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Archive for November, 2014

Mystery Photo

mystery photo-scat 094Whose scat is this? Photo taken this week, just prior to nor’easter. Red oak acorn caps for size reference. Please post responses under “comments.”


Wattles, Caruncles & Snoods

11-27-14  HAPPY THANKSGIVING IMG_7637Wild tom turkeys have a number of ways of impressing hens in addition to displays involving their feathers. Among them are wattles, caruncles and snoods — fleshy protuberances that adorn their throats and beaks. A large wattle, or dewlap, is a flap of skin on the throat of a male turkey. The bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat are major caruncles. Large wattles and caruncles have been shown to correlate with high testosterone levels, good nutrition and the ability to evade predators, which makes the genes of a tom turkey with them very desirable to a female. The snood, another fleshy outgrowth which hangs down over the male’s beak, is normally pale and not very long. When he starts strutting and courting a hen, the snood (and caruncles) becomes engorged with blood, making it redder and longer. This impresses both male and female turkeys –the males avoid or defer to him and the females’ interest in him is heightened. A longer snood has also been correlated with a lack of internal parasites, making toms with large snoods even more irresistible to hens.

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Scouring Rush – Ancient Lineage Tracing Back 350 Million Years

11-26-14 Scouring Rush 141 Scouring Rush (Equisetum hymale) belongs to a group of non-flowering, spore-producing plants that are known as horsetails. The group is named after some of the species in it that are branched, and were thought to resemble the tails of horses. There are several species of horsetails, including Scouring Rush, that do not branch. Three hundred and fifty million years ago horsetail relatives dominated the understory, with some individuals growing as high as 100 feet.

Scouring Rush’s rough stems terminate in a pointed cone within which spores develop. Their evergreen, hollow stems are jointed (stem can separate easily into sections by pulling at joints) and their leaves have been reduced to small sheaths encircling each joint. Scouring Rush is often found near streams and ponds, and can form large colonies.

The stems of all species of horsetails contain silica. Those of Scouring Rush, as one might gather from its name, were bundled together and used as a fine abrasive for scouring pans. In addition, they were used for sanding wood and smoothing reeds for woodwind instruments.

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Bird Nests Visible

11-25-14 black-throated blue nest  043When leaves start falling from deciduous trees, bird nests appear out of nowhere. Most songbirds abandon their nest after raising one brood, never to return to it. An empty nest sits where it was built until the elements break it down, another animal recycles the material from which it was made, or a mouse takes over winter occupancy. The period of time after the leaves fall and before winter and other creatures deconstruct the nests is ideal for discovering who raised their young under your nose this past summer.

Just as each species of bird has its own distinctive song, each species also builds a unique nest. It is often possible to determine what species built a nest without ever setting eyes on the bird. The size, shape, material used and habitat in which a nest is built are remarkably similar for all birds of a given species. Eastern phoebe nests mainly consist of mud covered with moss. Gray catbirds incorporate grape vine into their nests, and line them with rootlets. Ovenbird nests are on the ground, roofed over like old-fashioned ovens. While federal permits are necessary to collect these nests, they can be admired and identified without a permit. (Photo: the combination of this nest’s size (3” outer diameter), location (3’ off the ground) and material used (yellow birch bark strips, grasses, cocoons and black rootlet lining) pinpoint the builder as a Black-throated Blue Warbler.)

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Spiders Hibernating

11-24-14  spider 050Spiders that don’t lay eggs and die in the fall have developed several adaptations to survive the cold temperatures and lack of food that winter presents. They seek out microhabitats for protection, increase their resistance to cold and reduce their metabolic rate.

About 85% of spiders that overwinter do so in leaf litter, where they are well insulated against the cold. Most of these spiders assume a rigid position, with their legs drawn close to their body so that the amount of exposed body surface is kept to a minimum. Leaf litter protects spiders from extreme temperature fluctuations and from desiccation. A heavy snow cover ensures a fairly steady temperature of 32° F. regardless of the air temperature, even in weather as extreme as -40 ° F. below zero.

Many of the remaining overwintering spiders can be found under the loose bark of dead trees. Some have no further protection, others, such as the pictured Eastern Parson Spider, spin a silk case within which they spend the winter.

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European Starling

European starling IMG_8398There was no fooling the vast majority of Naturally Curious readers! As unpopular as the European Starling may be, its plumage is impressive, especially at this time of year. The starling’s summer, or breeding, plumage shows purple and greenish iridescence, especially on the head, back, and breast. Following the annual mid-summer/fall molt, most head and body feathers have whitish or buff terminal spots. Through the winter, most of these light spots gradually wear away to produce a glossy black appearance in the spring.

Most creative Mystery Photo response (from Steve Adams): “ This one’s easy. The bird is Hazel Hainsworth. She was sweet but insane. Hazel had a huge hat made of all different kinds of feathers, and because she liked her scotch, her navigation skills were somewhat dull, and she always made a point of telling people she’d been lost in every state in the nation, including Alaska.”

