An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Archive for October, 2011

Bald-faced Hornet Nest

If you find a  football-size (or larger), gray, papery structure attached to the branches of a tree or shrub, you’ve probably discovered the nest of a bald-faced hornet. (The only other hornets that build a similar nest are aerial hornets, and their nests usually have wider strips, and less of a scalloped appearance than those of bald-faced hornets.)   This structure is actually a nursery, filled with several horizontal layers of hexagonal cells, in which eggs are laid and larvae are raised.  These horizontal layers are surrounded by a multi-layered envelope, which, like the cells, is made of masticated wood fiber from weathered wood such as fence posts and hornet saliva. The different colors reflect the different sources of wood that have been used.  Although only the queen bald-faced hornet survives over winter (in a rotting log or other protected spot), the workers do not die until  freezing  temperatures have really set in, so wait for another month before approaching a nest!

 


White-tailed Deer and Snow

In the past 24 hours the first storm of the season dumped 4”- 6” of wet snow on the ground at higher elevations in central Vermont and New Hampshire.  Conditions which produce the juxtaposition of red maple leaves, snow and deer  tracks don’t occur every year.  White-tailed deer are very active in the fall — they are feeding heavily and accumulating fat for the  winter and the impending breeding season, or rut.  While a few inches of snow don’t pose much of a challenge for browsing deer, once the snow is fairly deep, their travel is curtailed and deer congregate in yards – densely canopied conifer stands, where protection from the wind and the presence of well-worn deer trails help decrease the amount of energy they expend in order to survive.


Ruffed Grouse Crop & Gizzard: the initial steps of digestion

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Some birds, especially those that eat seeds, buds, leaves and nuts, such as ruffed grouse, eat food very rapidly, faster than it can be passed through the digestive system.  These birds usually have a pouch-like crop  where food is kept to be digested later, when the birds  are not out in the open, susceptible to predators.  When the grouse roosts, food leaves the crop and passes through the stomach, which has two parts: a proventriculus – an enlarged area where gastric juices begin breaking down the food, and a ventriculus, or gizzard, which is very muscular, and crushes hard items, such as nuts. According to Roger Pasquier, in Watching Birds, the evolution of an internal means of breaking down food has enabled birds to do away with the heavy teeth and jaws found in fossil birds.  Many birds, including grouse, swallow sand or gravel (you’ve probably seen birds on dirt roads doing this) which passes into the gizzard and helps grind up hard food items.  One photograph shows the contents of a grouse’s crop – bits of leaves, what I think are huckleberries, barberry fruits, buds and a twig—all intact.   If you look closely at the photograph of the gizzard contents, you will see, in addition to crushed fruits and seeds (and two pieces of what appear to be nuts in the upper left) that the grouse recently consumed, tiny bits of sand (upper right) which help in the grinding process. 


Balsam Fir Cones

Balsam fir’s (Abies balsamea) cylindrical cones are very distinctive, in that they stand erect on year-old branches at the top of the tree, and are not pendant, like the cones of many conifers.  They differ in another way as well, for after the seeds mature and the cone opens to release them in the wind, the cone disintegrates, with the scales falling to the ground, leaving candle-like spikes on the tree. Some historians think that these spikes, when snow-covered, inspired the Germanic people to decorate trees with candles or lights.


Woolly Bears

Legend has it that the more black at either end of a woolly bear, the harder the winter that lies ahead.  Truth be known, the woolly bear caterpillar (larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth) molts its skin up to six times, and each time a brown section is added; thus, the longer the summer, the greater the ratio of brown to black on a woolly bear.   A mostly-brown caterpillar is more an indication of an early spring or late fall, rather than a forecast of the coming winter’s severity!


Common Eider

On a recent visit to Peak’s Island, Maine, I observed many common eiders (the largest ducks in the Northern Hemisphere) bobbing in the ocean just off  the rocky coast.  Every so often one would dive and retrieve a mussel, crab or sea urchin which it would then consume.  At low tide, both drakes and female eiders would settle on the seaweed-covered rocks, where the drakes’ plumage (photo) seemed to blend perfectly.


Running Clubmoss, Lycopodium clavatum

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Common clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum) is, like most clubmosses, small, evergreen and perennial. Some species of clubmosses resemble miniature pine and cedar trees, or giant mosses. Common clubmoss’s horizontal stem creeps along the forest floor, with upright stems arising from it.  This “fern ally” (related to but not a true fern) reproduces with spores, not seeds, that are found in cone-like structures called strobili located at the end of stalks, looking somewhat like a candelabra.  At this time of year, if you tap one of the strobili, you may see a yellow cloud of spores released into the air.