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Archive for August, 2012

Dog Vomit Slime Mold

Slime mold guessers are right! This is a slime mold — aptly-named “Dog Vomit Slime Mold” (Fuligo septica). Slime molds are not plants, animals, fungi or bacteria. This stage of a slime mold’s life cycle is called a plasmodium, which is essentially one giant cell with millions of nuclei. The plasmodium moves by slowly flowing over the ground, gradually engulfing and consuming fungi and bacteria that are present on decaying plant matter. You often find it on mulch that is regularly watered. Dog Vomit Slime Mold is harmless to people, pets and plants. In fact, it is actually edible. In some parts of Mexico people scramble it like eggs (and call it “caca de luna”).


Mystery Photo

Today’s Mystery Photo was submitted by Phyllis Katz, of Norwich, Vermont.   Do you know what the whitish part of the photograph is?  It appeared overnight in her garden and it measures roughly 12” by 6”.  Identification will be revealed tomorrow.  All guesses welcome!


Barred Owl Diet

This is pure conjecture, but here goes. Barred Owls are known to consume small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates. I have repeatedly encountered a Barred Owl lately near a pool of water in a brook that has all but dried up. Fish have become trapped in this pool due to the dryness of the summer, and are easy pickings for predators. Even though studies have shown that fish are a very small percentage of a Barred Owl’s diet (2.5% in owls from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut during the breeding season), I am betting that the owl that I flushed yesterday that was perched right next to the isolated pool in the brook was spending the day (and night?) at his favorite fishing hole. Three times it took off from its perch as I approached, but only flew a few feet away each time. Perhaps fish or frogs kept it from disappearing further into the woods.


Woodchucks

Now is the time when your garden is most likely to have visits from resident woodchucks. These large, herbivorous rodents are eating fast and furiously as the days get shorter, in an effort to put on a layer of fat that will sustain them through hibernation.  The middle of the day is typically spent sunning themselves, but early morning and evening will find woodchucks eating and putting on a layer of fat equaling about a third of their weight.  They lose anywhere from 20% – 37% of their body weight during hibernation.  If they don’t gain enough weight now, they won’t survive until green grass and other plants are available again in the spring.  Hopefully knowing this will make sharing your garden with an uninvited guest a bit easier.


Black Walnut

Even though a late spring frost may have reduced this year’s crop of Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra), and even though the few that made it haven’t started falling on the ground yet, squirrels have already located and started consuming this nut’s fatty meat.  Inside the green husk is the actual nut, and if you look closely at the edges of the chewed hole as well as the inner surface of the nut, you will see tiny incisor marks, most likely left by red squirrels.  This particular rodent typically chews a hole on both sides of the nut, so that it can gain access to both halves of the meat.


Solitary Sandpipers

Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria) nest in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska (in the abandoned tree nests of several different song birds!), and winter in the tropics, from northern Mexico south through much of South America.   Individuals started their nocturnal migration south in June, which is both inland as well as offshore.  In the fall, some birds appear to fly southeast over New England towards the Atlantic Ocean, as if on direct course to South America, while others follow the eastern coastline. Although their migration over New England peaked in July, you can find them through mid-October on the shores of ponds, resting and feeding during their long flight.  As their common and species names indicate, they migrate singly, not in flocks like most migrant sandpipers.


Twelve-spotted Skimmers

Twelve-spotted Skimmers are classified as “King Skimmers,” all members of which are large and conspicuous, often with distinctive wing patterns.   Male Twelve-spotted Skimmers (pictured) have a grayish bloom on their abdomens and each wing has three dark spots with white spots in between them.  Females have brown abdomens and no white spots on their wings.  All summer you can see males flying back and forth short distances along the shores of ponds and over water, hovering as well as perching.  They are territorial and patrol over water, loop-de-looping with competing males.  A small number of Twelve-spotted Skimmers occasionally take part in Atlantic Coast migrations.


