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Archive for September, 2014

Meadowhawks Mating & Laying Eggs

9-30-24 autumn meadowhawks laying egg  043There is a genus of dragonflies, Sympetrum, referred to as meadowhawks, which emerge and fly in late summer and autumn, breeding in ponds and foraging over meadows. Mature males and some females of certain species of meadowhawks become bright red on part or all of their bodies. When breeding, the male grasps his mate behind her head with the appendages at the end of his abdomen and often does not release the female until after she has laid her eggs, which she typically does by dipping the tip of her abdomen in the water (see photo). The reason for this continued connection is related to the fact that a male dragonfly may remove sperm present in the female from any previous mating and replace it with his own packet of sperm, or spermatophore. In order to prevent this from happening, and to assure his paternity, a male dragonfly sometimes flies close to his mate, guarding her while she lays her eggs, or, in the case of meadowhawks, may fly in tandem with the female throughout the egg-laying process.

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Gray Squirrels Caching Nuts

9-26-14 gray squirrel with nuts 015Many species of squirrels, including the red squirrel, are “larder hoarders.” Each individual stores its food in one central area that it defends aggressively against invaders. Eastern gray squirrels, however, are “scatter hoarders,” collecting and burying one nut at a time throughout home ranges up to 7 acres in size. It has been estimated that up to 25 percent of the nuts that gray squirrels cache are stolen by other gray squirrels. Researchers have found that gray squirrels engage in “deceptive caching.” Carrying a nut, a squirrel will repeatedly dig a hole and then fill it in, without depositing the nut. They also will cover a spot with leaves, even though they have not buried anything in this location. Where gray squirrel densities are high, the squirrels often keep a cache in its original location for only about three days before moving it to a new location.

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Earwigs Mating

earwig2 -horizontal175Earwigs are elusive insects, primarily because they are nocturnal and during the day tend to hide in crevices. When we do see them, the first thing often noticed is their cerci, the pair of forceps-like pincers at the tip of their abdomen. These pincers are used primarily to capture prey (earwigs are scavengers for the most part, but some are omnivorous and prey on other insects) and for copulation. Male earwigs have curved pincers, while females have straight ones. After mating in the fall, the male and female earwigs spend much of the winter together, tucked away in a crack or crevice. By the time spring arrives, the male has left and the female has laid her eggs (the sperm stays viable within her for several months), which hatch in about a week’s time. Earwigs are one of few insects that provide maternal care for their eggs and offspring. (Photo is of male earwig eating the outermost tissue of a milkweed pod.)

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Juvenile Eastern Newts Leaving Ponds

eastern newt baby 137Eastern newts, those four-inch long, red-spotted, olive-green, aquatic salamanders that inhabit most ponds, breed throughout the summer and well into the fall. Their eggs hatch in three to five weeks and the aquatic larvae are equipped with gills with which they breathe for the next three months or so. By late summer and early autumn the inch-and-a-half-long larvae begin to reabsorb their gills and develop lungs and a rough-textured skin. These tiny, young salamanders start to emerge from ponds and live on land, gradually turning reddish-orange. We refer to the juvenile eastern newt salamander during its terrestrial stage as a red eft. After spending two to five years on land, red efts return to the water, regain their green coloration and live the rest of their life as aquatic eastern newts. (Photo: A juvenile eastern newt that just emerged from a pond and has yet to attain the reddish-orange color of a red eft, on a quarter for scale. The darker patch on its neck just before its foreleg is where gills were once located.)

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Indian Cucumber Root Fruit Ripening

9-25-14 indian cucumber root IMG_3876Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) is a member of the Lily family that grows to be one to two feet tall and has one or more whorls (several leaves coming off stem at same point) of leaves. Plants that are going to flower usually put out two tiers of leaves, with their distinctive flowers arising from the second tier. The flowers nod down below the leaves, while the fruit that forms and ripens in September rises above them.

At the same time that Indian cucumber root berries turn bluish-purple, the cluster of leaves below them turns partially red. Each berry contains several seeds which birds and small rodents are attracted to. Although the Iroquois reportedly used an infusion of the crushed dried berries and leaves to treat convulsions in infants, human consumption of anything but Indian cucumber root’s tuber is not recommended (and the tubers should be harvested sparingly).

