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Archive for July, 2015

Watershield Flowering

7-29-15  watershield 008Watershield is a perennial aquatic plant whose bright green, shield-shaped leaves float on the surface of shallow water in lakes and beaver ponds. Its small purple flowers bloom from June through September, with each individual flower only lasting two days. One the first day, the female flower parts (stigma, style, ovary) are mature. After receding into the water overnight, the flower re-emerges with mature male flower parts (stamens, filaments, anthers). The anthers burst open, releasing pollen to the wind, and the flower is then withdrawn below the water where the fruit develops.

The horizontal rhizomes, or stems, of Watershield, as well as the undersides of the leaves and developing buds, are covered with a thick, jelly-like slime. Botanists theorize that it may deter snails from grazing on these plants. Watershield secretes a number of chemicals that kill or inhibit growth of a wide range of bacteria, algae, and other plants.

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Water Scorpions

water scorpion 005These stick-like insects can be found inhabiting most freshwater ponds in the Northeast. Although called water scorpions, these water bugs aren’t even closely related to scorpions. Their name comes from the fact that they superficially resemble scorpions, with their modified grasping front legs and “tails,” which act as snorkels or breathing tubes. The long,slender water scorpions in the genus Renata are also referred to as water stick insects or “needle bugs.”

Water scorpions are formidable predators, reaching up to five inches in length. The majority of their diet consists of other invertebrates, but they have been known to take tadpoles and minnows.

Water scorpions mate at this time of year — males produce chirping noises, much like a cricket, to attract females. After mating, the female lays several eggs and attaches them to aquatic vegetation.

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Male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds Leading Life of Leisure

7-28-15 hummer2  637Equality of the sexes has yet to reach some avian species. Among them is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the only species of hummingbird that breeds in the Northeast. After courtship and mating takes place, the male has next to no contact with his mate(s), possibly visiting them during nest construction, but he does not lift a feather to assist in raising their offspring. By herself the female selects a nest site, builds a nest (six to ten days), lays two eggs, incubates the eggs (12 – 14 days), broods them (9 days), removes their waste, or fecal sacs, for the first two days (after which the nestlings eject their droppings from the rim of the nest) and feeds them (a total of 22 – 25 days — while young are in nest, and for 4 – 7 days after they fledge). Males spend the summer feeding, preening, bathing, stretching their wings and fanning their tails, sleeping, roosting and sunbathing. Not a bad life for him; an exhausting one for her. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Terry Ross for photo op.)

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Twisted Stalk Fruit Maturing

twisted stalk  039Twisted Stalk’s (Streptopus amplexifolius ) name is very descriptive, for not only are the stems bent slightly where the leaves clasp them, but there is a 90-degree twist in the flower stalk after it emerges from the base of the leaves, causing the flowers to hang down from the stem. Earlier in the summer, delicate, greenish-white, bell-like flowers hung below these leaf axils. Those that were fertilized are currently developing into bright yellow-to-red fruit which make the plant obvious even in the moist, shady woods where it grows. Although considered edible by some, Twisted Stalk (also called Watermelon Berry) can be mistaken for poisonous species of plants so consumption is not recommended.

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Dragonflies & Damselflies Spear Prey With Lower Lip

7-27 dragonfly mouthpart 077Dragonflies and damselflies are unique among aquatic insect larvae in that they have a greatly enlarged hinged lower lip, or labium, which they can rapidly extend outwards to capture prey. When retracted, the prehensile labium fits like a mask over the face or is folded flat beneath the insect’s head. When hunting for prey, the dragonfly larva uses its labium like a speargun. It shoots forward as far as half the larva’s body length away, and moveable hooks on the front edge grab the prey. There are no muscles at the hinge/joint, leading entomologists to believe that the labium is extended by increased blood pressure caused by abdominal muscle contraction. It unfolds at a right angle, and extends extremely rapidly, faster than most prey can react. (photo: cast skin of dragonfly larva from which adult dragonfly emerged)

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Muddy Muskrat

7-24-15  muskrat IMG_5542I’m posting this additional image of a cattail rhizome-digging muskrat’s muddy face in the hopes that Naturally Curious readers find it as amusing as I do.