Snake Eyes

You can often tell whether a snake is active in the day (diurnal) or during the night (nocturnal) by looking at its eyes. Diurnal snakes, such as the pictured Common Gartersnake, typically have round pupils and moderate-sized eyes. Many nocturnal snakes have large eyes and many also have vertical, elliptical pupils. A round pupil is able to close tightly to a pinpoint opening, allowing a minimum amount of light to enter the eye on very bright days. In contrast, a vertical pupil can open wider than a round pupil to allow more light to enter the eye, a useful adaptation for night vision.


Clouded Sulphurs

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Sulphurs are a group of butterflies that are usually some shade of yellow, orange or white and have a wingspan between 1 ½ “ and 2 ½ “. The three species likely to be seen in New England are the Clouded Sulphur, the Orange Sulphur and the Pink-edged Sulphur. (Distinguishing one species of sulphur from another can be quite challenging.) Sulphurs always perch with their wings closed, and are commonly seen on flowers drinking nectar as well as puddling in muddy areas, where they obtain salts and other minerals.


Pine Cone Willow Gall

Galls are abnormal plant growths that can be caused by insects, fungi, bacteria, nematode worms and mites.  Insects cause the greatest number of galls and induce the greatest variety of structures.  Galls provide both food and shelter for the organisms living within them.  Galls develop during the growing season, often in buds and on leaves.  Pine Cone Willow Galls, named for their resemblance to small pine cones, are found on willows, typically in terminal buds.  A gall midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides) is responsible for the willow bud going haywire and developing  abnormally. (No-one has determined exactly how insects cause galls, whether it’s the act of laying eggs in or on the plant, or if it’s somehow connected to the chewing of the larvae into the plant.)    Each gall-making insect has a specific host plant, or small group of related plant.  The galls that each insect species induces and lives in while developing into an adult has a recognizable shape and size.  When you think you’re seeing pines cones on willow trees, you’re not hallucinating, you’ve just discovered the temporary home and food supply of a tiny fly, known as a midge.


Great Blue Heron Fishing

Although Great Blue Herons are colonial nesters, they forage by themselves, usually by slowly wading or standing in wait of prey in shallow water.  Fish are the mainstay of their diet, but they also consume amphibians, invertebrates, reptiles, mammals, and birds.  When prey is located (by sight), the heron rapidly thrusts its neck forward and grabs it with its beak.  If it is small, it is sometimes tossed in the air before it is swallowed, as the photograph depicts.  Most prey are swallowed whole.


Grass of Parnassus

Grass of Parnassus, also known as Bog-star, is a favorite flowering plant of mine for two reasons. One is because I enjoy saying its name — try it, it sounds quite regal. Secondly, the green lines, or bee guides, on the petals are a striking color which you don’t see all that often in flowers. Grass of Parnassus is in the Saxifrage family – not in the Grass family, as its name would imply. It typically grows in wet meadows. Apparently the name comes from ancient Greece; the cattle on Mount Parnassus ate this plant with relish, and thus it was deemed an “honorary grass.” (An Ambush Bug is perched on a petal, waiting and watching for prey.)


American Lady Larva

The American Lady larva is very distinctive with its branched spines and white bands across its abdomen.  One of its favorite foods is Pussytoes, a member of the Aster family.  The larva feeds inside a shelter it makes by tying up several leaves with silk.  In the photograph, the larva has incorporated the flower heads of Pussytoes into its shelter.  Not only is the larva feeding and growing inside this 1 ½ ”-long  cavity, it also shed its skin.  To see an adult American Lady butterfly, go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/american-lady-common-milkweed-pollinia/ .  Soon after the larva forms a chrysalis and pupates, a butterfly emerges and starts its migration south for the winter.


