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Archive for May, 2012

Turkey Vultures Staying Cool

On some of the hot days we’ve had recently, my thoughts have turned to Turkey Vultures and their ingenious way of staying cool. They defecate on their legs and the subsequent evaporation cools the birds while strong acids kill bacteria.


Bloodroot Seeds and Myrmecochory

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Bloodroot seeds, as well as the seeds of as many as 5% of flowering plants, have a fatty white appendage called an elaiosome attached to them which ants are very fond of.  This adaptation benefits both the ants as well as the plant.  The ants collect the seeds and take them down into their tunnels where they feed the elaiosomes to their larvae. The actual seeds are discarded underground, often in with ant compost, where their chances of germinating are enhanced. The dispersal of seeds by ants is referred to as myrmecochory. As the photographs indicate, ants don’t always wait until the seeds have dropped out of the seed pod to collect them.


Ant Farmers

Certain species of ants have what is called a mutualistic relationship with aphids – a win-win situation for both the ants and the aphids. The ants protect the aphids from predators. In return, the aphids secrete droplets of “honeydew” from their abdomen when stroked by the ants’ antennae, which the ants devour. The act of stroking the aphids is referred to as “milking” them; hence, the ants are referred to as “farmers.”


Mystery Photo Solved!

Well done, those of you who guessed Wild Turkey, which was most of you! Charlotte Carlson not only discovered their nest, but managed to photograph the hen and tom turkey in the act of making the eggs!


Mystery Photo

Thanks to Charlotte Carlson of Sunapee, NH, we have a new Mystery Photo! Do you know whose eggs these are? Tomorrow’s photo will identify their producers.


Wood Turtle

Wood Turtles (named for the woody appearance of their shells) are primarily river and stream-dwelling reptiles. They forage for food on land near streams, where, at this time of year, they also lay their eggs. Like most turtles, female Wood Turtles seek out sandy soil in which they dig several holes (to confuse predators) and choose one in which they usually lay seven or eight eggs. Their diet consists of both plants and animals, with berries and mushrooms at the top of the list. Earthworms are also a favorite, and their method of attracting them is a sight I would like to see — they stamp their front feet alternately in order to get earthworms to surface from their underground burrows. The Wood Turtle population in New England is in decline (collecting has greatly reduced their population) and any sighting of this species should be reported to state Fish & Game as well as, in Vermont, the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas.


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (pictured) is yellow with four “tiger stripes” on each of its forewings. The female can be yellow or black, and has more blue on the hind wings than the male. Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are currently mating and laying eggs on plants which their larvae eat, which include black cherry, red maple and American hornbeam. When the caterpillars first hatch, they resemble bird droppings – an effective way of decreasing predation. As they get older, the larvae turn green and have a large head and bright eyespots.


Yellow Lady’s Slipper

Yellow lady’s slipper, Cypripedium pubescens, is in flower in central Vermont/New Hampshire, gracing woodlands and bogs with its beauty. This plant has what is called a mycorrhizal association, a relationship with a fungus that colonizes its roots. This mutually beneficial association provides the fungus with carbohydrates from its host plant, the yellow lady’s slipper, and enables the yellow lady’s slipper to have increased mineral absorption due to the fungus’s large surface area. More than 90 percent of plant species are believed to form a symbiotic arrangement with beneficial soil fungi.


Beaverpond Baskettail

Beaverpond Baskettail dragonflies have an early flight season, first appearing in May in the Northeast.  The males (pictured) cruise over the water (often beaver ponds, hence their name) as well as the shore in sexual patrol flight, flying back and forth over the same area repeatedly.  After mating, the female accumulates a large egg cluster at the tip of her abdomen, and as she drags it along the surface of the water, a long string of eggs is draped over plants.  Once these strings expand, they can be several feet in length and an inch or more in diameter.


Red-tailed Hawk Nestling

The Red-tailed Hawk nest that produced two fledglings last year is in use again this spring.  In the past month the nestlings have gone from tiny white powder puffs to nearly equaling their parents in size.  Down is still visible, especially on their heads, but contour feathers are quickly replacing them on other parts of their body. Soon there will be wing stretches and flapping, as well as hopping about on nearby branches in preparation for fledging. 

 


Eastern Chipmunks Building Nests and Giving Birth

Eastern chipmunks typically have two litters a year, each consisting of 1 to 8 young (4 to 5 is usual). They give birth mid-April to mid-May and mid-July to mid-August.  The chipmunk in the accompanying photograph has a mouth full of dead leaves which it is carrying back to its underground tunnel where it makes a bulky, leaf nest for its young.  When they are born, the young chipmunks are roughly 2 ½ inches long and weigh .11 oz.  In about a month start looking for tiny chipmunks – the young are weaned and start venturing out of their tunnels in mid-June.


Wild Strawberry

 

Wild Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana, a member of the Rose family, grows throughout New England and is one of the parent plants for the cultivated hybrid strawberry (the other plant being native to Chile). Its fruits are a staple food for many animals but the leaves and flowers of this plant are also an important source of sustenance for a wide variety of creatures.  Cottontail rabbits, snowshoe hares, eastern chipmunks, white-footed mice, white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse, slugs and a variety of invertebrates including aphids, weevils and mites feed on the leaves of wild strawberry.  The flowers attract honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies and other insects that collect its pollen and nectar.  Caterpillars of several species of moths feed on the foliage and flowers of Wild Strawberry.


