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Robber Fly Mimics Bumblebee

8-4-14  robber fly like bumblebee2 054Milkweed leaves make excellent platforms for all kinds of insects, particularly those such as dragonflies and robber flies, which sit, wait and watch, surveying the landscape for prey to ambush. This robber fly could quite easily be mistaken for a bumblebee. However, the short, straight antennae and the presence of only two wings (instead of four) tell you it’s in the order Diptera (true flies). The pointed, stout proboscis, bearded face, fleshy feet and long, tapering abdomen narrow it down to a species of robber fly. Robber flies in the genus Laphria resemble bumblebees – they are typically quite hairy, with black bodies and yellow stripes on their abdomens. Like other species of robber flies, they hunt by perching and snagging prey such as other robber flies, bees, wasps or beetles. They often return to their perch, inject the prey with enzymes that dissolve its innards, and then have a long drink. Why mimic a bumblebee? To deceive unsuspecting honeybees, wasps and other insects that would make a good meal.

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Young Beavers Out and About

8-5-14 adult and young beaver2 082Most beavers are born between May and early July, weighing one pound and measuring a foot long. They are fully furred, their eyes and ears are open and they know how to swim. Even so, they don’t usually venture out of the lodge for the first month or so. Initially their fur isn’t water-repellent, but by three to four weeks of age, the young beavers’ anal glands, used in greasing their fur, are functional. When the kits weigh seven or eight pounds, they start to leave the lodge regularly to explore their pond and feed with their parents and older siblings.

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Ordering Information for “Island Naturalist”

You can order Kathie Fiveash’s book, “Island Naturalist” at http://www.penbaypress.me or on Amazon.


Maine Naturalist Publishes Book of Seasonal Essays

Island Naturalist coverA fellow naturalist and faithful follower of the Naturally Curious blog , Kathie Fiveash has compiled four years of her natural history columns about the Maine coastal environment into a recently-published book entitled Island Naturalist. Penobscot Books, the publisher, describes it in the following way:

“Fiveash’s essays take the reader among the flora and fauna of the rocky shores, spruce forests, bogs, meadows, clam flats, ponds, streams, marshes and ocean of coastal Maine. While she writes from Isle au Haut, the information she provides is pertinent to all of coastal Maine.

The book is laid out by season, beginning in spring with writings about mud season, spring peepers, robins and dandelions. Summer brings baby birds, fireflies, monarch butterflies and lichens. Featured in fall are apples, bird migration, harbor seals and lobsters. Winter closes the year with scallops, sea ducks, life beneath the snow and winter solstice…”

I wanted to make readers of my blog aware of this publication, as it is similar in nature to Naturally Curious and therefore likely to be of interest to some of you — a great introduction to the ecology of the Maine coast through the eyes of a gifted naturalist.


Black-throated Blue Warblers Incubating Second Brood

8-1-14 -female black-throated blue warbler on nest 054Male and female Black-throated Blue Warblers differ strikingly in appearance, so much so that the two sexes were considered separate species by early naturalists, including John J. Audubon. While the male is a brilliant blue, the female is dull gray which makes her practically invisible when she’s on a nest.

Black-throated Blue Warblers have anywhere from one to three broods in a summer, the first usually in June, a second, if there is one, in July and rarely a third in late July or early August. The nest is usually within three feet of the ground, and is built out of thin strips of birch bark and bits of rotten wood bound together by cobwebs and saliva. Fibers, rootlets, needles and mammalian hair line the nest. Female Black-throated Blue Warblers are known for sitting tightly on a nest until a potential threat is very close, at which point they drop to the ground, and, similar to Killdeer, engage in a distraction display, feigning injury to their wing.

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Carrion Beetles Feeding

7-30-14 carrion beetle feeding 129When an organism dies, such as the pictured American Toad, a series of decomposers appear and break it down. Some of the first insects to arrive at the scene are blowflies, and they lose no time in laying eggs which rapidly hatch into larvae, or maggots. A bit later, carrion beetles move in. Both of these insects live in dead carcasses, where they eat raw flesh and fungi. There is great competition, believe it or not, for rotting bodies, and carrion beetles such as the pictured American Carrion Beetle (Necrophila americana) have managed to find a way to eliminate some of it. They carry tiny mites on their backs which travel from carcass to carcass with the beetles, devouring the eggs of maggots as well as the smallest maggots themselves. In addition, carrion beetles secrete a strong offensive odor that irritates other insects and predators, a second effective way to reduce the number of insects competing for a corpse.

