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Archive for July, 2016

Red-bellied Woodpeckers Sunning

7-20-16 male red-bellied adult 173Red-bellied Woodpeckers have extended their breeding range northward and westward over the last 50 years and are now breeding in northern New England.  Many are year-round residents here, while some individuals move further south during particularly harsh winters.  This range extension allows for observations not possible even 10 or 20 years ago.

While watching a Red-bellied Woodpecker this summer, I witnessed behavior I had never observed before.  The bird flew repeatedly to the same tree branch, flattened itself on the branch with its body facing the sun and then fanned its wings out while cocking its head, raising its crown feathers, opening its beak and appearing to look at the sun.  This behavior is common enough to have a name – the woodpecker was “sunning” itself.  While preening, stretching and calling often takes place intermittently while the bird is engaged in sunning, it may also enter a stupor or state of lethargy.   (Thanks to Cindy Lawrence for photo op.)

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American Caesar’s Mushroom Fruiting

7-19-16  American Caesar's mushroom 026At the risk of boring readers with a repeat post, I seem unable to come across an American Caesar’s Mushroom without photographing it and somehow justifying its worthiness as a Naturally Curious post, even in consecutive years (a practice I try to avoid). Simply put, the beauty of this non-flowering fungus rivals that of any flowering plant I can think of.

American Caesar’s Mushroom (Amanita jacksonii), a member of the Amanita genus found in New England, 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, leaving a remnant white cup, or volva, at its base.)

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Gypsy Moth Caterpillar Explosion

e-gypsy moth caterpillars 273The Gypsy Moth was introduced into the United States in 1869 by a French scientist living in Massachusetts. Since then its range has expanded to include the entire Northeast south to North Carolina and as far west as Minnesota and Iowa.  The consequence of the introduction of this insect is staggering.  According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, since 1980, the Gypsy Moth has defoliated close to a million or more forested acres each year. In 1981, a record 12.9 million acres were defoliated. This is an area larger than Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut combined.

The Gypsy Moth females lay their eggs, usually on host tree trunks, in late summer.  The eggs overwinter and hatch in the spring.  Gypsy Moth caterpillars feed on a variety of species of shrubs and trees, with White Oak being their preferred host, metamorphose, mate and repeat this process.   Usually their numbers are not overwhelming, but due to the weather conditions we’ve been experiencing, the caterpillar population has skyrocketed in some areas, especially in southern New England.

Conditions were very dry in parts of New England in May 2014 and May 2015, which impeded the growth of a certain kind of Japanese fungus (Entomophaga maimaiga) that keeps the Gypsy Moth caterpillar population under control. Without this fungus present to keep their numbers in check, Gypsy Moths have flourished.   Although there was some rain this spring, there were many areas that did not get enough to benefit the fungus, and in these areas, trees are now stripped of their leaves.  It is possible in places in southern New England to track the pattern of rainfall simply by looking at where trees are still in full leaf.  Fortunately, the time has come for Gypsy Moth caterpillars to pupate, so most of this year’s destruction has already occurred.  Here’s hoping for a rainy May next year.

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Common Loon Chicks Growing & Acquiring Survival Skills

7-13-16  common loon chicks2  361 A great deal of learning is packed into a Common Loon chick’s first week.   It learns to ride on its parents’ backs as well as crawl under their wings, a necessity due to its vulnerability, lack of maneuverability, inability to regulate its body temperature.  Communication skills are practiced, with soft “mewing” elicited when a chick is hungry or in need of attention.  The act of preening begins, and the chick successfully retrieves small fish and crayfish from its parents’ beaks.

By the second week, Common Loon chicks are still fluffy balls of down, but they molt a second time, after which they are a much lighter brown.   They dismount from their parents frequently and motor around under their own steam, usually staying very close to a parent.  By the time they are ten days old, their hitchhiking days are over for the most part, and they are on their own when it comes to getting from one place to another. The eleven-day-old Common Loon chicks pictured are just starting to make shallow dives at this point in their development, but still depend largely on meal delivery from their parents.  In another month, they’ll be catching most of their meals themselves, although their catches will be supplemented with food provided by the parents.  In two months their flight, as well as contour, feathers will have replaced their down feathers, and within a couple more weeks of that happening, they will be capable of flight.

