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Archive for February, 2015

Snowshoe Hare Hind Feet

2-27  snowshoe hare back foot 011It is not hard to see why the individual toe pads in the tracks of a snowshoe hare’s feet are rarely very distinct. There is a 3/4”- thick layer of hair on the bottom of a hare’s 5- to 6-inch-long hind foot. This hair, along with the size of the foot and the ability of the hare to spread its toes to a width of five inches allows the hare to stay on or near the surface of the snow, and, in the right snow conditions, outrun heavier predators.

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Horned Larks Seeking Seeds

2-25-15 horned lark 025Horned Larks are named for the dark feathers near the back of their head that sometimes become erect and resemble horns. During the winter, these birds typically form large flocks which often include Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. Horned Larks are usually found in fields where the snow has blown the ground bare, but they can also be found hunting and pecking on manure and silage piles. As they walk or run along the ground foraging for seeds on bare ground, these brown-backed birds are very well camouflaged (not so much on snow). There is a wide variation of shades of brown back feathers throughout their range, and researchers have found that their color is strongly correlated with the color of the local soil.

Horned Larks nest on prairies, deserts and agricultural land throughout much of the U.S., as well as the Arctic tundra. In another month, most of the Horned Larks overwintering in northern New England will migrate north.

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Black Bear Dens

2-25-15 bear dens1Black bears den in a range of locations, including under logs and stumps, under the branches of a fallen tree, and inside caves and hollow trees. Most adult black bears are not completely protected from the elements while they are hibernating and/or raising cubs, as there is usually a fairly large opening and the bear is exposed to the cold air. The amount of exposure can vary tremendously, from a relatively protected hollow under a log to complete exposure within a dense thicket or stand of conifers. Pictured are two black bear dens where cubs were raised; one is under a fallen tree and the other is in the middle of a stand of spruces.

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Soggy Beaver Grooming While Thinking About Mating

2-24-15  beaver grooming IMG_3896A Naturally Curious blog reader has (with great humor) chastised me for occasionally misleading readers into thinking that my photograph will always illustrate the title of my post (i.e. “Beavers Mating”) when it doesn’t 100% of the time. Her exact words were, “Not fair Mary, you get the reader all excited about seeing a picture of Beavers mating, and lure them to your blog, then just give them a picture of a soggy beaver looking resentfully into your camera. You have done this before my friend, sooner or later you have to give us the true grit :)”

I realize that I must disappoint some readers when this happens. Believe me, if I could photograph every subject that I write about I would, but there are a few unavoidable exceptions, primarily when it comes to the subject of breeding. I could just not mention when this activity is taking place, but in the interest of science, I feel it’s worth a mention now and then. Please excuse the lack of accurate labeling when this occurs. Today, in an effort to be more truthful, I’m posting yet another beaver photo with a more accurate title. (Thanks for keeping me honest, Prue.)

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Beavers Mating

2-24-15 beaver3 IMG_3415Reproductive activity begins when a beaver reaches the age of three years. Beavers mate in January and February, with the peak activity in mid-February. Typically mating takes place in the water (under the ice), but can occur inside their lodge. Kits, usually three or four, will be born in May or June. Beavers are monogamous and pair for life. (Note: ponds still frozen – photo not recent)

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Snowshoe Hare Runs

2-23-15 hare run IMG_1978In northern New England we have hare “runs” rather than rabbit runs, but they serve the same purpose. They are well-maintained escape routes, and the snowshoe hare’s life depends on the hare’s knowing every twist and turn they take.

During the summer, hares keep their runs free of branches by pruning them back. In the winter, hares also have to prune as the snow gets higher and the runs encounter more branches. They also spend a lot of time and energy packing down the snow on these runways so they will have a clear, hard surface on which, if it’s necessary, they can make their escape. This runway construction is done by hopping up and down, progressing slowly, inch by inch. It looks like many hares have passed by, but it’s usually done by one individual and runs through its territory. Snowshoe hares are nocturnal, but during long or heavy snowstorms, they will come out and pack their run during the day.

