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Archive for May, 2016

Canadian Tiger Swallowtails Puddling

swallowtails puddling 515Once in a while, if you are traveling on dirt roads, you may come across a cluster of butterflies in the road, such as the pictured Canadian Tiger Swallowtails, that are so engaged in what they are doing that you can approach them fairly closely.  The butterflies, predominantly males, have gathered to obtain salts and minerals that have leached from the soil into standing puddles and moist dirt. The act of acquiring nutrients in this manner is referred to as “puddling.”

Because butterflies do not have chewing mouthparts as adults, they must drink their meals. While nectar is their main source of nutrition, males often supplement their diet with these minerals. The sodium uptake aids in reproductive success, with the precious nutrients often transferred from the male to the female during mating. This extra nutrition helps ensure that the eggs survive.

Canadian and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are very similar, and their ranges overlap. To determine which you have seen, look at the underside of the butterfly’s forewing and see if the yellow band along the margin is solid (Canadian Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio canadensis), or if it is broken up into spots (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus).

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Changing of the Guard: Hairy Woodpeckers Sharing Parental Duties

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When their offspring are very young, Hairy Woodpeckers feed them by regurgitation.  As the nestlings mature, the parents bring food back to the nest.  Most species of birds (85%) engage in bi-parental care, where the male and female contribute equally to feeding and guarding their young.  Often the male does more of the food gathering and the female more of the brooding.

In some of these species the male and female both brood as well as gather food.  Hairy Woodpecker parents share these duties equally for the month that their young remain in their cavity nest.  They both brood their young, with males typically getting night duty, and both gather food for their nestlings.  Lawrence Kilham, a New Hampshire MD and ornithologist, found that male Hairy Woodpeckers foraged farther from the nest, made fewer feeding visits, and brought larger prey to nestlings, whereas females remained closer and fed young three to four times as frequently as males.  (Photo: female Hairy Woodpecker arriving with arachnid food, male about to depart. Thanks to Suzanne Weinberg for photo op.)

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Eastern Newts Dining On Hapless Dragonflies

eastern newt eating dragonfly 407Inevitably, as newly-emerged drying dragonflies and damselflies hang over the surface of the water on emergent vegetation, breezes blow and some of them lose their grip, falling into the water below.  At this stage, their bodies are soft and they are not capable of flight, which leaves them very vulnerable to aquatic predators such as Eastern Newts.  While amphibian eggs, aquatic insects, crustaceans, worms and small molluscs make up most of their diet, Eastern Newts are quick to make a meal of most invertebrates that end up in the water.

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Dragonflies Eclosing

5-26-16  dragonfly eclosing2  347 The sudden hot weather seems to have triggered a mass emergence of dragonflies and damselflies.  The emerging vegetation along the shores of ponds is covered with larval Odonates (members of the order of insects that includes dragonflies and damselflies) metamorphosing into adults.  The adults, still in the skin of their last larval stage, crawl out of the water, climb up vegetation, rocks, etc., and split the back of their larval skin.  The adult flips backwards out of this opening, hangs upside down and then grasps the vegetation and/or empty larval skin while as its abdomen is released.  The dragonfly hangs in the breeze while it pumps air into its body, sending liquid into its wings.

To appreciate this process called eclosion, compare the size of the wings in the photo insert (recently-emerged adult) with those in the larger photograph, which was taken twelve minutes after emergence.  Within a day or so the sheen on the newly-formed wings goes away, the dragonfly’s body hardens and colors start to appear.

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Large-flowered Trillium Flowering

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Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), also known as White Wake-Robin, is our largest and showiest species of trillium.  It can be found throughout New England’s rich woods, sometimes carpeting large expanses of the forest floor in May and June.  All species of trillium, as their name implies, have parts arranged in threes, or in multiples of three (petals, bracts, leaves, stamens, carpels).

Nectar, not fragrance, attracts long-tongued bumblebees to Large-flowered Trillium’s funnel-shaped blossoms.  Self-pollination occasionally occurs, aided by the fact that as the flowers age, their stigmas reflex downward and come in contact with the anthers.  The flowers are exceptionally long-lived, remaining open and fertile for two to three weeks.

When they first open, Large-flowered Trillium’s petals are white.  As the flowers age, they become pale to deep pink (see insert).  (There is also a pink form of Large-flowered Trillium which is pink from the time of opening.) The seeds that form are dispersed primarily by ants, but yellow jackets, harvestmen and white-tailed deer also contribute to their dispersal.  It takes two years for the seeds to germinate and once established, Large-flowered Trillium plants typically require seven to ten years in optimal conditions to reach flowering size.