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Common Wood Nymphs Mating

7-28-14 mating common wood nymphs 066If you’ve walked in a shrubby meadow lately, you are probably well aware that Common Wood Nymphs (Cercyonis pegala) are everywhere. Each step seems to flush one, which, after some erratic flying, settles back down beneath the grasses, hidden from view. These butterflies are in a group called “satyrs” which consists of mainly medium-sized, brown butterflies. They belong to the Nymphalidae family, also known as brush-footed butterflies, or four-footed butterflies. The reason for these common family names is immediately apparent when examining a Common Wood Nymph (or Monarch, Painted Lady, fritillaries or checkerspots). Butterflies in this family look as though they only have four feet. Being insects, however, they have six. The front two legs are folded up in front of its head, and are extremely small and bristly. These reduced legs are present in all brush-footed butterflies, and are not used for walking or clinging. Rather, the bristles on these legs are sensory organs, used for detecting smells and for tasting. The butterfly’s proboscis is coiled up between this front pair of legs.

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Bunchberry Fruiting

7-24-14 bunchberry fruit IMG_8240Bunchberry, Cornus canadensis, is among the smallest of a genus of mostly shrubs and trees, and the only dogwood species that is herbaceous. The white flowers (resembling one flower, but actually consisting of many flowers , each 2 mm in diameter, surrounded by four modified leaves, called bracts) develop into red fruits which some people and a few birds, including ruffed grouse, veeries and vireos, find tasty. Bunchberry prefers cool, acidic soil — look for it where you find partridgeberry, goldthread and twinflower. If you find it, look closely, as Nashville warblers sometimes nest beneath it.

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Dragonfly Mystery Photo

7-23-14  dragonfly mystery photo 020Do you know what is happening in this photograph? All guesses welcome. The answer will be revealed tomorrow!. (Photo: male Chalk-fronted Corporal dragonfly, Libellula julia)

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Spreading Dogbane Flowering & Attracting Dogbane Beetles

7-17-14 dogbane & dogbane beetle190The tiny, pink, bell-like flowers of Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium), emit a smell reminiscent of Lilacs. Like its milkweed relatives, Spreading Dogbane has milky, white sap and is poisonous to many species (hence, its name). Monarchs occasionally lay their eggs on its leaves, but the larvae do not mature. Associated exclusively with this perennial is its namesake, the Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus). A combination of iridescent greens, blues and gold make Dogbane Beetles one of the most striking beetles found in New England. They avoid some predators by giving off a foul-smelling secretion when they are touched. Dogbane Beetles are a third to a half-an-inch long and are often found in the process of mating at this time of year.

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Bobolinks Fledging and Preparing to Migrate

7-14-14 bobolinks2  234Between their striking black and white plumage and their long, bubbly song, male Bobolinks are hard to miss if they are inhabiting a field. The female’s plumage is more subtle, with lots of browns so that she blends in well when on her ground nest. The Bobolink’s most notable accomplishment is its annual migration between breeding (northern U.S. and southern Canada) and wintering (northern Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia) grounds — a round-trip distance of approximately 12,500 miles. According to Cornell’s Birds of North America Online, one female Bobolink known to be at least nine years old presumably made this trip annually, which would mean that in her lifetime she flew a distance equal to traveling 4.5 times around the earth at the equator.

Grassland birds such as Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Upland Sandpipers and numerous sparrows, which have been in decline for decades, populate New England’s hay fields, meadows, and pastures. Many of these birds build their nests on the ground, raise young, and forage for insects and grains in summer months. If you own or manage a hayfield that hosts Bobolinks (or any other grassland species), consider delaying mowing until after mid- July to allow these birds the opportunity to fledge their young and get them ready for one of the longest migratory flights of any North American songbird. (Photo: male Bobolink on rock, female on grass.) (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Terry Ross for photo op.)

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Common Loons: Nest-building

6-30-14  Loons #1 - nest building 496Naturally Curious posts for the next four days will be devoted to Common Loons. They are nesting now, eggs are hatching, chicks are swimming, parents are feeding – life is good on ponds and lakes in the north woods, and I would love to share this magical time with you.

Both members of a pair of Common Loons contribute to nest-building in May or June. Their ground nest is often built on the sheltered side of an island, facing the mainland. It is usually within just a few feet of the water, eliminating the necessity for the loons to walk very far. (The position of their legs far back on their bodies is advantageous when it comes to diving and swimming, but makes walking very challenging.) Both male and female share the building of the nest, throwing submerged vegetation from the water onto the nest site or pulling it from the water while sitting on the nest. Material continues to be added to the nest throughout incubation. Nearly two feet in diameter, a nest can take a week or so to build. Successful nests (those that produce chicks) are often re-used from year to year.

