An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

October

Moose Wallow

11-1-13  moose wallow 010As the moose rutting season comes to a close, signs of their breeding behavior are fewer and not as fresh. The pictured moose wallow, or rutting pit, was most likely created by a bull moose as a means of spreading his pheromones to receptive cows (although cow moose have been known to make them). After scraping the ground, the bull then urinates in the depression and stamps in it to splash the urine on his antlers (“antler perfuming”) and/or lies down in it, soaking the under side of his body, including the dewlap, or bell, that dangles beneath his neck. Every soaked surface serves to advertise his presence to cows in the area. Often the sound that the bull makes splashing the urine attracts cows, who run toward the bull and, by head bobbing and attempting to drink the urine (the sipping sound is attractive to both cows and bulls), encourage him to urinate more. (Thanks to Alfred Balch for photo op.)

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Red-eyed Vireo Nest

10-31-13 red-eyed vireo nest  033 Abandoned bird nests are evident now that leaves have fallen off the trees. Consider the time and effort that goes into the construction of one of these single-use nurseries. Take the Red-eyed Vireo’s nest you see here lying on the forest floor. The female selects a nesting site — a time-consuming task, as the requirements are that it conceal the nest and provide shade for her young. (Too much sun will cause her to abandon the nest. One female who had selected a sunny spot was observed pulling nearby green foliage over her nest and fastening it in place with spider webs.) The female vireo then collects nesting material for the three layers of her nest: Exterior – tree bark, spider-egg cases, wasp-nest paper, lichen, green leaves and pine needles. (Nests exposed to sunlight may be decorated with light-colored tree bark such as birch bark.) Interior – bark strips and plant fibers. Inner lining – grasses, pine needles, plant fibers and animal hair. She then weaves these materials into a cup-shaped nest that is suspended from a forked branch by its rim. A trip for materials is made every 3 – 11 minutes and roughly twenty seconds is spent working each load into the nest structure. This intensive work takes the female vireo approximately five days – all accomplished without the aid of any hands or tools, and she only uses the result of all this work once. Fortunately, recyclers make good use of her efforts.

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Willow Beaked-Gall Midge

10-30-13 willow beaked-gall midge   047Now that most of the leaves have fallen, it’s a good time to look for galls that form on woody plants. Willows are host to a great number of gall-making insects, including tiny flies called midges. The most common species of willow gall midge is the Willow Beaked-Gall Midge, Rabdophaga rididae. In the spring, after mating, the adult female midge lays an egg in a willow bud (often terminal) that is just starting to expand. The egg soon hatches and the larva burrows deeper into the bud, which causes the bud tissue to swell and form a gall, usually with a “beak” at the top. The larva remains inside the gall through the winter, where it has a constant supply of food (the interior of the gall) and shelter. In the spring the larva pupates, and an adult midge emerges and begins the cycle all over again. Some gall midges are crop pests, but willows are not significantly damaged by the Willow Beaked-Ball Midge.

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Pitcher Plants Turning Red

10-29-13 pitcher plant2 158 Pitcher plant leaves are primarily green in the summer, tinged with red, but as summer turns into fall, many become deep red. Although this red color was thought to attract insects, it appears that this is not the case. The color change, according to research cited in the Journal of Ecology, is due to the level of phosphorus this carnivorous plant has received from its insect meals. There is a limited amount of phosphorus in a bog and plants living there acquire it in different ways. The pitcher plant acquires phosphorus from insects that it traps. It then utilizes the phosphorus to revitalize the (green) chlorophyll in its leaves for photosynthesis. The deep red color that the leaves turn in the fall indicates that the plant has not had a good meal in quite some time.

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Coyotes Howling

coyote 156Eastern Coyotes are heard with some regularity in New England, especially in the fall. The typical family unit consists of two parents and their young that have yet to disperse (often females). Together these four or five Coyotes serenade us with a very distinctive chorus, often several times a night. One wildlife biologist described this chorus as starting with a few falsetto yips, then blossoming into something resembling maniacal laughter, with the yips stringing together into chattering howls. Coyotes use their voices to communicate with members of their family, as well as with other Coyotes. If the family members have been off hunting by themselves, the howling serves to call the family back together again. The familial chorus also serves as a warning to other Coyotes not to trespass onto their territory. (Unless otherwise noted, my photographs are taken in the wild. This photograph was taken at Squam Lakes Science Center.)

