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Archive for June, 2011

A Tumble in the Night

Two nights ago good friends called to report that an animal had been screaming in their woods for about five hours, and asked if I knew what creature sounded like a human baby crying.   Because I am naturally curious, I had to see for myself what was making this commotion, so I headed over to the woods by their house.  It was immediately apparent from the cries that whatever was making them was in the forest canopy.  Looking up, you could see the leaves moving quite dramatically, and then suddenly, WHUMP!  A large porcupine fell out of the sky and onto the ground a mere 10 feet from where we stood.  It’s hard to say who was more surprised, the porcupine or the humans who narrowly escaped having a porcupine fall on their heads.  Upon close examination, it appeared that the porcupine must have tangled with one of its brethren, for several quills were sticking out of its face, with the pointed ends in the porcupine’s skin.  Apparently no bones were broken, as it eventually ambled off and climbed a nearby tree.  Perhaps a territorial dispute?  One can only hope that somehow the porcupine miraculously manages to extract these newly acquired quills.


Common Bladderwort

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Common bladderwort is a carnivorous flowering plant – in amongst its finely-divided, submerged leaves, it possesses tiny sacs which were once thought to be flotation devices, but are actually highly specialized traps that capture, hold and digest food for the plant.   These sacs have a double-sealed, airtight door on one end.  When this door is closed, the sac, or bladder, expels water through its wall, creating a partial vacuum inside.  A leafy, feather-like structure hangs down adjacent to the door and the instant an organism bumps against this feathery trigger, it twists and breaks the seal of the door.  The vacuum inside causes water to rush in, pulling the victim along with it. As the bladder fills with water, the pressure is equalized inside and out and the door automatically closes, caging the plant’s prey.  This entire process takes 2/1000ths of a second.  As enzymes digest the prey, special cells in the bladder’s wall pump out the water and re-establish a partial vacuum inside, preparing the trap to spring again.


The long-beaked insects known as weevils are actually a type of beetle. Weevils are chewing insects and their mouth parts or mandibles are located at the very tip of their snout.  They use this beak to drill through the shells of nuts, fruits, bark and other plant parts so that they can feed on the softer material within.  Female weevils also insert their eggs deep into plant tissues using these same drill holes.  Some weevils are considered pests of the plants (white pine, spruce, alfalfa and strawberries, among others) they eat and lay eggs in. The majority, however, are innocuous, and some even eat plants like dandelions, purple loosestrife and other plants generally considered to be weeds in the Northeast.


Blinded Sphinx Moth

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The blinded sphinx moth, Paonias excaecatus, is a member of the Sphingidae family of hawk moths.  Most of this family’s larvae possess a horn at the tip of the abdomen.  The tomato and tobacco hornworm larvae are members of this family, as is the hummingbird clearwing moth.  The blinded sphinx moth has strongly scalloped margins on its forewings and a single blue eye spot on each of its two hind wings (which don’t show if the moth’s wings are folded).  Its common name derives from the fact that these “eyes” have no pupils.  In its larval stage, the green larva eats the leaves of  many deciduous trees, including willow, birch, poplar and cherry; the adult moth does not feed. After pupating underground, the adult moths emerge and mate.  Males (pictured) rest with their abdomen curved upwards.

Red-winged Blackbird Egg Hatching

Unlike most birds’ eggs, those of the red-winged blackbird hatch asynchronously – that is, they don’t all hatch at the same time.  Instead, their hatching is spread over several days.  During seasons when food is short, the young which hatch last often starve, as the earlier-hatched young, being larger and stronger, are the first to be fed, and thus deprive their siblings of food.  Having eggs hatch in succession is believed to be an adaptation that allows the size of the surviving brood to balance with the amount of available food. 


White-tailed Deer’s Sense of Smell

Being popular prey animals, white-tailed deer have evolved an extremely good sense of smell, sight and hearing.   Their elongated noses are filled with an intricate system of nasal passages that contain millions of olfactory receptors – up to 297 million (dogs have 220 million, humans just 5)!  As the tongue in this photograph infers, deer lick their nose to keep it moist, which helps odor particles stick to it, improving their sense of smell.  Not only do deer use their sense of smell to avoid predators (including hunters), but they use it to communicate with each other, as is evident from  the seven scent glands on their head, legs and hooves.