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Gray Treefrogs Calling

gray treefrog 021At this time of year, bird-like trills are often heard in wetlands, where male gray treefrogs (Hyla versicolor) are calling to potential mates. The chorus ramps up at night, but the songsters can be hard to find during the day, when they often hide in tree cavities or high up in the canopy. (Their large toe pads produce mucous which allows them to adhere to smooth bark.) The colors of a gray treefrog vary with the colors of its background and environmental factors such as season and humidity, but shades of gray are most common, with black blotches on the back. Variations of brown, green, and pearl-gray colors have been noted, with green being more prominent during the breeding season. Warm, humid weather seems to elicit calls from these well-camouflaged amphibians. To watch and hear a calling gray treefrog, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kd5c4p8-0M. (Thanks to Rachael Cohen for photo op.)

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Warbling Vireo Warbles on Nest

6-4-14 warbling vireo on nest 226 As a rule, male birds do not sing near their nest. When they approach their nest, whether to take their turn incubating eggs, brooding nestlings or delivering food, they are apt to be silent, or sing much more softly than usual, so as to avoid bringing attention to the nest. There are exceptions to this rule, however – male Chipping Sparrows, House Wrens, Common Yellowthroats, Hermit Thrushes, Black-billed Cuckoos, Scarlet Tanagers, Orchard Orioles and American Goldfinches have been heard singing not just near their nest, but while sitting on it! Warbling Vireos are by far the most persistent nest singers. When the male Warbling Vireo is incubating, he sings at all times of the day, as many as 20 bursts of song during one spell on the nest. Listening for the Warbling Vireo’s song and locating the songster can often lead you to its nest. One wonders what function the song has that makes it worth drawing this kind of attention to the nest.

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Only the Mass of the Raindrop Determines Distance Miterwort Seed Travels

email-miterwort pollinator 197 In the interest of accuracy, I am going to risk boring readers with a clarification of what determines the distance that a Miterwort seed travels. Jim Block, an outstanding nature photographer, obviously has a greater grasp of physics than yours truly. I attributed the distance traveled to the size of the raindrop and the distance it had traveled, but as Jim so clearly explains, only the the size of the raindrop effects the distance the seed travels.
Here is his explanation: The distance the seed travels is likely dependent on the mass and the velocity of the drop when it hits the seed. But the velocity of the rain drop is only dependent on its mass, not the distance it falls. That is because after it falls a relatively short distance it no longer gains speed since the air drag balances gravity and the drop moves at a constant “terminal velocity”. So in effect the distance the seed travels is dependent only on the mass of the drop. All drops of the same size arrive at the same velocity.


Different Colored Ducklings

mallard & ducklings-quacking 552The difference in the coloration of the Mallard ducklings is not gender related. The darker ones have the typical coloration of Mallard ducklings. Mallards are the ancestors of most, if not all, domestic ducks, and they do interbreed with them, so a wide range of coloration can show up in their offspring at any time.


Porcupette Clarification

porcupine3 IMG_3065Naturally Curious blog reader Catherine Fisher provides a more complete and more accurate description of the relationship between a porcupine and its offspring.

Uldis Roze, who has spent a lifetime studying porcupines, describes a lactation period of, on average, 127 days – or slightly more than four months. While it is true that, from birth on, mom leaves her youngster alone during the day while she rests nearby, she nurses the the porcupette at night and, as for its first six weeks her youngster is too weak to travel far and is unable to climb, she never travels far . Once the porcupette is strong enough to travel and climb, it spends three months following mom and learning where food trees are located. After three months, mother porcupines and porcupettes begin to spend occasional evenings apart, and by December, separation is complete, leaving the young porcupines to, as Roze describes it, “set out energetically to survive the biggest test of their lives: their first winter alone.”


Spring Azure

spring azure IMG_8425I inadvertently stated that Celastrina lado was the scientific name for Hobblebush. It is not! Hobblebush is a Viburnum, Viburnum lantanoides and Celastrina lado is the scientific name for the Spring Azure, one of Hobblebush’s pollinators. Thank you, readers, for catching this!


Muskrats Mating

4-29-14 mating muskrats2  099 Muskrats breed year round in southern U.S., but in New England ice-out usually determines when they first breed. These largely monogamous rodents take to the water to copulate after a mad chase that often lasts several minutes. Successive breedings take place all summer. By the time one litter is weaned and independent (about four weeks), the mother is about to give birth again. Several litters of five or six young are produced each year, with the mother caring for her young up until they are weaned, and the father then taking over.

