An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Migration

Journey North

4-11-14 ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_9466If you are curious about the status of the northward migration of Monarch Butterflies, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds or American Robins this spring, there is a wonderful organization and website that you should be aware of, if you aren’t already. Its name is Journey North ( http://www.learner.org/jnorth/ ) and they recruit citizen scientists throughout the U.S. to report sightings of certain selected species. Journey North then posts these sightings on their site, making it possible for anyone to see exactly how far each of these species has advanced in their migration north. Sightings are clumped into two week periods of time, allowing you to see not only where the birds or butterflies are currently, but how long it’s taken them to get there. A North American map for each species has sightings color-coded by date, allowing you to follow their progress closely. Migratory information on other songbirds, Whooping Cranes, Gray Whales and much more is also available. This site is the next best thing to migrating alongside these hardy creatures.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Spring Has Sprung!

4-3-14 e.phoebe2 002There’s no denying the arrival of spring, even when the snow is still up to your knees in the woods, if Eastern Phoebes are back! This member of the flycatcher family is one of our earliest returning and nesting migrants, arriving on its breeding grounds in late March and early April. One might wonder what this insect-eating bird subsists on at this time of year. Wasps, bees, beetles and butterflies are not in great supply. Fortunately, there are some insects around, including stoneflies – aquatic insects, some of which mature and emerge from streams in the winter and early spring. When insects aren’t plentiful (in fall, winter and early spring) phoebes will eat small fruits, but they only make up about 11% of their diet.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Snow Buntings Headed Back to the Arctic

2-27-14 snow buntings2 091Whirling flocks of Snow Buntings have been observed more frequently lately, perhaps because male buntings have begun their migration back to their nesting grounds on the tundra. They are the first migrants to arrive in the Arctic in the spring (in early April), when it can be -20°F. Females arrive four to six weeks later, when days are warming and snow is beginning to melt. It is thought that the males’ early return is related to the fact that, unlike most Arctic songbirds, buntings nest in rock cavities, for which there is great competition. Deep inside narrow cracks, nesting buntings can largely avoid nest predation, but their eggs are susceptible to freezing and require longer incubation than eggs laid in the open. As a result, females remain on the nest throughout much of the incubation period and are fed by the males. This arrangement shortens incubation time and provides the eggs with constant protection from freezing temperatures. (Thanks to Liz and Clemens Steinrisser for photo op.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Common Loons Molting

9-30-13 molting loon MH_20091004_214955_3Loons begin a full body molt (minus their wings) in the late summer and early fall, prior to migration. The black and white breeding plumage of adult loons in summer is replaced by the gray-brown of winter. This process typically begins at the base of the bill and spreads across the head and over the upper back. The process of molting can extend through migration on into December.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Common Green Darners Migrating

9-16-13 common green darner 249The Common Green Darner, Anax junius, is one of our largest dragonflies, measuring three inches long, with a four-inch wingspread. It is strikingly colored, with a green thorax and a bright blue (male) or reddish (female) abdomen. As if that weren’t enough to set this dragonfly apart, it is also migratory. Common Green Darners migrate south from August to November, stopping over (like migrating birds) occasionally along the way, resuming flight after resting and refueling. Thanks to radio telemetry, we now know that over a two-month migration, Common Green Darners, each weighing about one gram, can migrate over 400 miles. (Photograph is of a Common Green Darner perched on Bottle Gentian.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Blue-headed Vireos Begin Migration

8-21-13 blue-headed vireo 094Blue-headed Vireos (formerly called Solitary Vireos) are fairly distinctive birds, given their white “spectacles” or eye-rings. (Trying to make their heads blue seems to be a bit of a stretch, however.) They are the latest species of vireo to migrate, beginning about now and peaking at the end of September/beginning of October. After spending the winter in southern U.S. or Central America, they will head north, one to two weeks earlier than any other species of vireo.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Monarch Numbers Down

7-22-13 monarch IMG_1107According to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, this spring and summer there’s been an estimated drop of 90% in the overall monarch population in eastern Canada – the most dramatic decline ever recorded. Vermont (and most likely New England in general) is experiencing much the same situation. The low numbers of monarchs are due to several factors that they have encountered along their migratory routes the past couple of years, including extreme temperatures, record drought, low nectar production by flowering plants and a scarcity of their host plant, milkweed. The cold temperatures and record amounts of rain this spring undoubtedly added to their stress.


Migrating Dark-eyed Juncos Passing Through New England

4-10-13 dark-eyed junco2 IMG_9530This week those of us in the Northeast have been inundated with dark-eyed juncos, often referred to as “snow birds” due to their presence in much of the U.S. only during the winter months.  Although this member of the sparrow family breeds here and is found year-round in New England, over most of the eastern U.S. juncos appear as winter sets in and then retreat northward each spring.  Many of the juncos that we are seeing now are transitory migrants on their way to Canada and the Arctic to their breeding grounds.  They will remain there until next fall, when we will experience a similar influx.  Research has found that males migrate earlier than females, and that females tend to migrate further south than males. The timing of this migration is regulated primarily by the lengthening spring days.


Peak Migration of Common Mergansers

3-28-13 common mergansers IMG_7729Common 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)


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!


