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Archive for April, 2015

Bloodroot Pollination

4-30-15  bloodroot 084Thank you for all your guesses, a vast majority of which were right on the mark. Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, is one of the first spring ephemerals to bloom. On sunny days its petals are open wide, closing at night when the temperature drops and on cloudy, rainy days (when pollinating insects are less apt to visit). Only pollen is produced by Bloodroot – no nectar. Even so, insects, especially mining bees, visit and collect pollen, and in the process often pollinate the flower.

The methods which Bloodroot employs in order to become pollinated are impressive, to say the least. While cross-pollination is preferable, self-pollination is better than nothing. To limit self-pollination, the female stigma becomes receptive before the male anthers of the same flower produce pollen. Furthermore, during the first few days of the flower opening, the anthers bend downward toward the outside of the flower, away from the receptive stigma, where they are easily accessible to insects. If insect pollination doesn’t take place by the third day of flowering, however, the anthers bend inward, contacting the stigma and self-pollinating the flower.

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Mystery Photo

4-28-15 mystery photo2 050What flowering plant starts out looking like this, and within days develops into one of our most familiar spring ephemerals? (Guesses can be made under “Comments.”) Tomorrow’s post will identify today’s.

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Eastern Newts Dining on Wood Frog Eggs

4-28-15 newts2 329Wood Frogs mate and lay their eggs in ponds and occasionally vernal pools before heading back to their terrestrial, wooded habitat. Amphibian eggs are subject to predation by numerous predators, including leeches, fish, aquatic insects and salamanders. Eastern Newts (aquatic as larvae and adults) are carnivorous and consume insect larvae, fingernail clams, leeches and amphibian eggs, among other things. At this time of year, Wood Frog eggs are plentiful and easily accessible, as the individual masses, each consisting of 1,000 to 2,000 eggs, are deposited adjacent to each other on submerged vegetation. Hungry newts can feed for hours without moving more than an inch, and many often do. After discovering an egg mass, a newt plunges its head into the clump of eggs, grabs one and, with great shaking of its head, separates an egg from the mass and quickly swallows it. Seconds later the newt repeats this process, and continues doing so until it is satiated.

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Queen Bumblebees Foraging

queen bumblebee 098Most bumblebees, unlike honeybees, die in the fall. Only the young, fertilized bumblebee queens overwinter. When they emerge early in the spring, each must start a new colony, with no help from worker bees. The queen builds a ball of moss, hair or grass, often in an abandoned rodent nest or small cavity. Within this ball the queen builds a wax honey pot, and provisions it with nectar from early-blooming flowers. Next, she collects pollen and forms it into a mound on the floor of her nest. She then lays eggs in the pile of pollen, and coats it with wax secreted from her body.

The queen bumblebee keeps her eggs warm by sitting on the pollen mound, and by shivering her muscles, raising her body temperature to between 98° F. and 102° F. For nourishment, she consumes honey from her wax pot, which is positioned within her reach. In four days, the eggs, all of which will become female workers, hatch. The bumblebee queen continues her maternal care, foraging for pollen and nectar to feed to her larvae until they pupate. After this first brood emerges as adult bumblebees the queen concentrates her efforts on laying eggs. Unfertilized female worker bees raise the larvae and the colony swells in number. At the end of summer, new queens (females) and males are produced in order to allow the colony to reproduce. After the new queens mate and become fertilized, the males all die, along with the female worker bees. The queen then seeks shelter for the winter. (Photo: Tri-colored Bumblebee queen collecting Trailing Arbutus nectar or pollen)

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Flowering Skunk Cabbage Serves as Warming Hut for Pollinating Insects

4-24-15  skunk cabbage 013As Skunk Cabbage grows, it absorbs oxygen, and this allows it to produce heat through a process known as thermogenesis. This heat is responsible for the fact that Skunk Cabbage is one of the earliest plants to flower in the spring.

Skunk Cabbage’s flower has two components – the flower-bearing, round spadix and the hood-like spathe that surrounds it. The spadix is able to maintain its temperature at about 68°F., creating a little warming hut inside the spathe for the few insects out this early in the spring. Fueled by the reserved starch in the plant’s underground rhizome, the spadix is able to exceed the temperature outside the spathe by as much as 77°F. for a period of two to three weeks. The combination of the heat produced and the dark, heat-absorbing spathe can cause the snow around the plant to melt. If the ambient temperature drops below 37.4°F., the plant can shut down the heating mechanism until the air temperature rises again. (Thanks to Sadie Brown for photo op.)

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Spotted Salamander Spermatophores

4-23 spotted salamander spermatophores 058After male spotted salamanders emerge from hibernation and arrive at their ancestral breeding (vernal) pools, they cluster in groups called congresses, await the arrival of females, pair up with one and then the pair performs a courtship dance.

