_4446A recent glimpse of a Red Fox whose tail was hairless except for a pompom-like tuft of fur at the very tip reminded me of the devastating effect a very small creature can have on an animal many times its size. A tiny, eyeless mite (Sarcoptes scabei) is responsible for the loss of fur associated with sarcoptic mange, the scourge of Red Foxes. After mating on a fox (often near the tail end), the male mite dies and the female burrows into the fox’s skin, laying eggs as she goes. After the eggs hatch, the larvae move to a new patch of skin, burrow in and eventually emerge as adult mites, ready to mate and continue the cycle. To add insult to injury, Red Foxes have an intense immune response to the mites’ excrement and the resulting inflammation is extremely itchy. Biting and scratching exacerbate the situation, causing new skin tears where bacteria can enter. Eventually, most foxes die of exhaustion, starvation and/or infection.

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Striped Maple Buds

3-11-14 striped maple terminal bud 132Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum), also known as Moosewood and Moose Maple, can easily be identified summer or winter by its greenish bark bearing vertical white stripes (hence, its common name). Because the bark is so distinctive, one needn’t rely on Striped Maple’s buds for identification purposes, but they are well worth investigating, nonetheless. Their graceful shape, smooth surface (few bud scales) and pinkish-red coloration distinguish them from all others. These buds and young branches that bear them are devoured by rabbits and hares, are frequently eaten by porcupines and beavers, and provide browse for deer and moose.

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Evening Grosbeak Bills Changing Color

3-10-13 evening grosbeak female IMG_0734Breeding season changes in a bird’s physical appearance can involve more than a set of new feathers. The colors of birds’ feet, legs and bills can also change in different seasons. One transition most people are aware of is the European Starling’s bill which is black in winter and turns yellow as the breeding season approaches. Male and female Evening Grosbeaks also undergo a change in bill color, from bone-colored in the winter, to a greenish hue in the spring. Hormones are largely responsible for these pigmentation changes which often play a role in courtship behavior. Usually change in the color of the bill is most pronounced among birds which retain the same plumage color and pattern throughout the year, such as starlings and Evening Grosbeaks. (Photo-female Evening Grosbeak)

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Ruffed Grouse Wings

2-25-14 grouse wing imprints  010You can often determine the type of flight that a bird is capable of by looking at the shape of its wings. Long, narrow wings are excellent for gliding, while the short, rounded wings of a Ruffed Grouse allow for tight maneuvering in the dense forests where they live. The shape of their wings and their quick-contracting muscles equip grouse for the short bursts of high speed (not long distances) they take when feeding or evading predators. (Photo: a Ruffed Grouse walked a short way and then took flight, beating its wings against the snow twice before it was airborne.)

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Sumac Sustains Songbirds

3-6-14 bluebirds on sumac 033By this time of the year fruit-eating birds have, for the most part, devoured the choicest fruits available in winter. What remains are the fruits-of-last-resort. While Staghorn Sumac fruits may not be a preferred food, they are an important source of winter sustenance for many species of birds, including bluebirds (pictured), cardinals, chickadees, jays, robins, waxwings, crows, mockingbirds and starlings. Some of the best late-winter birding occurs near stands of this shrubby relative of poison ivy. Can you find the four Eastern Bluebirds feeding on sumac in the photo?

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Sawfly Larva

5-31-13 sawfly larva 266Although it looks like a caterpillar, this larva is not going to metamorphose into a butterfly or moth. This is because it is a sawfly larva, and is closely related to bees and wasps. (It gets its name from the adult female’s saw-like, egg-laying ovipositor that opens like a jack-knife from the tip of her abdomen.)There are several ways to distinguish between these two types of larvae (sawflies and butterflies/moths). While both have three pairs of true legs on their thorax, caterpillars (larvae of moths and butterflies) have up to five pairs of prolegs (fleshy structures that resemble legs) located on their abdomen behind their true legs, while sawfly larvae have six or more pairs. A closer look at the tips of the prolegs on caterpillars will reveal tiny hooks called “crochets,” which are lacking on sawfly larvae prolegs. Sawfly larvae also exhibit distinctive behavior. If you see something that looks like a caterpillar feeding along the margin of a leaf and it rears up its hind end when disturbed (perhaps to frighten predators), chances are great that you are looking at a sawfly larva.


Yellow Lady’s Slipper Flowering

5-30-13 yellow lady's slipper 063There are only about three short weeks in the late spring when the blossoms of Yellow Lady’s Slippers grace our woodlands and wetlands. The production of an orchid is a complicated process. If pollination and fertilization are successful, hundreds of thousands of some of the smallest seeds of any flowers are scattered by the wind. The seeds of Yellow Lady’s Slippers (and other orchids), unlike those of most flowering plants, contain no food for the seedling plant. In addition, the coating surrounding the seed is extremely tough, so much so that the seed can’t germinate until Rhizoctonia fungi digest the outer coating, which allows the inner seed to access soil nutrients. This can take two years or more and then it may take another few years for the plant to produce a flower.


