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Archive for August, 2015

Black-tipped Darner

black-tipped darner IMG_3123There are two darners that look very much alike, the Black-tipped (Aeshna tuberculifera) and the Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa). The differences are somewhat subtle, so I spent a great deal of time identifying the egg-layers that I photographed for today’s post, vacillating back and forth between the two species. I finally zoomed in on one photo and determined that the lateral stripes on its thorax were outlined in black, making it a Black-tipped Darner (Shadow Darners lack this outline, and lack coloring on the last abdominal segment). That said, while I knew the identity, I neglected to make sure my post reflected this, and once again, a reader was kind enough to point this out. Thank you, Mike Blust!


Darners Laying Eggs

9-1-15 dragonfly laying egg 135Females of different species of dragonfly have different techniques for laying their eggs. Most skimmers, cruisers and clubtails dip the tip of their abdomen to the surface of the water while hovering or flying, and release their eggs. Most darners, such as the Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) pictured, have a sharp-edged ovipositor with which they slit open a stem or leaf of a plant on or near the water. They then push their egg into the plant tissue exposed by the slit. Because they are stationary during this process, female darners are vulnerable to predation by fish and frogs at this time. A close look at the bottom third of cattail leaves this time of year will tell you whether or not darners are in the vicinity, as the slits they make are very apparent, appearing as thin, tan, 1/2″ vertical lines.

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Velvety Fairy Fan Fruiting

8-27 velvety fairy fan 043Velvety Fairy Fan (Spathulariopsis velutipes) lives up to its name. Its brown stalk is fuzzy, it is tiny and it is shaped like a fan. (It is also called Spatula Mushroom, for equally obvious reasons.) This fungus belongs to the order Helotiales, which also includes earth tongues, jelly drops and other small fungi that grow on plant stems, wood and wet leaves. Because of its diminutive size (3/8” high), Velvety Fairy Fan is often overlooked. The fruiting bodies are often found in clusters that appear in August and September.

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Spiders Molting Exoskeletons

shed spider skin 052Like other arthropods, spiders have a protective hard exoskeleton that is flexible enough for movement, but can’t expand like human skin. Thus, they have to shed, or molt, this exoskeleton periodically throughout their lives as they grow, and replace it with a new, larger exoskeleton. Molting occurs frequently when a spider is young, and some spiders may continue to molt throughout their life.

At the appropriate time, hormones tell the spider’s body to absorb some of the lower cuticle layer in the exoskeleton and begin secreting cuticle material to form the new exoskeleton. During the time that leads up to the molt (pre-molt period), a new, slightly larger, inner exoskeleton develops and is folded up under the existing exoskeleton. This new soft exoskeleton is separated from the existing one by a thin layer called the endocuticle. During the pre-molt period the spider secretes fluid that contains digestive enzymes between the new inner and old outer exoskeletons. This fluid digests the endocuticle that separates the two exoskeletons, making it easier for them to separate.

Once the endocuticle is completely digested the spider is ready to complete the molt. At this point a spider pumps hemolymph (spider blood) from its abdomen into its cephalothorax in order to split its carapace, or headpiece, open. The spider then slowly pulls itself out of the old exoskeleton through this opening.

Typically, the spider does most of its growing immediately after losing the old exoskeleton, while the new exoskeleton is highly flexible. The new exoskeleton is very soft, and until it hardens, the spider is particularly vulnerable to attack.

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Grass of Parnassus Flowering

e-grass of Parnassus 008Grass of Parnassus, Parnassia glauca, (also known as Bog- Star) was named after Mount Parnassus in central Greece. It is not a type of grass, but rather, belongs to the family Celastraceae and can be found growing in fens, bogs and swamps. The striking green lines on its petals guide flies, bees and other pollinating insects to the flower’s supply of nectar.

The structure of Grass of Parnassus’s flower is not typical. In between its five functioning stamens and five petals there is a whorl of five sterile stamens, each of which is three-pronged. The spherical tip of each prong mimics a glistening droplet of nectar. These stamens do not actually produce any nectar – they are there purely to attract pollinators. The actual nectar is located near the base of these false, or sterile, stamens. Only one of the five true stamens in the flower is active at any one time, with each producing pollen on average once every 24 hours.

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Baltimore Checkerspot Larval Diet Not Limited to Turtlehead

8-25-15 B.checkerspot larvae IMG_7102My prior post erroneously stated that Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) was the only host plant of Baltimore Checker larvae. They also feed on Hairy Beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus), English Plantain (Plantago lanceolata), and False Foxglove (Aureolaria sp.). Thanks to a very astute reader who caught this misstatement!


