The bright yellow splashes of Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) amidst the drab brown landscape this time of year are eye-catching, to say the least. Like Hepatica, Coltsfoot began blooming about a month early this year. Easily mistaken for a Dandelion, Coltsfoot usually flowers first, and unlike Dandelion’s leaves which appear before the flowers area evident, Coltsfoot’s leaves don’t appear until seeds have set.
Great Blue Herons are returning to their breeding grounds in northern New England, where they typically nest in colonies. Unlike the nests of songbirds, heron nests are re-used year after year. While an individual heron does not usually choose the same nest every year, they usually return to the same colony. While some colonies are active for only a few years, some have been known to be active for over 70 years. Because nests can be located up to 100 feet high in a tree (typically a dead snag in the Northeast), you rarely have a bird’s eye view of nesting activity. However, if you go to Cornell’s new live great blue heron web cam site (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/page.aspx?pid=2433 ) you can see every movement made by the great blue herons currently nesting in Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, NY.
Can you find the brown creeper that’s on the trunk of this black cherry tree? This is cryptic coloration, a form of camouflage in which an animal blends into its environment, at its finest. A forager of insects and spiders tucked away behind and in the crevices of bark, the brown creeper starts its search at the base of a tree, climbing upward and often spiraling around the trunk until it nears the top. It then flies to the base of a nearby tree to begin the process again. As W.M.Tyler wrote in 1948 in Bent’s Life Histories of N.A. Birds, “The brown creeper, as he hitches along the bole of a tree, looks like a fragment of detached bark that is defying the law of gravitation by moving upward over the trunk, and as he flies off to another tree he resembles a little dry leaf blown about by the wind.”
Rarely do you see or hear about honeybees attempting to construct a hive outdoors that isn’t inside a hollow “bee tree” or in a rock crevice. Occasionally they do attempt it, but as the empty cells in this exposed comb attest to, honeybees aren’t likely to make it through a Vermont winter without some shelter for their hive, even a winter as mild as the one we just experienced.
Hepatica, a member of the Buttercup family, is one of the first woodland wildflowers to appear in the spring, sometimes when there is still snow on the ground. It is currently flowering in northern New England, as much as a month earlier than usual. Hepatica’s stem and flower buds are covered with dense, glistening, silvery hairs. Some botanists theorize that these hairs may, in fact, help the plant retain heat during cold March and April days and nights. Others see them as a deterrent to crawling insects, such as ants, which steal their nectar, given the chance — flying insects, including early flies, bees and butterflies, are more efficient pollinators. (Even if Hepatica isn’t visited by insects, it can fertilize itself.) Named after the Greek word for liver (“hepar”),due to its three-lobed, evergreen leaves which resemble the shape of a human liver, Hepatica, also known as Liverwort, was thought to be effective in treating liver disease.
Speckled alder’s flowers are one of the first flowers to open in the spring. Look for this shrub near streams and ponds. One of its most distinctive features at this time of year is the presence of last year’s fruit, which look like miniature woody cones. Also present through the winter, but opening now, are male and female flowers, or catkins. The pendulous male flowers open and extend when their pollen is ready to be dispersed. Above them are the tiny, maroon female flowers, which are exquisite when viewed through a hand lens. Even though they flower at the same time on the same shrub, the position of the female flowers above the male flowers discourages self-pollination and encourages cross-pollination in this member of the Birch family.
With the warm temperatures this week, mourning cloak butterflies have been seen gliding through the leafless woods. Like eastern commas, question marks and red admirals, mourning cloaks overwinter as adults. They resemble dead leaves so much that from a distance the entire insect seems to disappear. Up close you can see the velvety texture of the wing scales, said to resemble the clothing mourners used to wear; hence, their common name. Mourning cloaks live up to ten months — an impressive life span for a butterfly. As they age, the yellow border of their wings fades to an off-white.
