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Archive for April, 2011

Solitary Sandpipers

After wintering in the tropics, solitary sandpipers are currently passing through New England on their way to their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. Unlike most sandpipers, which migrate in flocks, the solitary sandpiper migrates alone (hence, its name), stopping along the banks of ponds and streams for insects to fuel its long flight. One of the more unusual behaviors of this shorebird is its tendency to lay its eggs in the tree nests of several different song birds, including the American robin, rusty blackbird, eastern kingbird, gray jay and cedar waxwing. Of the 85 sandpipers worldwide, only two are not ground nesters. Unlike most tree-nesting birds, its young are precocial, and are able to leave the nest as soon as their down dries.

False Morels

Most of us have heard of the fungi referred to as morels, and what a delicacy they are. Bear in mind that there are several species of false morels in New England, as well, some of which are very toxic, even deadly. Some species of false morels that are potentially edible resemble toxic false morels so closely that the only way to distinguish them is by examining their spores. Thus, be very sure, if you are a consumer of wild mushrooms, that you are able to tell a true morel from a false one!

Spotted Salamander Spermatophore

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It goes without saying that readers of Naturally Curious are well informed and
very observant!  This is, in fact, a
sperm packet, or spermatophore, of the spotted salamander.  Males usually arrive at vernal pools before
the females, and gather in groups called congresses, ranging from 4 or 5
salamanders to 100 or more.  When a female approaches a congress of males, she pairs up with a single male, and
they do a courtship dance in which they circle and nudge each other.  Eventually the male walks away, slowly
wiggling the tip of his tail.  If the female is sufficiently stimulated, she follows. He then deposits one or more
spermatophores onto a leaf or twig.  The female picks up the sperm packet into her cloaca, or vent. In a day or two, the
female lays 30 to 250 eggs, often in an oval mass anywhere from 2 inches in diameter up to the size of a baseball.
It is surrounded by a relatively firm gelatinous matrix (wood frog eggs, which are similar, lack this surrounding gelatinous envelope, and therefore
appear quite lumpy). The spotted salamander’s egg mass is attached to a stick or vegetation under the water; the eggs will hatch in 4 to 8 weeks, depending
on water temperature.  The half-inch long larvae have feathery, external gills; in 5 to 10 weeks they will leave pool as
2 to 3-inch salamanders.

Mystery Photo

Can you identify this object? All guesses welcome. Big hint: it's found in vernal pools this time of year. Answer will be posted tomorrow.

Glossy Ibis

A wayward glossy ibis touched down in Woodstock, Vermont this week, much to the delight of local birders. A flooded hay field provided enough insects and worms for this rare visitor to linger several days, constantly probing the earth with its long, decurved bill. During the 20th century, the glossy ibis has gone from a rare and local Florida species to a locally common coastal breeder as far north as Maine. Rarely, however, does land-locked Vermont get to see this magnificent, metallic bronze wading bird.

Mystery Photo – Apple Cedar Rust Gall

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Mystery Photo:  Cedar Apple Rust

David Fontaine, of Ferrisburgh, Vermont, submitted a mystery photo of a cedar-apple
rust gall that overwinters on cedar trees and is caused by a fungus which
requires two hosts, eastern red cedar and apple trees, to complete its life
cycle.  When the galls get wet from spring rains, orange, spore-filled fingers or horns, called telia, emerge from pores in the gall. As the horns absorb water, they become jelly-like and swollen. When
the jelly dries, the spores are carried by the wind to apple trees, where they
cause a brownish mottling on apples, referred to as cedar apple rust, which
makes apples difficult for growers to sell, even though it doesn’t affect the
flavor or texture of infected apples. The rust produces spores on the underside of apple leaves in late summer,which, if they land on eastern red cedar trees, cause galls to form, thereby continuing the cycle.  Spores produced on apple do not infect apple, only cedar; spores produced on cedar infect only apple.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

We are in the peak of the yellow-rumped warbler’s migration north to its breeding grounds (northern New England, Canada and Alaska). While its winter plumage is quite dull, its breeding plumage is very colorful. If you don’t spot one or more of these warbler flying from a branch to snatch an insect in mid-air, you might well hear the male’s softly whistled warble or trill. ( To hear the song of the yellow-rumped warbler, go to The myrtle race is most common in New England.) Yellow-rumped warblers often inhabit coniferous woods, where they build nests that are frequently lined with ruffed grouse feathers.

Polyphemus Moth Cocoon and Adult

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polyphemus moth is one of our giant silk moths, with a 5 ½” wingspan and an
eyespot on each of its four wings.  The
caterpillar, or larva, is bright green and quite fat, with red and silver spots
along its sides.  When mature, the
caterpillar wraps itself in a leaf and spins a silk cocoon, about 1 ½”
long.  Once inside the cocoon, the larva
pupates, and spends the winter as a pupa. In May the adult female moth emerges,
and after attracting a mate with her pheromones, mating takes place and eggs
are layed.  Polyphemus moths live for
such a short time that they don’t even eat, and therefore have no mouth parts.