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Mystery Photo

11-20-14 feathers-mystery photoAll of these feathers came from the same bird. Hint: this bird can be found in all 50 states. Do you know its identity? All guesses welcome (enter under “comments”). Tomorrow’s post will reveal answer.

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Beavers Grooming

11-19-14  beavers grooming 241 Beavers are constantly grooming and oiling their fur in order to keep it waterproof. To groom itself, a beaver usually sits upright with its tail between its back legs protruding in front of it, exposing the cloaca – a single opening for all the functions of the scent, reproductive and excretory organs. After the beaver climbs out of the water onto land, it often shakes its head and scrubs its ears and face. Then it thoroughly scrubs its shoulders and belly. The beaver gets oil from its inverted oil glands with its front feet, and then rubs it all over its body, using both front and hind feet. The second toe of each hind foot has a split nail (see insert) which the beaver uses to distribute the waterproofing oil and to comb debris out of its fur. Without this coating of oil on their fur, beavers would soon become water soaked and would not be able to tolerate the cold water.

In this photograph, perhaps for the last time outside of their lodge before their pond freezes, beavers engage in a practice known as “mutual grooming” during which they attend to each other’s coat using their teeth instead of their feet as combing utensils. (Photo: adult on left, offspring on right)

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Winterberry Fruit Brightening the Landscape

11-17-14 winterberry IMG_5797Winterberry (Ilex verticilatta) fruits mature in late summer and early fall, but they are much more evident now that most of the leaves have fallen off this deciduous member of the Holly family. Because these shrubs are dioecious (male and female flowers appear on separate plants), only the female shrubs bear fruit. The bright red berries often persist through the winter and provide cedar waxwings, bluebirds and robins with food long after most fruit has disappeared.

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Tufted Titmice Caching Seeds for Winter Consumption

tufted titmouse2  379Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees are in the same family (Paridae), and share several traits, one of which has to do with securing food. They are both frequent visitors of bird feeders where they not only take seeds and soon thereafter consume them, but they also collect and cache food throughout their territory for times when there is a scarcity of food. Tufted Titmice usually store their seeds within 130 feet of the feeder. They take only one seed per trip and usually shell the seeds before hiding them.

In contrast to most species of titmice and chickadees, young Tufted Titmice often remain with their parents during the winter and then disperse later in their second year. Some yearling titmice even stay on their natal territory and help their parents to raise younger siblings.

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Raccoons Fattening Up

11-13-14  raccoon tracks IMG_0045In the Northeast, raccoons spend the fall fattening up, for little, if any, food is consumed during the winter. Acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts and hazelnuts are favorite foods. For as long as insects are available, they form a large part of a raccoon’s diet – delicacies include larvae of dug-up yellow jacket and bumblebee nests, and honeybees as well as the honey the bees have stored for the winter. Birds and rabbits injured by hunters, mice, bats, wild grapes and an occasional crayfish provide raccoons with enough sustenance so that fat makes up almost 50% of their body weight as they head into winter.

While signs of their presence, such as tracks, are still visible, they soon will be scarce. On the coldest winter days, raccoons will seek shelter in hollow trees, sometimes holing up for as long as a month at a time. Communal denning sometimes occurs, with up to 23 raccoons having been found in the same den. Considered “deep sleepers,” raccoons do not lower their metabolism significantly, and therefore are not considered true hibernators.

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Common Mergansers Migrating

11-14-14  common mergansers 120Common Mergansers are hardy, fish-eating, cavity-nesting ducks that can be found in New England year round, as they winter as far north as open water allows. However, the birds we see in the winter on large bodies of water most likely are not the same birds that breed here. All North American populations of Common Mergansers migrate, generally short to intermediate distances. Populations near the coast move only short distances, while more interior birds migrate farther. Heavier birds and adult males seem to tolerate colder winter temperatures and remain farther north than immature birds. They can often be seen on large lakes and rivers, as well as the coast, where they form small groups that may gather into large numbers at favored sites.

Migrating Common Mergansers tend to leave late in the fall (this week marks the peak of their fall migration), making them often the last waterfowl migrants to head south. Common Mergansers typically migrate over land at night, and along seacoasts or major river systems by day. In the spring, adult males return north first as soon as open water is available, followed by females a few weeks later. (Photo: 2 juvenile Common Mergansers) Thanks to canoe-steadying Sadie Richards for making it possible for me to take this photograph.

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Sign of Beaver Activity

beaver scat 041Beavers are meticulous housekeepers, in that they almost always defecate in the water, not in their lodge, and rarely on land. Because of this, it is rare to see their scat, but fall is as good a time as any to look for it (should you wish to see it).

In preparation for winter, beavers are repairing their dams and lodges, and stock-piling a winter food supply pile of branches in the pond near their lodge. They spend a lot of time working in the water in one area, which means that signs of their presence, including scat, are plentiful in these areas. If you look in the water along a beaver dam at this time of year, it’s highly likely that you will find light-colored, 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. (Handling, for those tempted to do so, is discouraged due to giardia or “beaver fever.”)

