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Archive for September, 2016

Netted Stinkhorns Maturing

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If you should detect an odor reminiscent of a decomposing carcass, it may well come from the spores of Netted Stinkhorn (Dictyophora duplicata) – the slimy, olive-green matter on the head, or top portion, of the fungus. When mature, the spores have a fetid odor which successfully lures insects, especially flies, to the fruiting body of this fungus. Some of the spores stick to the legs and mouth parts of the flies. Eventually the flies land on some real rotting material and the spores are transferred to a substrate they can grow on. Although it’s not too discernible in this photograph, Netted Stinkhorns derive their name from a fishnet-like veil, or skirt, below the head of the fungus.

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Chinese Chestnut To The Rescue

9-28-16-chinese-chestnutThe American Chestnut was the predominant tree species in the eastern forests prior to the early 1900’s. It was a primary source of lumber, as well as the primary food source tree for White-tailed Deer, Black Bears, Wild Turkeys, and Red and Gray Squirrels. The chestnut forest could produce 2,000 pounds of mast or more per acre. Chestnuts were the favored food in the fall for game, because the sweet tasting nuts were high in protein and carbohydrates and had no bitter tasting tannins like acorns.

In the early 1900’s, the importation of Chinese and Japanese Chestnut trees to North America introduced chestnut blight, a fungus to which American Chestnut trees were nonresistant. It is estimated that between three and four billion American Chestnut trees were destroyed in the first half of the 20th century. Today saplings can be found, but full-size American Chestnuts within their historical range are few and far between.

If you come across a tree that has American Beech-like leaves (both Chinese and American Chestnut are members of the Beech family), and bears fruit covered with spines, it could very well be a Chinese Chestnut. While its leaves and fruit are very similar to those of the American Chestnut, Chinese Chestnut is blight resistant.   Its shrubby growth, however, is not desirable, so researchers have developed a hybrid chestnut that has the blight resistance of the Chinese Chestnut with all of its other traits (including height and girth) coming from the American Chestnut. (15/16ths American and 1/16th Chinese). Humans, as well as deer, turkeys, bears and squirrels, will reap the benefit of this research.

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Beavers Especially Vulnerable

9-28-16-coyote-and-beaver-20160927_3275Little did I know when I wrote yesterday’s post about the silver lining of our low water levels that I would so quickly encounter another predator benefiting from the current drought. I have spent a considerable amount of time this summer watching three generations of beavers do their best to survive as their pond proceeded to diminish to the point of exposing one of their lodge entrances and confining them to an increasingly small body of water. The underwater entrances to a beaver lodge are vital to their protection, and predators are well aware of this.

Yesterday the importance of water as a protective barrier was made very clear to me when a coyote appeared on the opposite shore of the beaver pond from where I sat. It stood for several seconds exactly where the beavers leave the pond on their way to nearby woods to cut poplars and birches which they haul back to their pond to eat. A well-worn trail marks the spot. You could imagine the coyote, upon surveying the shallowness of the pond, telling itself to be patient, as better days were just around the corner.

Moments after the coyote left, the mother beaver got out of the pond precisely where the coyote had been standing and took a few steps before sniffing the ground and then the air (see insert). Being nocturnal, beavers have an acute sense of smell which they use for detecting danger, food and for communication with each other. It took mere seconds for the beaver to detect the scent of the coyote, at which point she turned and sought refuge in the dwindling amount of water remaining around her lodge.  May the heavens open up soon.

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Silver Lining to Low Water Levels

9-27-great-blue-heron-20160911_7746The low water level of most small ponds and streams this fall has at least one silver lining, and that is that consumers of fish and other aquatic creatures expend far less energy finding prey, for it is all concentrated in much smaller bodies of water. The few puddles of water in small streams contain a vast amount of life, as do small ponds.

The Great Blue Heron has the advantage of having a varied diet that is found in a variety of habitats, so it forages in grasslands, marshes, intertidal beaches, riverbanks and ponds. While amphibians, invertebrates, reptiles, mammals, and birds are all known to have been eaten by Great Blue Herons, fish are their mainstay. They often forage in ponds, where they typically wade or stand in wait of prey in shallow water, which has not been in short supply this summer and fall. While the low water level is wreaking havoc with beavers and muskrats, it provides bountiful fuel for herons, egrets, kingfishers and other birds that forage in small ponds and streams as they wend their way southward.