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Mice Preparing for Winter

10-25-13 mouse larder 012Animals that remain active in New England throughout the year often make preparations for the colder months, when food is much scarcer. Eastern Chipmunks store up to half a bushel of nuts and seeds in their underground tunnels, Red Squirrels hang mushrooms and apples out to dry and White-footed and Deer Mice create larders, often out of abandoned bird nests. Once their young have fledged, most songbirds never re-use their nest. Mice find these empty cup-shaped containers perfect for storing seeds that they collect in the fall. The mouse that took over this Northern Cardinal nest (located in a rose bush) didn’t have to go far to collect a sizeable number of rose hips. One hopes that this isn’t this particular mouse’s only cached food, as most of the seeds (within the fleshy red covering) have been devoured. (Thanks to Marian Marrin for photo op.)

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Thrashing: Moose Rut Sign

10-23-13 moose thrashing sign 051During their breeding season, or rut, bull moose display a number of behaviors that are not commonly seen any other time of year, and many of these behaviors leave obvious signs, including broken branches, scraped bark, wallows and tracks. Bulls roam their home ranges, thrashing their antlers back and forth against shrubbery and saplings while leaving their scent. The sound of their antlers beating against vegetation is thought to signal the bull’s dominance to other males, as well as serve to attract females. The pictured broken balsam fir sapling and its frayed bark are evidence of this behavior.

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Giant Puffball Fruiting Bodies Appearing

10-14-13 giant puffball 051 The fruiting bodies of Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) are quite distinctive looking — typically they grow to the size of a soccer ball, but the record specimen measured eight feet, eight inches in diameter and weighed 50 pounds. According to Cornell, it’s been calculated that a single ten-inch Giant Puffball has as many as 7 trillion spores. If each of those spores grew and yielded a ten-inch puffball, the combined puffball mass would be 800 times that of the earth. Look for Giant Puffballs in the fall, growing on lawns, grassy meadows and open woods, sometimes in clusters, sometimes singly. If you find one and it is still white and relatively young, foraging is an option. Dissecting it to be sure it doesn’t have any gills is essential (there are gilled poisonous mushrooms that start out looking somewhat like puffballs); as with all fungi that you’re thinking of ingesting, it’s best to have an expert along to identify it.

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Spreadwing Damselflies Mating & Laying Eggs

10-18-13 spreadwing damselflies 019Believe it or not, there are still damselflies (and dragonflies) that are flying, mating and laying eggs in the middle of October in northern New England. Certain damselflies known as “spreadwings,” unlike most other damselflies, perch with their wings partially open. (Another tell-tale spreadwing sign is that they often perch at roughly a 45 degree angle.) Spreadwings are weak flyers, and you usually see them flying low and for short distances. When sexually mature, the males tend to spend their days perched on vegetation along a pond’s shoreline. The females, like most dragonflies and damselflies, return to the water only when ready to breed. The pictured spreadwings (Spotted Spreadwings, Lestes congener, I believe) are one of the latest species of damselflies active in the fall; these two were resting before resuming egg-laying. The male (at top of photo) grasps the female’s “neck” (to prevent other males from replacing his sperm in her) while the female uses the sharp ovipositor at the end of her abdomen to slice into emergent vegetation and lay her eggs, which eventually end up in the water when the plants die.


White-throated Sparrows and Winged Euonymus

10-17-13 white-throated sparrow 125Although the breeding and winter ranges of White-throated Sparrows overlap, most, if not all, populations are migratory. During their flight southward in the fall, White-throated Sparrows stop during the day to refuel on seeds, fruits and insects, if available. Winged Euonymus (Euonymus alatus), or Burning Bush, is an invasive shrub that, in addition to shading and crowding out native plants, produces vast quantities of capsules, each containing up to four seeds. White-throated Sparrows and many other bird species find these bright red seeds attractive, but unfortunately, they are of little nutritional value to the birds and other wildlife that feed on them. How ironic that these birds, whose health and migratory success may be compromised by the seeds of this invasive plant, are facilitating its establishment by dispersing its seeds.

