An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide


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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Bitternut Hickory Buds

1-10-14 bitternut  hickory 102Habitat, silhouette, bark and buds can all be helpful when identifying a tree in winter. Occasionally a species has one characteristic that is so distinctive, it serves as a diagnostic feature. The sulfur-yellow coloring of Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis) buds is such a characteristic. Both lateral and terminal buds have a powdery coating which gives them a bright yellow appearance. Look for Bitternut Hickory on moist lowlands (hence, its other common name, Swamp Hickory) and rich uplands. Although humans find the nut of this hickory inedible, the smoke produced by burning its wood produces the best “hickory-smoked” hams and bacon.

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Pileated Woodpecker Sign

12-26-13 pileated sign2 IMG_8246Pileated Woodpeckers typically make rectangular holes in trees in order to reach the carpenter ants that live in galleries they’ve created deep within a tree. While ants are high on a Pileated Woodpecker’s list of preferred food, wood-boring beetle larvae are not far behind. Sometimes the exertion of jackhammering isn’t necessary in order to reach insect larvae – removal of the outer bark is enough to expose tasty morsels.

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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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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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Deciduous Leaves Falling

10-19-13 falling sugar maple leaf 081The falling of a leaf is the final step in an ordered series of events referred to as senescence. This process allows trees to conserve resources, prepare for a dormant period, and shed inefficient tissues. When leaves become unable to produce food due to a lack of chlorophyll, a process of shutting-down and sealing-off begins. Leaves are shed through a number of biological actions which take place at the base of the leaf’s stem, or petiole. The walls of some cells weaken, while those of other adjacent cells expand. The expansion of the latter causes pressure against the weaker-walled cells, resulting in these two groups of cells tearing away from each other, causing the leaf to fall. The tree forms a protective barrier on the wound where the leaf had been attached to the branch, sealing it off from pests and the environment and leaving a leaf scar.

Red Squirrel Gardens in the Woods

6-4-13 sugar maple seedlingsi 036Red and Gray Squirrels remain active year round, and thus, need to have access to food throughout the year. In order for this to happen, seeds and nuts must be stored in the warmer months for consumption during the winter and early spring, when food is much harder to find. While Gray Squirrels tend to bury nuts and seeds individually for this purpose, Red Squirrels often cache numerous seeds (mostly conifers and maples) in one spot, dispersing these caches throughout the woods. During the winter Red Squirrels use their memory (and sometimes their sense of smell) to locate these buried treasures. Inevitably some are overlooked and in many of these cases, the seeds germinate. Finding little patches of multiple seedlings, such as this miniature stand of young Sugar Maples, is a good indication that at least one Red Squirrel overwintered in the vicinity.

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.

Silver Maple Flowering

4-2-13 silver maple IMG_8305Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is second only to skunk cabbage when it comes to early spring flowering. Even with our nights still well below freezing, silver maple trees are bursting with blossoms. This close relative of red maple bears its male (pictured) and female flowers separately, sometimes on the same tree and sometimes not. Silver maple’s sap can be tapped and boiled into syrup, but the yield is much less, and it’s only about half as sweet as that of sugar maple.

Porcupines Tapping Out

porcupine tap IMG_3494At least one porcupine got a jump on humans this sugaring season. A porcupine eats outer tree bark in order to access the phloem (layer of inner bark cells that transport nutrients) and cambium (produces phloem and xylem cells) layers of a tree, its primary winter diet. In eating these layers, the porcupine unintentionally cuts into the xylem, or sapwood, where water and dissolved minerals (sap) are transported between the roots and crown of the tree. Unintentionally, porcupines tap the trees whose phloem and cambium they eat. In this case, the weather had warmed up enough to cause pressure in the tree, which in turn caused the sugar maple’s sap to flow just as a hungry porcupine happened along. Soon thereafter, the temperature dropped, causing the sap to freeze, forming icicles. While they looked good enough to sample, one whiff of them told me that sap was not their sole ingredient! (They were located beneath the porcupine’s den in a hollow tree, from which urine flows freely.)

Naked Buds

12-5-12 flower and leaf buds of hobblebush IMG_6226Tree buds are formed in the summer, so if you look at a tree today, it will have buds on it, in the axils of where the leaves used to be (on deciduous trees). There are two kinds of buds – leaf buds and flower buds (flower buds are typically fatter than leaf buds). Both are usually covered with scales which help seal in moisture to protect the bud from drying out during the long, dry winters when water is frozen and therefore unavailable. Different types of trees have different types and numbers of scales. There are a few trees whose buds lack scales completely; these buds are referred to as “naked.” Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) and hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) all have naked buds. In the photograph, a hobblebush leaf bud is on either side of a flower bud.

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!

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.

Black Bear Signs & Hyperphagia

Black bears are omnivores as well as opportunists.  They will eat almost anything that they can find, but the majority of their diet consists of  grasses, roots, berries, nuts and insects (particularly the larvae).  In the fall, prior to going into hibernation, black bears enter a stage called “hyperphagia,” which literally means “excessive eating.”  They forage practically non-stop — up to 20 hours a day, building up fat reserves for hibernation, increasing their body weight by 35% in some cases.  Their daily food intake goes from 8,000 to 15-20,000 calories (that’s roughly equivalent to 70 McDonald’s cheeseburgers).  Signs of their foraging for grubs and beetles, such as the excavated base of the snag in the photograph, can be found with relative ease at this time of year, if you live where there are black bears.  If you do share their territory with them, be forewarned that they have excellent memories, especially for food sources.  Be sure not to leave food scraps or pet food outside (my compost bin was destroyed last year but I have no solution for that particular problem), and if you really don’t want any ursine visitors, it’s best to not start feeding birds until most black bears have entered hibernation – late December would be safe most years.