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Muskrats Busy Feeding

7-24-15  muskrats IMG_4435For the most part, muskrats are herbivores. They consume with relish the leaves, stems and rhizomes of emergent aquatic plants such as cattails, bulrushes, sedges, horsetails, water lilies and arrowheads. Fish, frogs and invertebrates, including crayfish and clams, are also eaten to a lesser extent. Muskrats are voracious eaters (captive muskrats eat 25 – 30% of their weight daily). When their numbers are very high, muskrats can cause what is referred to as an “eat-out,” where they mow down everything in sight.

Like beavers, muskrats can close their upper lips behind their incisors in order to cut plants underwater without taking in water and choking. (photo: two young muskrats feeding on aquatic vegetation)

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Spittlebugs Feeding

7-15-15  spittle bug 049This strange-looking insect is none other than the nymphal stage of a true bug called a froghopper. During its immature stage, it is referred to as a spittle bug, due to the fact that while feeding on the sap of a plant it pumps excess water out of its abdomen (up to 150-300 times its body weight every 24 hours) and this water, combined with body secretions, turns into sticky bubbles which fall down over the nymph (it feeds upside down). The spittle provides thermal protection and prevents the nymph from drying out while it feeds for days in the sun. While seemingly drawing attention to the nymph’s presence, the spittle has a very bitter taste that would-be predators find unappealing. As an adult, the froghopper earns its name by being able to jump 100 times its length.

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Mystery Photo

7-14-15  mystery photo  049Do you recognize this insect? Hint: you probably walk past several of these every day. (Please post responses under “comments.” Identification will be revealed in tomorrow’s post.)


Tree Swallow Nestlings Well Fed

7-21 tree swallows 068Tree Swallow parents begin feeding their four to seven nestlings as soon as they hatch, and they continue doing so until their young depart the nest and sometimes for several days afterwards. The adult carries food in its bill and places it directly into the open mouth of a begging nestling. The small insects gathered by the parent may be formed into a rounded ball, or bolus, which they hold in their mouth or throat (often not visible to an observer). Both parents feed the nestlings, together averaging about ten to twenty deliveries per hour. During periods of peak nestling demand, parents may feed as many as 6,000 to 7,000 insects in a single day. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Terry Ross for photo op.)

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Black and Yellow Mud Daubers Collecting Mud & Building Cells

7-20-15 mud dauber 140There are many species of mud daubers — wasps that build mud cells in which they lay eggs and in which their larvae develop. The female Black and Yellow Mud Dauber gathers mud at the edge of a pond or puddle, rolls it into a ball, grasps it in her mandibles and flies it back to her nest site, a spot protected from rain, often on a man-made building. Here she constructs several mud cylindrical cells.

Like most wasps, mud daubers are predators, and they provision their mud cells with select spiders (including jumping spiders, crab spiders and orb weavers) which they locate, sting and paralyze before stuffing them into a cell. The female lays an egg amongst the spiders, so that when the egg hatches the emerging larva will have a supply of spiders (that haven’t decomposed, because they’re not dead) to eat. She seals the cell with mud, and repeats this process several times after which she covers the small group of cells with more mud. The Black and Yellow Mud Dauber larvae pupate in the fall, overwinter inside the cells and emerge as adult wasps the following spring.

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Juvenile Bald Eagles Fledging

7-17-15 juvenile eagle 003For several weeks before leaving their nest, young bald eagles constantly flap their wings, occasionally lifting themselves off the nest several inches in mid-air. Eventually they succeed in making short “flights” to nearby branches and then back to their nest. The young eagles are strengthening their wing muscles, practicing landing, and beginning to master flight.

Sometime between 8 and 14 weeks juvenile bald eagles leave their nest. Many fledge successfully, but up to half of the nest departures are unsuccessful, with the young ending up on the ground where they may stay for weeks before flight is achieved. During this time the parents usually continue to feed their young, but the juvenile eagles are far more vulnerable to predators. If the flightless, grounded juveniles are approached or threatened, or if they simply want to move from one spot to another, they walk or run on the ground (see photo).

The young bald eagle pictured was blown out of its nest prematurely and landed on the ground. Eventually it managed to fly back up onto a branch in the nest tree. The parents continued to feed the eagle while it was on the ground, as well as after it was back up in the tree. (Thanks to Linda and Roger Whitcomb for photo op.)