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Beavers Gathering & Storing Winter Food Supply

10-15-13  beaver winter food supply pile 292(Part 3 of 3 Beaver posts)
In the fall, beavers spend weeks cutting, transporting and piling sticks and branches whose bark, twigs and leaves will hopefully provide them with sustenance through the winter. With no access to land once ice forms, beavers rely on the food that they have had the foresight to store on the bottom of the pond in the fall, as close to the main entrance to their lodge as possible. Initially the beavers dive down and stick the butt end of the branches into the mud. Once anchored, these branches form the base of a growing pile which often sticks out above the surface of the pond. (The portion of the pile above the water is not accessible to the beavers once the pond freezes.) According to beaver biologist Leonard Lee Rue, a beaver colony needs to store between 1,500 and 2,500 pounds of edible bark, twigs and leaves (this weight doesn’t include the wood, as they don’t eat wood) if it is to sustain them through the winter. As one would suspect, southern beavers do not need nor make winter food supply piles.

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Beavers Reinforcing Dams

10-15-13 beaver dam 208(Part 2 of 3 Beaver posts)
Beavers repair and strengthen their pond’s dam much as they do their lodge in the fall. New sticks are added and mud is retrieved from the pond bottom just below the dam, making the water deeper there than in the rest of the pond. Beavers dive down, dig up a load of mud and carry it beneath their chin and front feet to the dam. They then use their front feet to push the mud on top of and in between the pieces of brush on the dam (see front foot prints in mud, insert A). Because beavers spend so much time reinforcing their dam, it is not unusual to find their 1 1/2 –inch long, fibrous scat (insert B) in the water right below the dam (they keep their lodge relatively clean by defecating only in water).

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Beavers Refurbishing Lodge

10-14-13 refurbished beaver lodge 248This is the time of year when the industriousness of beavers can determine whether or not they survive through the winter. There are three major tasks for a beaver colony to tend to in the fall: refurbishing their lodge; strengthening and repairing their dam; and cutting and storing their winter food supply. They tend to perform these tasks in this sequence, tackling the lodge first. If the water level is high, the beavers will raise the floor of the lodge and the roof of the sleeping chamber. Every fall they add new material to the exterior of the lodge to strengthen the entire structure – typically sticks intertwined that create walls two feet thick or more. At this point the beavers coat the lodge with mud that they dredge up from around the base of the lodge (which greatly increases the depth of the water near the lodge). The apex of the lodge is not coated, allowing fresh air to filter down into the sleeping chamber. Once cold weather arrives, the mud hardens to the consistency of concrete, making the lodge is impenetrable to predators that can approach the lodge once the pond freezes. (In photo, note the fresh eastern hemlock branches and mud that have recently been added to the lodge.)

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Witch Hazel Flowering and Dispersing Last Year’s Seeds

10-11-13  witch hazel flower and fruits 055Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is nature’s final fanfare of the fall. As colorful fall foliage disappears, the yellow strap-like petals of Witch Hazel’s fragrant flowers brighten denuded woods. These flowers are pollinated by moths that are still active this late in the season, and develop into small, hard capsules that remain dormant throughout the winter. During the following summer, these capsules develop to the point where they expel two shiny black seeds 10 to 20 feet away from the tree. The seeds take another year to germinate, making the length of time from flowering to germination approximately two years. (In photo, the yellowish-tan capsules were formed this summer, and the one brown, year-old capsule has opened and dispersed its seeds.)

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Basking Bumblebees

10-10-13  basking bumblebee 016Bumblebees are some of the earliest bees to emerge in the spring and are often the last to be seen in the fall. They can regulate their own body temperature by shivering or basking in the sun. This enables bumblebees not only to stay active longer during the season, but also during wet or cooler weather. Look for them on sunny patches of ground at this time of year.

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Eastern Towhees Migrating

10-10-13  rufous-sided towheeIMG_0471In general, populations of Eastern Towhees in the northern part of their range are short distance migrants, whereas populations south of Virginia tend to be year round residents. The last of northern New England’s migrating Eastern Towhees are departing for southern climes right now (a few brave souls stay put, and are seen intermittently during the winter, especially during warmer winters). Although we don’t observe them migrating, as they do so during the night, we do see them when they stop to refuel on fruits, seeds or insects during the day.