Unlike some species of amphibians, the male spotted salamander does not fertilize the eggs as the female lays them. Rather, she collects his sperm into her body and internal fertilization takes place. When the female is sufficiently stimulated, the male deposits up to 80 spermatophores (pyramid-shaped plugs of mucus with a sperm capsule at the top), often on a submerged branch. The male maximizes the chances of insemination by depositing many scattered spermatophores, covering every spermatophore he encounters, even his own, with a new spermatophore. In so doing, he increases his spermatophore count, while simultaneously eliminating a rival’s spermatorphores. The female then crawls over a spermatophore and positions her vent, or cloaca, so as to allow the lips of her cloaca to detach the sperm capsule.

Within a short period of time the salamanders retreat back to the woods, rarely to be glimpsed until next spring’s breeding season. (Photo: spotted salamander spermatorphores, with sperm capsule missing on far left spermatophore)

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Beavers See Daylight

4-17-15 beaver 281Imagine sharing dark, damp, cramped living quarters under pond ice with at least three other individuals for four to five months. Then imagine an increasing amount of light filtering through ice that is getting thinner and thinner. Finally the day comes when you are able to break through the ice and crawl out of the water onto land. The sudden brightness and heat provided by the sun, the availability of fresh vegetation to eat and the opportunity to thoroughly groom oneself in the open air must make an unimaginable sensory impact on a beaver in early spring.

Naturally Curious blog will have a brief hiatus until next Thursday, 4/23, so that a Naturally Curious Day by Day (my next adult book) chapter deadline can be met.

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Good Winter For Meadow Voles – Not So Much For Woody Plants

4-16-15  meadow vole sign 009Warming temperatures have revealed the considerable amount of activity that occurred under the protective deep layer of snow this past winter. In addition to a multitude of exposed meadow vole runways, there are ample signs of the voracious appetite of this small rodent. Given that more than 90% of a meadow vole’s diet consists of vegetable matter, that it can eat more than its own body weight in 24 hours, and that it breeds throughout the year, it is no surprise that the bark of many woody plants was consumed this winter, resulting in much girdling, and thus the demise, of many shrubs and saplings.

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Great Blue Herons Mating

4-15-15  great blue herons copulating2  IMG_8954Great Blue Herons have returned to their nesting colonies in the Northeast and their breeding season is underway. These birds are monogamous for the duration of any given breeding season. A study found that most Great Blue Herons choose a new mate every year. After elaborate courtship displays have taken place, the pair copulates, frequently on the nest, and usually in the early morning or evening, as the female is away from the nest mid-day.

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Pussy Willow Look-alikes

4-14-15  trembling aspen male catkins IMG_4438The flower buds of Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides) look a lot like pussy willows when they first open up and the tip of the catkins (flower spikes) emerge. Long before the leaf buds open, the flower buds swell and their scales open to reveal male and female flowers that mature into pendulous catkins (male and female catkins are on separate trees). In a month or so, after pollination, the seeds that have developed on the female catkins will be dispersed by the wind and the air will be filled with cottony fluff. (photo: male Trembling Aspen catkins)

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Wood Ducks Return to Breeding Grounds

4-13-15  wood ducks 284You can find waterfowl in almost every open body of water, from puddles to ponds, at this time of year. Among these migrating waterfowl are colorful Wood Ducks returning to northern New England to breed, having already formed mating pairs. Their courtship displays enable them to maintain this pair bond. The most common display involves the male’s turning the back of his head towards the female as he swims in front of her while holding his wings and tail high. Chin-lifting, feather-shaking, wing-preening, neck-stretching and bill-jerking are just some of the displays that occur during Wood Duck courtship.

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Pied-billed Grebes Returning to Northern Breeding Grounds

4-8-15 pied-billed grebe 1370After wintering from southern New England southwards, Pied-billed Grebes return to the northern freshwater marshes and lakes where they breed and nest on floating platforms of vegetation. It is here, on their nesting grounds, that they are most vocal, with both males and females producing songs (the female’s is a bit softer). At this time of year, you often hear a Pied-billed Grebe before you see it.

When singing, a Pied-billed Grebe submerges its breast and neck to varying degrees. Its primary song has three parts. During the first part, the grebe retracts its head slightly with every note. During second and third parts, it moves its bill up toward the end of each note. David Sibley describes this extremely variable call as sounding something like “ge ge gadum gadum gadum gaum gaom gwaaaaaow gwaaaaaow gaom.” You can hear it and describe it in your own words by going to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/pied-billed_grebe/sounds.

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Bald Eagles Nesting

4-9-15  bald eagle and nest 069In the Northeast, Bald Eagles seek out the tallest trees around in which to build their nests. In certain locations in Alaska, coastal California and northern Canada where there are no trees, Bald Eagles will nest on the ground. When building a nest in a tree, eagles will usually build it in the top quarter of the tree, just below the crown, on limbs capable of supporting a large nest. Sticks from the ground are collected up to a mile away from the nest or are broken off of nearby trees. Additional materials are regularly added to the nest throughout the year, including daily additions during the breeding season (see photo).

Many live eagle cams can be found online (in Minnesota, one chick, one egg – http://mnbound.com/live-eagle-cam/ ; in Georgia, older nestlings: http://www.berry.edu/eaglecam/ ; in Pennsylvania, very young chicks: http://www.ustream.tv/decoraheagles ), giving the viewer a window into the incubation, birth and growth of these raptors. Depending on the location of the nest, one can see every stage of development, from eggs to hatchlings to all-but-fledged nestlings. In New England, eggs are soon to hatch, if they haven’t already. (Thanks to Marianne Blake for photo op.)