Wild Turkey Nest Predation

It’s fairly obvious that the eggs and young of ground nesting birds are extremely vulnerable. Eggs survive long enough to hatch in only about half of all wild turkey nests.  Predators, typically opportunistic feeders, look for the easiest and most accessible meals available.  Because of this, ground nesting birds, such as the wild turkey, often have a larger clutch of eggs than tree-nesting birds  Raccoons, opossums, skunks, crows and ravens will readily raid a turkey nest.  A nearby field was mowed yesterday, and much to the owner’s dismay, a turkey nest containing eggs was left exposed –  but the 11 eggs were intact.  The mother returned to the now-exposed nest, but upon visiting the nest this morning, a mere 12 hours later, I discovered the nest empty except for one egg which had been emptied of its contents. 

Pickerel Frog

Next to the green frog, the pickerel frog is the most abundant frog in New England. It is often confused with the northern leopard frog, which it closely resembles.  The spots on a pickerel frog’s back are squarish and aligned in rows, whereas the leopard frog’s spots are rounded, and randomly scattered over its back.  In addition, the male pickerel frog has bright orange on the inner surface of its hind legs, which the leopard frog lacks.  The pickerel frog is very sensitive to pollution, so its presence is indicative of good water quality.


Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Raising Young

If ever there was a species which defied the notion that males don’t participate enough in raising their offspring, it would be yellow-bellied sapsuckers.  Without fail, the male parent keeps up with his mate in numbers of visits to their nesting hole, as well as the amount of food  he collects and brings to the nest. He also partakes in nest cleansing.  Often, when the male and female of a species’ plumage is similar, as in woodpeckers, you will find that that they share rearing responsibilities.  The young of cavity nesters mature more slowly than open-nesters because their nest site is safer.  They also leave the nest at a relatively later stage of development, when they can fly well, even though they have no room to practice flapping their wings.

National Pollinator Week (June 20 – 26)

Five years ago the U. S. Senate designated the last week of June as “Pollinator Week” in honor of all the bees, bats, butterflies, beetles, birds and other creatures responsible for transporting pollen from one plant to another plant of the same species for over 75%  of all flowering plants (wind does most of the rest). In the U.S. pollination produces nearly $20 billion worth of products annually – think chocolate, almonds, apples, coffee, blueberries, etc.

Common Whitetail Dragonfly

The Common Whitetail dragonfly (Libellula lydia) is just that – very common at this time of year. Its name also refers to the male’s white abdomen (lacking in the female), which he displays to other males as a territorial threat. Female dragonflies choose mates based on the quality of the males’ habitat for laying eggs. The male who inhabits a prime egg-laying area, or territory, on a pond or marsh stands the best chance of being chosen by a female; thus, it behooves him to drive off other males.

Hooded Merganser Ducklings

After selecting a nest site in a dead or living tree cavity (or man-made nest box), the female merganser builds her nest, lays eggs and incubates them for roughly a month. When incubation starts, the male abandons the female, so that all the care the young receive for their first two months is also up to her. The down-covered ducklings remain in the nest for 24 hours, after which they jump out of their nest cavity down into the water in response to their mother calling to them from below.

Painted Turtles Laying Eggs

Female painted turtles leave their ponds a month or two after mating, in search of a nesting site. More often than not they do this in the late afternoon, after a good rain. Like the snapping turtle, the painted turtle may dig several holes, depositing up to 20 eggs in one of them. Although the eggs will hatch in August or September, in the northern part of their range, the young turtles may remain in the nest cavity over winter and emerge in the spring.

Showy Lady’s Slipper

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Showy lady’s slippers
(Cipripedium reginae), have never been common, but due primarily to habitat loss, it is even more unusual to come across them today than in the past (there are currently only 15 known populations of them in all of Massachusetts).  Look for these pink and white orchids in fens — wetlands that resemble bogs, but differ from them in that they are less acidic, have higher nutrient levels and can support a more diverse plant and animal community.  Showy lady’s slippers are at their prime right now in central Vermont.

Red-tailed Hawks Growing Up

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What a difference two weeks can make!  These two photographs of the same nest were taken May 31, 2011 and June 14, 2011.  Gone are the white down feathers, replaced by a juvenile plumage which closely resembles the adult’s, with a couple of major differences.  The primaries (flight feathers) of juveniles are pale, compared to the adult’s dark-colored primaries, and only the adults have the red tail for which this bird is named. (The breast feathers of this nestling got drenched when the bird was sleeping with its head turned back between its shoulder blades, and its breast was exposed to the rain.)

Green Frogs Calling

Male green frogs have recently started calling their rather explosive loose banjo string call. Sometimes there is a single note, or often several are issued. Scientists have actually differentiated six different calls. Green frogs have paired vocal sacs which act as resonating chambers, as do the wood frog, northern leopard and pickerel frogs. Unlike American toads, spring peepers, bullfrogs and gray treefrogs, whose single pouch bubbles out beneath their chins when they call, the inflated pouches of the green frog aren’t that obvious. There is a slight swelling of the throat and sides of its body when it is calling, which you can hopefully detect in the accompanying photograph.