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American Woodcock Eggs Hatching

woodcock 019Among ground-nesting birds in the Northeast,  the American Woodcock, also known as the Timberdoodle,  is one of the earliest to lay eggs – usually around mid- to late April.  The female shapes a shallow depression in the leaf litter and then incubates her eggs for about three weeks.  During this time, if she is sufficiently disturbed, the female will flush and feign injury.  She usually lands nearby, runs about with her tail spread, wings drooping and her body quivering, uttering a cat-like sound to distract potential predators.

Upon hatching, the precocial chicks are brooded until their down dries and then leave the nest, usually within hours of hatching.  For the first week or so they are dependent upon their mother feeding them, but soon are finding their own food.  In a little over a month, the chicks become completely independent. (Thanks to Susan Morse and Phillip Mulligan for photo op.)

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Horsetails & Scouring Rushes

5-20-16  equisetum044Horsetails and Scouring Rushes are in a primitive genus (Equisetum) of non-flowering plants.  Most of their stems are hollow and have distinct nodes, or swollen areas, where branches are sometimes attached.  Both stems and branches have vertical ridges and grooves.  Silica, embedded in the ridge tissue, led to the stems being used to scour pans as well as an abrasive for burnishing brass and finishing violins.

Equisetum leaves are barely recognizable as leaves – these pointed structures fuse into small sheaths surrounding each node.  A spore-bearing cone forms at the tip of the fertile stems.  If you look closely you will see that hexagonal plates (modified leaves) cover the surface of the cone.  Underneath these plates are the sporangia, in which spores are produced.  Upon maturation of the cone, the sporangia expand, split open and release their spores. (photo: Variegated Scouring Rush,Equisetum variegatum )

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American Bitterns Foraging

American bittern and tadpole 347American Bitterns are typically solitary foragers.  You rarely see more than one at a time (if you’re lucky enough to see one) stealthily standing in place, or slowly walking, as it looks for insects, amphibians (frogs, tadpoles (pictured) and salamanders), small fish, mammals (mostly meadow voles), crayfish and small snakes to eat.  This solitary feeder’s cryptic coloration, especially the stripes on its breast and belly, is thought to function mostly to reduce visibility to prey and competitors rather than to predators.  With lightning speed a bittern seizes its prey and swallows it head first . Roughly twenty-two hours after eating, a bittern ejects the indigestible part of its meal in the form of a pellet.

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Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetles Mating

twelve-spotted tiger beetles  137 As their name implies, all species of tiger beetles are ferocious predators.  They are equipped with huge eyes, large three-toothed mandibles that crisscross at their tips and the ability to move very fast . Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetles (Cicindela duodecimguttata) are usually found in open, sandy spots, where their larvae can dig and live in burrows.  Adult tiger beetles use their formidable mandibles to masticate their prey and then squeeze the bits and drink the resulting liquid.

In May and June, whenever they are not ambushing prey, Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetles are concentrating on reproducing, as the “menage a trois” photo illustrates.

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Miterwort Flowering

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Miterwort (Mitella diphylla), also called Bishop’s Cap, is named for the resemblance of its two-peaked fruits to the hats (known as miters) worn by bishops of the Roman Catholic Church.  This spring wildflower produces miniature five-pointed snowflake flowers that beg to be examined with a hand lens.

Gnats, small bees and syrphid flies all seek out Miterwort for its nectar. Because its nectaries are located just below the stamens, the flower is pollinated by the mouthparts of the pollinators which brush against the stamens when collecting nectar and the inadvertently-gathered pollen is transported to other Miterworts.  Predators such as the Goldenrod Crab Spider (pictured) know that potential meals are plentiful near these delicate flowers.

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Spotted Salamander Larvae Soon To Emerge From Eggs

spotted salamander eggs2  040Roughly a month after spotted salamanders participate in frenzied courtship dances, deposit spermatophores (males) and take the spermatophores into their bodies (females), the resulting eggs have developed into larvae.  These juvenile, gilled salamanders are still contained inside the gelatinous eggs, but the eggs are dissolving fast, and the larvae will soon be swimming free within the vernal pools where the eggs were laid.

