An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Archive for April, 2016

Cellophane Bees Emerging & Mating

4-20-16  cellophane bee  205Cellophane bees are one of the first bees to emerge in the spring, sometime between March and May.  These solitary bees nest underground, often in close proximity to one another, with each female digging her own burrow off of which she creates several individual brood cells.  Each cell is lined with a cellophane-like secretion which is applied with her short brush-like tongue to the walls of the cell.  She then fills the lower portion of the cellophane sac with pollen, nectar and some glandular material, lays an egg and seals the cell with more cellophane-like substance and a bit of sand for a cap.  The female then goes on to repeat the process and digs another cell.

The egg hatches and the larva grows throughout the summer, feeding on the supply of nectar and pollen contained within the cell.  The larva metamorphoses in the fall and overwinters as a pupa inside the natal cell, emerging as an adult on a warm, sunny spring day.

Males, which emerge before the females, can currently be seen patrolling the area where last year’s burrows were constructed, flying just an inch or two above the ground, searching for emerging females digging themselves out of the ground.  When a female is spotted, she is often bombarded by one or more males, creating quite the cluster of bees.  One male prevails, mating takes place, and the cycle continues.

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.


Pickerel Frogs “Snoring”

4-28-16  pickerel frog IMG_9429Pickerel Frogs emerge early in the spring from their muddy, pond bottom hibernacula, and mate in April and May in the Northeast. As part of the mating ritual, males call to attract females, with the calls resonating inside their internal vocal sacs located between their tympanum (ear drum) and foreleg (unlike Spring Peepers and American Toads, whose vocal sacs are located directly under their mouths).

These low-pitched calls resemble short “snores.” Occasionally Pickerel Frogs call from under water, but even when they are above water, their calls do not carry very far, frequently making it difficult for human ears to hear them.  Their call is similar to that of the Leopard Frog’s but lacks the short grunts of a full Leopard Frog call.  You can compare these two calls (and several others) by going to http://langelliott.com/calls-of-frogs-and-toads-of-the-northeast/ (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com)

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.

 


Spring Beauty: Claytonia caroliniana

4-27-16  spring beauty3 IMG_1604

There is a correction in the scientific name of the pictured Spring Beauty in today’s previous post:  it is Claytonia caroliniana, not C. virginica.  Both species are found in the Northeast and their flowers are similar, but their leaves are not.  C. virginica‘s leaves are narrower and more grass-like than C. caroliniana‘s, and do not have petioles (which C. caroliniana‘s leaves do).  Thank you, Sue Elliott!


White and Pink-flowered Spring Beauty

4-26-16 spring beauty rust 094

Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica, is a familiar and welcome spring ephemeral that carpets the forest floor at this time of year.  Within a population, its blossoms range in color from white to a deep pink. You don’t usually find a range of colors within a given population, as one color is often more successful at reproducing and it eventually becomes dominant, while the other colors are eliminated.

There is a reason why both colors of Spring Beauty continue to flourish within a given population.  A red pigment interacts with two chemicals (flavenols) to produce the range of color.  Plants with a high percentage of flavenols produce white flowers.  These flavenols are a deterrent to herbivores, so in years when there are lots of slugs, white-flowered plants are more successful in producing seeds.  This would lead one to conclude that eventually pink-flowered plants would diminish in number.  However, white-flowered Spring Beauty is also parasitized by a type of fungus called a rust, Puccinia mariae-wilsoniae, which causes orange spotting and often serious deformation of the plant (see photo).

Thus, in years when slugs are numerous, white-flowered Spring Beauty flourishes and produces seeds.  In years when slugs are not numerous but fungal infection is high, pink- flowered plants reproduce more successfully.  This sporadic success of both white and pink Spring Beauty is why we continue to find them both in the same population.

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.

 

 


A Gardener’s Favorite Beetle

bronze carabid 161Ground beetles (family Carabidae) are fast moving beetles, many of which are predators with specialized diets.  One ground beetle (Cychrus caraboides) eats only snails (its head and thorax are very slender, allowing access to the inside of a snail’s shell).  Another, Harpalus rufipes, limits its diet to strawberry seeds.  Loricera pilicornis uses bristles on its antennae to trap springtails and mites.

