An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

November

Thimbleweed Seeds Dispersing

11-29-13 thimbleweed 033Although it has a beautiful white flower, Thimbleweed, Anemone virginiana, is not as noticeable in the summer as it is when its seeds mature in the fall. Looking like a small ball of cotton, its thimble-shaped seedhead consists of a cone covered with tiny dark hooks that white, fluffy seeds cling to and cover until the wind carries them away from the parent plant. The seedhead of this member of the Buttercup family looks very much like that of its close relative, Long-head Thimbleweed, Anemone cylindrica, except A. cylindrica’s seedhead is slightly longer. As impressive as these eastern species are, there’s a species of Thimbleweed out West whose seedhead is so big the plant is referred to as “Mouse on a Stick.” In the summer, plant-eating animals usually leave Thimbleweed alone because the foliage contains a blistering agent that can irritate the mouth parts and digestive tract.

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Few Northern Finches This Winter

11-27-13  pine siskin-irruption forecast IMG_8713Every year Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists (http://www.jeaniron.ca/2013/forecast.htm) forecasts the extent to which birds in the Finch family are expected to inundate northern New England in the coming winter. This year’s forecast is not looking great for birders hoping to see influxes (irruptions) of northern seed-eating species such as pine siskins (pictured), crossbills, redpolls, grosbeaks and finches. The reason for the lack of inundations of feathered northern visitors this winter is that the Canadian crop of seeds that these birds eat is more than ample this year, making it unnecessary for most seed-eating birds to come further south seeking food. With the exception of white pine, there is an abundance of cone crops as well as birch, alder and mountain-ash seeds and fruits this year in the boreal forests of Ontario and southern Quebec. Although there will be some southern movement of these birds, this is not predicted to be an irruptive winter, which bodes well for seed-eating birds, but not so much for bird-seeking humans.

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Backswimmers Active Under Ice

11-18-13  backswimmers under ice 061Backswimmers are insects classified as “true bugs” and belong to the order Hemiptera. Most Hemipterans are land dwelling, such as stink bugs and assassin bugs, but there are a few, such as water striders, water boatmen and backswimmers, that are aquatic. In the fall, when most insect hatches have ceased, backswimmers come into their own. While some hibernate at the bottom of ponds in winter, others remain active, sculling through the water with their oar-like hind legs that are covered with fine hairs, preying on all forms of life up to the size of a small fish. Thanks to bubbles of oxygen that they obtain from pockets of air just under the ice and carry around with them like mini aqua lungs, backswimmers can continue to stay below the surface of the water for several minutes. Like most aquatic insects, backswimmers supercool their bodies (produce antifreeze compounds called cryprotectants that allow their body fluid to go down to 26 to 19 degrees F. without freezing). Right now, when there’s a thin layer of ice on most ponds and no snow covering it, you might want to peer through the ice at the edge of the pond to see if you can locate any of these cold-hardy creatures. Just be sure you don’t fall in, as I did two seconds after this photograph was taken. My undying gratitude for those of you who have donated to Naturally Curious, as your support enabled me to replace both camera and lens!

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.


Beavers’ Last Hoorah

11-22-13  beaver dripping 107We’re right on the edge of when beavers will no longer be able to smell fresh air, see the sun and obtain fresh bark. Until the temperature drops to around 16 degrees F. they continue to break through the thin ice covering their pond. Once the temperature drops to 16 degrees F., they no longer try to break through the ice and are sealed under it until spring, unless there’s a mid-winter thaw. Once they are confined by the ice, their activities outside the lodge are minimal. Beavers leave their lodge in winter primarily for two reasons: to swim out to their winter food supply pile and retrieve a stick which they bring back into the lodge to eat, and to defecate. Other than those excursions, they spend most of their day in the dark, enduring a lodge temperature of about 34 degrees F. (Thanks to Kay Shumway for photo op.)

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Did you know…

11-20-13 black-capped chickadee IMG_0107Black-capped Chickadees actually refresh their brains once a year. According to Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology, every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment.

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Eastern Red-backed Salamanders Headed for Hibernation

11-20-13  eastern red-backed salamander 120Unless you spend time looking beneath rotting logs or sifting through the leaf litter, you’re not apt to see an Eastern Red-backed Salamander, even though they are prolific in our woods. Studies have found over 1,000 of these salamanders inhabiting one square acre of woodlands. Eastern Red-backed Salamanders are not freeze tolerant so they must spend the winter in locations that don’t freeze if they are to survive. Once the temperature drops to the 30’s and 40’s, they migrate downwards and hibernate in deep leaf litter, under rocks or in rock crevices, and as much as 15 inches under the ground in animal burrows.