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Red Squirrels & Sugar Maples

2-20-15 red squirrel2 IMG_7851We’re approaching what is often a very stressful time of year for many animals, including red squirrels. In the fall they feed on all kinds of conifer seeds, mushrooms, insects, nuts and the many fruits and berries that are available. They also have caches of cones, which they turn to once there is a scarcity of food elsewhere.

Once these caches are used up, usually by late winter or early spring, red squirrels turn to sugar maples for nutrients. Their timing is perfect, for this is when sap is starting to be drawn up from the roots of trees. Red squirrels are known to harvest this sap by making single bites into the tree with their incisors. These bites go deep enough to tap into the tree’s xylem tissue, which is where the sap is flowing. The puncture causes the sap to flow out of the tree, but the squirrel delays its gratification. It leaves and returns later to lick up the sugary residue that remains on the branch after most of the water has evaporated from the sap.

Not only do red squirrels help themselves to sugar maple sap, but they have developed a taste for the buds, and later in the spring, the flowers, of both red and sugar maples. Red squirrels are not the only culprits – gray squirrels and flying squirrels also make short work of buds and flowers from these trees.

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White Ash Winter I.D.

2-19 white ash leaf scar 007White ash, Fraxinus americana, is relatively easy to identify in winter, between its stout, opposite branches and buds and the corky ridges that form diamond shapes on its bark. There are several species of ashes, however, and one feature that distinguishes White Ash is the shape of its leaf scars (located beneath leaf buds) on well-developed branches. Each leaf scar (left by a leaf that fell off the tree) is round at the bottom and notched at the top, resembling the letter “C” on its side. (No other ash has c-shaped leaf scars.) It is often concave along the upper edge and the lateral buds are located within the curved portion of the leaf scar.

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Vixens Screaming

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the time of year when you might wake up in the middle of the night and hear a rasping, prolonged scream. It could well be a female red fox, issuing forth a “vixen scream” designed to travel long distances and attract a mate. This scream is not limited to females in heat – males also can scream, as can females at other times of the year. Once you have heard it, you will never forget this sound. Red foxes have numerous vocalizations, among which this scream and a high-pitched “bark” are the most common. You can hear several of a red fox’s more than twenty calls on this website: http://miracleofnature.org/blog/red-fox-screams (Photo by Susan Holland)

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Correction: Black Guillemots Have Webbed Feet

Guillemots_PairAs any naturalist should know, chances are great that if a bird must swim in order to capture its food, it probably has webbed feet!


Mystery Snow Story: Great Horned Owl Preys on Black Guillemot

Plate-219,-Black-GuillemotLet me first say that the scenario I describe is conjecture, albeit conjecture based on the evidence posted yesterday. Today’s post may well tell you more about my train of thought when interpreting signs in the snow than the actual events that took place! The tracks were discovered and photographed by Sally Grassi of Camden, Maine, who saw a large bird (I thought that telling you this would be giving away too much!) devouring something while perched on the snow at night. The tracks that may appear to some as leading to and from the kill site are marks made by something that came out of the sky – they come from and lead to nowhere. I apologize if they were misleading. Given the myriad of ways this scene could be interpreted, the guesses made were strikingly on the mark. Kudos to Kathie Fiveash, who correctly guessed the prey species.

Plot: A bird of prey attacked another bird and proceeded to consume most of it.

Characters: As to the species of predator, the fact that this activity took place at night points to an owl, and the size of the bird eaten (deduced from the size of its remaining foot and bones) narrows the attacking bird down to most likely being a Barred Owl or a Great Horned Owl, both of which are found along the coast of Maine in the winter. (Snowy Owls are diurnal and therefore, even though there are individuals that have irrupted into New England this winter, the likelihood of it being a Snowy Owl is minimal.) Although we can’t know for sure which species of owl it was, chances are great that it was a Great Horned Owl, as they routinely eat large prey, and Barred Owls only occasionally feed on birds this size.

