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Archive for March, 2014

Barred Owls Frequenting Feeders

4-4-14  barred owl with suet IMG_5432The number of Barred Owls seen near bird feeders recently makes one question whether these birds are, in fact, in dire need of food. Certainly the extended period of deep snow this winter has made finding prey challenging. Fortunately, the local bird rehab center (Vermont Institute of Natural Science) has not been inundated with starving owls, which indicates that other factors may be involved in the increased number of sightings near homes and feeders. One of these factors could be that Barred Owls are currently laying and incubating eggs, and a few early nesters may even be providing food for young owlets. Whatever the reason, the accessibility of rodents that are attracted to feeders and the food itself that’s in the feeders allows us an all-too-rare glimpse of this common owl. (The mystery of repeatedly finding my suet feeder on the ground every morning was finally solved when I took this photograph – look closely at what the Barred Owl is clutching in its talons.)

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Cedar Waxwings Turn to Highbush Cranberry As a Last Resort

3-28-14 cedar waxwing 159The primary food of Cedar Waxwings is fleshy fruits that have a high sugar content. Because these birds rely on ripening fruit to feed their nestlings, they are among the latest birds to nest in the Northeast. During the winter they tend to be nomadic, wandering from one sugary fruit supply to another. In the past, juniper berries have dominated their winter diet, but waxwings are increasingly turning to ornamentals such as non-native honeysuckle. (Occasionally waxwings with orange, not yellow, terminal tail bands are seen; this change in color has been attributed to their change in diet.) The fruit of Highbush Cranberry, being consumed in this photograph, is quite acidic and has a low sugar content. It is eaten by most songbirds, including Cedar Waxwings, only towards the end of winter, when sweeter fruit is in short supply.

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Cavities Provide Shelter for Birds in Winter

3-27-14  pileated hole with bird droppings 045Birds often seek protected places to roost or sleep at night, especially in the winter. Dense vegetation found in thickets or the interior branches of evergreens serve as a windbreak and conceal the birds from predators. A few species of songbirds – the ones that nest in tree cavities or bird houses – will also roost in cavities in the winter. Research has shown that these shelters, through reduction of wind speed, can increase the temperature by 40°F. Energy savings in one study ranged from 25% – 38% for birds roosting in cavities and resulted in an increased fasting endurance of six to seven hours in winter. Sometimes more than a dozen birds will pile into a single box or cavity to conserve heat. This may well have been the case in this pileated woodpecker cavity, given the amount of bird droppings found in it, or perhaps one lone chickadee took up residence night after night. (Judging from the droppings usually found in such cavities, mice use them for shelter even more than birds.)

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Many Beavers Still Locked Under Ice

3-20-14 beaver on ice IMG_3980Although there have been sightings of beavers this spring, precious few beaver ponds have openings or ice thin enough for beavers to break through in order to procure fresh food. This photograph was taken one year ago, and one can only hope, for the beavers’ sake as well as our own, that temperatures rise soon. The winter supply of food beavers store under the ice in the fall may well be as low as many people’s wood piles are this spring, in which case, many beavers’ lives depend on the ice thinning soon.

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Snowy Owl Pellet

3-25-14 snowy owl  203Your knowledgeable ID skills regarding yesterday’s Mystery Photo were most impressive!

Snowy Owls are the heaviest owls in North America, weighing roughly 4 pounds (a Great Gray Owl is only 2.4 pounds). A lot of fuel is needed to power this magnificent raptor. In the Arctic, where they live, lemmings are their preferred prey — one owl may eat more than 1,600 of these small rodents in a single year. This winter the Northeast has experienced record numbers of visiting Snowy Owls. A banner year for the Arctic lemming population followed by prolific nesting success for Snowy Owls resulted in an unprecedented “irruption” of these owls further south this winter.

While we do have lemmings in New England, they are uncommon, so Snowy Owls have relied on our small rodent, squirrel, rabbit and hare populations for food. Those owls wintering on the coast, where dunes and moors closely resemble their tundra habitat, have also taken advantage of the large number of sea ducks. As witnessed and described by Nantucket ornithologist Edie Ray, the owls fly up to great heights over the sea, spot waterfowl and then plummet down to just above the surface of the ocean where they sink their talons into a “sitting duck.” As a result, the indigestible bones, teeth and nails of prey are protectively wrapped in feathers as well as fur in the large pellets coughed up by these owls. (Snowy Owl locators: Edie Ray and Sadie Richards; Snowy Owl pellet finder: Sadie Richards)

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Mystery Photo

3-24-14 mystery photo 009Do you know what this is and what created it? Hint: Most winters this would be a rare find in New England, but not this one. All guesses welcome!

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Avian Toe Arrangment

3-17-14 mourning dove tracks 004As opposed to humans, who use the entire bottom of their feet for support, birds stand and walk only on the ball of their foot and with their toes. When you look at a bird’s leg, what appears to be its knee, bending backward instead of forward as it does in humans, is actually its heel.