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The Silent Communication of White-tailed Bucks

9-23-14  antler rub IMG_7310Rising levels of testosterone circulating in a buck’s blood toward the end of summer results in the maturation of antlers and the drying up of the velvet that was providing nutrients to them. It used to be thought that bucks engaged in rubbing their antlers against saplings at this time of year in order to remove the velvet, but research has shown there is much more behind this behavior. Rubs are visual and olfactory sign posts that transmit important information to other bucks and does in the area prior to and during rut, such as individual buck identification, breeding readiness, age and hierarchy.

The positioning of the antlers against a tree is not random — a buck generally rubs the base of his antlers and his forehead skin against the tree. The skin between antlers contains a multitude of scent-producing skin glands called apocrine glands (humans have them and utilize them during emotional sweating). These glands typically are inactive during the summer months, but in response to rising testosterone levels, they become increasingly active in the fall. The most active glands are found in mature dominant bucks.

Thanks to recent studies we know that more rubs are made in years of good acorn production than in poor mast years. Young bucks appear to make fewer rubs than mature bucks, and they tend to start rubbing much later in the fall (so rubs you find now were most likely made by mature bucks). Research suggests that older bucks may be making more than 1200 rubs during the roughly 90-day rubbing period, which comes to about 15 rubs per day.

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Jack-in-the-Pulpit Fruits Maturing

jack in pulpit fruit 022After the spathe (hood) dies back, Jack-in-the-pulpit fruit is more obvious, especially as the green berries turn brilliant reddish-orange at this time of year. Eventually the stem withers and the seed head falls to the ground. The tissues of Jack-in-the-pulpit, particularly the roots, contain high toxic levels of oxalic acid. The berries, if eaten, cause a burning sensation in the mouth and throat due to physical cuts caused by the crystals of calcium oxalate. Although cattle, goats, pigs and sheep are susceptible to the toxin, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood thrushes appear to consume them without distress. As is obvious from this photograph, though, the berries are not in high demand.

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Snapping Turtle Eggs Hatching

9-19-14  snapping turtle hatching IMG_8091Every fall, roughly 3 months after they’re laid, snapping turtle eggs hatch. The hatchlings’ gender is determined by the temperature at which they were incubated during the summer. Eggs at the top of the nest are often significantly warmer than those at the bottom, resulting in all females from the top eggs, and all male from the bottom eggs. In some locations, the hatchlings emerge from the nest in hours or days, and in others, primarily in locations warmer than northern New England, they remain in the nest through the winter. When they emerge above ground, the hatchlings, without any adult guidance, make their way to the nearest body of water, which can be up to a quarter of a mile away, and once there, seek shallow water.

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Gentiana clausa

9-17-14 gentian closeup IMG_0088The pictured gentian in today’s post was Gentiana clausa, not G. andrewsii. These two species, both referred to as bottle gentian, are very similar, but there is one very distinctive difference. The flowers of both have 5 blue lobes forming petals that are fused together by a connecting fringe, creating folds between the outside of the petals. In G. clausa the petals remain closed at the tip with those fringes hidden by the closed tip. In G. andrewsii, the fringes of the flower lobes are longer than the petals and are visible at the tip of the closed flower. No visible fringes means today’s photograph is of Gentiana clausa. Thanks to Jon Binhammer for bringing this to my attention!


Bottle Gentian’s Pollinators

9-17-14  bottle gentian 259The combination of Bottle Gentian’s (Gentiana clausa) blossoms’ brilliant purple/blue color, their shape, and the difficulty insects have in prying open the bottle neck their petals form, make them a highlight of every September. Getting inside their flowers is a monumental task, and one that few insects, other than fairly large species of bumblebees, attempt — much less accomplish. It takes several seconds of pushing, shoving and cramming to get their head through the miniscule opening at the top of the blossom. Eventually their body follows, sliding down into the flower. While the whole bee sometimes disappears, it’s more usual to see their hind legs poking out of the flower while they lap up nectar. Not only are bumblebees strong, but their tongues (see insert) are long enough to reach the copious amount of sugar-laden nectar that awaits them inside the flower.