Giant Water Bug Eggs

Giant water bugs (also known as “toe-biters”) have the largest eggs of any aquatic insect. The eggs pictured belong to species in the genus Lethocerus, and are usually attached to vegetation above the water line. The eggs of some of the other species of giant water bugs are carried on the backs of the males. These aquatic predators lie on the bottoms of ponds and streams, where they stalk and capture crustaceans, fish, amphibians and even young turtles. They then inject their prey with powerful digestive saliva and drink the liquefied remains. To watch a video of hatching giant water bug eggs, go to

Snowshoe Hare

Upon returning from a late-night whip-poor-will survey (yes, I heard one – although they have become few and far between in northern New England, unfortunately) I started to pull into the garage and noticed movement. I jumped out of the car and went to investigate, camera in hand – my mystery guest was none other than a snowshoe hare. Being nocturnal, it was out and about and had just made a wrong turn. The first thing that I noticed was an engorged tick on its face. I next took note that its large, hairy feet were still somewhat white. Snowshoe hares start molting their white winter hair and growing in their brown summer coat in March or April, and it can take as long as 70 to 90 days to complete the process.

White Admirals

Dirt roads, especially those near streams, are suddenly covered with White Admirals (Limenitis arthemis) – satiny black butterflies with a wide white band through both front and hind wings. Also known as Red-spotted Purples, these butterflies start life out as a caterpillar that strikingly resembles a bird dropping with “horns” – very effective mimicry that has undoubtedly saved many a White Admiral’s life. Both the larvae and the overwintering pupae can be found on willows, poplars and yellow birch. In early June the butterflies emerge from their silken hibernaculums, or chrysalises, which are located inside a rolled leaf. The diagnostic flight pattern of White Admirals – alternate flapping and gliding – and white wing bands allow quick identification.

6-9-11 Black-capped Chickadees Fledging

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Once in a great while your timing is perfect, and mine certainly was when I last visited the chickadee nest I’ve been keeping an eye on this spring.  The food delivery service by the parents grew noticeably slower and slower as the morning progressed, in an attempt, I believe, to get the nestlings so frustrated (and hungry) that they would venture out of the nest cavity on their own.  The final insult occurred when the father (whose tail differed in shape from the mother’s, otherwise the sex would not be discernable) arrived at the hole with a plump, green caterpillar, disappeared inside, and then immediately exited the hole, with the caterpillar still in his beak.  This appeared to be more than the nestlings could stand; one brave soul appeared at the hole and took flight (followed by two others).  Although his first aerial experience was somewhat lacking in grace, the first fledgling managed to find a nearby perch and appeared triumphant!

Canada Goose Goslings

Canada goose goslings are precocial; that is, they are born covered with down, with their eyes open and soon after birth are able to swim and find their own food. Because they can digest grass and have a clear view of approaching predators, parents with young goslings are often found on mowed lawns next to water. The family sticks together for quite a while, with the goslings often remaining with their parents their entire first year.

Snapping Turtles Laying Eggs

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It’s that time of year again
– when female snapping turtles leave their ponds and seek sandy soil in which
to dig a hole and bury their eggs.  Usually
20 or 30 ping pong ball–size eggs are laid, but there can be as many as
80.  The sex of the turtles that hatch
from these eggs is determined by the temperature of the eggs during their
two-to three-month incubation.  Because
they are not all at the same level in the ground, the eggs incubate at
different temperatures, assuring that each batch of eggs produces both male and
female turtles.


Parent Songbirds

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As a rule, parent songbirds, even if they themselves prefer fruits and seeds, feed their young an animal diet rich in proteins – insects and other small invertebrates — and they do so fairly frequently.  The contents of a pair of chickadees’ beaks that you see here are only a few of the meals that were delivered to their young within two short hours this morning.

White-tailed Deer Giving Birth

In late May or early June white-tailed deer give birth. A young doe usually has a single fawn; twins are usual in a mature female, and occasionally triplets are produced. Predators often overlook newborn fawns due to the fact that they have almost no body odor, and their reddish brown coat with white spots provides excellent camouflage. Because of this, a fawn’s tendency is to freeze if approached by another animal. The mother leaves her fawns in a secluded habitat within her home range (up to 200 feet from each other) while she goes off to forage, returning periodically to nurse them and to take them to a new location. If you should come across a fawn in a field, it’s best to leave it alone -- do not assume it’s been abandoned, as its mother is probably close by and tending to its every need.