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One-flowered Wintergreen Blossoming

7-14-15  one-flowered wintergreen  249A walk in cool, moist woodlands this time of year may reward you with the sight (and smell) of One-flowered Wintergreen in bloom. The three- to six-inch-tall nodding flower has five waxy petals with rounded tips and wavy edges. Its true beauty can only be appreciated if you get down on your hands and knees and look underneath these petals. At this angle and close range, you not only can see the ten stamens and five-lobed stigma, but you can detect the flower’s delightful fragrance, which is very similar to that of Lily-of-the-Valley.

One-flowered Wintergreen’s blossom remains viable, without withering, for up to six weeks. After the flower is pollinated, the developing capsule becomes erect. Along with orchids, wintergreen seeds are the smallest in the plant kingdom – a single seed weighs around two-millionths of a gram. One-flowered Wintergreen is in the Heath family, which also includes rhododendrons, mountain laurel, azaleas, blueberries and cranberries.

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Two-month-old Striped Skunks Can Spray!

7-15-15 striped skunk2 058The answer to yesterday’s mystery photo is a lot less original than many of your guesses, all of which could have been true, given my natural curiosity. I am embarrassed to admit that it was the oily, yellow spray of a young striped skunk that covered my spectacles (and my entire head, arms and camera) – even with ample warning, I chose to persevere in order to get the perfect picture. Unfortunately, the skunk was a lot more successful at his mission than I was at mine.

There is a reason why coyotes, foxes and most predators (one exception is the great horned owl), including most sane photographers, keep their distance from striped skunks. Whether newborn or several years old, skunks are capable of using their musk-filled anal glands to ward off anything that threatens them. Skunks are generally reluctant to spray, however, as they only have a few teaspoons (half an ounce) of musk in their glands, and once their supply is depleted (five or six sprays), they are defenseless for about 10 days, while it builds up again. Hence, plenty of warning is given in the form of stomping front feet, erect hair, raised tail, and chattering before a skunk contracts the muscles surrounding its anal glands and shoots a pungent, yellowish spray as far as ten feet away. Only a fool would not heed the warning given…and be forewarned – a skunk’s aim is surprisingly accurate.

The organic compounds that make the smell of skunk spray so offensive are called thiols (mercaptans). Thiols are also found in garlic and onions, and form parts of the keratin in hair. If your dog or you happen to be at the wrong end of a skunk’s partially everted anus, the best combination to neutralize the musk smell is 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup of baking soda, and 1 teaspoon of liquid dish soap. (Thanks (?) to Tom Ripley for photo op.)

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Mystery Photo

7-14-15  Mystery Photo 101Who do you think did not appreciate having their photograph taken and let me know in no uncertain terms? Please submit guesses as “comments”on this blog. Answer will be revealed in tomorrow’s post.

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Avian Air Sacs

7-10-15  sinking loon2  482Birds have a very efficient breathing system which makes use of their lungs, but also utilizes air sacs (7-12, depending on species) within the bird’s body. Common Loons use their air sacs for more than respiration, however. By changing the amount of air in the sacs, loons can vary their depth while resting in water. A deep breath fills the sacs with air and produces high flotation. During dives, in addition to compressing their feathers(which forces air out from between them), loons decrease the amount of air in their air sacs by exhaling. The ability to deflate their air sacs also allows loons to quietly sink below the water’s surface in order to make it easier for their young chicks to climb aboard.

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Sac Spider Shelter Serves as Nursery & Coffin

7-10-15  sac spider 018It is not unusual to come across a rolled-up leaf – the larvae of many moths create shelters in this fashion, using silk as their thread. Less common, and more intricate, are the leaf “tents” of sac spiders. With great attention paid to the most minute details, a female sac spider bends a leaf (often a monocot, with parallel veins, as in photo) in two places and seals the edges (that come together perfectly) with silk. She then spins a silk lining for this tent, inside of which she lays her eggs. There she spends the rest of her life, guarding the eggs. She will die before the eggs hatch and her body will serve as her offspring’s first meal. (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo op.)

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Canada Goose Goslings: Contour Feathers Replacing Down

Canada goose gosling 207Within 24 hours of hatching, downy Canada Goose goslings leave their nest and are capable of walking, swimming, diving and feeding themselves. Like many species of waterfowl, their growth is rapid. Contour feathers on their wings and tail begin to emerge in about three weeks (note wing feathers of gosling in photo). Feathers on a gosling’s head, neck and back are the last to appear. Just before a gosling develops the ability to fly, the last fluff of down, which is on top of its head, disappears.