The Bronze Carabid, Carabus nemoralis, (pictured) uses its large curved mandibles to crush and slice through prey – it will eat or try to eat just about any invertebrate, but specializes in capturing and eating slugs. Its hardened forewings, or elytra, have a coppery sheen to them, and parts of its thorax and the edges of its elytra are iridescent purple. This nocturnal, introduced, flightless, one-inch-long beetle resides throughout the Northeast and is already actively pursuing slugs.

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.

 


Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Drilling Wells & Lapping Sap

4-26-16 yellow-bellied sapsucker 191

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have returned and in between sending their Morse code messages, are drilling into over 1,000 species of woody plants to obtain sap.  At this time of year, sap wells are drilled into xylem tissues (transport water and nutrients from roots to branches) to feed on sap that is moving upward; after deciduous species leaf out, sap wells tap phloem tissues (transport sugars and other nutrients made in the leaves to other parts of the tree).  Unlike sap drawn from the xylem which contains from 2-3% sugar, phloem sap may contain 20-30% sugar.

Sapsucker tongues have a fringe of hair-like projections along the edges which enable the sapsucker to lap up the sap that accumulates in a well (“saplapper” would be a more accurate name for these woodpeckers).  Recently a female sapsucker landed on the trunk of a nearby Sugar Maple and tapped eight wells.  She then spent the better part of the afternoon inserting her brush-like tongue into the wells and drinking the sap that collected.  The entire time she was drinking sap, she was constantly (8 times per hour) evacuating a stream of clear liquid (as opposed to the typical uric acid excreted by birds).  Apparently much of what goes in must come out.

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.

 


Eastern Bluebirds Nesting

4-22-16  bluebirds nesting 239

Eastern bluebirds are preparing for the first of the two or three broods they will raise this summer.  Contrary to what those of us who clean out our bluebird boxes have been led to believe, Cornell Lab of Ornithology states that experiments show preferences for nesting boxes containing old nests. In a paired experimental design bluebirds chose boxes containing old nests in 38 of 41 cases in which boxes with old nests were paired with empty ones.  Scientists conjecture that this may be because the old nests often contain wasp larvae, an easy source of food for the bluebirds.

Females build their nest over several days.  Grasses and pine needles are gathered from the ground and delivered to the nest box.  Fine grasses, horse hair and turkey feathers often provide the soft, innermost lining of the nest.  While the male enters the box during the nest-building process, perhaps to inspect, he does not actively collect material or participate in the building of the nest. Once the 3 – 7 eggs are laid, the female spends the next two weeks or so incubating them.  She then broods the young for about a week, and both parents provide them with food for up to three weeks after the young have fledged. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Terry Ross for photo op.)

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.

 


Wood Frog Egg Matts

wood frog egg mass IMG_2760Now that normal spring temperatures have returned, the air around vernal pools is once again filled with the clacking/quacking calls of male wood frogs hoping to attract females. Once this has been accomplished, most paired wood frogs head to the same general area in the pool to mate.  The resulting egg masses, each consisting of several hundred eggs, form a communal cluster, or “egg matt,” on the surface of the water.  Eventually algae will start growing on the jelly-like substance surrounding the eggs, causing them to resemble pond slime – an effective camouflage.  The gelatin covering, the size of the communal cluster, and exposure to the sun all help the eggs to be warmer than the surrounding water and they develop quickly – a necessity if one is to metamorphose into an adult before the vernal pool dries up.

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.

 


Bloodroot Flowering

bloodroot 104

Sometimes the anticipation is as exquisite as the full experience.

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.

 


Fisher Raids Wood Duck Nest Box

4-19-16 fisher & wood duck box by Alfred Balch Fishers are rarely seen, as they tend to travel in wooded areas and not expose themselves in open areas. However, this fisher was so intent on getting a meal that he threw caution to the wind.  Fishers are generalist, opportunistic hunters and scavengers, consuming a wide variety of animals and plants. Basically, if it can catch it, a fisher will eat it – amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, birds and bird eggs, and mammals (snowshoe hares are at the top of the list, but rabbits, squirrels, small rodents, shrews, and porcupines are common prey).