Black Bear Mating Sign

5-30-13 black bear mating sign by A. Balch 002 (2)We’re approaching the peak of the black bear mating season in late May and June, and there’s no better time to look for bear sign than right now. Both male and female bears increase their movements during this time of year. According to the North American Bear Center, males have mating ranges 10-15 miles in diameter and each mating range contains 7-15 female territories. During May and June, both sexes, but particularly the males, mark their territory by leaving their scent on trees, shrubs, telephone poles, sign posts, etc. They do so by thrashing around, rubbing their shoulders and neck against trees and poles, biting and clawing them and urinating on young trees and bushes that they straddle as they walk along. Often the tops and many branches of saplings are broken off, as is evident in this photograph taken recently by Alfred Balch of Lyme, NH.


Male House Sparrows Rise to the Occasion

5-28-13 male House Sparrow  070The House Sparrow’s (also known as English Sparrow) reputation leaves a bit to be desired. It is an introduced species which has thrived in North America to the point where it is considered a nuisance species and an agricultural pest. Its tendency to displace native birds such as Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows from nest boxes does not endear it to many bird lovers. However, one has to acknowledge the fact that male House Sparrows are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to parenting. Males help choose the nest site, build the nest, incubate the eggs, brood and feed the nestlings and keep the nest clean by removing the nestlings’ fecal sacs. That’s more than can be said for some of our most admired species, such as male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, which disappear shortly after copulation.


Aspen “Snow”

5-27-13 poplar fruit 004Even though it snowed in Vermont this weekend, there is something else white and fluffy that is also being blown about, and it doesn’t melt when it hits the ground. The tiny white bits of fluff that are floating in the air are the seeds of aspens (also referred to as poplars), primarily Bigtooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata), that are borne in capsules that develop along a 3 to 6-inch dangling stem. These former flower clusters, and the capsules and seeds they developed into, are referred to as catkins. The capsules split apart when the seeds are mature, releasing the cottony-tufted seeds that are well-designed for dispersal by the wind. Looking into the fluff-filled sky, it’s not hard to believe that a single Bigtooth Aspen tree can produce over a million seeds.


Hooded Merganser

5-24-13 hooded merganser2  030Yesterday’s mystery duckling was a Hooded Merganser. Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser ducklings are very similar, however Wood Duck young possess a dark, horizontal line behind their eyes which Hooded Merganser ducklings lack. There are several ducks that nest in tree cavities in New England, including Wood Ducks, Common Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers and Hooded Mergansers. Hooded Merganser ducklings leave their nest cavity within 24 hours of hatching, in response to their mother’s calls below. They jump/climb up the wall of the cavity and hurl themselves out of the tree. Depending on where the tree is located, they fall either onto the ground, where they bounce like a tennis ball upon landing, or straight into the water. Hooded Merganser fledglings have been known to fall as far as 50 feet to the ground and then walk as far as half a mile with their mother to the nearest body of water.


Mystery Duckling

5-23-13 mystery duckling2 490Do you know which species of waterfowl this ball of fluff is? Hint: it had to jump out of a tree cavity in order to reach the water.


Jack-in-the-Pulpit Corm: A Black Bear Delicacy

5-23-13 jack-in-the-pulpit corm 069When black bears first emerge from hibernation, they survive mainly on emerging green vegetation in wetlands. As the season progresses, there are more and more food options to choose from, including a favorite – the corm, or underground bulb-like storage structure, of Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Even though they are large, somewhat lumbering creatures, black bears dig up and remove these corms as if they had a tiny tool designed just for this purpose. They barely disturb the earth, leaving only very small holes as evidence of their presence. A friend of mine witnessed this just outside his window one spring day, and could not believe the delicacy with which the bear extracted these morsels of food from the ground. Apparently the calcium oxalate crystals in Jack-in-the-Pulpit that cause the burning sensation in human mouths doesn’t affect bears, at least not enough to protect the plant.


Hermit Thrushes Nesting

5-21-13 hermit thrush nest 222Hermit thrushes, Vermont’s state bird, are typically ground nesters east of the Rocky Mountains (west of them, they tend to nest off the ground) and often, as in this case, choose a nest site that is in a patch of Lycopodium, or ground pine. Usually a branch from a nearby tree, a fern, or some other taller vegetation provides cover and effectively conceals the nest. The female hermit thrush builds the nest and begins incubation after the last of her three or four eggs is laid. Twelve days later the eggs hatch, and twelve or thirteen days after that the young fledge.


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