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Maple Leafcutting Moths

9-26-16-maple-leafcutting-moth-larva-20160910_7437Have you ever noticed one or more oval-shaped holes in a Sugar Maple leaf and wondered how they got there? These leaf particles were cut out by the larva of a Maple Leafcutter Moth. Emerging in June from the ground where it overwintered as a pupa, the metallic blue adult moths mate and females lay eggs, mainly on Sugar Maple leaves, but also occasionally on other maples, birches, American Beech and other hardwoods. When the eggs hatch, the larvae make small lines in the leaf, as they mine for food in between the upper and lower surfaces of the leaf for the first two or three weeks of their lives.

As summer progresses, the growing larva moves to the surface of the leaf and begins cutting small oval-shaped pieces of the leaf and using them as shelter. It constructs portable cases, fastening the leaf disks together with silk. The larva resides inside this case, with its head poking out far enough to feed on a leaf. If you see holes in a leaf, you will probably also see small brown rings with green centers created as the larva feeds around the edges of its case. Sometimes the center of these feeding rings fall out, also leaving oval holes in the leaf.

As the Maple Leafcutter larva grows, it molts and after each molt it cuts new, larger disks from the leaf to add to its case. By the end of the summer, the case consists of multiple leaf disks. In September, the moth larva drops or crawls down the trunk of the tree to the ground, spins a cocoon and pupates.

Maple Leafcutter Moths can cause browning of foliage, usually in scattered small areas. Occasionally extensive areas are hit hard (during the mid-1970’s approximately 40,000 acres were affected in Vermont) but research shows that three years of complete defoliation by this insect are required to significantly reduce the starch content of maple roots (an indication of physiological stress).

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Female Sumac Gall Aphids Leaving Galls & Heading For Moss

9-22-16-red-pouch-gall-20160916_0115The sac-like galls found on Staghorn and Smooth Sumac are anywhere from marble- to ping pong ball-size, and usually become obvious in late summer when they often acquire a rosy pink blush. Inside the thin walls of these galls is one big hollow cavity, teeming with tiny orange woolly aphids (Melaphis rhois) referred to as Sumac Gall Aphids.

In the spring, female aphids lay an egg on the underside of a sumac leaf, causing the plant to form an abnormal growth, or gall, around the egg.   The egg hatches and the aphid reproduces asexually within the gall. Thus, all the aphids inside the gall are identical clones of one another. In late summer or early fall, the winged females fly to patches of moss, where they establish asexually reproducing colonies. At some point these clonal colonies produce males and females which mate and it’s these mated females that fly off to lay eggs on sumac leaves in the spring.

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Corrected Site Address for Video of Green Heron Using Bait to Catch Fish

9-22-16-green-heron-fish-20160921_1988My apologies!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Porp5v5lLKk


Green Herons Migrating

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Green Herons (Butorides virescens) are small, crested, wading birds that inhabit wetland thickets throughout most of North America. After breeding, most tend to wander to more favorable foraging areas before migrating south to Florida, Central and South America. Migration begins in late August/early September and by mid-October, most Green Herons have departed.

Green Herons are among the few species of birds that use tools in order to lure fish to within their striking distance. Bread, mayflies, twigs, leaves, berries, earthworms and feathers are among the lures they have been observed dropping into the water as bait. To watch a video of a persistent and successful Green Heron fishing with a lure, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Porp5v5lLKk .

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Greater Fritillaries

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There is a group of butterflies known as greater fritillaries, or silverspots (their underwings often have multiple silver spots). Three species of greater fritillaries can be found in the Northeast: Great Spangled, Atlantis and Aphrodite. All three are similar in appearance, with differences so subtle that the butterfly in a Naturally Curious post last month was mis-identified as a Great Spangled Fritillary, when it was actually an Atlantis Fritillary. Thanks to a sharp-eyed reader, Sue Elliott, this was brought to my attention. If you can approach a fritillary close enough to see the color of its eye, identification is a snap! Great Spangled Fritillaries have amber-colored eyes, Atlantis Fritillaries have blue-gray eyes, and Aprhrodite Fritillaries have yellow-green eyes. Can you identify the two species of fritillaries that are pictured? (Upper right, on thistle – Great Spangled Fritillary; main photo, on Joe-Pye Weed – Atlantis Fritillary)

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Kit & Yearling

e-kit-and-yearling-20160919_0943For size comparison, here is one more photo of a beaver kit (left) and a yearling (right), who is about 2/3’s the size of a full grown adult.