Most birds have four toes, arranged differently according to the life style of the bird. Songbirds, as well as most other birds, have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back. Most woodpeckers, being active climbers, have two toes pointing in each direction, which provides added clinging support. The outer toe (of the three forward toes) of ospreys and owls is reversible, so that they can have two toes in back should they need to get a better grasp on slippery fish or other prey. Some birds that do a lot of running, such as sanderlings and most plovers, have only the three forward toes. (Photo: Mourning Dove tracks)

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Opossums Scrounging

3-19-14 opossum2  021Within the last century the Virginia Opossum has extended its range northeastward and now occurs sporadically throughout most of New England. Its adaptability to a great variety of habitats and its omnivorous diet (is there anything an opossum won’t eat?) have enabled this marsupial to live in much colder climates than it initially inhabited. As long as food can be found,the opossum’s greatest challenge is dealing with New England’s cold winters. Lacking much hair, the ears and tail of an opossum often suffer from frostbite, turning black at the edges (ears) and tip (tail). Look for signs of this nocturnal scavenger under bird feeders – in the winter it can even be seen foraging in the daylight, as the opossum in this photograph was earlier this week. (Thanks to Dotty Cummings for photo op.)

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Usnea Photo Mis-identified

email-possible Usnea 036Thanks to the readers of my blog, more knowledgeable than I, who made me aware that the photograph of the lichen in today’s post is of a lichen in the genus Ramalina. While Usnea does bear a resemblance to Ramalina, Usnea’s rounded branches are more thread-like than the flattened branches of Ramalina. Thanks to Tom Stearns, Peggy Willey and Jean Bergstrom for their sharp eyes. (Photo: Usnea (circled in red) is surrounded by Ramalina.


Usnea – Old Man’s Beard

3-18-14 lichen 014This lichen, and other members of the Usnea genus, can often be found growing on the branches of less than healthy trees in the Northeast. The algal component of these algae/fungi phenomena takes advantage of the lack of leaves on dying trees by using the available sunlight to photosynthesize. Usnea, also known as Old Man’s Beard, grows in little hair-like tufts and has a diagnostic pale yellow, elastic central cord. In addition to being an indicator of air pollution (its size is greatly decreased if there is pollution), Usnea has been used by herbalists as an immune system tonic for hundreds of years.

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How Are Red-winged Blackbirds Surviving?

3-17-14 red-winged blackbird2 IMG_2063The first reports of Red-winged Blackbird sightings are coming in, and with two feet of snow in some places, frigid temperatures, and very few insects in flight, one can’t help but wonder how they are surviving. A number of factors allow Red-wings to sustain themselves in these conditions, including the fact that their foraging is not restricted to one habitat – they look for food in marshes, pastures, overgrown fields, shores of lakes and ponds and windblown, exposed corn fields and crop lands. Secondly, they look for food in and on a variety of substrates, including but not limited to tree trunks and vegetation, which are accessible even with snow on the ground. Thirdly, they are very adept at gaping – forcing their bill open against the resistance of bark, etc. in order to reach into the crooks and crannies where insects are overwintering. And lastly, their diet fluctuates with the food that is available. During the breeding season, the majority of a Red-winged Blackbird’s diet is insects, and during fall, winter and early spring, Red-wings are primarily plant eaters – weed seeds, tree seeds and in agricultural areas, grains. In many ways, Red-winged blackbirds are more successfully adapted than humans are to this interminable winter!

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Striped Skunk Mating Season

3-14-14 striped skunk 082Striped Skunks are on the prowl, as your nose may have told you recently – males are eagerly seeking out the company of females at this time of year and are often hit by cars traveling at night. The peak of Striped Skunk breeding season is typically the third week in March. Males will mate with several females in succession and then they often protect their harem against other males by hitting them (other males) with their shoulders or biting their legs. Once a female has been successfully bred, she will not allow further mating activity and will viciously fight any male that attempts it.

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Bald Eagles Refurbishing Nests

3-13-14 bald eagle on nest IMG_8514Bald Eagles in New England are repairing and adding to their nests, even as snow and cold temperatures continue. They often reuse their nest year after year – a nest in Ohio was used 34 years before the tree blew down. Although most don’t reach the record-breaking dimensions an eagle nest in Florida did (9 1/2’ wide, 20’ deep, weighing almost 3 tons), they are impressive structures, averaging five feet and three feet deep. Typically eagles will choose one of the biggest trees in an area in which to build their nest. Because their nests will be used for many years to come, eagles often choose living trees (which will remain standing longer) in which to build them. The nest is usually located in the top quarter of a tree, just below the crown. Both male and female eagles collect sticks for the nest, either finding them on the ground or breaking them off nearby trees. In parts of Alaska and northern Canada where trees are scarce and short, eagles often nest on the ground.