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Woolly Aphids

10-8-13 woolly aphid 001Woolly aphids are just that – aphids that have special glands that produce wax-like filaments which resemble white wool. When the “wool” is brushed aside, the dark aphid bodies below are apparent. Colonies of woolly aphids often congregate in cottony masses while sucking the sap of a host plant or tree, at which time they are somewhat camouflaged in that they can easily be mistaken for mold or a fungus. When woolly aphids take flight, the wax strands catch the wind and allow them to drift , allowing them to look more like seeds than edible prey.

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Jewelweed Gall Midges

10-4-13 jewelweed gall  277Abnormal plant growths called galls come in all sizes and shapes, are found on leaves, buds and stems, and are caused by a number of agents, including insects. A majority of insect galls are caused by the eggs and developing larvae of flies, wasps and midges. Jewelweed, or Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis), has a very distinctive looking aborted bud gall that is produced by a midge (Schizomyia impatientis). While some galls provide shelter and food for a lone resident, the Jewelweed Gall Midge is colonial, and several orange larvae can be found residing in separate cavities within the gall. These midge larvae are now emerging and will overwinter as adults.

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Apple Scat

10-4-13 woolly bear scat 028At this time of year it’s not unusual to find the scat of various mammals consisting mostly of apple. Red Foxes, White-tailed Deer, Cottontail Rabbits, Porcupines and Black Bears, in particular, are all avid consumers of this appetizing fruit. Birds, including Purple Finches, Cedar Waxwings and Northern Mockingbirds, also include apples in their diets . While many insects drink the juice of apples, it’s not that often you see an insect like this Woolly Bear caterpillar (the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth) consuming a sizable chunk of a McIntosh apple and leaving behind tell-tale scat. (Discovery by Sadie Richards)

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Eastern Chipmunks “Clucking”

10-2-13 eastern chipmunkIMG_3035Especially in the fall, and sometimes in the spring, the woods are full of “clucking” Eastern Chipmunks. It’s unusual to hear this call during the summer, but once leaves have started to fall off the trees, giving chipmunks a clearer view of the sky, the chorus begins. One chipmunk starts calling, and the message is passed on to other relatives, who join in. These vocal little rodents are warning each other of the presence of an aerial predator, perhaps a hawk or day-hunting owl. The next time you hear this distinctive alarm call, look skyward. You may well be rewarded with the sight of a raptor flying overhead.

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Jewelweed’s Cross-pollination Strategy

10-1-13 bumblebee and jewelweed  092Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), also known as Touch-Me-Not due to the sensitivity of its bursting seed pods, illustrates a strategy used by many flowers to promote cross-pollination. The male and female parts of the flower develop sequentially — first the male (stamen), then the female (pistil), so that they are not mature and receptive at the same time. The bumblebee in this photograph is squeezing into the spur of a Jewelweed flower in order to reach the sweet nectar it contains. In doing so, its back brushes against the strategically located, pollen-laden anther (tip of male stamen). When the bee enters another Jewelweed flower, if its pistil is mature, some of this pollen is likely to brush against the stigma (sticky tip of the female pistil), thereby cross-pollinating the flower.

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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!


Wasps Still Flying

The lingering warm weather and the few remaining flowers (such as the mustard in the photograph) have allowed worker wasps to extend their lives this fall longer than many years, for once several hard frosts hit, they will die. Unlike honeybees, the queen of social wasp colonies lives only about a year, but that is longer than the workers. In the late summer the (old) queen stops laying eggs and the colony soon begins to decline. In the fall, mated female offspring of the queen seek overwintering sites such as rotting logs. In these protected spots they tuck their wings and antennae under their bodies, and hunker down for the winter. The remainder of the colony does not survive the winter. If predators such as spiders don’t kill the new queens, and if they don’t emerge early due to a warm winter and starve due to lack of food, the young queens begin building nests and laying eggs in the spring.


American Hornbeam

American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) goes by many names, including Musclewood,  Bluebeech and Ironwood. Its smooth, gray bark that appears twisted and somewhat muscular is very distinctive. This member of the Birch family usually has several trunks, and is usually less than 30 feet tall. Its fruit is in the form of clusters of small nutlets, each attached to a papery bract. A good seed crop is produced every three to five years, at which time it benefits ruffed grouse, cardinals, evening grosbeaks and American goldfinches, all of whom prefer it over many other seeds.


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