Baltimore Checkerspot Larvae Feeding On Turtlehead

Baltimore checkerspot larvaeAt this time of year, just as Turtlehead is flowering, a butterfly known as the Baltimore Checkerspot is mating and laying bright red eggs on the underside of Turtlehead’s leaves. This is the only plant on which Baltimore Checkerspot eggs are laid, and the only plant which the larvae eat. When the eggs hatch, the tiny larvae proceed to spin a web that envelopes them and the leaves of the Turtlehead plant that they are eating. They eat profusely, enlarging the web as they expand the area to include uneaten leaves. Eventually, as fall approaches, they will spin a pre-hibernation web where they remain until late fall when they migrate down into the leaf litter. While most butterflies and moths overwinter as eggs or pupae, the Baltimore Checkerspot remains in its larval stage until spring, when it forms a chrysalis, pupates and emerges as an adult butterfly.

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Great Horned Owl Fledglings Still Being Fed By Parents

great horned owls-first year IMG_1616Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest nesting birds — you can find them on nests in January, February and March, even in northern New England. Eggs are incubated for about a month, typically in March or April with young usually hatching in May or June. The nestlings remain in the nest for six or seven weeks before fledging. Unable to fly until they are ten or twelve weeks old, the fledglings follow their parents around and continue to be fed and cared for by their parents until fall. In late summer, when they have fledged but are still begging their parents for food, you can hear their distinctive calls. To know what to listen for, go to http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/great-horned_owl.mp3 (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com & miracleofnature.org.)

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Slime Molds on the Move

8-21-15  431As usual, Naturally Curious readers submitted unbelievably creative ideas about the identity of yesterday’s Mystery Photo. Kudos to those of you who recognized that it was a slime mold. Slime molds look like a fungus, and reproduce with spores like fungi do, but are no longer classified as fungi. Slime molds are made up of individual organisms that form a mass called plasmodium. They can be bright orange, red, yellow, brown, black, blue, or white. These large masses act like giant amoebas, creeping slowly along and engulfing food particles (decaying vegetation, bacteria, fungi, and even other slime molds) along the way. If a slime mold is cut up into pieces, the pieces will pull themselves back together.

The most common species are in a group called plasmodial slime molds. They share one big cell wall that surrounds thousands of nuclei. Proteins called microfilaments act like tiny muscles that enable the mass to crawl at rates of about 1/25th of an inch per hour. A slime mold mass can actually navigate and avoid obstacles. If a food source is placed nearby, it seems to sense it and head unerringly for it.

As long as conditions are good, (enough food and moisture and favorable pH), the mass thrives. But when food and water are scarce, the mass transforms itself into spore-bearing fruiting structures. These typically form stalks topped by sphere-like fruiting bodies called sporangia that contain spores that are carried by the rain or wind to new locations. After they have been dispersed, each of these spores will germinate and release a tiny amoeba-like organism which, if it successfully finds and fuses with another similar organism, can then begin to feed and develop into a new plasmodium.

The pictured slime mold, Coral Slime (Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa), is one of the more common slime molds. It is unusual in that it produces its spores externally on small stalks, not in sporangia, which gives it a fuzzy appearance.

To watch a time-lapse video of slime mold moving, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GY_uMH8Xpy0.

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Mystery Photo

mystery photo 435If you think you might know what today’s mystery photo is, please respond under “Comments” – tomorrow’s Naturally Curious post will identify today’s. Hint: this photograph was not taken under water.

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Ambush Bugs Courting

8-19-15  ambush bugs IMG_2887Ambush Bugs are true bugs, in the order Hemiptera. (Although insects are often referred to as “bugs,” technically, only insects in this order are considered and referred to as bugs by entomologists.) All true bugs have piercing and sucking mouthparts, and wings which are membranous and clear at the tips, but hardened at the base.

Ambush Bugs are usually brightly colored (yellow, red or orange) and have thickened front legs which are used to capture prey up to ten times their own size. They live up to their name, patiently lying in wait, motionless, often in goldenrod flowers where they are very well camouflaged, for unsuspecting prey. The Ambush Bug, upon sighting prey, suddenly seizes the prey in its powerful forelegs and quickly dispatches it with a stab from its sharp beak. It then injects digestive enzymes into its prey, after which it drinks the resulting liquid innards.

This time of year you often see the smaller males riding around on the backs of the larger females while the females continue to feed. This behavior is part of the courtship ritual – males actively guard their mate prior to and following copulation. Mating takes place side by side, after which the female deposits her eggs among the leaves or on the stems of flowering plants. Look for Ambush Bugs in yellow and white flowers, especially goldenrod.