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Red Foxes and a Minuscule Mite

red fox IMG_4446A recent glimpse of a Red Fox whose tail was hairless except for a pompom-like tuft of fur at the very tip reminded me of the devastating effect a very small creature can have on an animal many times its size. A tiny, eyeless mite (Sarcoptes scabei) is responsible for the loss of fur associated with sarcoptic mange, the scourge of Red Foxes. After mating on a fox (often near the tail end), the male mite dies and the female burrows into the fox’s skin, laying eggs as she goes. After the eggs hatch, the larvae move to a new patch of skin, burrow in and eventually emerge as adult mites, ready to mate and continue the cycle. To add insult to injury, Red Foxes have an intense immune response to the mites’ excrement and the resulting inflammation is extremely itchy. Biting and scratching exacerbate the situation, causing new skin tears where bacteria can enter. Eventually, most foxes die of exhaustion, starvation and/or infection.

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Striped Maple Buds

3-11-14 striped maple terminal bud 132Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum), also known as Moosewood and Moose Maple, can easily be identified summer or winter by its greenish bark bearing vertical white stripes (hence, its common name). Because the bark is so distinctive, one needn’t rely on Striped Maple’s buds for identification purposes, but they are well worth investigating, nonetheless. Their graceful shape, smooth surface (few bud scales) and pinkish-red coloration distinguish them from all others. These buds and young branches that bear them are devoured by rabbits and hares, are frequently eaten by porcupines and beavers, and provide browse for deer and moose.

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Evening Grosbeak Bills Changing Color

3-10-13 evening grosbeak female IMG_0734Breeding season changes in a bird’s physical appearance can involve more than a set of new feathers. The colors of birds’ feet, legs and bills can also change in different seasons. One transition most people are aware of is the European Starling’s bill which is black in winter and turns yellow as the breeding season approaches. Male and female Evening Grosbeaks also undergo a change in bill color, from bone-colored in the winter, to a greenish hue in the spring. Hormones are largely responsible for these pigmentation changes which often play a role in courtship behavior. Usually change in the color of the bill is most pronounced among birds which retain the same plumage color and pattern throughout the year, such as starlings and Evening Grosbeaks. (Photo-female Evening Grosbeak)

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Ruffed Grouse Wings

2-25-14 grouse wing imprints  010You can often determine the type of flight that a bird is capable of by looking at the shape of its wings. Long, narrow wings are excellent for gliding, while the short, rounded wings of a Ruffed Grouse allow for tight maneuvering in the dense forests where they live. The shape of their wings and their quick-contracting muscles equip grouse for the short bursts of high speed (not long distances) they take when feeding or evading predators. (Photo: a Ruffed Grouse walked a short way and then took flight, beating its wings against the snow twice before it was airborne.)

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Sumac Sustains Songbirds

3-6-14 bluebirds on sumac 033By this time of the year fruit-eating birds have, for the most part, devoured the choicest fruits available in winter. What remains are the fruits-of-last-resort. While Staghorn Sumac fruits may not be a preferred food, they are an important source of winter sustenance for many species of birds, including bluebirds (pictured), cardinals, chickadees, jays, robins, waxwings, crows, mockingbirds and starlings. Some of the best late-winter birding occurs near stands of this shrubby relative of poison ivy. Can you find the four Eastern Bluebirds feeding on sumac in the photo?

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Coyote Shelter

2-24-14 coyote shelter 078Like many carnivores, coyotes do not have permanent homes, other than the maternal dens in which their young are raised. After being active at dawn and dusk (as well as occasionally during the day and night), they are apt to rest, curling up in beds they make in the snow right out in the open. However, they will take advantage of a sheltered spot, such as this hollow stump, if it presents itself. Tracks leading into and out of this stump, in addition to many hairs on the ground inside it, left no question as to what canine had sought shelter here from the cold, winter wind.

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Common Ravens Repairing & Building Nests

2-24-14 common raven IMG_2002Common Ravens have begun tending to their nests – one was seen snapping dead branches off of a Black Locust tree in Vermont last week. Often ravens will use the same nest for many years, renovating and repairing it every year. They typically nest on or in cliffs and trees (although abandoned cars, a satellite dish and a barbecue grill have been used), with the female doing the lion’s share of the construction. (The male assists her by bringing sticks to the nest site.) The base of the nest consists of sticks up to three feet long with smaller branches being woven into a cup lined with softer material such as sheep’s wool, fur and shredded bark. The finished nest is two to three feet across and up to four feet deep.

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A New Book for Budding Naturalists

COVER-BeaversBusyIs there a youngster in your life who might love his or her own book about beavers? My third children’s nature book, The Beavers’ Busy Year, has just been released. Having been an ardent admirer of this rodent for many, many years, it is gratifying to have had a chance to instill a love for beavers in youngsters age 3-8 with this non-fiction book. The adaptations of beavers’ noses, eyes, ears, fur, feet and tails are highlighted in the text and photographs take the reader through the seasons of the year from a beaver’s perspective. Activities at the end of the book engage children in matching photographs of various beaver signs such as tracks, scent mounds and incisor marks with written descriptions. There are also activity/informational sections on beaver tails, beavers as engineers and creators of habitat for other wildlife, and dam building. It should be available at your local bookstore, but if not, I’d greatly appreciate your letting them know about it. Thank you!