Between its keen sense of smell, and its acrobatic abilities (due to the flexibility of its hind feet, which can be turned 180°), a fisher is able to take advantage of prey and access food wherever it may be – in the tallest tree, or, in this case, a wood duck nest box.

Noted New Hampshire naturalist/tracker/videographer, Alfred Balch, succeeded in documenting the pictured fisher swimming out to an active wood duck nest box, climbing inside and exiting with a wood duck egg gently held in its mouth.  It was observed doing this more than once.  Considering that wood duck clutches consist of anywhere from 6 to 16 eggs, this fisher’s stomach was probably full by the end of the day. The wood duck is the only duck in North America that regularly produces two broods in one season, so hopefully the second clutch will escape the fate of the first.  (Photos by Alfred Balch)

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.


Cedar vs. Bohemian Waxwings

4-18-16bohemian vs. cedar waxwingWorldwide there are three species of waxwings:  Cedar, Bohemian and Japanese.  The first two species occur in North America, and while they share many traits, they also have their differences.  Both species look somewhat alike, in that they both have crests and black eye masks.  Both species also form nomadic, social flocks that are constantly in search of sugary fruit.   However, there are distinct differences in their distribution, size and plumage.

RANGE:  If you’re in the Northeast, and it’s summer, the waxwing you’re looking at almost assuredly is a Cedar Waxwing, as they are permanent residents, breeding and overwintering here.  Bohemian Waxwings breed in northwest Canada and Alaska, and are only seen in the Northeast in the late fall, winter, or early spring, when they extend their range in search of fruit.  Often they will join flocks of cedar waxwings as they feed.  They are an irruptive species, irregularly appearing south of their normal winter range in large numbers.

SIZE:  Even though Bohemian Waxwings are only about an inch longer than Cedar Waxwings, they are nearly double their weight – Bohemians are chunky, Cedars are svelte.

PLUMAGE:  Both of these species have a black eye mask, a yellow (or occasionally orange, due to diet) tail band and frequently red wax at the tip of some of their feathers. The easiest way to distinguish Cedar from Bohemian Waxwings is to look at the color of their undertail feathers (coverts).  Bohemians’ are rust-colored and Cedars’ are white. Bohemian Waxwings have a gray chest and belly, while Cedars have a brownish chest and yellow belly.

At this time of year you can find both species gorging on crab apples, often side by side, though Bohemians are soon to depart for the Northwest.

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.


Common Loons Returning

common loons back IMG_7494

After spending the winter along the Northeast coast, adult Common Loons are returning to their New England breeding ponds and lakes.  Evidence indicates that photoperiod determines the general timing of their northern migration.  Loons are well known for arriving at their breeding lakes soon after ice out (often returning when lakes are only partly open). How do they time their return so precisely?  Loons often congregate in open bodies of water, including rivers, as they proceed northward. Once they approach their breeding grounds, reconnaissance flights are made from open water to territorial waters to see if the ice is out. Once it is, their migration continues.

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.

 


Trailing Arbutus Flowering

4-13-16  trailing arbutus IMG_8853

The fragrant flowers of Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) are starting to open in central Vermont.  While this plant, also known as Mayflower, is an early-flowering plant, it appears to be even more so this year.  Fortunately the earliest flowers survived the recent cold spell and will undoubtedly provide food for the several species of queen bumble bees that are soon to emerge from hibernation.

THE TRAILING ARBUTUS

I wandered lonely where the pine-trees made

Against the bitter East their barricade,

And, guided by its sweet

Perfume, I found, within a narrow dell,

The trailing spring flower tinted like a shell

Amid dry leaves and mosses at my feet.

 

From under dead boughs, for whose loss the pines

Moaned ceaseless overhead, the blossoming vines

Lifted their glad surprise,

While yet the bluebird smoothed in leafless trees

His feathers ruffled by the chill sea-breeze,

And snow-drifts lingered under April skies.

 

As, pausing, o’er the lonely flower I bent,

I thought of lives thus lowly, clogged and pent,

Which yet find room,

Through care and cumber, coldness and decay,

To lend a sweetness to the ungenial day

And make the sad earth happier for their bloom.

—      John Greenleaf Whittier

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.

 


Evening Grosbeaks Returning From Southern Wintering Grounds

evening grosbeak 022Until the mid-1800s evening grosbeaks were considered uncommon to rare east of the Mississippi River.  Today evening grosbeaks can be found year round in northern New England.

