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Archive for March, 2016

Hooded Mergansers Returning To Nest

3-25-16  hooded merganser flying 243

Hooded mergansers are present in most of the Northeast year round where there is open water, but many move south and southwest in winter.  Some actually migrate north to spend winters in the Great Lakes and southern Canada. Their numbers swell in March and April, when migrants are passing through as well as returning.  Often within days of when the ice goes out, this smallest (and arguably the most beautiful) of the three North American merganser species appears.

The courtship ritual of hooded mergansers takes place in groups of one or more females and several males.  The males raise their crests, expanding the white patch, and engage in behavior known as head-throwing.  They jerk their heads backwards until it touches their backs, while giving a frog-like croak. Females court by bobbing their heads and giving a hoarse quack.

Female breeding hooded mergansers select suitable cavities in both live and dead trees in which to nest. Stumps and snags near or in forested wetlands are their preferred nesting sites. Nest boxes are also used by this species, with those over or near water being the most sought after. After a month or a little more, the eggs hatch and downy, day-old chicks jump to the water (or ground) below, in response to their mother’s vocal urging.

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Wolf Spiders Active

3-24-16 wolf spider in grass 168

Wolf spiders can already be seen scurrying around fields, active after a long winter’s nap deep inside tussocks of grass where they stay until the temperature begins to rise.  Some are tiny and black, while others, such as the pictured wolf spider, are larger (1 ½”) and a shade of brown. These spiders hibernate in the winter, but other species have different survival strategies.  Some, like the black-and-yellow argiope, or garden spider, only live one season and die during late fall or winter, leaving behind their egg sac for next season. Many of the more active species that hunt prey rather than trap it in a web, spend the winter as nymphs, or juveniles, becoming full grown in the spring or early summer. In several species of spiders, young spiderlings hatch out in the fall and then remain in a communal egg sac through the winter.

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Wood Frogs & Spring Peepers On The Move

3-29-16 road frogs 015Although the temperature hovered around 32°F.  last night in central Vermont, wood frogs and spring peepers were on the move.  Usually it is above 40° or 45° before you see the earliest of our breeding amphibians, but a few hardy souls ventured forth to their breeding pools and ponds under cover of darkness and  rain yesterday.  Those that breed in vernal pools are in a hurry to take advantage of every day, as the eggs they lay must complete metamorphosis by the time their pool dries up, often in mid- to late summer.

Both of these species of frogs are freeze tolerant.  Wood frogs are coming out of a state in which they haven’t taken a breath and their heart hasn’t beaten for several months.  Prior to hibernation they convert glycogen in their bodies into glucose, a form of antifreeze that helps prevent the water within their cells from freezing, which would kill them.  However, the water outside their cells does freeze.  Amazingly, wood frogs can survive having up to 65% of this water frozen, yet when warm weather arrives, they thaw and move about in a matter of hours.

If you rescue these woodland amphibians that are crossing roads (where so many of them get run over at night) during their migration to their breeding pools, take note of the temperature of their body.  Often they are still quite cold to the touch — colder than the air, even – which fortunately makes it difficult for them to move fast enough to escape your helping hands. (Photo: Amorous wood frogs getting a head start as they cross a road to get to breeding pool.)

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Buffleheads Migrating

bufflehead2  270There is so much to love about Buffleheads.  First and foremost, they are almost exclusively monogamous – one of the few ducks that often keeps the same mate for several years. They are relatively tiny – our smallest “diving” duck. (Ducks are divided into “diving” and “dabbling” ducks, according to their method of feeding.)  So small are they that these cavity-nesting birds can fit in and often choose Northern Flicker holes in which to raise their young. We typically only see them during their nocturnal spring and fall migration to and from their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of western Canada and Alaska, when they rest and refuel on ponds and lakes during the day. If you chance upon a pair when the sun is out, be sure to notice the striking purple and green iridescent head feathers of the male (on right).

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Nest Box Residents : Out With The Old, In With the New

3-25-16  mouse nest in bluebird box by Jim LafleyDSC00362 (2)In order to prevent disease or the passing on of parasites, it is a good idea to clean out nest boxes after they’ve been occupied.  In the fall, after the last brood of eastern bluebirds or tree swallows has flown the coop, many nest box owners often clean them out in preparation for the next summer’s residents, but some wait until spring.  This habit of waiting provides white-footed and deer mice (and occasionally flying squirrels) with a ready-made winter shelter and/or larder.

Feathers incorporated into the pictured grass nest indicate that tree swallows once occupied this nest box.  After the last of the avian nestlings had fledged, mice moved into the box.  After constructing a roof over the nest, the mice succeeded in renovating the former bird nursery into a winter mouse house.  The remaining space inside the box served as a larder for nearby high-bush cranberries.

Unfortunately for the mice, but fortunately for the swallows or bluebirds that will reside here this summer, the responsible nest box owner dutifully cleaned out the nest box this spring, in accordance with avian-mammalian timeshare policies.  (Thanks to Jim Lafley for the use of his photo.)

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Ice Pancakes

3-24-16       ice pancakes by Jim Moul

I was amazed at the familiarity many Naturally Curious readers have with “ice pancakes!”  For those of you who, like myself, may not be familiar with these creations, these formations are essentially frozen foam.

Ice pancakes usually form on ocean water or lakes around the Arctic Circle where the movement of water keeps the ice from forming a flat sheet.  Small needle-like crystals called frazil crystals rise to the surface of very cold water and accumulate together.  In calm water these typically form a greasy film that freezes into a flat surface ice.  However, in rough or choppy water, these crystals congeal together into slushy circular disks.  As these disks bump into each other and are buffed by the water, they develop ridges and raised edges, giving them a distinctive dinner plate appearance.  In the polar seas these can sometime have a thickness of close to 4 inches and diameter of between 12 inches and 9 feet. Eventually the plates fuse together to form consolidated sea ice that can have ridges that are up to 60 feet thick.  In northern freshwater rivers, pancakes can accumulate downstream of faster water that is thought to have created foam, that then froze. (Thanks to Jim Moul for the use of his photograph of New Hampshire ice pancakes.)

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Mystery Photo

3-23-16  mystery photo by Reuben Rajala  2016Do you know what the white objects are?  Photo (by Reuben Rajala) taken along the Androscoggin River in Gorham, NH recently.

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