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Archive for June, 2016

Naturally Curious Day by Day On Its Way to the Publisher

Cvr_NaturallyCurious_D2newtrimIn the interest of getting Naturally Curious Day by Day proofread in a timely manner, I decided to forego today’s post.  I’m glad to report that the book is now out of my hands and will be released by Stackpole Books this fall. (You can pre-order it at independent bookstores and online.) It consists of one to three natural history entries and accompanying photographs for each and every day of the year, many of which are parts of the past six years’ blog posts. Eventually it will be possible to take a look at the inside of the book online, but not quite yet. There will be a formal announcement when the book is released, but I wanted to explain the reason behind the lack of a natural history post today.


Young Green Frogs Absorbing Tails

6-30-16  green frog metamorphosing 183Generally speaking, green frog tadpoles that hatch early in the season will transform into frogs by mid-to late summer.  Tadpoles that hatch late are likely to overwinter in their ponds and metamorphose late the following spring or early in the summer. Thus, the Green Frogs you see now with both legs and a tail spent the winter as tadpoles and are maturing now.

A specific process called “apoptosis” occurs as the tail is absorbed by the frog.  It involves programmed cell death, and occurs in various forms in multicellular organisms.   Humans experience apoptosis throughout their lives.  It is responsible for the separation of fingers and toes in a developing embryo, as the cells between the digits undergo apoptosis and it is responsible for the death of between 50 and billion cells each day in the average human adult.  Once it has begun, apoptosis cannot stop, and thus is a highly regulated process.

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Young Striped Skunks Learning How To Fend For Themselves

6-28  young skunks2  267For the past six to eight weeks, young striped skunks have lived off their mother’s milk, but now the time has come for them to learn how to provide for themselves.  The mother teaches her four to eight young by taking them all out at night to learn how to forage for insects and small mammals.  Should you encounter one of these small, furry creatures, do not be fooled into thinking it is too young to spray.  Musk is present at birth, and can be released at the ripe old age of eight days.  (Thanks to Don Westover and Lou White for photo op)

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Luna Moths Emerging

6-27-16  luna moth 002June is giant silk moth month, when these giant-bodied/winged moths in the family Saturniidae emerge.  Perhaps the most familiar giant silk moth is the Luna Moth, Actias luna. One of the largest moths in North America, its wingspan measures 4 ½ inches.  If you see one of these beautiful creatures, you are witness to its very short adult  lifespan.  After emerging from their cocoons, Luna Moths live for only about a week, during which time their sole mission is to mate. Like many other ephemeral insects, adult Luna Moths have no mouthparts and thus, do not eat.

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Eastern Gray Treefrog

6-24-16  eastern gray treefrog 066

Congratulations to Naturally Curious readers for their familiarity with Eastern Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) toe pads!  This is the easiest time of year to find these amphibians, mainly because of their habits.  During the fall, winter and spring treefrogs are usually silent, unlike the summer, when males can be heard calling their melodic trill from bushes and trees near bodies of water after the evening air temperature rises above 59°F.  Because they are nocturnal, well camouflaged, and hibernate in the winter, you don’t often come across one except for the warmer months when males are calling.  The colors of an Eastern Gray Treefrog (brown, green and pearl-gray) vary with the colors of its background and environmental factors such as season and humidity, but shades of gray are most common.  Their green color is more prominent during the breeding season and in young frogs.

When hunting insects, or when disturbed, treefrogs can leap great distances and, thanks to advanced toe pads, when they land they can cling to practically any surface, including vertical branches and leaves that are wet. A very low angle between the toe pads and substrate as well as mucous glands located in channels between the hexagonal pattern on a treefrog’s toe pads have inspired the design for treads on car tires.

You can listen to an Eastern Gray Treefrog’s call by going to http://langelliott.com/calls-of-frogs-and-toads-of-the-northeast/   (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com)

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Mystery Photo

6-23-16  mystery photo 073Who is lurking behind the cattails?  Please respond under “Comments” (scroll down).  Answer will be revealed tomorrow.