How Snails Feed

Most terrestrial snails are herbivorous, feeding on a wide range of vegetation. The snail’s mouth is on the bottom of its head near the shorter pair of tentacles. Snails (and all molluscs) consume their food not with mouthparts, like insects, or teeth, like mammals, but with a rasping tongue or radula. Snails don’t bite their food, but rather, rasp or scrape it. The radula is covered with rows of tiny “toothlets” which rasp particles away from vegetation and move them back towards the snail’s gullet. Different species of snails have differently-shaped toothlets. The radula is used by the snail not only to process food, but to clean bits of dried mucus from its shell. Supposedly if you listen hard, you can actually hear a rasping sound when the latter is occurring. (If you look hard, you can just barely see the orange radula of the land snail in the photograph.)


Aging a Common Loon Chick by its Plumage

This year’s Common Loon chicks are now roughly two months old.  Even without being aware of when it hatched, you can estimate the age of a chick by looking at its feathers.  Their color and type (down or contour) can give you a good idea of how many weeks old it is. Common Loon chicks are born covered with sooty-black down.  By the time they are three weeks old they have replaced this natal down with a second (gray-brown) down.  Juvenal feathers start appearing soon thereafter, replacing the down — the age of a chick can be estimated by the amount of down that remains.  By eight weeks of age the chicks have just small tufts of brown down remaining on their head and neck (see photo).  By nine weeks of age their entire body, including their head and neck, are covered with smooth, gray contour feathers and there is no sign of down.


Lobster Mushroom

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Lobster mushrooms  are so named because they look a bit like lobsters – red/orange “shells” on the outside with white inside. A lobster mushroom is actually two fungi in one – the parasitic  fungus, Hypomyces lactifluorum (red/orange outer crust), and the mushroom being parasitized by the lobster mushroom (white, inner flesh, usually a Russula or Lactarius mushroom). Hypomyces lactifluorum has only been known to parasitize non-poisonous mushrooms and it has been eaten for hundreds of years without any known problems. Still, it is conceivable that it could parasitize a poisonous mushroom, rendering it harmful to the forager.


Spined Soldier Bug

The Spined Soldier Bug is a predatory stink bug which preys on a variety of other insects (over 90 species), especially the larvae of butterflies, moths and beetles. It is one insect that farmers actually welcome, as it preys heavily on the larvae of the European corn borer, Mexican bean beetle, cabbage looper, Colorado potato beetle, flea beetles and many other crop pests. The adult Spined Soldier Bug has a prominent spine on each “shoulder.” It also has piercing-sucking mouthparts which it uses to impale prey and suck out their internal juices. The photograph shows a Spined Soldier Bug dining on the innards of a monarch caterpillar.


Tobacco Hornworms & Brachonid Wasps

Tobacco Hornworms, Manduca sexta (often found feeding on tomato plants and confused with Tomato Hornworms, Manduca quinquemaculata) are often the target of a species of Brachonid wasp that parasitizes beetle, moth, fly and sawfly larvae. The adult wasp lays her eggs inside the hornworm with her long ovipositor. The eggs hatch and the wasp larvae feed on the caterpillar. Eventually the wasp larvae emerge and form white pupa cases on the skin of the dying hornworm larva, inside of which they transform into winged adults. Braconid wasps are extremely good at locating hornworms, even when there are very few to find. Because they parasitize hornworm, cabbage worm, aphid and gypsy moth larvae, Braconid wasps are considered important biological control agents. If you want to discourage Tobacco Hornworms in your tomato patch, allow the wasps to complete their metamorphosis – this accomplishes both the demise of the hornworm, as well as an increased population of Braconid wasps.


Great Horned Owl Fledglings

Hardy birds that they are, Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest nesting birds — you can find them on nests in January, February and March, even in northern New England. Eggs are incubated for about a month, typically in March or April with young usually hatching in May or June. The nestlings remain in the nest for six or seven weeks before fledging. Unable to fly until they’re ten or twelve weeks old, the fledglings follow their parents around and continue to be fed and cared for by them until the fall. These two fledglings were sticking close together as they made their raspy begging calls from high in a white pine. Both their calls and the down that was visible on their heads told me that they were this year’s young.