The eastern expansion of evening grosbeaks is mainly attributed to the accessibility of winter food in the form of box elder fruits.  These trees were planted as windbreaks on the prairies, and as ornamentals in northeastern cities.  Their seeds persist into the winter, allowing erratic winter flocks from the west to overwinter further east.  Some overwintering birds remained here to nest, and thus began the expansion of their breeding range.  Some ornithologists also believe that the recurring spruce budworm outbreaks in boreal forests facilitated eastward expansion by providing food in the summer months.  Feeding birds became popular in the 1930’s, and may also have contributed to this range extension.

In a typical year in the Northeast, many birds migrate south of their breeding grounds to spend the winter.  From March to early May, most of these individuals return to northern and western coniferous forests to breed and we have a greater chance of seeing them at feeders (along with hungry bears). (Photo: male evening grosbeak.  Note bill is beginning to show the green tint it has during the breeding season.)

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.


“Big Night” Hazard

big night 2016 IMG_7612Every year in early spring on a rainy night spotted, blue-spotted, Jefferson and four-toed salamanders, wood frogs, and spring peepers leave their leaf litter and subterranean winter hibernacula and migrate to their ancestral breeding pools to mate.  Sometimes there are roads between these two sites.  Vehicles driving these roads inevitably kill thousands of salamanders, wood frogs and spring peepers every year.  Concerned citizens have set up teams to try to scoop up these nocturnal travelers and escort them to the side of the road in which they were headed.  While this action definitely helps, it is hard to find enough generous volunteers to man every crossing on every road all through a rainy night.

In Monkton, Vermont, Jim Andrews, Steve Parren and Chris Slesar, along with the Lewis Creek Association and the Monkton Conservation Commission, spear-headed an effort this past year to do something about the mortality of hundreds of migrating frogs and salamanders. Grants, plus a large number of organizations and citizens, provided the manpower and finances to construct two concrete culverts under a road in a location where the road separates the breeding pools of amphibians from their upland wintering grounds.

In the past, hundreds of migrating amphibians were killed in this location by automobiles during every spring and fall amphibian migration, and it is doubtful whether the population would have been able to sustain itself over time. (In the past month, 673 salamanders and 329 frogs have safely passed through the tunnel.  In addition, a few early migrators (16) have already started coming back up hill.) Hopefully, these will be the first of many such culverts in the Northeast. For further information on the Monkton underpasses, go to:  http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/2016/03/28/hundreds-saved-new-vermont-salamander-crossing/82336084/.  (photo:  spotted salamander)        

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.


White-tailed Deer’s Diet Changing With The Season

4-11-16  white-tailed deer 130

Being ruminants, white-tailed deer have a four-chambered stomach which allows them to digest a wide variety of food, including leaves, twigs, fruits and nuts, grass, corn, alfalfa, and even lichens and fungi.  Their stomach hosts a complex set of microbes – organisms such as bacteria, which are too small to be seen with the naked eye – that change as the deer’s diet changes through the seasons.

In general, the green leaves of growing plants are consumed in the spring and summer, while fruits and seeds are eaten as they become available. Hard mast foods, such as hickory nuts and acorns, are an extremely important component of fall and early winter diets when deer need to establish fat reserves. The buds and twigs of woody plants are a mainstay of their diet in winter.

At this time of year it is not unusual to see deer grazing in fields that are just starting to have a touch of green. Grass is a welcome change from their winter woody diet, but it only comprises a very small (less than 8%) of a deer’s overall diet, due to its low crude protein and digestibility. Because their rumen (the stomach chamber where most microbial fermentation takes place) is small relative to their body size, a white-tailed deer’s diet must be high in nutritive value and capable of being rapidly degraded in the rumen.  Therefore, white-tailed deer rely primarily on alfalfa, clover, beans and other legumes, additional herbaceous flowering plants, and browse, all of which have more protein and are more easily digested than grasses.

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.


Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Have Varied Diet

4-6-16 yellow-bellied sapsucker mael 471 Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are just starting to arrive on their northern breeding grounds.  As you might assume from their name, these birds feed on the sap of trees.  Their horizontal lines of drilled holes are a familiar sight, especially in trees such as paper birch, yellow birch, sugar maple, red maple and hickory, all of which have a high concentration of sugar in their sap.