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Iridescent Dogbane Beetles Emerging

7-1-15  dogbane beetle170Dogbane beetles (Chrysochus auratus) appear suddenly, usually when the plant which they consume and for which they are named is flowering. Look on the leaves and blossoms of Dogbane, or Indian Hemp, (Apocynum cannabinum) for this blue-green beetle with a metallic copper and crimson shine to it.

The iridescence is a special type of color that shines and changes as the insect changes position or we change position looking at it. It is produced by special body structures and light. The surface of the body parts of this beetle is made up of stacks of tiny, slanting plates, under which is a pigment. Some light rays reflect from the surface of the plates, and other light rays reflect from the pigment underneath. At different angles, the light reflects at different speeds, causing interference and resulting in our seeing different colors that shine.

Although all parts of this plant are toxic to humans, Dogbane is tolerated by Dogbane Beetles, whose larvae reside underground where they eat the roots of Dogbane. When they mature into adult beetles, they climb up the plant to the leaves and flowers, which they then consume.

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Moose Antlers Growing

moose antlers 795Antlers grow faster than any other mammal bone — a big bull moose can grow an 80-pound rack in a summer, adding a pound of bone a day. While genetics has an influence on antler growth and size, nutrition is by far the most important factor, and males in high quality habitats grow much larger antlers.

In the early stage of growth, antlers are covered with a fuzzy skin called velvet, which contains a tremendous concentration of nerves and as well as a supply of blood. The velvet nourishes the growing antler for about five months, during which time the antlers are extremely sensitive to touch, and if injured, may be permanently misshapen. Eventually, when the bone stops growing, the velvet is shed. Bull moose then use their antlers to attract and fight for mates, as well as to root plants from the pond floor. A month or two after they have served their purpose of securing a mate, antlers are shed.

In moose, antlers may act as large hearing aids. Moose with antlers have far more sensitive hearing than moose without, and a study of antlers (with an artificial ear) confirmed that the antler behaves like a parabolic reflector.

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Ordering Milkweed Seeds

7-6-15 milkweed seeds IMG_0973If you would like to order milkweed seeds, you can find several options at http://www.xerces.org/milkweed-seed-finder/


Life & Death in a Milkweed Patch

7-6-15 milkweed critters 078Monarch Butterflies are not the only insects whose lives are dramatically affected by the current precarious health of the Common Milkweed population. Clockwise, starting middle, top: Yellowjacket worker chewing insect to feed to larvae; White Admiral drinking nectar; Jumping Spider drinking fly innards; deceased butterfly trapped by getting proboscis caught in stigmatic slit ; Small Milkweed Bugs mating; Assassin Bug feeding on ant; Red Milkweed Beetle; Virginia Ctenucha Moth drinking nectar.

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Trailing Arbutus Fruiting

trailing arbutus fruit 115The fruit of Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens), also known as “Mayflower,” is maturing. While this plant’s flower is familiar, its fruit may not be. Although it develops from the flower, and therefore is in the same location (under cover of Trailing Arbutus’s leathery leaves next to the ground), it is not as showy or as noticeable. In addition, the aromatic pink and white flowers that blossom in early spring infrequently set fruit. Out of a stand of well over 100 flowering Trailing Arbutus plants, only two could be found that bore fleshy white fruit.

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European Skippers Flying in Fields

7-3  European skipper 242Roughly one-third of all butterfly species in North America belong to the Skipper (Hesperiidae) family. Most species possess stout bodies, wide heads and relatively small wings. An early morning walk from mid-May to mid-July through almost any field (especially one with lots of Timothy grass, which the larvae eat) will result in a flurry of tiny orange-brown wings rising into the air. It is likely that the butterflies stirred up are European Skippers (Thymelicus lineola) which roost at night on grass stalks. During the day they feed on the nectar of a variety of low-growing field flowers, including Orange Hawkweed, thistles, Ox-eye Daisy, Fleabane, White Clover, Red Clover, Selfheal, Deptford Pink, Common Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, Dogbane and vetches. These abundant butterflies were accidentally introduced into Ontario, Canada in 1910, and their range has been expanding ever since.

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