Quaking Aspen Flowers

Quaking or trembling aspen, also referred to as popple in northern New England, flowers early in the spring, before its leaf buds begin to open. Male flowers and female flowers are borne on separate trees, in the form of pendant catkins(photograph is of male, or staminate, flowers) . Their hairy seeds will be blowing everywhere once they mature in May, looking like little puffs of cotton floating in the air. Even though there are millions of them, poplar seeds need very specific conditions in which to germinate. Thus, reproduction is largely accomplished by root sprouting, which forms clones, or clusters, of trees which are all connected underground.

Red Fox Kits

For the first month of their life, red fox kits have a dark gray coat. Just about the time they come up out of their den and start spending time above ground, a sandy-colored coat grows in (great camouflage for a sandy den), which will eventually be replaced with an even redder coat. The litter in this photograph must be about four weeks old, as they are just starting to lose their gray coats. If you look closely, you will find eight kits – although red foxes can have up to ten young, the average litter size is five.

Wood Frog

One of the first amphibians to appear in the spring is the wood frog – and they were out in force last night, migrating from the woodlands where they live and hibernate to the ponds where they breed. Thanks to their paired vocal sacs, which act as resonating chambers for their duck-like calls, they can be heard far and wide. You can both hear wood frogs and see their sacs inflating by going to .

Great Blue Heron

After many minutes of standing stock still, eyes fixed on the water beneath him, the great blue heron slowly stretched his neck forward, paused and then suddenly thrust his beak into the water.  If you look very closely, you’ll see that he came up with more than a mouthful of aquatic vegetation.

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Mystery Photo

Carlene Squires, from Jonesville, Vermont, submitted this photograph of a mysterious substance that presumably a red squirrel had stored inside of a hollow tree. Neither I nor any of the naturalists I’ve consulted has been able to identify exactly what this midden consists of. One suggestion was ash seeds that have had their wings removed, but I can’t believe every seed could be so uniformly stripped of its papery wing. Any and all suggestions will be considered and appreciated!


Coltsfoot, one of our earliest wildflowers, is in bloom! These roadside-loving plants bear a remarkable resemblance to dandelions. Both are in the Composite family, and thus, what looks like one flower is actually a cluster of many small flowers (florets). Dandelion florets are all strap-like “ray” florets whereas the center florets of coltsfoot are tubular “disk” florets, surrounded by ray florets. In addition, coltsfoot blossoms well before its colt’s foot-shaped leaves emerge, while dandelions produce flowers and leaves at the same time.

American Woodcock

There is no spring ritual that I enjoy more than the aerial courtship display of the American woodcock. Even with most of the field covered with several inches of snow, the familiar “peent” issued forth from behind the shrubbery at dusk. After calling 42 times (yes, I counted) the male woodcock soared up into the sky in a very wide circle, twittering away with his wings, up, up, up until he “chipped” his way down, zig-zagging dramatically as he approached the ground. Moments later, the peenting resumed. No female woodcock who witnessed this display could possibly fail to be impressed. (Photo by Mary Sue Henszey)

American Robin Diet

At this time of year, robins are just beginning to find the earthworms and insects that make up 90% of their diet in the spring. During the summer, they consume fruit as well as earthworms and insects. When fall arrives, they shift over to a 90% fruit diet, which lasts until just about now, when they can desist from eating the last-resort fuzzy, bitter sumac fruits and begin probing the earth for worms.

Brown Creeper

The high, sweet, musical notes of the brown creeper’s song greeted me when I stepped outside this morning. This small brown bird uses its thin, curved bill to pry insects out from bark crevices. It will eventually build its spider egg case and cocoon-laden nest in the same vicinity -- under a flap of loose bark on the trunk of a tree.

Painted Turtles

During March and April, when there is still ice on ponds, it is possible to see painted turtles swimming under the ice. At this time of year they emerge from the mud at the bottom of ponds and become active. Eventually, when the ice opens up, they seek rocks and logs (and even ice) on which to bask in the sun and warm their cold-blooded bodies. You’re most likely to find painted turtles soaking up the sun early in the day.


The first of hopefully many nature mysteries was interpreted and documented with photographs taken by the observers.  A brief explanation of this story in the snow accompanies the photographs.  Mystery photos are welcome–please check the submission guidelines (see link in menu at the top of my blog) prior to sending your photograph/questions.

This story took place in Sharon, Vermont, where Francie and Ron Schmidt commonly observe a pair of mallards on or near their pond.  One morning this winter they spotted a red-tailed hawk perched in a tree, feeding on something.  Being naturally curious, they decided to buckle on their snowshoes and see if they could find any signs of the kill in order to determine exactly what the hawk was dining on.  The pictures they took tell the tale of the misfortune of one mallard drake.

After killing the mallard, the hawk proceeded to pluck many of its feathers while standing on the surface of the snow.  It ate some of the duck’s organs and then took off for the tree with the front end of the duck in its talons, leaving the hind portion behind on the snow along with all the plucked feathers.  The repeated indentations in the snow made by the hawk’s feet and wings indicate that the hawk had a bit of a struggle trying to take off with such a heavy load.  However, it succeeded in reaching the tree, where they had initially seen it.  Having documented this entire story with their camera, the Schmidts decided to return home.  On their way back, they happened to notice a female mallard, most likely the other member of the mallard pair, hiding in a nearby shrub. Later, they photographed the hawk off the corner of their deck when he returned to the kill site

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