As to the identity of the prey — the geographic location, the time of year, the few remaining feathers and the color of the remnant (unwebbed) foot and leg appear to eliminate all but the Black Guillemot. Although totally black with white wing patches during the breeding season, this alcid (member of the family of birds that includes puffins, murres and auks) has a mostly grey/white plumage in the winter, and brilliant orange-red legs and feet year round. It can be found throughout the year along the coast of New England where it hunts for fish, crustaceans and invertebrates in shallow water near shore. (Thanks to Sally Grassi for Mystery Photos, to George Clark for confirming prey I.D. and J.J.Audubon for the Black Guillemot illustration.)

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Mystery Photo

Can you read this story in the snow? Hint: it took place at night on the coast of Maine. All guesses can be made under “comments” on Naturally Curious blog page. (Photo by Sally Grassi)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.2-16-15  Mystery Photo-Sally Grassi DSC_9843


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Damselfly Mating Wheel

2-14 Valentine's Day IMG_5890


Pussy Willows Emerging

2-12-15 026Even with sub-zero temperatures and feet of snow on the ground it is possible to find signs, such as pussy willows, that spring really is around the corner. What we call pussy willows are, in fact, the soft, silvery hairs that insulate the emerging spike of flowers, or catkin, within a willow flower bud. A willow catkin consists of all male or all female flowers. The first catkins to emerge in the spring are usually males. The hairs, or “pussies,” that emerge when willow buds first open trap the heat from the sun and help warm the center of the catkins, where the flowers’ reproductive parts are located. This trapped heat promotes the development of the pollen (or in female flowers, the ovules) of the flowers deep within the hairs. Eventually the reproductive parts of the willow flowers – the stamens and pistils – emerge, but until they do, we get to enjoy their silvery fur coats.

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Barred Owls Courting

2-11 barred owl 057Barred Owls call year-round but their vocalizations increase and expand in February when courtship begins. No longer are their calls limited to their year-round “who-cooks-for-you — who-cooks-for-you-all.” Males and females engage in “duets,” as well as many other vocalizations, including cackles, hoots, caws and gurgles. Those who sleep with open windows may feel like they are in the middle of a jungle inhabited by hundreds of raucous monkeys.

Barred Owl courtship is not strictly vocal. Male Barred Owls display by swaying back and forth and raising their wings, while sidling along a branch in close proximity to a female. Courtship feeding and mutual preening also occur prior to copulation. The nights of February are filled with amorous avian calls and gestures.

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Red Squirrels Tunneling

2-10-15  red squirrel snow tunnel IMG_0579Although most of their food is stored above ground, red squirrels will also bury some in underground tunnels. The holes (2” to 4” diameter) leading to these underground caches are somewhat larger than those of chipmunks and often have a pile of cone bracts (midden) right outside or nearby. In winter, red squirrels also make snow tunnels (above the ground), which allow them to run from one food source to another in relative safety. Gray squirrels occasionally will tunnel, but not to the extent red squirrels do.

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Animal Eyes Ordering Info

2-9-14 Animal Eyes orders  154 A number of blog readers have requested ordering information for Animal Eyes. You can quickly order a copy by clicking on the image of the cover to the right on my blog, which will take your directly to the publisher, Arbordale, or you can request that your local independent bookstore carry it or get you a copy, or you can find it online. Thank you for asking!


Newest Children’s Book Release

larger image for use as blog post-AnimalEyes

Animal Eyes is the first of a series of early childhood books on animal parts which I am currently writing (mouths, tails, feet, etc. to follow). This book takes a look at the eyes of a variety of animals and explores what their size, number, color and position tells us about the life style of animals as far-ranging as owls, flying squirrels, spiders and dragonflies. Appropriate for ages 3-8. Accompanying the text for each animal is a two-page, close-up photograph. “Animal Vision Fun Facts,” a “Match the Eye to the Animal” activity and an illustrated Glossary provide additional educational information at the end of the book.


Black Bears Giving Birth

1-9-14  black bear cubIMG_0391Sometime between the end of January (the full moon in January is often called the ‘bear moon’) and the first part of February black bears give birth to between one and five (usually two) tiny, blind, almost hairless one-half pound cubs, each about the size of a chipmunk. The cubs are totally dependent on their mother for food and warmth.