Earwigs

People used to believe that earwigs crawled into people’s ears while they were sleeping and proceeded to bore into their brains, thereby causing insanity and/or death. Fortunately, this isn’t, and never has been, true. Earwigs feed on leaves, flowers, fruits, mold and insects, but not human brains. Because they are nocturnal, during the day we often find them secreted away in some dark, damp crevice, often on a plant. These flat, elongated insects have a pair of pincers, or cerci, at the end of their abdomen which they use to capture prey, defend themselves and arrange their hind wings, if they have them. (Earwigs that possess wings can, but rarely do, fly.) You can actually determine the sex of an earwig, should you be so inclined, by the shape of its cerci – those of a male (pictured) are unequal in length, strongly curved and larger than the straight cerci of females.


Jack-in-the-Pulpit Corms

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Jack-in-the-Pulpits have underground, vertical swollen stems referred to as corms, which store nutrients that allow them to withstand extremes in temperature, as well as droughts. They also provide the plant with the energy it needs to produce leaves and flowers. A large corm is likely to produce a female plant (which needs more energy to produce seeds), a smaller corm a male. If the plant lacks enough nutrients to produce a flower, its corm will be very small. All parts of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, including the corm, contain a high concentration of calcium oxalate crystals, which are known to cause a burning sensation if eaten. Native Americans roasted or dried Jack-in-the-Pulpit corms (Indian Turnip or Iroquois Breadroot, as they called it) before grinding them into flour for bread, using them to treat colds or as a contraceptive. There is still a demand for their corms today, but it is not from humans – black bears find them irresistible!  NOTE: An alert reader suggested that I emphasize the fact that of Jack-in-the-Pulpit is NOT to be eaten by humans.  The crystals in it bear many sharp needles that cut and poison the flesh, and if bits of the plant get to the back of your mouth, it can cause it to swell to the point of suffocation!


Determining the Sex of a Painted Turtle

It’s pretty difficult to determine the sex of a Painted Turtle unless you’re extremely close to it, and they are so wary when basking that it takes some maneuvering to get a bird’s eye view of one.  If you should be so lucky as to approach a Painted Turtle without having it slip into the water long before you get near it, take a look at the nails, or claws, on its front feet.  Males have long claws, female short. The male uses his long claws to stroke the female’s head and neck during courtship, as well as to hold on to the female’s shell when they mate.  When trying to determine the gender of a Painted Turtle, it helps when you find the two sexes together, as you can easily compare the relative length of their claws.  In the photograph, the male Painted Turtle is on the left, female on the right.


Common Aerial Yellowjackets

Common Aerial Yellowjackets derive their common name from the fact that their nests are often aerially constructed, unlike the underground yellowjackets we’re more familiar with. Being in the same genus, it’s not surprising that Bald-faced Hornets and Common Aerial Yellowjackets build nests that are almost identical. The nests of both species have two to six horizontally-arranged layers of comb (for eggs and larvae) inside several layers of protective paper envelopes. The easiest way to tell which species made a nest is to see if there are yellow (yellowjacket) or white ( hornet) markings on the residents. The yellowjackets on the outside of the nest in the photograph are all busy making paper-mache out of wood fiber and applying it to their nest in order to enlarge it.


Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis

Of the multitude of discoveries that every summer offers us, one of the most magical is that of  a Monarch Butterfly chrysalis.  While locating a Monarch larva is not all that difficult, especially when they are as prolific as they are this summer, finding a chrysalis doesn’t happen all that often. Most butterfly chrysalises are a rather drab brown, but the Monarch’s is a beautiful green which serves to camouflage it in fields where the caterpillars feed on milkweed and eventually pupate (form a chrysalis).  The Monarch caterpillar, when mature, usually seeks a sheltered spot under a leaf or branch where rain will not cause the silk button by which it hangs to disintegrate.  The chrysalis in the photograph is attached to a blade of grass which was anchored with silk to another blade of grass in order to make it more secure.  No matter how many I’ve seen, each one still takes my breath away.