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Millipedes Migrating

11-11-14 millipede IMG_8982We don’t often see millipedes because of their preference for secluded, moist sites where they feed on decaying vegetation and other organic matter. Compost piles, heavily mulched shrub or flower beds, rotting logs, or the soil under logs and stones are likely spots to find these arthropods. Millipedes overwinter as adults, and have been seen migrating in the fall, presumably in search of overwintering sites that will provide them with some protection.

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Woodchucks Heading for Winter Burrows

11-10-14 woodchuck 122Woodchucks are one of the few species of mammals that enter into true hibernation. When the temperatures dip into the 40’s, usually in October or November in the Northeast, most woodchucks leave their summer burrows and head for the woods, where they dig a tunnel that ends in a chamber that is well below the frost line (and therefore above freezing). Here they curl up in a ball and live off of the 30% additional body weight they put on in the fall. In order to survive until March or April, a woodchuck’s metabolism slows way down. Its heartbeat goes from 100 beats a minute to five, and its body temperature goes from 96 degrees F. down to to 47 degrees F.

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Contents of One Barred Owl’s Stomach

11-7-14 vole, shrews and mouse 027Fantastic guesses, given you had no measurements to work with. Very creative, indeed. Yesterday’s mystery photo was a packed version of the bodies displayed today.

Owls swallow small prey, such as mice and voles, whole, while larger prey is torn into smaller pieces before being swallowed. Once eaten, prey goes directly into the owl’s stomach, as owls have no crop, and thus no ability to store food for later consumption.

Like other birds, owls have a stomach with two chambers — one is the glandular stomach, or proventriculus, (yesterday’s mystery photo) which produces enzymes, acids and mucus and begins the process of digestion. (Because the acids are weak, only the soft tissues are digested.) The second stomach is the muscular stomach, or gizzard, also called the ventriculus. The gizzard lacks digestive glands – it serves as a filter, holding back bones, fur, teeth and feathers that are difficult to digest. The soft parts of the food are ground by the gizzard’s muscular contractions, and allowed to pass through to the rest of the digestive system.

Several hours after an owl has eaten, the indigestible parts remaining in the gizzard are compressed into a pellet the same shape as the gizzard. The pellet travels back to the proventriculs and remains there for up to ten hours before being regurgitated. Because the stored pellet partially blocks the owl’s digestive system, new prey cannot be swallowed until the pellet is ejected. If more than one prey is eaten within several hours, the remains are consolidated into one pellet. (In this case, one very large pellet!)

Update: I left the contents of the deceased Barred Owl’s proventriculus outside last night, and a resident Barred Owl recycled the Meadow Vole and Masked Shrew.

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Mystery Photo – Not for the Squeamish

11-5-14  mystery photo151Roadkills are sometimes worth backing up for! All guesses welcome – the subject of this mystery photo will be revealed tomorrow.

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Mossy Rose Gall Wasp Larvae Cease Feeding

10-31-14 mossy rose gall IMG_0404In the spring, the 4mm-long cynipid gall wasp, Diplolepis rosae, lays up to 60 eggs (through parthenogenesis) inside the leaf bud of a rose bush. A week later, the eggs hatch and the larvae begin feeding on the leaf bud. This stimulates the abnormal growth of plant tissue, and a Mossy Rose Gall, covered with a dense mass of sticky branched filaments, is formed. The gall provides the larvae with food and shelter through the summer. In late October, when the Mossy Rose Gall is at its most colorful, the larvae stop eating and pass into the prepupal stage, in which they overwinter inside the gall. In February or March, the prepupae undergo a final molt and become pupae. If the pupae aren’t extracted and eaten by a bird during the winter or parasitized by another insect, adult wasps exit the gall in the spring and begin the cycle all over again.

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Gray Catbird Stragglers Passing Through

10-30-14 gray catbird 109Gray catbirds begin their nocturnal migration to wintering grounds in late August and early September. The last of the stragglers are now passing through northern New England. Catbirds winter from the southern New England coast south to Panama, with concentrations on the U.S. Gulf coast and the Yucatan Peninsula. Those individuals that winter in the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America cross the Gulf of Mexico, and in order to do so they put on so much fat (during fall migration their mass may increase to 150% of lean body mass) that it approaches the upper limit of what flight allows.

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Big Brown Bats Entering Hibernation

11-7-14  big brown bat IMG_7011Big Brown Bats, one of the most widespread mammals of North America, are one of the last species of bat to be seen flying in the fall. A relatively hardy species, the Big Brown Bat can tolerate conditions that other bats can’t. However, once cold weather arrives in the late fall and the nighttime temperatures dip down into the 30’s, they go into hibernation.

Both the Big Brown Bat and the endangered Little Brown Bat are considered “house bats,” because they are the most common bats found in houses in both summer and winter. During October, November and December, Big Brown Bats seek out caves, buildings and mines in which to hibernate. Some may migrate short distances to find an appropriate location for hibernating, but many find hibernacula close to their summer residence. Individuals often become active for brief periods during the winter months, sometimes even changing hibernation sites. Big Brown Bats can live up to 18-20 years in the wild but, unfortunately, most Big Brown Bats die during their first winter because they did not store enough fat to survive through their entire hibernation period.

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