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Sugar Maple Seeds & Sap

4-8-15 sugar maple & pail 226Cold nights and warm, sunny days increase the amount of the sap flow in a Maple Sugar tree, making weather an important factor in the quality of a sugaring season. But it’s not the only factor. Both the amount of sap flowing as well as its sugar content affect a given season’s maple syrup production.

Recent research indicates that the size of a tree’s seed crop in the fall is a good predictor of the sugar content of its sap the following spring. A tree, through photosynthesis, produces and stores a given amount of carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are utilized in the production of seeds as well as the production of sugar. Once the carbohydrates are used up, over a year is needed for the tree to replace them. If a lot of seeds are produced in the fall, there are fewer carbohydrates available for the production of sugar the following spring. Hence, while the weather in a given spring may be conducive for the ample flow of sap, the sap that flows may have a very low sugar content if a tree produced a lot of seeds the previous fall, making it necessary to boil more sap to achieve the desired sugar content in the maple syrup. (Source: Northern Woodlands magazine)

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Mourning Cloak Butterflies Out From Under Tree Bark

mourning cloak butterfly IMG_5755Mourning Cloaks have recently emerged from under loose bark where they hibernated all winter. These early flyers, along with a few other species such as commas and tortoiseshells, have a jump start in the spring due to their not having to go through metamorphosis like most butterflies. Born last summer, Mourning Cloaks live for roughly ten months (longer than most butterflies), overwintering and breeding and laying eggs soon after appearing in the spring. This summer their larvae will feed on willows and poplars before pupating and emerging as adults in time to seek shelter for the winter. With snow still on the ground, nectar is quite scarce, leaving butterflies that are active this time of year dependent on tree sap available where branches have broken for much of their sustenance.

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Early Nesting Hooded Mergansers Seeking Tree Cavities

4-6-15  hooded merganser, male 367In northern New England you are most likely to see Hooded Mergansers in the spring and fall when they are migrating to and from their breeding grounds in northern Canada (some nest in New England, as well). Hooded Mergansers tend to arrive in their breeding areas as soon as the ice starts to melt, and have been known to start laying eggs in March in Massachusetts and April in Vermont. Often some of the earliest eggs laid in a nest will freeze and crack and never hatch.

Hooded Mergansers are cavity nesters, frequently choosing trees that are close to ponds, marshes, swamps or streams. They compete with Wood Ducks for nest boxes put out by humans, and females of both species may lay eggs in the same nest, with one or the other incubating the eggs. Sometimes the duck that initiated the nest does the incubation, but more often the hen laying the majority of the eggs will do so. Because both species have the same incubation period, all the eggs hatch at the same time.

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Waxwings Supplementing Sugary Fruit Diet With High-Protein Insects

4-3-15 bohemian waxwing IMG_2383The diet of both Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings is primarily sugary fruits throughout most of year. Research shows that they can subsist on this diet exclusively for as many as 18 days. However, in winter when feeding on fruits, they also feed on buds and available insects. In warmer months, waxwings will fly out over water from exposed perches, much like flycatchers, and snatch emerging aquatic insects such as mosquitoes, midges, mayflies, caddisflies and dragonflies out of the air. They also glean for vegetation-borne insect prey, such as scale insects. At this time of year they are taking advantage of winter stonefly hatches over open streams. (photos: bohemian waxwing & stonefly)

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Raccoon Latrines

4-1 raccoon latrine2 IMG_2714Raccoons defecate in communal sites called latrines. Often these latrines are located on a raised, flat surface or at the base of a tree. Over time, the scat accumulates. Should you come upon a latrine, it’s best not to investigate too closely, as raccoon feces harbor roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis) eggs which can be easily ingested and cause harm (serious eye disease, spinal cord or brain damage, or even death) to humans. One of these roundworms can produce more than 100,000 eggs a day, and the eggs remain viable for years in the soil.

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Great Horned Owls Incubating Eggs

4-1-15 GHO2  240Great Horned Owls are said to have the widest range of nest sites of any bird in North or South America. Like other owls and falcons, this raptor does not build its own nest, but rather relies heavily on abandoned stick nests of diurnal birds of prey. Red-tailed Hawk nests are often usurped, as well as those of Bald Eagles, crows, ravens and herons. Nests may be lined with shreds of bark, leaves, downy feathers from the owl’s breast, fur of prey and trampled pellets. In addition to bird nests, Great Horned Owls also raise their one to four nestlings (usually two) in tree cavities and snags, on cliffs, in deserted buildings, in squirrel nests and even on the ground.

The female Great Horned Owl does all the incubating; the male delivers prey to her at intervals throughout the night. These early nesters have incubated eggs successfully when outside temperatures have been as low as -27°F. Hopefully warmer temperatures will welcome the newly hatched owlets in about a month. (photo: mostly hidden Great Horned Owl in Great Blue Heron nest)

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