Although 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.
There 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.
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.
The 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.
Even 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.
Yesterday’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.
When 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.
In May, at the very same time that adult painted turtles are laying their eggs, some of last year’s young turtles are migrating from their nest site to ponds or rivers. Painted turtle eggs actually hatch in late summer, with the young turtles remaining inside the nest cavity for varying amounts of time. Here in New England, in the northern part of their range, they often overwinter in their nest and emerge the following spring.
With all the romping around that they do this time of year, red fox kits manage to get all kinds of leaves, sticks and burrs caught in their fur. It’s a daily battle to keep the kits’ fur from matting, but their mother rises to the occasion and spends hours a day grooming each of her kits. She grabs hold of the burr or other foreign matter with her teeth, slowly pulls it out of the kit’s fur and then spits it out. As you can see, the kits tolerate these sessions with great patience.
Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is in full flower, and its design and color beckon to a recently-returned migrant that is attracted to red as well as tubular flowers – the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Not only does the flowering of Wild Columbine coincide with the arrival of hummingbirds in May, but the ranges of these two species are much the same. Wild Columbine’s five petals are in the shape of spurs, the tips of which contain nectar. Only hummingbirds and long-tongued bees can reach the nectar, and thus are its primary pollinators (there is a short-tongued bumblebee that tears open the tip of the spur in order to reach the nectar). While the hummingbird hovers beneath the flower and drinks nectar, its head rubs against Columbine’s long anthers, and the resulting pollen on the hummingbird’s head is brushed off onto the long styles of the next (Columbine) flower it visits, thereby pollinating it.
Butterflies 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!
Most of us are familiar with the American toad’s breeding call – a long trill that advertises his presence to potential mates in the area. However, American toads have three other calls, as well. A shortened version of the courtship trill, which sounds like a chirp, is given by male toad with its vocal pouch just slightly inflated. A second, release call, is often heard when a male is clasped by another male. (If you want to hear it, just pick up a male toad during the breeding season – it will vibrate as it chirps right in your hand. The combination of the call and the vibrations usually causes a clasping male to release his grip.) A fourth call, which has been recorded in the lab but not in the field, is a series of quiet clicks given by the male while clasping a female.
Early saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis) is well named – it flowers early in the spring, and is often found growing in or on rocks. (The name saxifrage derives from the Latin words “saxum” meaning rock and “frangere,” to break. When the small seeds of saxifrage lodge in rock crevices and germinate, the plant looks as though it split the rock.) If you look closely you’ll see that early saxifrage’s flower stalk has many hairs – they are glandular and their stickiness is thought to deter ants from taking nectar from the flowers, so that it can attract more efficient pollinators.
This is the time of year when it pays to watch where you walk – there are a number of ground nesting birds, some of which, including killdeer, may choose your lawn or even your garden to build their simple “scrape” nest. Typically killdeer nest on the shoulders of roads, gravel roof tops, fields and gravel parking lots. The nest is very primitive, and there’s actually very little to it — killdeer scrape a slight depression in the ground, to which they often add bits of material, including white objects such as shells and bones. Their pigmented eggs are extremely well camouflaged. The young precocial killdeer chicks are on their feet and feeding themselves as soon as their down feathers dry. (Photo by Sadie Richards)
Although muskrats are primarily nocturnal, you occasionally see them in the daytime, especially in the spring and fall. They often reside in ponds or marshes, where they live in the pond bank or build their own house out of mud, cattails and other available plant material. Muskrats are herbivores, favoring cattail roots, arrowhead, bur reed, pickerelweed and other aquatic vegetation. The pictured muskrat is not feeding, however — more often than not muskrats eat their food where they find it, especially during the warmer months. It is doing its share of parental care — this is the time of year when the first of several litters of muskrats are born. While the mother nurses her four or so young, the father spends time gathering bedding material for his offspring. The muskrat in this photograph spent a morning cutting and gathering several mouthfuls of grasses growing by the side of the pond. When he couldn’t fit one more blade of grass in his mouth he would scurry down the bank and disappear into a burrow which most likely led to a chamber where his young are being raised. Like their beaver cousins, muskrats tend to keep a tidy house and forage for fresh bedding for their young with some regularity.
Although the common grackle, a member of the blackbird family, is the bane of many corn growers as well as a threat to songbirds trying to raise young (grackles eat other birds’ eggs and nestlings), it is quite a colorful bird, with its pale yellow eyes and iridescent purple plumage. Grackles have already begun nesting and defending their territory, as can be seen from the stance of the bird in this image. This “bill-up display” is a position assumed when a male is being approached on its territory by another male. It moves its head upwards so that its bill is almost vertical, signaling to the approaching grackle that it would be in its best interest to depart.
If you’ve spent time at a pond recently and heard what sounded like someone snoring, you weren’t hallucinating! Male pickerel frogs have started calling to attract mates, and each species of frog, just like birds, has its own distinctive call. Spring peepers peep, wood frogs clack and pickerel frogs snore. Their snore isn’t long – it only lasts a second or two — but it’s unmistakable. Pickerel frogs call from under water, as well as on top of mounds of vegetation, so if you hear one and then search for it, it’s very possible you may not find it. (My sincere apologies-computer failure prevented me from posting on the previous two days.)
Much is happening below ground at this time of year, including the birthing of red fox pups. In late March or early April, about 7 weeks after mating, female foxes give birth to four to ten young. Each pup weighs about a quarter of a pound, and the white tip of its tail is often already evident. During the first month, the pups grow a dark grey coat (they shed this coat and grow a sandy-colored coat about the time they venture out of their den, which is usually dug in a sandy bank). The mother stays with her young in the den, nursing and curling her body around them to help keep them warm for about two weeks, while the father brings her food. She then resumes her normal activity, returning to the den to nurse, clean and play with her pups.
Common mergansers can be seen year round in northern New England, but in the spring their numbers peak around the first week in April, due to the large number of birds that wintered further south and are migrating to Canadian nesting grounds. These birds are fish eaters, known to consume at least 50 species which they easily grasp with their bill due to the sharp projections along its edges. Egg-laying is still a couple of months away, but coveted tree cavities where they nest are being scoped out. (female common merganser on left, male on right)
Hibernation 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.
It’s well known that owls have an acute sense of hearing — some species, such as the barn owl, hunt nocturnally by sound alone. An owl’s asymmetrically-placed ears are located beneath the feathers at the edge of its facial discs. This placement, along with the shape of the external ear canals, is thought to contribute to an owl’s keen ability to locate sound. The flesh-colored fold of skin that you see in front of this barred owl’s ear is movable, and reflects and concentrates sound waves coming from behind the bird.