Insects in Winter

What happens to insects this time of year?  A few remain active, such as snow fleas, and some, like monarch butterflies, migrate, but the vast majority of insects overwinter in New England.  The insects that stay here are susceptible to freezing due to the fact that they cannot control the temperature of their body.  Some insects, such as woolly bear caterpillars, can tolerate having ice form in their tissues, but most insects go into a state known as diapause.  When the days start getting shorter, these insects reduce the water content of their body, as water freezes at a high temperature compared to other liquids, and replace it with glycerol, which acts like antifreeze, protecting them from freezing.  (Due to technical problems which hopefully will be resolved soon, I am unable to include a photograph with this post.  My sincere apologies.)


Juvenile Cedar Waxwings Migrating

Possibly because of the importance of summer fruits in their diet, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are late nesters, but by late August adults have begun their migration to the southern states and Central America.  This year’s young are beginning this (roughly) 900-mile flight now, a month after their parents have left. You can often find waxwings feeding in crab apple and other fruit trees where they stop over during their flight to refuel.  Juvenile birds lack the sleek look of adults — the red wax-like feather tips for which this bird is named have not developed, and the color of their plumage is much duller than that of the adults.


White-throated Sparrows Migrating

 

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) numbers are building in northern New England as they head towards the mid-October peak of their migration south.  Even though they are no longer constantly singing their “Poor Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody” song, which allows quick  identification, White-throated Sparrows’ white throats, striped crowns and yellow lores (the area between the eye and the bill) make them one of the easier sparrows to identify.  Don’t be surprised if you see this bird with a tan, and not white, crown.  There are two color forms, white-crowned and tan-crowned.  Interestingly, an individual bird almost always mates with a bird of the opposite color form. Males of both color types prefer females with white stripes, but both kinds of females prefer tan-striped males.

 


Juvenile Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk chicks spend their first five or six weeks in the nest being fed small mammals, toads, nestling birds and a variety of invertebrates by their mother. They then fledge, but for the next two weeks these young birds continue to use the nest as a feeding (food is still being provided for them) and roosting site. At about seven weeks of age they begin capturing their own prey, and remain on their parents’ territory for the next month or two — just enough time to learn the ropes before migrating south for the winter, which they are doing right now (peak migration is mid-September).


Monarch Butterfly Migration is Underway

Monarch Butterflies have begun migrating — the peak of their migration in Central Vermont/New Hampshire is September 3 – 15. Monarchs typically cycle through four generations during the breeding season. The final generation migrates to Mexico. Those individuals emerging in late summer live much longer than the Monarchs that are around in June and July (6-9 month life span vs. 6-8 weeks). This allows Monarchs in the East the time needed to migrate up to 3,000 miles (a trip that takes roughly two months) to central Mexico, live through the winter and to begin a return trip (making it only about halfway back), mating along the way. The succeeding generations of Monarchs continue the return trip back to New England, and with luck, the great (or great-great) grandchildren of the butterflies that are migrating to Mexico now will grace our milkweed patches next summer.


Solitary Sandpipers

Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria) nest in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska (in the abandoned tree nests of several different song birds!), and winter in the tropics, from northern Mexico south through much of South America.   Individuals started their nocturnal migration south in June, which is both inland as well as offshore.  In the fall, some birds appear to fly southeast over New England towards the Atlantic Ocean, as if on direct course to South America, while others follow the eastern coastline. Although their migration over New England peaked in July, you can find them through mid-October on the shores of ponds, resting and feeding during their long flight.  As their common and species names indicate, they migrate singly, not in flocks like most migrant sandpipers.


American Bittern

American Bitterns have returned to New England from their southern wintering grounds, and are announcing their presence with a unique song that Sibley describes as a “deep, gulping, pounding BLOONK-Adoonk” that they repeat over and over.  These secret, well-camouflaged marsh birds are almost invisible as they slowly walk through marsh grasses.  When they stand still and point their bill skyward, they are easily mistaken for the reeds they inhabit.

 


Eastern Phoebe

The Eastern Phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family, is one of the earliest nesting songbirds to return to New England after spending the winter in southeastern United States.  It is easily identified from its perch, where it typically wags its tail up and down repeatedly while waiting for an insect to fly by.  The Eastern Phoebe is the first bird ever banded in North America – in 1804 John James Audubon tied a small circle of silver thread around the legs of phoebe nestlings and documented their return in successive years.


Common Loons Returning to Nesting Lakes

Recently Common Loons have been seen on several Vermont lakes and ponds.  Spring arrival on nesting lakes depends largely on the timing of ice-out. During migration, Common Loons have what are called “staging” areas — lakes as well as rivers, where many loons congregate as they proceed northward (southward in the fall). Reconnaissance flights are usually made from open water north to territorial waters to see if the ice is on its way out.


Great Blue Herons Return

Great Blue Herons are returning to their breeding grounds in northern New England, where they typically nest in colonies.  Unlike the nests of songbirds, heron nests are re-used year after year.  While an individual heron does not usually choose the same nest every year, they usually return to the same colony.  While some colonies are active for only a few years, some have been known to be active for over 70 years.  Because nests can be located up to 100 feet high in a tree (typically a dead snag in the Northeast), you rarely have a bird’s eye view of nesting activity.  However, if you go to Cornell’s new live great blue heron web cam site (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/page.aspx?pid=2433 ) you can see every movement made by the great blue herons currently nesting in Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, NY. 


Ring-necked Ducks

Although named for the chestnut band, or ring, around its neck (barely discernible to most eyes) this diving duck does have a distinct white ring around its bill. Vermont and New Hampshire are on the southern edge of the ring-necked duck’s breeding range, so while they do breed here occasionally, we’re much more apt to see them during March and April, when they are migrating further north, and again in October and November when they’re headed to southern U.S. and central America to spend the winter. (male on left, female on right in photograph)


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