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Fertile Fern Frond Spores Dispersing

 

6-23-16  FERTILE FRONDS - royal, interrupted, cinnamon, sensitiveFerns differ from flowering plants in that they reproduce via spores, not seeds. The spores are borne on what are called fertile fronds (leaves).  Ferns have two kinds of fronds, fertile and sterile. Sterile fronds lack spores, are green, and do most of the photosynthesizing.

The fertile part of a fern can be very similar to, or totally unlike, the sterile part, depending on the genus or species.  Some ferns have sori (tiny clusters of sporangia, which contain the spores), commonly referred to as “fruit dots,” on the back of the blade of their fertile fronds.  Wood ferns have this arrangement, and the two types of fronds (fertile and sterile) are so similar it’s hard to tell the fertile (spore-bearing) from the sterile fronds without looking at the backs of the fronds. Others, such as Christmas Ferns, bear their sori on just a portion of the frond (tips).  And still others, such as some of those pictured, have fertile fronds that are completely separate from the sterile fronds.

When the difference between the fertile and sterile fronds is noticeable, the plant is called “dimorphic”. In some ferns this dimorphism is extreme.  Cinnamon, Royal and Sensitive Ferns all have separate fertile fronds that are not green and only bear sporangia.  Interrupted Fern spores are borne in sporangia that appear in the middle of stalks that also bear green pinnae.  The spores of all of these species of ferns are currently maturing and dispersing, which can be observed by lightly tapping a fertile frond.

(The next Naturally Curious post will appear on Thursday, June 23rd .)

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Pitcher Plants Flowering

6-17-16  pitcher plant flower parts labeled 298Pitcher plants are known for their unique, insect-trapping leaves, but their flowers are just as unusual.  Their petals are a deep burgundy color and attract pollinating flies by looking like raw meat. The sepals, usually green structures that protect the bud and then become inconspicuous when the flower opens, are leathery and remain long after the petals fall off, well into winter.  The pistil, or female part of the flower, has a typical ovary at its base, where seeds are formed, but the style (stalk-like in most flowers) expands into a large, star-shaped umbrella. This umbrella becomes the lowest part of the flower as it droops downward in its early open stages and collects pollen that falls off of the anthers surrounding the ovary. The stigmas, where pollen must land in order for pollination to take place, are located on the five points of the star-shaped style, where visiting insects land.  A pitcher plant is designed to be pollinated by pollen stuck to the body of the insect before the insect descends onto the lower platform section of the style, where it crawls around gathering nectar, and inadvertently, pollen. (Photo:  Northern, or Purple Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia purpurea.)

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Damselfly or Dragonfly?

6-16-16  damselfy & dragonfly 178A visit to a pond will usually include sightings of dragonflies and the more delicate damselflies.  Both of these types of insects are in the order Odonata (Greek for “tooth,” referring to the serrated jaws of the adults).  They are separated into two suborders, due to their wing shapes and sizes. The wings of dragonflies differ in shape and size (hind wings are broader than forewings), whereas damselfly fore and hind wings are similar in shape, with the hind wings sometimes being smaller.

In addition to wing differences, damselflies have eyes that are separated by more than an eye’s width, whereas dragonfly eyes either touch or are separated by less than an eye’s width.  Damselflies are smaller and more slender than dragonflies and perch with their wings closed over their abdomens or held slightly spread.  Dragonflies at rest hold their wings out flat or downward.  In addition, dragonflies are more powerful and acrobatic in flight than damselflies.

Although these differences distinguish them, damselflies and dragonflies do have many similarities. Both are carnivorous, both spend most of their lives as aquatic larvae, and both lay their eggs in or near water.

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Green Frogs Mating & Laying Eggs

6-14-16  green frogs 008The loose banjo string call of the Green Frog is a familiar sound near wetlands this time of year.  Males (to the right in photo, with bright yellow throat) have been busy serenading females (to the left in photo, with white throat), in an attempt to breed with one.  Female Green Frogs select their mate, a choice which is based partially on the suitability of the male’s territory (underwater plants are a plus).  After inspecting several males’ territories at night, the female chooses one and slowly approaches him, turning to face away from him as their bodies come in contact.  External fertilization takes place as he clasps her while she lays her eggs (known as “amplexus”).