Black Walnut

Even though a late spring frost may have reduced this year’s crop of Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra), and even though the few that made it haven’t started falling on the ground yet, squirrels have already located and started consuming this nut’s fatty meat.  Inside the green husk is the actual nut, and if you look closely at the edges of the chewed hole as well as the inner surface of the nut, you will see tiny incisor marks, most likely left by red squirrels.  This particular rodent typically chews a hole on both sides of the nut, so that it can gain access to both halves of the meat.

Brown Creepers Nesting

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The Brown Creeper is so well camouflaged that there are many people who don’t even know of its existence. This diminutive bird gets its name from its habit of creeping along tree trunks and spiraling upwards while it probes for insects and spiders hidden in bark crevices with its curved, sharp bill.  At this time of year, brown creepers have already made their fibrous nest behind a loose flap of bark on a tree, and the 5 – 6 nestlings are constantly demanding food.  Unlike some species, both adults care for their young.  These photos illustrate how the male goes off and finds an invertebrate, flies back to the nest and gives it to the female, who then disappears behind bark to feed it to her nestlings.

Delayed Greening of Young Leaves

Many plants practice “delayed greening” of their leaves, including this Red Maple (Acer rubrum).  An initial lack of chlorophyll prevents the leaves from photosynthesizing and making food, which means they have little nutritive value, and thus, appeal, to an herbivore.  Most plants that delay greening have reddish leaves due to the presence of anthocyanin, a pigment which appears reddish.  A majority of herbivorous insects and invertebrates cannot detect colors in the red range of the color spectrum. Young leaves suffer the greatest predation from invertebrate herbivores.  Red leaves would be perceived by these leaf eaters as somewhat dark and possibly dead – not a choice food material.  It is possible that the red coloration of new leaves allows the plant to make them unappealing to the herbivores that would otherwise eat them.

Porcupines and Hollow Tree Dens

Porcupines leave plenty of signs where they have eaten the inner bark, or cambium layer, of a tree. Bark is missing on the trunk of the tree, leaving fresh, yellow wood exposed, which often bears incisor marks.  An observation I have made over the years is that porcupines often de-bark around or near their hollow tree dens.  Typically, if a tree den is used year after year, they gnaw off bark each year, sometimes eating the old, scarred portion which, due to previous chewing, lacks cambium cells. This has led me to wonder whether fresh de-barking in the vicinity of their tree den entrance might have more, or as much, to do with a  porcupine’s staking out a claim on that tree than with its sustenance.  I have never come across any research that even mentions this phenomenon, and would welcome feedback from anyone who has.

Beaver Sign of Spring

2-29-12 Beaver Sign of Spring

Anyone who buys and consumes the pale, relatively tasteless, store-bought tomatoes in the winter, and then, finally, can eat their own garden tomatoes right off the vine, will identify with the winter and spring diets of beavers. While they are locked under the ice, the beavers’ entire winter supply of food is a pile of branches they store at the bottom of the pond near their lodge.  Once the ice on the pond begins to melt, beavers take immediate advantage of any escape holes, enlarging them if need be, in order to make their way to fresh, nutritious food.  While their preferred spring food, herbaceous plants, are not yet up, the fresh cambium of living trees is most likely a welcome change from their water-logged winter food.  It is always fun to come upon signs of their activity when there’s still snow on the ground – it’s one of my favorite signs of spring.   

White Pine Blister Rust Attracts Rodents

When a white pine has been infected with white pine blister rust (a fungus), cankers appear on the branches and sometimes the trunk of the tree.  A large amount of sap-like ooze flows from the cankered areas, sometime drying and resembling a sugary-looking crust or film.  These areas are, in fact, high in sugar content, and rodents frequently chew them.  It’s likely that a red squirrel visited and sampled the infected white pine in the photograph, leaving a freshly-gnawed patch in the bark.

Black Walnut – Identification in Winter

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Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is a relatively easy tree to identify, as it has so many distinctive qualities. In the summer there are round, tennis-ball-sized nuts, which have a delightful smell.  The bark of black walnut is dark and deeply furrowed.  Best of all are the twigs and buds.  If you cut a twig at an angle, you will see the central portion, or pith, is chambered.  It is also brown.  The only other tree that is chambered (not solid) like this is its relative, butternut (Juglans  cinerea), and butternut’s pith is buff colored.  The buds of black walnut are greyish and fuzzy – lacking bud scales.  By far the most amusing thing about black walnut (and butternut) is its leaf scars – the scar left when a leaf falls off.  The vessels that transport food and water, called vascular bundles, are darker than the rest of the scar, and are shaped in such a way that the leaf scar resembles nothing more than the smiling face of a monkey!  (Butternut leaf scars also look like monkeys, but they have a “furrowed brow” of fuzz on the top edge of the leaf scar.)


Mystery Track Identification

Congratulations, Pat and Cindy!


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