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Shagbark Hickory Nuts Ripening

11-19-13 shagbark hickory 043Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata , a member of the Walnut family, is named after the shaggy appearance of the bark on older trees. Shagbark Hickory produces nuts which initially are covered with thick husks. As time goes on, the green husks turn brown and open, exposing the nuts, which fall to the ground if squirrels haven’t managed to eat them while they are still on the tree. It takes about ten years for a Shagbark Hickory tree to start producing nuts, but large quantities are not produced until it’s 40 years old. Nut production continues (a good crop every three to five years) for at least 100 years. Shagbark Hickory nuts are very sweet and highly nutritious. They were a staple food for the Algonquians and squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, mice, bears, foxes, rabbits, wood ducks and wild turkey also feed on these excellent sources of protein, fats and carbohydrates.

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Pink Earth

11-18-13 Dibaeis baeomyces  009You’ve probably walked right over this lichen a million times and perhaps even thought it was a fungus. To all appearances, Dibaeis baeomyces appears to be colonies of tiny, pink mushrooms, but in fact, those aren’t mushrooms – they are the fruiting bodies, or apothecia, of a lichen (fungus + alga or cyanobacterium) known as “Pink Earth.” If you look closely at these 1/8” bubblegum-colored structures, you’ll see that they are at the apex of tiny stalks that grow out of a gray crusty matter, which is actually the body, or thallus, of the lichen. Look for Dibaeis baeomyces growing in disturbed areas such as roadsides.

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White-tailed Deer Pheromone Glands

11-15-13 white-tailed deer glands 582Animals communicate with their own species through strongly scented chemicals known as pheromones. Many mammals have glands that generate pheromones. The messages the scents convey vary according to the pheromone that is used – they can indicate alarm, territorial boundaries, the age of an animal and/or its sex, hierarchy and the receptiveness of an animal during the breeding season, among other things. White-tailed deer have scent glands where you might not expect them – their heads, legs and feet. Their primary glands and their functions are: forehead (scent left on antler rubs and overhanging branches), preorbital (near eye, doe uses it to communicate with fawns), interdigital (between the two toes of each hoof, foul-smelling yellow substance left on the ground with every step a deer takes), nasal (inside nose, may produce a scent, or may just lubricate the nose), preputial (on inside of buck’s penal sheath, function unknown), tarsal (inside of hind legs near middle joint, urinated on to spread scent, used intensely by bucks during rut) and metatarsal (outside of hind legs between ankle and hoof, function, if any, unknown).

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Carpenter Ants Huddling

11-14-13 carpenter ants 028Insects that live in northern New England have different strategies for surviving the winter. Carpenter ants live in the center of both dead and living trees, in galleries that they have chewed throughout their nest. Although wood is a good insulator, it still freezes during the winter. The ants tend to cluster together and enter a state of slowed metabolism called diapause. In addition, carpenter ants also produce glycerol, a compound which acts as antifreeze preventing destructive ice crystals from forming in their bodies.

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Mystery Photo

11-12-13 mystery photo 013 Any idea who’s diving? All guesses welcome! Answer will be revealed tomorrow.


Monarch Butterflies Reach Wintering Grounds

Two days ago, on November 6th, the first Monarch Butterflies arrived in their 73-mile-wide overwintering area in the Transvolcanic Mountains of Central Mexico. This miraculous flight, which takes a Monarch roughly two months, can be up to 3,000 miles long. Using the sun, and most likely the earth’s magnetic field, they head for specific stands of Oyamel Fir trees, where they will cluster and be protected, unless weather conditions are severe, from extreme temperatures, predators , rain and snow until next March, when their journey north begins. (These butterflies only get about half way back to New England, at which time they mate and lay eggs. The third or fourth generation of these monarchs will reach their eastern destination.) To track the migration of these remarkable insects, go to http://www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/index.html.
11-8-13 monarch butterfly IMG_6361

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Bruce Spanworms Emerging & Mating