Unlike Wood Frog eggs that are laid in clumps, or Spring Peepers’ individually-laid eggs, Green Frog eggs are laid in a loose cluster that often floats on the water’s surface (see photo) or is draped on underwater plants.  Each cluster usually consists of 1,000 to 5,000 eggs that hatch in three to five days.  Females sometimes return to breed a second time with a different mate, in which case the second egg clutch is usually smaller, consisting of about 1,000 to 1,500 eggs.

The larval, or tadpole, stage of a Green Frog lasts from 3 to 22 months, which explains why you might have already seen large Green Frog tadpoles this summer.

(Outstanding theories were submitted on yesterday’s mystery. Be sure to read comments!)

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Forest Floor Mystery: Pellets? Old Scat? Cache?

6-15-16   bones 378

Lying at the base of a large Eastern Hemlock I recently found two piles of bleached bones.  One pile consisted of mostly vertebrae; the other pile had numerous tibias, humeri and ribs.  All were the appropriate size and shape to have come from several Eastern Chipmunk skeletons – at least four or five.   How did they end up in two distinct piles?

The lack of any fur indicated that regardless of how these bones came to be here, they were deposited quite a while ago.  The lack of any partial skulls or jaw bones and the large number of bones in each pile led me to believe that these were not the remains of two pellets that had been regurgitated by resident Barred Owls. No wild owl pellet I’ve ever dissected, including the large pellets cast by Snowy and Great Gray Owls, has contained even half this many bones, and most contained at least part of a jaw bone.

If not pellets, then scat?  How likely is it that a predator could catch and consume multiple chipmunks rapidly enough so that they would end up in the same pile of scat?  One feasible explanation could be that a fox, coyote or fisher preyed on young, inexperienced chipmunks, but the bones were adult-size bones.

Perhaps these two piles are the remains of a predator’s cache – perhaps a bobcat?

The possibilities are endless as to how this chipmunk graveyard came to be.  However, none of the theories proposed here can explain the dissimilarity between the types of bones in each pile.  If any naturally curious readers have insight into this phenomenon, your thoughts are welcome!

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Rosy Maple Moth Reproductive Cycle

6-13-16  rosy maple moth2  039

In today’s post, I inferred that further south a female Rosy Maple Moth mated more than once in a given summer.  I would like to suggest that this may not be the case. While a source I consulted stated that “for each new brood, rosy maple moth females find a different male,” the reproductive behavior of the Rosy Maple Moth is not well understood. Other sources infer that further south the larvae of the first brood mature and mate, producing a second brood, and that the second brood, at least in Florida, has time to mature, breed and produce a third brood before winter.  This would be the more typical reproductive life cycle of a moth, and while I cannot personally confirm that this is accurate, it seems more logical to me.


Rosy Maple Moths Emerging, Mating & Laying Eggs

6-13-16  rosy maple moth 059Rosy Maple Moths (Dryocampa rubicunda) are easy to recognize, with their pink and yellow woolly bodies, pink legs and pink antennae.  Many adults are emerging from their pupal cases now, having spent the winter underground as pupae. Once metamorphosis is complete, the adult moths lose no time in finding mates and laying eggs, not stopping to even eat.  These members of the family Saturniidae are most active during the first third of the night, reducing their body temperature and activity in the morning and afternoon.

Mating takes place at night on the underside of a leaf, and 24 hours later the female lays clusters of 10-30 eggs (a total of 150 – 200 eggs) on the underside of the leaves of the larvae’s host plants, most often maples and oaks.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae usually remain on the same tree throughout their larval stage.

Known as Green-striped Mapleworms, the larvae initially feed together, but become independent feeders as they age.  Mapleworms change color as they develop.  When young, most have black heads and yellow bodies, but with age their heads turns reddish-brown and their bodies assume a shade of green.

In New England there is only one brood per summer; further south, there are multiple broods.

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Nestling or Fledgling?