(The next Naturally Curious post will be on 7/18/16.)

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All In A Day’s Post

beaver hauling food to lodge 245Every day I head out with the hope of finding something interesting enough to write about and share on my blog, and which I can also manage to photograph.  There are days when it happens within minutes, but typically it consumes the better part of half a day. I thought I would take this opportunity to try and convey the sensory experience of this endeavor by describing yesterday’s outing.

I arrive at the beaver pond late in the afternoon, hoping for a glimpse of the two beaver kits that have been seen here in recent days.  Hidden behind ferns and shaded by young white pines, I set up my tripod and camera and settle down, hoping my arrival has not been observed.  I am accompanied by Emma, my lab, who for 12 years has patiently sat by my side motionless as we waited for the expected and unexpected to present itself. The sun is close to disappearing behind the trees, but lingering light provides a warm glow to the pond.

Silence greets me, but not for long. There is no sign of beavers, but I am serenaded by a lone Hermit Thrush, bidding a sweet goodnight to the surrounding woods and all who reside therein.  Soon after the Hermit Thrush’s flute-like song ceases, a chorus of plunking Green Frogs starts up.  Still no beavers, but I hear a splash from a corner of the pond that is hidden from view, and out flies a Broad-winged Hawk, whose empty talons tell the tale of a failed attempt to catch a frog or other aquatic resident.  I suddenly hear the high-pitched whining of young beavers coming from within the lodge that is roughly 150 feet directly across the pond from where I sit. This often occurs when a parent leaves the lodge, so I am on high alert.  Cedar Waxwings appear, perching on snags and flying out over the pond to snatch insects from a recent hatch before returning to their perch.

The sun is all but gone as a lone adult beaver surfaces and heads to the far end of the pond.  As silently as possible I walk along the side of the pond until I hear the familiar sound of rodent incisors gnawing rapidly on wood.  There, at the shoreline, the beaver is cutting a branch off a limb of a sloping tree that is within its reach.  Soon the chewing stops and the beaver grasps the cut branch in its mouth and swims the length of the pond to the lodge where its young eagerly await a freshly-cut meal.  When it gets to within several feet of the lodge, the beaver silently disappears beneath the water and moments later is greeted with the exuberant, anticipatory whining of its offspring.  With luck, I may have captured more than one post’s photograph, but even if I haven’t, my ears and eyes (and soul) have reaped enormous benefit from the effort.

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Attracting Fruit-eating Birds

7-11-16  birds and oranges 519.jpgThere are many birds, such as waxwings, that have a frugivorous (strictly fruit-eating) diet.  The only time they usually expand their diet to include insects is during the breeding season, when growing hatchlings require high amounts of protein for proper development.  Others, such as orioles, show a marked preference for fruit but also eat significant quantities of other foods.  All of these birds play an important role by spreading fruit seeds to distant areas either by caching food or distributing the seeds through their droppings.

Bird lovers often put out seed to lure birds in for a closer look (a practice discouraged during the summer in black bear country), but there is an equally effective magnet for some species, and that is fruit. (Due to the high sugar content, little nutrition and potential bacteria growth in jelly, it may be best to provide fruit over jelly.) Grapes often attract Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings, Gray Catbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, House Finches and American Robins.  Raisins and currants (soaked in water overnight) appeal to Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and Eastern Towhees.  Species that find orange halves hard to resist include Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, Gray Catbirds and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.  (Photo: Gray Catbird (left), female Red-bellied Woodpecker (middle) and female Baltimore Oriole (right) enjoying breakfast at The House On The Hill Bed & Breakfast, Greenfield, MA.)

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Dogbane Beetles Emerging & Mating

7-8-16  dogbane beetle 283After feeding on Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) roots and overwintering underground, larval Dogbane Beetles pupate and emerge in early summer, shortly after the Dogbane plant for which they were named begins to flower.  It’s hard to miss these iridescent beetles as they gather to feed on Dogbane leaves (which are poisonous to many creatures, including humans, and can cause cardiac arrest). Soon after the adult beetles emerge from the soil , they mate, usually about once a day, frequently early in the day.  Males search for and choose females to mate with.  Dogbane beetles often have more than one mate, so after breeding, males ride on the backs of the females to guard them from other suitors (see photo insert).

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