Indigo Bunting

There is something irrepressibly cheery about the song of an Indigo Bunting.  The male’s paired notes ring out from a high perch, where this unbelievably blue bird positively sparkles in the sunlight. According to Cornell’s “All About Birds” site, the male sings as many as 200 songs per hour at dawn and for the rest of the day averages a song per minute.  To hear an indigo bunting sing, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Indigo_Bunting/sounds


Painted Trillium

Even in the rain, Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) can brighten one’s day.  Its species name, “undulatum” aptly describes its wavy-margined petals and its common name reflects the splash of pink in the center of the white flower.  This member of the Lily family likes acid woods and bogs. Look for it in mature, second-growth forests of Red Maple, Paper Birch, Eastern Hemlock and Eastern White Pine. Wildflowers likely to be found where Painted Trillium grows include Starflower, Sarsaparilla, Canada Mayflower, Indian Cucumber-root, Partridgeberry and Goldthread.


Woodchucks Preparing to Give Birth

Roughly a month ago woodchucks were at the peak of their mating season.  New England’s largest member of the Squirrel family is about to give birth to two to six young chucks. In preparation for this event, dead grasses are gathered and carried by mouth to the underground nest chamber, which is about 15 inches in diameter. Woodchucks are tidy rodents — the female covers her young’s waste with new bedding placed directly over the old, and when the nest becomes too bulky or unsanitary, the matted material is removed and fresh bedding is added.


Parasitic Flies

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 There is a family of flies, Tachinidae, which consists of different species of parasitic flies, one of which is Epalpus signifier.  If you look at enough dandelions this time of year, you are likely to spot one — their white rump is a distinctive identifying feature.  This fly is technically a parasitoid, and as such, spends most of its life attached to or within a host organism (Noctuid moth caterpillar) , getting nourishment from it.   Unlike a parasite, it eventually kills or consumes its host



Spring Peepers Still Calling

Although Spring Peepers emerged from hibernation about two months ago, on warm nights the males are still advertising for mates and will continue to do so into June. Let your ears guide you to the peepers as they call repeatedly, often while perched on low vegetation near water. Armed with a flashlight, look for the movement of their vocal sacs as they inflate and deflate as the peepers sing. 


How Snakes Smell

Many snakes, including this Common Gartersnake, use smell to track their prey.  In the roof of a snake’s mouth are two openings, called the vomeronasal  organ, also known as Jacobson’s organ.  Snakes smell by sticking their forked tongue in the air, keeping it constantly moving while they collect particles (mostly pheromones) on it from the ground, air and water.  Next they pull their tongue back into their mouth and insert it into their Jacobson’s organ (one fork in each opening).  Then the particles are analyzed and the snake determines whether prey or a predator is in the vicinity.  


Question Mark Butterfly

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The butterfly known as the Question Mark is in a group of butterflies known as “commas” (a silvery comma can be seen on the underside of their hind wings) or “anglewings”  (for their sharply angled wing margins).  The Question Mark has a silver dot adjacent to the comma, turning it into a question mark.  When its wings are open, the question mark is fairly bright orange and quite noticeable, but when it closes its wings, it transforms into a dead leaf, for the undersides of its wings are dull brown and gray. This Question Mark was drinking sap from a wound in the trunk of a tree. These woodland butterflies prefer rotting fruit, mud, scat, carrion and tree sap over the nectar of flowers.

 


Fringed Polygala

Fringed Polygala (Polygala paucifolia) looks a bit like a miniature orchid, but it is not — it is in the Milkwort family. The structure of its ¾-inch bright magenta-pink blossoms is well-suited for its bumblebee pollinators.  The bee lands on the pink fringe at the front of the flower and its weight triggers the white “keel” to drop down.  A slit at the keel’s top opens, exposing the reproductive parts of the flower.  Pollen from the stamens is rubbed onto the bee’s hairs while it probes deeply into the base of the flower for nectar, while pollen from a previously visited Fringed Polygala is scraped off onto the stigma, where it needs to be in order for fertilization to take place.

 


Brown Creepers Nesting

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The Brown Creeper is so well camouflaged that there are many people who don’t even know of its existence. This diminutive bird gets its name from its habit of creeping along tree trunks and spiraling upwards while it probes for insects and spiders hidden in bark crevices with its curved, sharp bill.  At this time of year, brown creepers have already made their fibrous nest behind a loose flap of bark on a tree, and the 5 – 6 nestlings are constantly demanding food.  Unlike some species, both adults care for their young.  These photos illustrate how the male goes off and finds an invertebrate, flies back to the nest and gives it to the female, who then disappears behind bark to feed it to her nestlings.


Naturally Curious Interview – Part 2

Chris Mazzarella, on his blog “Forest Forward” has posted the second half of his interview with me.  To read it, you can go to http://forestforward.com/2012/05/07/an-interview-with-mary-holland-part-two/


Full Moon

Newly-emerged Sugar Maple leaves in last night’s full moon.