Destroying Angels Fruiting

9-17-14 destroying angel 005There are several species of poisonous mushrooms in the genus Amanita in the Northeast that are referred to as “destroying angels” but the most widely distributed and commonly encountered is Amanita bisporigera. It has a smooth white cap, gills, a skirt-like ring underneath the cap surrounding the stem (annulus) and a swollen stem base enclosed in a cup-like structure (volva). As it ages, this mushroom often acquires an odor reminiscent of rotting meat. Destroying angles are mycorrhizal with oaks – the underground portion of this fungus surrounds a tree’s rootlets with a sheath, and help the tree absorb water and nutrients while the tree provides sugars and amino acids to the mushroom. Destroying angels are among the most toxic known mushrooms, and closely resemble other white mushrooms that are edible. Consult an expert mycologist before consuming any mushroom that even remotely looks like this!

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Eastern Red-backed Salamander Eggs Hatching

eastern red-backed salamander 043If you make a habit of looking under (and carefully replacing) rotting logs lying on the forest floor, sooner or later you will be rewarded with the discovery of an eastern red-backed salamander. These three to four-inch salamanders can be completely gray, gray with a reddish stripe down the center of the back or bright orange-red. The color of a redback is often related to elevation. Those with a stripe down the back (pictured) are usually found at upper elevations, while the gray phase often inhabits lowlands.

Eastern red-backed salamanders are entirely terrestrial, mating in the spring and fall and laying their eggs in rotting logs (particularly conifer) and leaf litter. Females remain with their eggs, defending them from predators. The larval stage of a redback is quite long –two months– and most of it takes place inside the egg, so when the eggs ( laid in the spring) hatch in the fall, the young, three-quarter-inch salamanders are within days of completing metamorphosis and transforming into adults. (This strategy eliminates the need for eastern red-backed salamanders to find standing water to complete their larval stage.)

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Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillars Feeding

milkweed tussock moth2 038Female milkweed tussock moths lay their eggs in masses on the underside of milkweed and dogbane leaves, which their larvae will eat. The hatching caterpillars are gray and hairy, but in no time they have developed the tufts of hairs that give them their name and make them resemble little mops. When still fairly young, the siblings stay together, skeletonizing the leaves they consume, leaving only the strongest veins that contain sticky latex. As they mature, the caterpillars tend to wander, and it’s unusual to find large groups of them on a single leaf. At this point they often cut through a vein in order to prevent the latex from reaching the area of the leaf where they are feeding. (Older monarch caterpillars use this same tactic.) Like monarchs, milkweed tussock moths, because they’ve consumed the cardiac glycosides contained in milkweed and dogbane leaves, are toxic to predators.

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Moose & Water

moose shaking 472Moose spend a great deal of time in and near bodies of water, feeding, cooling themselves and avoiding insects. They are powerful swimmers, exhibiting great speed and endurance. Moose have been observed swimming distances up to 12 miles, and are known to occasionally swim from one point of land to another when the distance is shorter by water than by land. (Adult moose usually swim with only their head out of water, whereas yearlings have most of their back exposed.) Moose can spread their hooves, and this is ability is thought to enhance their paddling skills.

Much of a moose’s summer diet is semi-aquatic and aquatic vegetation, thus they feed near shore as well as in deeper water. Studies have shown that moose will dive as deep as 18 feet to obtain submerged plants. It is slightly unsettling to see them totally disappear for up to nearly a minute while foraging under water!

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Moose Pheromones Active During Rut

9-11-14 cow moose urinating 436While the mating season, or rut, for moose peaks between late September and early October, mating behavior can already be observed. It is widely known that male, or bull, moose often paw a pit in the ground, urinate in it and then stomp in it in order to splash their underside, slap the urine with their antlers to disperse it, and lay down in the pit and wallow in their urine, soaking their undersides and neck. Their pungent urine serves as an aphrodisiac for female, or cow, moose, which are attracted to the pheromones it contains. A cow will enter a wallow, aggressively displacing the bull at times and even drink his urine.

However, it’s not just bull moose urine that attracts the opposite sex. The urine of a cow in heat (defined as the two days of their estrous cycle when they will allow a bull to mount them) is equally as attractive to bulls. At this time of their reproductive cycle cows frequently will urinate in the water and along the shoreline of lakes and ponds (look closely at photo).

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Cow Moose Bulking Up for Winter

cow moose head 461


Moose Gaining Fat Reserves

9-10-14  moose standing in water 277Being an ardent admirer of moose, I am devoting today’s post as well as the next two posts to the largest member of the deer family. Even if it weren’t seven to ten feet long and didn’t weigh over a thousand pounds, a moose would be an impressive mammal, with its high, humped shoulders, broad, pendulous muzzle and long, coarse hair.