Although named for the chestnut band, or ring, around its neck (barely discernible to most eyes) this diving duck does have a distinct white ring around its bill. Vermont and New Hampshire are on the southern edge of the ring-necked duck’s breeding range, so while they do breed here occasionally, we’re much more apt to see them during March and April, when they are migrating further north, and again in October and November when they’re headed to southern U.S. and central America to spend the winter. (male on left, female on right in photograph)
After noticing the sudden loud clacking chorus at a nearby temporary woodland vernal pool, I went down to investigate, and there were dozens of wood frogs floating on the surface, as they croaked their duck-like quacks in the hopes of attracting female wood frogs. As far as I could determine, they were out of luck on this, their first day at the breeding pool, as I don’t believe the females have arrived yet. One clue was the relatively small size of the floating frogs and it seemed as though every frog was calling (only males call). Plus, time after time a wood frog would swim up to another wood frog and attempt to grasp it only to have the object of its desire utter a “release” chirp (a call made only when a male clasps another male) and swim rapidly away.
A few hooded mergansers, small fish-,insect- and crayfish-eating ducks of wooded ponds, can be found year round in northern New England, but their numbers swell in March and April, when many migrant birds return to breed, and others stop over on their way further north. Standing dead trees, or snags, provide nesting cavities for these beautiful, “hammerhead” crested ducks. (Male hooded merganser on left and female on right in photograph.)
I heard my first peeper on March 18th, roughly two weeks earlier than in past years. These tiny members of the treefrog family begin mating rituals shortly after the end of hibernation. The males gather at small pools by the hundreds. Each male establishes a small territory and begins calling the familiar high-pitched “peep” quite frequently. The louder and faster he peeps, the better his chances are of attracting a receptive female. Males usually compete in trios, and the male with the lowest-pitched call usually starts the vocal competition. If you look closely at the peeper in the photograph you can see some snow fleas hitching a ride.
Although some ponds have had open water in spots all winter, many have remained frozen over until the recent warm weather started to melt the ice. The first open water often appears close to the lodge and along the dam of a beaver pond. It doesn’t take long for resident beavers to detect an opening, for it’s a ticket to fresh food! The first plant that beavers head for, if it’s growing in the area, is skunk cabbage. Being the first wildflower to push up through the snow, it’s usually available when ponds first open up. Aspen, willow and alder leaves, grasses, the rhizomes, leaves and flowers of water lilies, sedges, ferns, fungi, berries, mushrooms, duckweed and algae are eaten in the spring and summer by these large rodents we think of as strictly bark eaters. Photograph by Kay Shumway.
The return of song sparrows and their energetic songs tells us spring has definitely arrived. The males sing a sequence of notes, including clear whistles and buzzy sounds. According to nature recordist Lang Elliott, each male has about ten songs in its repertoire and tends to repeat one pattern for several minutes before changing to another. Although other birds may produce more musical songs, you’d have to search far and wide for more enthusiastic outbursts than those of a song sparrow.
Raccoons defecate in communal sites, called latrines. Often these latrines are located on a raised, flat surface or at the base of a tree. Over time, the scat accumulates. Should you come upon a latrine, it’s best not to investigate too closely, as raccoon feces harbor roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis) eggs which can be easily ingested and cause harm (serious eye disease, spinal cord or brain damage, or death) to humans. One of these roundworms can produce more than 100,000 eggs a day, and the eggs remain viable for years in the soil.
After spending several months hibernating in the mud at the bottom of ponds, painted turtles are out, basking in the sun. Because they are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, they are the same temperature as the air around them. In order to warm up and also to properly digest their food, painted turtles bask in the sun, and there is great competition for safe basking locations, such as rocks and floating logs. When these ideal basking sites are limited, the turtles will pile up one on top of the other, staying that way until the bottom turtle gets good and tired of supporting the turtles on top of it, and wobbles enough to make the turtle tower tumble.
I will be giving my Naturally Curious presentation at the New Hampshire Audubon McLane Center in Concord, NH on Thursday, March 15th at 7 p.m. — a program that includes a talk illustrated with my photographs and natural history collection (skins, skulls, scat, etc.). The program is free and open to the public. Hope to see some of you there!
The red-tailed hawk nest that produced two chicks last summer is once again occupied by a pair of red-tails. A conifer sprig adorning the outside of the nest was the first clue that a second brood might be in the works. Yesterday I saw both male and female return to the nest carrying strips of bark, which the female applied to the lining of the nest. Mid-March is when red-tails typically are building or refurbishing their nest and laying eggs. They begin incubating as soon as the first (of 2 – 3) egg is laid, with the male and female both participating. This photograph was taken at the changing of the guard.