6-7-16  grackle fledgling 057We are at the time of year where finding a young bird on the ground is not unusual, and many well-meaning people assume that if a bird can’t fly, it has been abandoned by its parents.  While some of these birds may be young that have fallen out of their nest, the fledglings of many species spend as many as two to five days on the ground before they can fly any distance.  While they are on the ground, the birds are cared for and protected by their parents and are taught vital life skills (finding food, identifying predators, flying).  To deprive such a fledgling of this developmental stage by removing it from its parents is to lessen its chances of survival, so it’s behooves us to be able to tell whether or not a young bird belongs out of the nest or not.

If the young bird is nearly naked or covered with down, not quill feathers, or its eyes haven’t opened, it is obviously a nestling.  If you can’t find its nest, a berry basket in the vicinity of where you found it, suspended from a branch, is a good facsimile.  Birds have a poor sense of smell and very strong parental instincts and more often than not continue to care for their young after a disturbance, although it may be a few hours before they do so.  If, after several hours, there is no sign of a parent, a local museum or nature center should be able to direct you to a nearby wildlife rehabilitator.

Fledgling birds, birds that have voluntarily left their nest, are usually fully feathered and have a very short (one inch or so) tail.  They are able to walk, hop and flap, and they may attempt short flights.  You may not see them, but a parent or two is nearby, keeping an eye on them, feeding them and teaching them how to survive on their own (see insert).   These are the birds that humans often mistakenly “rescue.”  If you find a fledgling, it should be left alone or, at the most, placed in a nearby shrub. If possible, keep people and pets away so the parents will continue to care for it until it can fly. (Photos:  fledgling and attending adult Common Grackle)

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Wolf Spiders Closely Guarding Egg Sacs

5-24-16  wolf spider 008Spinnerets, located at the far end of a spider’s abdomen, serve as spigots through which silk is exuded, but they also have another function for some species of arachnids.  Female wolf spiders use their spinnerets to grasp their eggs sacs, enabling them to carry and guard their eggs until they hatch.   In order not to damage the eggs when she moves, the spider tilts her abdomen up slightly.  Catching prey with this added encumbrance and in this position must take great skill.  Once the wolf spider’s eggs hatch, the young climb up on top of the abdomen where they spend their first days before dispersing. (Nursery web spiders also carry their egg sacs with them, but clasp them with their jaws, or chelicerae, and small, leg-like appendages called pedipalps.)

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American Toad Eggs Hatching

6-3-16  toad tadpoles 036

American Toads lay their eggs in double strings (one from each ovary) which can be three or more feet long and may contain 4,000 – 8,000 eggs.  It doesn’t take long for toad eggs to hatch – just one week, or two at the most.  The gelatinous strings begin to disintegrate, and tiny, dark tadpoles are released into the water. If nothing untoward occurs, the tadpoles will attach themselves to underwater vegetation or their egg mass for a few days, and hang vertically with their heads up.

Many aquatic predators, including Eastern Newts, consume both American Toad eggs and tadpoles.  The pictured newt waited patiently nearby until tadpoles wiggled their way out of the gelatinous egg string and then immediately snatched and ate them. In another week toad tadpoles will be crowding the shallow shoreline water, and in two more weeks they’ll be metamorphosing into little toadlets.

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Ram’s-head Lady’s Slippers Flowering

6-6-7 ram's-head orchid 273

Because of the small size of its flower, the brevity of its flowering period, and its rarity (ranked critically imperiled or imperiled throughout its range in New England), Ram’s-Head Lady’s Slipper is notoriously hard to find.  Its preferred habitat is moist, mossy bogs, but it can also be found in mixed woods and uplands.  If you’re fortunate enough to set eyes on one of these orchids, the diminutive size and conical-shape of its flower, compared to other Cypripedium species (Yellow, Pink and Showy Lady’s Slippers), will be strikingly apparent.

The flowers (which appear only if the plant is at least four inches high) mature in mid-May to early June, often developing very rapidly and typically lasting only a week or so. The sepals, lateral petals, and particularly the lower lip, or labellum (pouch made of fused petals), produce a sweet odor to attract potential pollinators, such as small bees.   Once the flower is fertilized, the upper sepal lowers over the opening of the pouch (see insert), excluding additional visitors. Although individual plants can produce copious numbers of minute seeds, reproduction appears to be largely asexual via offshoots of parent plants.