11-7-13 winter moth IMG_4880I try not to repeat post topics, but in the past two days the sudden emergence of inch-long, tan moths in the woods has been so dramatic that I couldn’t not mention them. These ghost-like, light tan moths are referred to by entomologists as Bruce Spanworm moths, Operophtera bruceata, named after an entomologist by the name of Mr. Bruce. They are often called Winter Moths, due to the fact that they are one of the latest moths to be seen flying, as well as Hunter Moths, as they share the woods with hunters at this time of year. From October to December Bruce Spanworm moths emerge, mate and lay eggs. While this timing is unusual, it makes sense when you think about it — many birds, their primary predators, have left for their wintering grounds. All the moths you see in the air are males — females are wingless and cannot fly. The females crawl up the trunk or branch of a tree and send out pheromones to attract winged males. After mating, the female lays eggs which hatch in the spring, and the larvae feed on a wide variety of deciduous leaves, favoring Trembling Aspens, Sugar Maples, American Beeches and willows. Periodic outbreaks of these caterpillars can result in heavy defoliation.

NB: “This is easily confused with Operophtera brumata – Winter Moth, which is an introduced species from Europe and an abundant pest in the Northeast. Also easily confused with Autumnal Moth (Epirrita autumnata).” Kent McFarland


Ribbed Pine Borer’s Winter Pupal Chamber

11-6-13  ribbed pine borer winter shelter 132The larva of the Ribbed Pine Borer, Rhagium inquisitor, (a beetle) lives just under the inside of a pine tree’s bark. It is a long-horned beetle, and in the fall, when it’s ready to pupate, it creates an oval cell by chewing a relatively flat chamber approximately 1 ¼” long. The Ribbed Pine Borer uses the woody fibers it chewed to form a raised “wall” surrounding the chamber. It then pupates inside the wall, and overwinters in the chamber as an adult beetle, emerging to mate in the spring. (Thanks to Kitty Stanley for photo op.)

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Japanese Barberry Invading

Japanese barberry IMG_5518Japanese Barberry, Berberis thunbergii , is very much like the shrub Burning Bush, Euonymus alatus – it comes into its own in the fall, turning many shades of red and orange, and thus has had great appeal as an ornamental. Birds, including turkeys, grouse, mockingbirds and waxwings, find the fruit of this woody shrub irresistible, and spread the seeds far and wide – a bit too far and wide, in fact. Like Burning Bush, Japanese Barberry has escaped from cultivation and is established and reproducing in the wild so successfully that it is classified as invasive. It is a particular threat to open and second-growth forests. An established colony can eventually grow thick enough to crowd out native understory plants, reducing wildlife habitat and forage, thereby increasing pressure on native plants by white-tailed deer and other herbivores. According to Pennsylvania’s Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources, Japanese Barberry also acts as a nursery for deer ticks, which can transmit numerous diseases.

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Golden-crowned Kinglets Migrating & Staying Put

11-4-13 golden-crowned kinglet2A large number of Golden-crowned Kinglets pass through New England on their way from Canada to more southern wintering grounds at this time of year, but some hardy souls choose to remain in New England year round. Barely bigger than a hummingbird, Golden-crowned Kinglets manage to survive nights as cold as -40 F. degrees. If faced with a very cold night, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds lower their metabolic rate and go into a state of torpor. Golden-crowned Kinglets don’t go to this extreme, but several have been observed huddling together for warmth, and they have a tiny feather covering each of their nostrils, which slows down icy cold air and lets it warm up before it is breathed in. (Photo is of a female Golden-crowned Kinglet.)

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.


White-tailed Deer Diet & Digestion

11-30-12 deer eating IMG_6035A white-tailed deer’s diet consists of a wide variety of herbaceous and woody plants, the ratio of one to the other being determined by the season. Fungi, fruits and herbaceous plants form much of the summer diet. Dried leaves and grasses, acorns, beechnuts and woody browse are important autumn and early winter food. After snowfall, the winter diet consists mostly of woody browse (twigs, leaves, shoots and buds) from many different trees (maples, birches and cedars among them). Come spring, deer eat buds, twigs and emerging leaves. Deer are ruminants (as are cattle, goats, sheep and moose). They have a four-chambered stomach, which is necessary in order to digest the cellulose in the vegetation they consume. Food goes first to the rumen, the first of the four chambers, which contains bacteria and other microorganisms that help digest the cellulose. Food is circulated from the rumen back to the deer’s mouth by the second chamber, or reticulum, and the deer ruminates (“chews its cud”). The third chamber, or omasum, functions as a pump, sending the food to the final chamber, the abomasum, where the digestion process is completed.