Hard as it is to believe with half a foot of snow remaining in the woods, this northern green-striped grasshopper (Chortophaga viridifasciata) was hopping around in the dry grass of a south-facing field in Hartland, Vermont yesterday. Most grasshoppers overwinter as eggs. They hatch in the spring, and the immature grasshopper nymphs look like miniature versions of their parents, except they lack wings and sexual organs. Northern green-striped grasshoppers, however, overwinter as nymphs in the northeast, which is why the one in the photograph is as large as it is (1/2-inch) this early in the season. (This grasshopper is one of the “band-winged grasshoppers,” which typically possess bands, or stripes, on their wings, as does the adult northern green-striped grasshopper.)
There are two subjects in this photograph – one is dark and round (left) and the other is whitish-yellow and brown, and string-like (right). One came out of a barred owl’s mouth; the other came out the opposite end. Do you know which is which? The round, brown object is an owl pellet which owls (and many other birds) cough up roughly 6 – 10 hours after consuming a meal. It is just about odorless, and consists of the indigestible parts of the owl’s prey — bones, teeth and nails wrapped in the fur of, in this case, a vole. (The fur keeps sharp bones from tearing the owl’s esophagus when the pellet is coughed up.) Different owl species have different sized pellets, and typically the larger the owl, the larger the pellet. (The average barred owl pellet is 2 ½” long and 1” wide.) A great gray owl pellet (3”-4” long and 1 ½” wide) I found contained the skulls of three small rodents, in addition to other bones. The whitish substance is the owl’s semi-solid waste. It consists of white uric acid and feces which are excreted through the bird’s cloaca, an opening that is used not only for waste disposal, but also for mating and egg laying.
Snow fleas, a species of springtail, are neither fleas nor insects (though, like insects, they are arthropods). During most of the year they live in the soil and leaf litter, consuming fungi and decaying vegetation. On warm winter days they appear on the surface of the snow, and are often described as “pepper on snow” due to their black color and tiny size (1 – 2 millimeters long). Although they lack wings, they have two tail-like spring projections, or furcula, which are held like a spring against the bottom of the abdomen by a kind of latch. When the snow flea wants to move, the furcula springs downward, catapulting the snowflea as far as 100 times its body length. I observed something recently which I have neither heard nor read about, and that is a four-pronged pinkish appendage which emerges from the tip of the snowflea’s abdomen just before it flings itself to another spot. At all other times, this structure is withdrawn into the abdomen and is not visible. Photographing this structure during the split second it is extended was quite the challenge, and I would love to hear from anyone who might know its function. NEWS FLASH – mystery solved by Charley Eiseman, author of TRACKS & SIGN OF INSECTS: Those three (not four) structures are anal sacs. According to Frans Janssens, “just before hopping in the air, three sticky vesicles are everted from the anus: they serve as a kind of sticky safety bag that prevents the specimen [from] bouncing around when it lands after the jump.” ONE LAST UPDATE: from Dr. Ken Christiansen, Professor Emeritus of Grinnel College, AKA Dr. Snowflea, who reports that these anal sacs are only found on species within the Hypogastrura genus, and that their function is unknown.
A sure sign of spring is the emergence of woodchucks, the largest members of the Squirrel family in New England, after a long winter’s sleep. Their arousal is easily noted, for when the males wake up, they do some excavating of their tunnel, scattering dirt all around it which is easily spotted on the snow (if there is still any snow left). Equally obvious is the muddy trail they leave when in search of a female. Mating takes place in March and April, and the resulting litters of 2 to 6 young are born a month later.
Right on time, the second week of March, Turkey Vultures are back in central VT/NH. Recognizing them is not too hard – they’re bigger than any other raptor in New England except for eagles. At a distance Turkey Vultures look all black, but a closer look reveals that the undersides of the flight feathers, along the trailing edge and wing tips, are lighter in color than the rest of the bird, giving the wing a two-toned appearance. (Black Vulture wings are solid black with silvery tips.) The feathers at the wing tips are often separated, which some birders refer to as ‘fingers.’ In addition, vultures hold their wings slightly raised, forming a ‘V’ or dihedral shape in the sky when viewed head-on. Turkey Vultures soar in circles as they ride the thermals, using their sense of smell to locate tasty carcasses on the ground.