Most dens are exposed to the cold air, as they are located under fallen logs and brush, or are dug into a bank. Occasionally they are on the ground with little or no cover; in all of these locations, the mother acts like a furnace, enveloping her young and breathing on them to keep them warm. The cubs do not hibernate, but nap frequently. Like human mothers, black bear mothers sleep when their young sleep, and are alert when their cubs cry and let them know that they are in need of attention. (Photo taken during NH Fish & Game/Ben Kilham spring research; cub in photo is two months old)


Deer Mice And The Rigors of Winter

2-5-15  deer mouse 022Even though Deer Mice are active year round, we don’t often see them, as they are active from dusk until dawn. During the winter, when it’s very cold, they commonly resort to short periods of torpor (4 to 9 hours) during the day to conserve energy. While torpid, their body temperature may fall to 55° F. from a normal temperature of 98°F.

When active, Deer Mice travel both under and on top of the snow. When travelling under the snow, they tunnel through it or use tunnels created by other small mammals. When travelling on top of the snow, their tracks, and often the drag mark from their tail, are evident. The pictured Deer Mouse was found curled up, frozen, at the end of a very lengthy trail of tracks and tunnels that ran over and through woods. Where the tracks began there was a slight depression in the snow (no tunnel, no tracks), indicating that the mouse might have fallen from the air after escaping from the talons of a bird of prey.

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Wood Drilling Adaptations

2-4-15  hairy woodpecker 072Woodpeckers have begun their courtship drumming and they continue to excavate trees for food. Both of these activities involve a woodpecker’s head striking a tree’s surface at speeds up to 13 – 15 mph, and continuing to do so at over 100 strokes per minute. To sustain this kind of blow against a tree, woodpeckers have a number of skull adaptations, including strong yet lightweight skulls and bills, a network of bony supports within their skull, extra calcification of the portion of the skull nearest the tip of the bill, cushioning cartilage joining the bones between the skull and the beak, shock-absorbing neck muscles and a brain that is packed very tightly into the brain cavity.

A woodpecker’s brain, however, isn’t the only part of its anatomy that is adapted for drilling wood. A woodpecker’s nostrils are narrow slits (not circular, as in many birds) and are covered with bristly feathers that prevent wood chips and dust from entering them. Special cells on the end of its bill are constantly replacing material lost due to drilling. This keeps the chisel-pointed bill strong and resilient, while allowing it to be sharpened with every blow. And finally, less than a second before a woodpecker’s bill contacts wood, a thickened nictitating membrane closes over its eyes, protecting them from flying wood chips. (Photo: male hairy woodpecker)

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Speckled Alder in Winter

2-3-15 speckled alder 166Speckled Alder is a shrub in the Birch family that is found growing in wetlands. It is named after the “speckles” on its bark — horizontal lines or lenticels (spongy openings for the transfer of gases). In winter, Speckled Alder branches are distinctive because they carry two kinds of buds as well as last year’s fruit. The male flower buds are in the form of inch-long catkins which appear reddish in winter. They begin to turn yellow in March just before they extend into long, yellow pollen-bearing flowers. The female flower buds are small and drooping just ahead of the catkins on the branch. They look like miniature unopened versions of the seed-bearing fruit they’ll become. Last year’s woody fruit, or “cones” are also present, having opened and had their seeds, or winged nutlets, dispersed by the wind last fall.

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Northern Short-tailed Shrews

2-4-15  northern short-tailed shrew 025Northern short-tailed shrews, with their short legs, minute eyes and concealed ears, can be found throughout eastern and central U.S. Their eyesight is so poor that all they can do is to detect light, but they compensate by using echolocation for navigation and to locate earthworms, slugs, snails and other invertebrates which comprise their diet. The northern short-tailed shrew and the European water shrew are the only mammals that produce a toxic secretion in their salivary glands. This poison is powerful enough to kill small mammals, but is mainly used to immobilize smaller prey. In winter, although active, the short-tailed shrew limits its activity in order to conserve energy, and relies partially on food that it stored in its burrow in the fall.

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