Moose are voracious eaters, consuming roughly 44 pounds of plant material a day. In the winter their diet, mainly the bark of woody plants, provides only about 70% of the energy they need to survive. Thus, during the spring and summer they spend up to 12 hours a day foraging, often for aquatic plants, and acquire more than 200% of the energy they need. Hundreds of pounds are gained, with the excess stored as fat reserves for the coming months. Even so, moose lose up to 20% of their weight over the winter. (Thanks to all who wished me happy recharging!)

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Recharging Batteries

lazy crazy days of summmer IMG_5693Every creature needs to take time to stretch out, catch their breath, contemplate the fruits of summer past and recharge their batteries. I’ll be doing this in Maine for the next several days with my daughter Sadie. Thank you for your continued support. Naturally Curious posts will resume on September 9th.

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Beechdrops Flowering

9-4-14  beechdrops 249Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) are parasitic plants which obtain nutrients from the American Beech tree. They insert a root-like structure called a haustorium into a beech root and absorb enough nutrition to sustain themselves and produce flowers between August and October. Beechdrops belong to a family of plants (Broomrape) whose members live as root parasites. Being annuals, Beechdrops don’t live long enough to damage their host trees. Because they lack chlorophyll and obvious leaves (their leaves are scale-like and pressed flat against their stem), Beechdrops are easily overlooked. Keep an eye on the forest floor near American beech trees for these 5 – 18-inch plants which are flowering right now.

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Juvenile Barred Owls Mastering Flight

barred owl-fractured wing 062Typically Barred Owls in northern New England hatch in May and fledge, or leave their nest, in June at approximately four to five weeks of age. Unlike most young birds, Barred Owl nestlings leave their nest before they can fly. They initially perch on the rim of the nest and then climb to a branch on the nest tree, eventually dropping to the ground and climbing a nearby leaning tree to perch. The parents feed their young from the time they hatch until late summer or early fall. The fledglings begin short flights at approximately 10 weeks of age, attaining longer flights by 12 weeks. The pictured Barred Owl may have been mastering flight when it fractured a wing and ended up on the ground, soaking wet and very vulnerable to predation. (Thanks to Bob Moyer for photo op and Vermont Institute of Natural Science’s Wildlife Rehab staff for setting wing.)

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Queen Ants Mating & Removing Wings

ant removing wings2  095Ants are social insects and live in colonies consisting of one or more queens, female workers and males. In most species the non-sexually mature female ants are wingless; only the males and the queen(s) possess wings. Periodically, often 3-5 days after a heavy rain, the winged ants emerge from the colony in large swarms in order to mate and create more colonies. Swarming behavior is usually synchronized with other nearby colonies, so large numbers (hundreds or thousands) of winged ants suddenly appear. After mating, the males die and the queens shed their wings and use the remaining wing muscles as a source of nutrients during the early stages of colony development. The shedding of wings is not a passive activity. The pictured ant is in the process of removing her fourth and final wing. She held each wing down with one leg while pulling it out with another. She then crawled off, leaving a pile of wings behind.

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September Snub-Noses

9-1-14  juvenile amphibians IMG_5078Frogs and toads that hatched from eggs laid this past spring are now two to four months old, and are growing rapidly. Like snakes, frogs and toads shed their skin as they grow — unlike snakes, they eat their skin. Periodically toads and frogs stretch their bodies and then pull their loosened skin off in one piece, much like we pull off a sweater. Using their feet, they then stuff their skin under their tongue and swallow it. When frogs and toads are young and growing fast, they usually shed their skin more often than when they are older and their growth slows down. Not only is their skin a valuable source of nutrients and protein, but if it’s eaten, there is no sign left behind for predators to find.

Most young toads and frogs, with the exception of the Gray Treefrog, look like miniature adults. (Gray Treefrogs are emerald green in their youth, unlike the mottled gray/green adults they will become.) There is one characteristic at this stage that they don’t share with their elders, however, and that is their snub noses. If you’re wondering if the frog or toad you saw is a small adult or a youngster, take a closer look at its nose! If it’s unusually short and blunt, there’s a bit of growing left to do.

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