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Today’s Promethea Cocoon Post

I mistakenly wrote Cecropia instead of Promethea in the last line describing the host plants that Promethea caterpillars eat and make their cocoons on. My apologies for the confusion!

4-22-14  promethea cocoon 478When a Promethea Moth caterpillar, one of our giant silk moths, is ready to pupate at the end of the summer, it strengthens the stem, or petiole, of a leaf on its host plant with silk and then attaches the silk to a nearby branch, assuring that the leaf will remain attached to the tree. (Imagine having the instinctive foresight in your youth that this caterpillar had!) The caterpillar then curls the leaf around itself and spins its cocoon inside the curled leaf. The cocoon dangles from the host plant throughout the winter and in early summer the moth emerges. Now is the perfect time for finding a Promethea Moth cocoon, as last year’s leaves are gone on most trees, and this year’s buds have yet to open. Look for a tree or shrub that has just one dead leaf hanging from one of its branches. (Promethea caterpillars favor black cherry, poplar, ash, maple, oak and willow leaves, among others.)


Promethea Moth Cocoon

4-22-14  promethea cocoon 478When a Promethea Moth caterpillar, one of our giant silk moths, is ready to pupate at the end of the summer, it strengthens the stem, or petiole, of a leaf on its host plant with silk and then attaches the silk to a nearby branch, assuring that the leaf will remain attached to the tree. (Imagine having the instinctive foresight in your youth that this caterpillar had!) The caterpillar then curls the leaf around itself and spins its cocoon inside the curled leaf. The cocoon dangles from the host plant throughout the winter and in early summer the moth emerges. Now is the perfect time for finding a Promethea Moth cocoon, as last year’s leaves are gone on most trees, and this year’s buds have yet to open. Look for a tree or shrub that has just one dead leaf hanging from one of its branches. (Cecropia caterpillars favor black cherry, poplar, ash, maple, oak and willows trees among others.)

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Belted Kingfisher Snags, Stuns & Swallows Prey

4-23-14 b. kingfisher & crayfish 147Watching the hunting antics of a Belted Kingfisher can be highly entertaining. They often swoop down from a branch to grab prey which is near the surface of the water and they are also one of few birds capable of hovering– beating their wings while staying stationary long enough to focus on prey in the water. Once they’ve grabbed their prey, which is mostly fish, but also crustaceans, frogs, snakes, young birds and small mammals, in their pincer-like bill, the fun really begins. The kingfisher flies to a nearby perch with its prey in its bill and then proceeds to pound the prey against the perch with repeated sideways movements of its head. The kingfisher does this in order to stun the fish (or other prey) so that it can eventually turn it and swallow the fish head first. The kingfisher in this photograph was giving the crayfish it just captured a real beating before devouring it (head first).

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Snowy Owls Headed North

4-21-14 flying snowy 046The record number of Snowy Owls that spent the winter in New England are turning up in all sorts of new locations now that they are on their way back to their breeding grounds on the open tundra and stopping to refuel along the way. Although many were young birds, and won’t breed this year, the adult owls will when they reach the Arctic in a few weeks. First, the males perform aerial and ground displays. After mating, the female selects a nest site. In addition to having a sufficient food supply, the site must be snow-free, not subject to flooding, and command a view of its surroundings. The latter is achieved by making their nest on a hummock, or slightly raised surface of bare ground. The female scrapes a shallow depression in the earth with her claws, twirling around to make a form-fitted hollow. No insulating material is added to this depression – no vegetation, no feather lining. Eggs and nestlings are totally dependent upon the mother’s warmth, transmitted via the large, featherless, pink patch of skin on her belly known as an “incubation patch.” The female alone incubates the eggs and broods the young chicks while the male provides food for his entire family.

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Determined Spotted Salamanders

4-17-14  spotted salamander in snow117It’s rare to get a glimpse of a Spotted Salamander – these secretive amphibians spend most of their lives hidden under rocks or logs or in the burrows of other forest animals, emerging only at night to feed and during spring mating. In central Vermont, the annual mass migration of Spotted Salamanders to their ancestral breeding pools began two nights ago, when the rain-soaked earth and rising temperatures signaled that it was time to emerge from hibernation. Unfortunately for the salamanders (and frogs) that answered the calling, temperatures dropped relatively early in the evening, and the rain turned to snow. Undaunted, these stout salamanders continued their trek through the woods, plowing their way through new-fallen snow, all in the name of procreation.

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