An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Archive for April, 2012

Frolicking Red Fox Pups

These red fox pups are roughly 7 to 8 weeks old…they’ve worked out sibling hierarchy, sampled solid food in the form of moles, squirrels, snakes and turkey and gone on short forays with their mother, but most of the day is spent tumbling with, pouncing on, chasing, biting and sitting on each other.  Occasionally they stop long enough to take a nap. (Note the white toes!)


American Bittern

American Bitterns have returned to New England from their southern wintering grounds, and are announcing their presence with a unique song that Sibley describes as a “deep, gulping, pounding BLOONK-Adoonk” that they repeat over and over.  These secret, well-camouflaged marsh birds are almost invisible as they slowly walk through marsh grasses.  When they stand still and point their bill skyward, they are easily mistaken for the reeds they inhabit.

 


Red-necked False Blister Beetle

 

If you find a blossoming Trout Lily in the woods it is quite likely that you will also find one of its most common pollinators, the Red-necked False Blister Beetle (Asclera ruficollis), on it. Ardent pollen eaters, this group of beetles obtain their common name because many species cause blisters when pinched or squashed against skin. Adults mate on flower heads during pollen feeding. Both sexes feed on pollen, which acts as an attractant, but the female will not accept the male until her gut is packed full of pollen. She stores the pollen in a special intestinal sack in which an enzyme causes the pollen to partially germinate — this causes the indigestible covering of the pollen grain to rupture. She then digests the contents of the pollen grain, which she uses to manufacture eggs. 


Beaver Scat

 

Beavers are meticulous housekeepers, in that they almost always defecate in the water, not in their lodge, and rarely on land. The best place to find their scat, should you be so inclined, is where they have been working for an extended period of time — for example, in the water adjacent to their dam.  Their scat consists of kumquat-size pellets, which, as you might expect, are full of tiny bits of woody fiber.  The pellets are essentially little balls of sawdust, and disintegrate easily if disturbed. Their light color makes them visible even under water.  Congratulations to all who guessed correctly — I’ll make the next mystery post even more challenging!

 


Mystery Scat

Do you know whose scat this is?  Chances are that you may never have seen the scat of this animal, but a close look at its composition will give you a large hint.  An additional clue can be found by examining the log that the scat is sitting on (the log is there for display purposes – the scat was originally deposited in the water).  The identity of the scat-maker will be posted tomorrow!

 


Spring Beauty Pollinators

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is one of our earliest woodland wildflowers to blossom, and thus an important source of nectar and pollen for the earliest foraging insects.  Pink lines (“bee guides”) on each of its five petals lead pollinators to the center of the flower, where the nectar is located. The pollinator in this image, Andrena erigeniae, is one of the more common species of bees that visits Spring Beauty in the early spring.  Notice the slightly pink pollen she has gathered into the pollen basket on her hind leg.  If you’re interested in spending time observing the series of different insect pollinators that visit Spring Beauty as the season progresses, there’s a golden opportunity for you.  If you go to http://springbeauties.wordpress.com/ you can participate as a citizen scientist volunteer and participate in their survey.


Striped Skunk

Although you would think that no predator would think of preying on, much less eating, a striped skunk, there are a few mammals, including coyotes, foxes and bobcats, that do just that, but only if they are in danger of starving.  One predator that routinely dines on skunks is the great horned owl.  One summer night I made out the silhouette of an owl flying in my direction, and as it flew by me its identity was confirmed by the skunk-like odor that accompanied it. 

 


Marsh Marigold

Marsh Marigold’s (Caltha palustris) common name is partially accurate – it does grow in marshes, but it is not closely related to marigolds.  It is also known as Cowslip, a name which is also misleading, as it doesn’t refer to cows losing their footing when walking on this plant.  According to The Secrets of Wildflowers by Jack Sanders, the word literally means “cow slop,” or cow dung, as both the English cowslip, for which it was named, as well as cow paddies were found in the same pastures. People used to believe that butter derived its yellow coloring from the Cowslip flowers that cows ate. In fact, like many other plants in the Buttercup family, it contains irritants that cause most grazers, including cows, to avoid the plant.  Humans do eat the young leaves, but boil them several times to rid them of acrid irritants that could be poisonous.   