In addition to sap, yellow-bellied sapsuckers also eats insects (primarily ants), and spiders, probing underneath bark to find them.  They’ve even been observed “hawking”– taking off from a branch and scooping up insects in the air.

Lesser known is the fact that sapsuckers also consume vegetation, including the inner bark and cambium layers of trees, the buds of trembling aspen, and a variety of fruits and seeds. The recent cold snap had the pictured male yellow-bellied sapsucker scarfing down crab apples before the sun set. (The next NC post will be on 4/11/15.)

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.

 


Effects of Cold Weather on Breeding Amphibians

4-5-16 peeper on snow IMG_7453 With spring peepers (pictured) and wood frogs just coming into voice, and some salamanders also having recently emerged from hibernation, there is concern for their welfare due to the erratic weather we are having.  According to Jim Andrews, Director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas, the effects of this meteorological fluctuation depend on the exact climatic conditions experienced, as well as the species affected.

Wood frogs and spring peepers, as stated in a recent post, are well equipped to survive the cold weather.  However, egg-laying has already taken place in some locations and if the eggs are exposed to the air, as opposed to being attached to a submerged branch or vegetation, and it’s cold enough, long enough, they will freeze.

Many of the mole salamanders, including spotted, Jefferson, and blue-spotted, are in the middle of migrating to or from their annual breeding pools.  Faced with freezing temperatures, they retreat temporarily into the leaf litter and thawed soil beneath, a sheltered environment where they spend all of their life except the breeding season.  An extended period of cold that freezes the ground would pose problems for these creatures, although Andrews has witnessed the survival of a blue-spotted salamander that sought shelter under rocks that were on top of frozen ground.

Many factors are involved in the effects of this phenomenon  – how warm it was before the cold spell arrived (long enough for hibernating amphibians to emerge?), how low temperatures go, how long it remains cold, the species of frog or salamander, and where it is in its breeding cycle.  The peeping and quacking we briefly enjoyed has been silenced, but not permanently and hopefully not for very long.

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.

 


Naturally Curious Blog Marks Sixth Year

4-4-16 NC blog-6 years NC 249Naturally Curious blog is six years old today, and the joy of sharing discoveries with readers has only grown over the years.  Comments, corrections, shared enthusiasm, new information, questions – all are appreciated.  Thank you so much for your loyal following.

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.

 


Mystery Photo

3-31-16 mystery photo1009Many of my posts are the result of a call from someone familiar with my “natural curiosity” as well as my need for five interesting subjects to photograph and write about each week.  A naturalist friend who shall remain anonymous (for reasons that will become apparent) sent me a photograph asking me to identify something he had discovered partially submerged, clinging to a rock in a freshwater pond several miles away.

I was unfamiliar with any invertebrate aquatic species that even vaguely resembled this organism, and immediately thought it would make a great “mystery photo” for my blog.  The only trouble was that I needed to know what species it was in order to solve the mystery for my readers the following day, so I knew that if it was possible I needed to see this creature for myself.

It was a stretch to hope that it would still be in the same location 24 hours later, but I felt it was worth the trip to this pond just in case luck was with me.  After getting specific directions to the location of the rock I visited the pond, and to my total delight the subject I was searching for was there, exactly where it had been seen the day before.   With a 400mm lens I was able to photograph it (after slipping knee-deep into the pond trying to get as close as I could to it).  Long story short, hoping beyond hope that this actually was a very rare, if not totally new, species, I took hundreds of pictures of it in an attempt to get its “tail” to show.  Strong winds caused tiny waves to wash over it every other second, making this quite difficult, but I persevered, and came home very excited to have achieved the unlikely accomplishment of having actually found and photographed this bizarre-looking creature.

Only after downloading and blowing up image after image did I realize that my wet feet were for naught… I spent several hours, considerable gas, over 1,000 photographs and got my feet soaked all for an algae-covered fishing lure, or something man-made, perhaps a spring of some sort.  Waking up this morning, I realized Mother Nature had royally succeeded in April fooling at least two naturalists, at least one of whom is feeling very humbled.

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.