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White-breasted Nuthatches Raising Young

6-10-16  -w.b.nut with food 133White-breasted Nuthatches maintain their pair bond throughout the year. In the spring, after mating, the female builds her nest, lining the tree cavity (natural or old woodpecker hole) with fur, bark, and lumps of dirt and then making a cup nest of grasses and bark inside the cavity.  She then lays her 5 – 9 eggs and incubates them for roughly two weeks, during which time the male brings her food.

After the eggs hatch, both parents provide their nestlings with food until they fledge.  Initially the female remains with the young, and the male brings food for both her and the nestlings.  His trips become more frequent during the first few days, starting at about 7 trips an hour and increasing to 13.  After three or four days the female also participates in food gathering, as much or more than the male.

The average day length in June is approximately 15 ½ hours.  At 26 deliveries/hour (13 per parent) that comes to a total of around 400 foraging trips a day for the majority of the 26 days before White-breasted Nuthatch nestlings fledge.  Impressive, especially when you consider that many of these trips involve not only delivering food but also removing the nestlings’ fecal sacs.

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Sea Lampreys Spawning In Connecticut River

e-eagle with sea lamprey 325Sea Lampreys aren’t a common sight, but an opportunity presented itself after this Bald Eagle “rowed” from the middle of the Connecticut River to the shore with its too-heavy-to-lift prey, ate a portion of it and flew to its nest with a slightly lighter load.  At first glance I thought it had captured a large snake, but closer inspection revealed that a three-to-five pound Sea Lamprey approaching 30 inches in length was clasped in the eagle’s talons!

Lampreys were accidentally introduced into the Great Lakes and Vermont’s Lake Champlain, where they became parasites of other fish due to being landlocked.  However, during the time the native Sea Lampreys are found in the Connecticut River, they are not parasitic. These fish are anadromous – they live as adults in the ocean (where they are parasitic) and return in May and June to spawn in fresh water.

Sea lamprey young spend three or four years as worm-like creatures burrowed in the soft mud of the Connecticut River.  When they reach five or six inches (which can take up to ten years), young lamprey head for the sea. The ocean-dwelling adults uses their round, rasping mouth – filled with concentric circles of teeth – to scrape a hole in the side of a host fish and feed on blood and body fluids before letting go. They weaken, but don’t kill, their hosts. After spending one to two years in salt water, Sea Lamprey head back to the closest freshwater stream or river, migrate upstream, cease feeding and spawn.  They never return to the ocean, as they die after mating and laying eggs.

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Rose Twisted Stalk Flowering

rosybells 084From above, you might mistake Rose Twisted Stalk (Streptopus lanceolatus), or Rosybells, for Solomon’s Seal or False Solomon’s Seal, but the alternate leaves and the zigzag stem quickly reveal its true identity.  This native member of the lily family has delicate, bell-shaped, pink flowers dangling underneath its leaves – one solitary flower opposite each leaf.  The “twisted stalk” in its common name refers to the long flower stalks, each of which is twisted, or bent, in the middle.  By July or August, these flowers, if fertilized, will have developed into red berries. (Thanks to Virginia Barlow for photo op.)

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Photographer Misnomer

My sincere apologies and gratitude to Sue Wetmore, who took today’s photograph of the mating Northern Watersnakes. Sue Elliott is also an extremely talented naturalist, but she did not take this picture!


Northern Watersnakes Mating

5-26-16  mating water snakes by Sue Elliott DSCN7482Active both day and night, Northern Watersnakes can be found basking near or swimming in ponds, rivers, lakes and marshes in the Northeast.  Late May through June is the peak of their mating season, when they engage in courtship rituals prior to mating.  Initially the male approaches a female side by side and rubs his body against hers, sometimes simultaneously using his chin to rub her head, neck or body.  When they are ready to mate, the male coils his tail around the female’s body and tail in an attempt to align his cloaca (single opening for digestive, reproductive, and urinary tracts) with hers.  Once that is accomplished he inserts one of his two hemipenes (penises) and releases sperm.  Four to six months later she gives birth to between 12 and 60 live snakes, each of which measures between six and twelve inches.  (Thanks and credit go to Sue Wetmore for this remarkable photograph.)

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