Red Fox Kits Nursing

When red fox kits are roughly five weeks old, not only do they begin spending time outside of their den, but they also start eating solid food and weaning begins.  This mother is still nursing her young, but soon she will start discouraging them by not always giving them access to her milk through tactics such as lying on her stomach when they approach her for a meal.  Within three weeks the kits will be completely weaned. 

 


Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s Breeches

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) and Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) are in the same genus, and their leaves and flowers reflect this close relationship. Squirrel Corn’s flowers are more heart-shaped, and lack the upright, pointed spurs of Dutchman’s Breeches flowers. It is in these spurs that nectar is produced. Squirrel Corn gets its name from the clusters of yellow, kernel-like bulblets, or tubers, that form on its roots. Dutchman’s Breeches, at least to the person who named it, resembled pants worn by men in the Netherlands.


Yellow-rumped Warbler

The Yellow-rumped Warbler (aka “Butterbutt”) has returned to our woodlands, and our ears and eyes are all the richer for it.  The song of this bejeweled songbird often stumps me the first time I hear it every spring.  It is described as a “slow, soft, sweetly whistled warble” or trill. It is also said to  resemble the sound of an old-time sewing machine.  To see which song description you prefer, or to make your own, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/yellow-rumped_warbler/sounds.

 

 


Red Fox Kits Emerge from Den

For the first month or so of their lives, red fox kits remain in their den.  They are born with a coat of dark gray fur, which is replaced when they are about a month old and starting to emerge from their den.  Their second coat is sandy-colored and blends in well with the soil surrounding the den entrance, where the kits spend most of their time.  By late June they will have acquired the red coat we associate with adult red foxes. Meanwhile, if you know the whereabouts of an active den, there is no better or more fun time of year to watch the antics of young kits than right now – they entertain themselves while their parents are out hunting by pouncing on each other, having mock fights, playing tag and chewing on all kinds of things from sticks to feathers – all of which is interspersed with frequent naps. 


Bloodroot

All members of the Poppy family have milky or colored sap, and Bloodroot (Sanguinarea canadensis) is no exception.  Its sap is as red as its petals are white, and was used as a source of dye by Native Americans (for clothing and baskets) as well as for paint and as an insect repellent.  The individual flower of Bloodroot  lasts only two days, but on these two days, it reigns supreme amongst the early ephemerals.

 


Eastern Phoebe

The Eastern Phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family, is one of the earliest nesting songbirds to return to New England after spending the winter in southeastern United States.  It is easily identified from its perch, where it typically wags its tail up and down repeatedly while waiting for an insect to fly by.  The Eastern Phoebe is the first bird ever banded in North America – in 1804 John James Audubon tied a small circle of silver thread around the legs of phoebe nestlings and documented their return in successive years.


Naturally Curious Program

Friday, April 13th at 6:30 p.m. I am giving a program at the Montshire Museum in Norwich, Vermont for the Ottauquechee section of the Green Mt. Club. The program is free and open to all. Hope you can come!


Spotted Salamanders Emerge From Hibernation

Under the stealth of a rainy night, subterranean-dwelling spotted salamanders migrated to their ancestral breeding pools this week.  Groups, or “congresses,” of males gather, followed by females. Once a female locates a congress of males, she eventually pairs up with one of them. The pair of salamanders then engages in a courtship dance ending with the male depositing a tiny white packet of sperm called a spermatophore on the bottom of the vernal pool. If he has sufficiently stimulated the female, she picks up this packet into her cloaca, or vent, and fertilization takes place. The next morning the only sign that spotted salamanders have been and gone are the unclaimed spermatophores scattered on the leaves that lie on the pool bottom.  


Field Horsetail – Equisetum arvense

4-11-12  Field Horsetail – Equisetum arvense

Look for this perennial non-flowering plant by the side of the road, where its fertile stalks are starting to poke up through the soil.  A relative of ferns, horsetail reproduces by means of spores which are located in the cone-like structure at the tip of the fertile stalk.  The green, bristly vegetative stalks that give this plant its common name will soon appear. Horsetail’s use as an herbal remedy dates back to ancient Roman and Greek medicine. It was used traditionally to stop bleeding, heal ulcers and wounds, and treat tuberculosis and kidney problems. Because of the silica in this plant, horesetail is used today by organic farmers to rid soil of the effect of excess moisture that promotes the growth of fungi. Relatively recently horsetail has been suggested as a treatment for osteoporosis, also because of the silica it contains, a mineral needed for bone health. 