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Eastern Newts Emerging From Ponds

8-18 young red eft 007While you can find Eastern Newts in ponds year round, every one of these aquatic amphibians has spent part of its life on land, as a Red Eft. After the eggs hatch, Eastern Newt larvae spend the summer in the pond and at the end of the summer transform into terrestrial salamanders. At this point they crawl out of the water, and for the next three to five years live on land and are referred to as Red Efts, due to their coloring (initially they are a dark bronze color, but eventually turn orange-red). After several years of life on land, they return to the water, no longer red, but olive green. The pictured Eastern Newt/Red Eft is literally walking out of the water and onto land for the first time. It has already started to acquire the reddish color of a Red Eft, but has black spots that will fade and is yet to get the red spots that both Red Efts and Eastern Newts have. Young Red Efts can be found wandering on land in August and September looking for a protected spot such as under a log, rock, leaf litter or in the burrow of a mammal in which to spend the winter hibernating.

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Turtlehead Flowering & Being Pollinated By Bumblebees

8-14 turtlehead 073Turtlehead, Chelone glabra, a member of the Plantain family (Plantaginaceae), can be found growing along stream banks and wetlands throughout eastern North America. Its long arching upper lip, or hood, overlaps the lower lip like a turtle’s beak, giving Turtlehead its common name. The male parts of the flower mature before the female parts, and when pollen is being produced these lips are very hard to pry open. Pollinators are primarily bumblebees, which are some of the only insects that have the strength to open the flower. When the female pistil matures, the lips relax a bit, so entry is easier, but access to the nectar at the base of the flower is restricted (by a sterile stamen) to long-tongued insects. Thus, it is specifically long-tongued bumblebees that are able to both enter the flower and to reach the nectar. If you look on the sides of the flowers, occasionally you will find where impatient bumblebees have chewed through to the nectar, avoiding the struggles involved in entering the flower in the traditional manner.

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Juvenile Green Herons Becoming Independent

8-4-15 juv. green heron IMG_5807Green herons are typically solitary and secretive birds, but if you find one, you often have an extended period of time to observe it, as they often slowly stalk their prey, or pose statue-like, sometimes for minutes at a time, while waiting to strike at a fish, frog or invertebrate. Three characteristics tell you that the green heron in this photograph is a juvenile: the few tufts of down that remain on its head, its streaked neck (adults have solid rufous necks) and its yellow legs (adults have orange legs).

After fledging when about three weeks old, they can soon fly. The juvenile fledglings continue to be fed by the adults for a period of time and are taught how to forage for fish. Green herons are one of very few bird species that are known to occasionally use a tool (insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers) to catch their food – they simply drop the lure and wait for small fish to appear. (A wonderful video of a green heron successfully using bread for this purpose can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Porp5v5lLKk.)

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Goldenrod Crucial To Honeybee Survival

8-13  honeybee and goldenrod 028Goldenrod is one of the most important flowering plants for honeybees because it is a prolific producer of nectar and pollen late in the year. Blooming in the late summer and fall, this bright yellow-flowered composite provides nectar for the bees to build up stores of honey for winter. (Goldenrod honey is dark amber and strong tasting.) Goldenrod also provides pollen to help stimulate the colony to produce brood late into the fall. The pollen adds considerable amounts of protein, fats, and minerals to the diet of the late-season bees, helping ensure that they will have food throughout the winter.

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American Caesar’s Mushroom Fruiting

8-12-15 American Caesar's MushroomAmerican Caesar’s Mushroom (Amanita jacksonii), a member of the Amanita genus, differs from most Amanita species in at least two ways. It is one of the few edible Amanitas (most species are poisonous, so consumption is discouraged unless an expert identifies the fungus). Secondly, unlike many other Amanita species, American Caesar’s Mushroom does not usually have any warts or patches on its cap. The common name of this mushroom traces back to the fact that its close relative, Caesar’s Mushroom, Amanita caesarea, which grows in Italy, was a favorite of the emperors of the Roman Empire, the Caesars. Both of these species of Amanita are mycorrhizal, forming a symbiotic beneficial relationship with the roots of certain trees. Look for American Caesar’s Mushrooms under pine and oak. (photo: American Caesar’s Mushroom rupturing through its protective white membrane, or universal veil, as it matures)

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Hermit Thrushes Still Singing

8-7-15  hermit thrush 101The woods have become relatively quiet in the last few weeks. A majority of songbirds have mated and nested, so there is no need to reinforce pair-bonding with song. However, some late nesters, including the Hermit Thrush, are still on eggs and the males are still singing.