Many spotted salamander larvae do not survive this long.  Eastern newts, caddisfly larvae, leeches, fly larvae and even turtles feed on the nutritious eggs.  Meteorological conditions also contribute to the fate of spotted salamander eggs.  Their situation is especially precarious because they develop in vernal pools, which often dry up by summer’s end, thus forcing a rapid metamorphosis for amphibious inhabitants.  Hot temperatures can evaporate the water before metamorphosis is completed, and cool temperatures can slow down their development.  Inevitably some will survive to adulthood, and  the inch-and-a-half to two-inch salamanders (see insert photo), having shed their gills and developed lungs, will adapt to a terrestrial life.

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Spring Azures Mating

5-12-16  spring azures mating 074Every spring tiny, delicate blue butterflies known as Spring Azures (Celastrina ladon) are one of the first butterflies one sees.  Your impression of this butterfly depends on the angle from which you view it.  From above, the wings are a bright, pale blue (females’ have a dark border).  From beneath, the wings are very pale and lightly marked with brown speckling.  Thus, at rest or mating (as pictured) with wings folded vertically, they are not as startling to the eye as when they are seen flying.

After spending the winter as pupa, encased within a chrysalis, the adult emerges, mates and the females lay eggs.  The larva, or caterpillar, is slug-shaped, and is tended by ants which stimulate it to excrete a clear greenish “honeydew” which they consume.  (It is thought that the ants discourage parasitism by wasps and flies.)

At one time all North American azures were considered to be one species but now they have been identified as several different, but very similar, species collectively referred to as the “Spring Azure complex.”

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Young Otters Just Beginning to Explore Outside Their Den

e-river otter 125Between February and April, female North American River Otters give birth to an average of two or three young inside their dens, which tend to be near water, usually in an excavated cavity under tree roots, logs or thickets.  Occasionally they have been known to give birth in abandoned beaver and muskrat lodges as well as woodchuck burrows.  The mother doesn’t allow her young to exit their den until they are three or four months old, which, for the oldest litters, is in May.  At this point, after their waterproof adult coats have grown in, she begins to teach them how to swim (surprisingly, this skill is not innate). The mother continues to be very protective and secretive, hiding and shielding the young (even from their father) until they are about six month old.  Thus, glimpses of young otters are not likely to be had until late summer, and only then if you’re lucky. (Photo: adult river otter. Thanks to Heidi Marcotte and Tom Wetmore for photo op.)

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Wild Turkey Hens On Eggs

wild turkey nest 238

This is what a typical Wild Turkey’s nest looks like – anywhere from 4 to 17 eggs in a shallow depression in the ground.  Sometimes, however, turkeys engage in a practice referred to as “egg dumping.” A hen turkey comes along and lays a few eggs in several other turkeys’ nests, in an effort to maximize the number of her offspring that will survive.  Up to 26 eggs have been found in a single Wild Turkey nest.  The hen turkey that built the nest doesn’t reject the additional eggs, but rather, welcomes them to her brood, incubates them and treats them as her own.  All of the precocial chicks are out of the nest within 24 hours of hatching and follow the hen, who feeds them for a few days until they learn to find food on their own.

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Snapping Turtles Mating

jim bloc-snappers mating ct156p-snapping-turtles

Although Snapping Turtles may mate any time between April and November, much breeding activity takes place during April and May. Snapping Turtle mating appears fairly aggressive, with the male chasing the female, grasping the posterior end of her carapace and then mounting her.  He holds on to the edges of her shell with all four legs, often biting her head and neck while he inseminates her.

The female Snapping Turtle can keep sperm viable in her body for several  months (and perhaps years).  Thus, there can be multiple paternity in egg clutches and it may even be  possible that a female’s eggs are fertilized in years when she does not mate.  (Thanks to Jim Block for photo.  To see a photo series of Snapping Turtles mating (and many other very fine nature photographs), go to http://www.jimblockphoto.com/2010/04/snapping-turtles/)

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Shadbush/Serviceberry/Juneberry Flowering

5-13-16 shadbush 028Botanists rely on the use of scientific names for plants in part because a given plant may have more than one common name, depending on what part of the country you find it in.  Using a plant’s genus and species eliminates any confusion or misidentification.  Shadbush is a perfect example of this.  There are many species of Amelanchier, but one that is common in the Northeast,  Amelanchier canadensis, has a minimum of eleven common names:  Canadian Serviceberry, Chuckleberry, Currant-tree, Juneberry, Shadblow Serviceberry, Shadblow, Shadbush, Eastern Shadbush, Shadbush Serviceberry, Sugarplum and Thicket Serviceberry.  Because it flowers around the same time as shad return to their spawning grounds, I lean towards the use of a common name that incorporates this saltwater-living, fresh water-spawning fish.