 


American Kestrel

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The American Kestrel, formerly known as the Sparrow Hawk, is about the size of a Mourning Dove, making it the smallest falcon in North America.  It typically perches on tall trees, or telephone lines and poles, surveying surrounding fields in hopes of finding insects or small mammals to eat.  This female American Kestrel (her wings are rusty colored, males’ are slate-blue) flew down to the ground, captured an insect and returned to its telephone pole perch where it consumed its meal.  If you look closely at the perched kestrel, you’ll see a notch in its upper bill.  Many falcons have this notch which is thought to be an adaptation for severing the spinal column of vertebrate prey. 


Fisher Scat

Contrary to their name, fishers seldom eat fish.  While they prey on a wide range of animals and even plants, their preference is for small mammals (80% of their diet), snowshoe hares and porcupines.  Because fishers are well equipped to kill porcupines, and because there is little competition for them, porcupines are an important prey of fishers –up to 35% of fisher diet samples contain the remains of porcupines, as this photograph of fisher scat attests to.  There is no mistaking the bumpy porcupine foot pads (and quills)!


Porcupine Foot Pads

Given the amount of time porcupines spend in trees, it’s not surprising to see that their feet are well adapted for climbing.  Long, curved nails that grip the bark, as well as “pebbly” foot pads designed to prevent slipping allow this prickly rodent to climb just about anywhere it wants to.  (Hind foot pictured.)


Turtle Nest Raid

A hole 4” – 5” deep surrounded by scattered empty, dried up eggshells is a telltale sign of turtle nest predation.  A painted turtle (judging from the size, depth and location of the nest) dug a hole in the bank of a beaver pond last summer and proceeded to lay roughly a dozen or more eggs in it.  After covering the eggs with soil, the turtle returned to her pond.  The eggs hatched in August or September.  Sometimes young turtles immediately climb up through the earth and emerge above ground, but occasionally, this far north, they overwinter in their underground nest and emerge in the spring. A raccoon, fox or skunk discovered this painted turtle nest early this spring (the digging was fresh) and one can only hope that by the time the nest was raided, the young had already exited and headed for the nearby pond.  Research has found that a very small percentage of turtle nests avoid detection by a predator.

 

 

 


Beaked Hazel in Flower

Many shrubs really come into their own in the spring when they flower — not necessarily big, flashy flowers, but more subtle and delicate blossoms, with beautiful colors and designs.  Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta) is such a shrub. Its female flowers are now blooming – exquisite little maroon flowers with magenta highlights and pistils that curl this way and that in hopes of catching pollen.  One advantage to flowering before leaves are out is that there is less interference with pollen dispersal.  The entire flower is less than 1/4” in diameter.


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Drum Roll

The welcome sound of the “Morse Code woodpecker” is once again reverberating through our woodlands.  Although many woodpeckers drum against hard surfaces with their bills, yellow-bellied sapsucker drums are distinctive — they usually begin with several rapidly repeated strikes in an “introductory roll” followed by a pause, then more strikes in an irregular pattern which some people liken to the Morse Code.  These birds, like most woodpeckers, communicate with each other by drumming on different surfaces – often dead snags, but also metal signs and roof tops.  They communicate over long distances, so the louder the drum, the better.  Males are arriving back on their breeding grounds and establishing territories with the help of this drumming before the females arrive.  Females arrive back about a week later than males, at which point, drumming will assist male sapsuckers in obtaining a mate.  Females also drum, but less frequently, more softly and for shorter periods of time. Photo is of an adult female yellow-bellied sapsucker.


Rusty Tussock Moth Egg Case

There are many species of tussock moths, and in their larval, or caterpillar, stage, most are covered with tufts of hair-like setae, some impressively long.  The female rusty tussock moth, Orgyia antiqua, is flightless, so after emerging from her cocoon, she stays put, releasing alluring pheromones and awaiting the arrival of a male suitor.  After mating, she lays up to several hundred eggs on top of her empty cocoon and then dies.  The flat-topped, cylindrical eggs (with a dark depression on their top) overwinter, and as soon as leaf buds start opening, the eggs hatch, with ready-made meals inches away.  Larvae feed on the leaves of birches, oaks, crabapples and black cherry, among others.  Pictured is an egg mass on an apple leaf.