The Hermit Thrush makes up for its rather drab appearance with its melodious, haunting, flute-like song. The Hermit Thrush’s song is similar to that of its close relative, the Wood Thrush, but it starts with a single, clear note which the Wood Thrush’s song lacks. The Hermit Thrush doesn’t sing during migration or on its wintering grounds, so we are now privilege to its last lyrical songs of the year. To hear a recording, go to http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/hermit_thrush_by_Ted_Mack_Adirondacks_1994.mp3. (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com & miracleofnature.org)

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Weevils Mating

weevils mating 153Weevils are a type of herbivorous beetle which belong to the family Curculionidae. There are more species in this family than in any other beetle group – over 1,000 species in North America alone. Most weevils are small (3mm-10mm in length) and are usually dark-colored. Their most distinctive feature is the shape of their elongated head which forms a snout with their mouth at the tip.

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Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain Flowering

8-7 downy rattlesnake plantain 083Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera tesselata) is an evergreen plant (each leaf lives for about four years) belonging to the Orchid family. It has broad, rounded leaves (like plantain) that bear a design somewhat reminiscent of snake skin. For the latter reason, it was used by Native Americans to treat snakebites. Botanists think it must have been used on bites from non-poisonous snakes, for medicinally it does not cure a venomous snake bite.

This species is quite similar to Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (G.pubescens), the most common species of rattlesnake plantain in New England, but its leaves lack the broad white stripe down the middle and its flowers as not as tightly clustered. At this time of year Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain’s tall flower stalk is bedecked with tiny, delicate, white orchids, each the size of a baby finger nail, which are well worth examining through a hand lens.

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Milksnake Eggs Hatching

8-3-15 milk snake IMG_6320Some snakes lay eggs, while others give birth to live young. Milksnakes (which are nonpoisonous) belong to the former group and sometime between April and late June female milksnakes lay 3 to 20 eggs in rotting logs or moist, warm, leaf litter — locations that offer protection from predators and cold weather. Eggs laid in June are now hatching – seven- to ten-inch milksnakes are each using their egg tooth to slice through their egg and enter the world. Newly-hatched milksnakes have especially vibrant colors, including oranges, reds, purples, and yellows, which become duller as they age. Milksnakes are most active during the day but are rarely seen due to their secretive nature. (photo: adult milksnake; insert-newly hatched milksnake)

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Hover Fly Mimics Bald-faced Hornet

8-5-15 bald-faced hornet and hover flyAdult hover flies, often referred to as syrphid (family Syrphidae) or flower flies, feed on pollen and nectar, and are often seen hovering at or crawling on flowers. Many have black and yellow bands on their abdomen, and are frequently mistaken for bees. There are certain species of hover flies that mimic stinging wasps, including yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets (see photo). Predators such as birds, ambush bugs, and spiders might think twice about eating an insect that can sting, and hover flies take advantage of this. The process through which this occurs is called Batesian mimicry, and refers to when a harmless species evolves to imitate a harmful species that has the some of the same predators.

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Pinesap Flowering

8-4-15 pinesap 378Pinesap, like its close relative Indian Pipe, is a flowering plant which lacks chlorophyll, and therefore is not green and cannot make its own food. Often found under pine trees, Pinesap’s color ranges from yellow to pink, red, orange or brown or some combination of these. Often pine sap that flowers in the summer is yellowish, while pink is more dominant in the fall. Pinesap gets its nutrients from other plants’ roots, but not directly. Mycorrhizal fungi are the middlemen, connecting the roots of Pinesap with those of the fungi’s host plant, allowing nutrients to be passed along from the host plant to the Pinesap. Being the beneficiary of a fungi-dependent relationship makes Pinesap a myco-heterotroph.

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Spring Peepers Metamorphosing

8-3-15 spring peeper 434Roughly two months ago Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) could be heard calling from temporary as well as permanent ponds, as males sang to attract mates. After mating took place, the females each laid hundreds of eggs, attaching them singly or in packages of two to three eggs to vegetation.

After hatching, it takes roughly two to three months for peepers to metamorphose into tiny, four-legged, land-dwelling adult frogs. They are now finding their way to shrubby growth and woodlands near ponds, where they are fairly well hidden in the leaf litter or on the lower leaves of shrubs. Here, in the shade, they feed on small insects and spiders. Roughly one-quarter-inch long at this stage, these small treefrogs will only reach one or one-and-a-half inches when fully grown. (For scale, Spring Peeper is sitting next to two red honeysuckle berries.)

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