Renovated Bird Nests

Most songbirds only use their nest once. After their young have fledged, the nest is usually abandoned. In the natural world, recycling has been a way of life for a long time, and abandoned bird nests are not about to be wasted. In the spring, the material used in old nests is often re-used by birds building new nests. But long before this occurs, white-footed mice and deer mice, both of which remain active year round, often use old nests as larders where they store food for the winter. Occasionally they even renovate a nest in the fall in order to make a snug, winter home. They do this by constructing a roof (of milkweed fluff in this photograph) over the nest, which serves to insulate it. Use caution if you come upon such a nest– it could well be inhabited! (Thanks to Sara and Warren Demont for the photo op!)


Great Cormorant

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Recently a young, coastal, avian visitor strayed inland — the Great Cormorant, largest of all six species of cormorants in North America. It has the widest range of all the cormorants, breeding in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, as well as North America. Typically Great Cormorants overwinter along the eastern U.S. and Canadian coasts (and breed from Maine north to western Greenland), but this juvenile bird somehow ended up in central Vermont. It is often confused with its close relative, the Double-crested Cormorant, but it is considerably larger, has a heavier bill and there are subtle plumage differences.  In China (mostly for tourism these days) they actually capitalize on the Great Cormorant’s ability to catch large fish by using it to catch fish commercially.  A snare of some sort is tied around the bottom of the cormorant’s neck, allowing it to eat small fish that it catches, but preventing it from swallowing any large fish.  After the cormorant catches a sizeable fish, it is brought back to the boat and spits up the fish that is in its throat.


Mice vs. Voles

Mice and voles are commonly lumped together, probably because the differences between them are so slight.  Both are small, furry rodents, but mice generally have large eyes, large ears and long tails (close to or greater than the length of their bodies).  Voles have smaller eyes, smaller ears (often concealed in their fur), and shorter tails.  Voles tend to be active day and night, whereas mice are mainly nocturnal. ( Meadow voles are commonly referred to as “field mice,” which tends to add to the confusion regarding these two groups of mammals!)  There are five species of mice in New England (white-footed, deer, house, meadow jumping and woodland jumping), and four species of voles (meadow, southern red-backed, rock and woodland).


Meadow Vole Trail

Thanks to a dusting of snow we are suddenly privy to the comings and goings of the creatures we live amongst. Some animals are small enough to remain hidden once winter snows arrive, because they live in the subnivean layer between the surface of the ground and the snow.  But when the snow is too shallow for them to create this network of tunnels, their movements are easily discernible.  The pictured meadow vole trail shows where the vole initially tried (unsuccessfully) to tunnel under the snow (it wasn’t deep enough), at the bottom of the photograph.  It then scampered over the grass until it stopped to rest for a moment, leaving a whole body imprint, including its short tail. It’s fairly unusual to see the entire body print of small rodents such as voles and mice, for they are so vulnerable out in the open that they rarely stop long enough to leave one.


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!


Beavers Ice-Bumping

Ice is starting to form on ponds, and days are numbered when beavers can be out grooming themselves on land or eating freshly-cut branches.  As long as the ice is thin enough to crack by swimming up under it and bumping their heads against it, they will do so, for soon it will be thick enough to lock them into their pond. Life under the ice is challenging.  At 32 degrees F. a beaver’s resistance to heat loss in water is about 1/8th of that in air at the same temperature. This is due to the fact that its fur is compressed in the water, allowing the insulating air between the hairs to escape — a beaver’s pelt accounts for about 24% of its total insulation in water and body fat is responsible for the rest.  Heat is also retained through a beaver’s tail and hind legs, which serve as heat exchangers.  In the summer, a beaver can lose 25% of its body heat through its tail, but it only loses 2% in winter. Even so, it’s no wonder beavers risk getting a headache in order to see the sun for the last time until spring.


Thimbleweed

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) shares a trait with moths and butterflies — the stages it goes through are so different that you wouldn’t even know they were related, much less the same plant.  Summer flowers are white and the late summer seed heads are green and thimble-shaped (hence, its name) and up to 1 ½” long. By fall the seed heads have transformed into cottony tufts containing tiny, scattered dark seeds which persist through the winter and are eventually dispersed by the wind.


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