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The Ubiquitous Yellow-rumped Warbler

5-6-16 yellow-rumped warbler 031The Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), formerly referred to as a Myrtle Warbler, is not hard to find during its migration due to the large numbers that pass through (as well as stay to breed in) central and northern New England.  These tiny jewels, also known as “butter-butts” because of their bright yellow rumps, are common and widespread.

Yellow-rumps are known for the diversity of their feeding techniques as well as their diet.  You are as likely to find them clinging to a tree, probing under bark or foliage gleaning for insects as you are finding them taking short bursts of flight off of a branch to snag an insect in the air.  These warblers are insect-eaters during the summer and consume a large amount of fruit during the winter.  Their ability to digest the waxes in bayberries makes them unique among warblers, and allows populations to winter along the coast as far north as Nova Scotia.

The presence of “pantaloons” on this image of a male Yellow-rumped Warbler may be due to courtship behavior.  Males hop from perch to perch, fluff out their feathers, raise their wings, erect their crown-feathers, and continuously chip in an effort to attract a female.

Should you choose to use your ears to locate this coniferous forest-loving warbler, its song can be heard at http://musicofnature.com/mary-holland/yellow-rumped-warbler/ . (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com)

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Wild Ginger Hedges Its Bets When It Comes To Pollination

5-2-16  wild ginger 020Flowers that have limited opportunity to attract pollinating insects, such as those that mature very early in the spring, often are self-fertile – they can produce seeds without the benefit of pollinators.  Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is a perfect example of this.

Wild Ginger has six inner stamens and six outer stamens, all of which produce pollen.  In a newly-opened flower, all of these stamens lie flat against the “floor” of the flower.  When the stamens are in this position, pollination is achieved by insects (often flies or beetles attracted to its rotten meat coloring and scent) as the pollen cannot reach the receptive stigma on its own.  Wild Ginger hedges its bets, however.  Whether or not pollination occurs early in its development, later in the life of the flower both inner and outer stamens move into an upright position, thereby moving closer to the stigma.  Because the flower is oriented downward, this change in the position of the stamens allows for the pollen to fall onto the stigma, thereby accomplishing self-pollination.  With or without pollinators, Wild Ginger succeeds in producing seeds.

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Red Fox Kits’ Hierarchy Established

red fox kits  IMG_2123An average Red Fox litter consists of five young.  For about three and a half months, an underground den is the center of their universe.  While the first month or so is spent inside the burrow, the kits spend much of the next two to three months above ground in the vicinity of the den.  At about four weeks of age, the young foxes establish hierarchy, which involves much out-of-sight altercation.  By the time they are stepping foot outside their den for the first time and we are setting eyes on them, each kit has its place in the dominance hierarchy and peace has returned to the kingdom.  Aggressiveness has turned into the playfulness and comradery we associate with young foxes.

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Bald Eagles Tending Young Eaglets

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In the Northeast, Bald Eagle eggs are hatching and the heads of the one-to-three chicks can be seen bobbing up and down, anxiously begging for a tidbit of food from one of their parents.  For the first two or three weeks, their mother stays with them 90 percent of the time, keeping them warm and tearing food brought by their father into little pieces that she feeds to her chicks.  Eventually food-gathering is shared equally between the parents, and is usually sufficient to produce a weight gain of 3 ½  ounces a day for male chicks, and 4 ½ ounces per day for the female chicks. (Female raptors are typically larger than the males.)  The chicks in these photos are approximately two weeks old and are covered with their darker, second coat of down, which comes in when they are a little over a week old.

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Dutchman’s Breeches Flowering

5-6-16 Dutchman's Breeches IMG_9223

How incongruous that a spring ephemeral as beautiful as Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is extremely debilitating to any cow that eats it.  The most common bovine symptom of poisoning by Dutchman’s Breeches is a staggering gait (it’s referred to as “staggerweed” by some farmers) and a decrease in milk production.  However, according to the Veterinary Medicine Library at the University of Illinois, there are far more severe symptoms. “Experimental feeding of these plants to steers caused sudden trembling which increased in severity, frothing of the mouth, ejection of partially digested stomach contents, and convulsions. The eyes became glassy, and the animals went down and moaned as if in pain.”  Certainly this is a plant one should admire and experience visually, not gastronomically.

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