Beaver Kits Out & About

9-20-16-beaver-kit-20160919_0902Last January or February beavers mated (in the water) and in May or June gave birth to 1 – 9 (average 2 – 4) precocial kits. Young beavers are born fully furred, their eyes are open and their incisors are visible. Within four days they are able to swim, but it’s usually a month or more before they are seen outside the lodge. Part of the reason for this is their buoyancy, which prevents them from diving down through the tunnel to get out of the lodge. By the age of two months they are able to submerge themselves and they have begun grooming the water-repelling secretions of their anal glands onto their fur, so they are fully water-repellent. They are ready for their semi-aquatic life.  Sometime between two and three months is when they are often first observed by humans — usually in late August or September you can see three generations of beavers in an active pond.

When they are three days old, kits begin to eat vegetation brought to them inside the lodge by their parents and year-old siblings. By the time they are two months old, they are weaned. The three-month-old kit pictured (measuring about a foot from head to base of tail) is able to debark a twig as deftly as its parents.

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Praying Mantises Mating & Laying Eggs

9-18-16-praying-mantis-laying-eggs-by-ba-reaIn the fall, after mating, the female praying mantis lays up to 400 eggs in a frothy foam; together the eggs and the foam they are encased in are called an ootheca. This one to two-inch long mass is attached to vegetation, usually about a foot or two off the ground. Eventually the frothy structure hardens, providing a protective case for the eggs.

In the spring, miniature (wingless) mantises, called nymphs, will hatch from this egg case. When hatching, the nymphs appear all at once, crawling from between tiny flaps in the case and then hanging from silk threads about two inches below the case. They are identical to adult mantises, except that they lack wings. Within an hour or two, after drying out, they disappear into nearby vegetation.

A  video of a praying mantis laying her eggs and of the young mantises hatching can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1K2BPg7iNZA .

Thanks to Ba Rea, of Bas Relief Publishing (http://basrelief.org/ ) for the use of her West Virginian egg-laying mantis photograph.

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New Children’s Book

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Can you smell with your feet? Do you dig your claws into a river’s muddy bank to climb up and bask in the sun? Animals’ legs are different from humans’ in so many ways! Find out why strong talons suit a raptor, or webbing is perfect for water dwellers as author Mary Holland continues her photographic Animal Anatomy and Adaptations children’s series by exploring the ways insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals make their way in the world.       Arbordale Publishers

The third book in my animal adaptation children’s series (ANIMAL EYES and ANIMAL MOUTHS are the first two) has just been released. ANIMAL LEGS explores how different animal feet and legs are adapted to perform different tasks. Moles, praying mantises, ruffed grouse and many other animals are featured. Each animal’s text and accompanying photograph is spread over two pages. Activities are included in a special “For Creative Minds” section at the end of the book. ANIMAL LEGS is geared to 4 to 8 year-olds.

To order a paperback, hard cover, or a Spanish edition from the publisher, you can go to my blog, http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com.    Scroll down and on the right, click on the cover image (of any book) you wish to purchase. These books are also available in bookstores and online.

 

 

 


Peak of Broad-winged Hawk Migration

9-14-16-broad-winged-hawk2-037We are currently at the peak of the Broad-winged Hawk fall migration, an annual event that birders look forward to with great anticipation. These birds are gregarious, often migrating in flocks or groups called “kettles” that range from several individuals to many thousands of birds. In New England in mid-September it’s possible to see 10,000 Broad-winged Hawks a day at a hawk watch site; near the Great Lakes, 50,000 a day and Texas hawk-watchers have been known to see 300,000 to 500,000 a day.

Broad-wings depend more on thermals, rising columns of warm air, during their migration than most raptors. They don’t usually begin flying until mid-morning, by which time the sun has created thermals, and they stop flying as soon as thermal production ceases in later afternoon. During the day kettles can be seen circling around and around, higher and higher as they ride thermal columns of air upwards, peeling off at the apex and soaring (saving energy other migrating hawks use flapping their wings) southwards towards their wintering grounds.

To find hawk watch sites in your part of the world, go to the  Hawk Migration Association (http://www.hmana.org/hawk-watch-sites/).

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Snapping Turtles & Duckweed

9-14-16-snapping-turtle-20160912_8749Duckweed (Wolfia sp.), a free-floating aquatic plant  that possesses flowers which are said to be the smallest flowers in the world, is coating our mystery creature. The presence of this plant can indicate that there are too many nutrients in the water, especially nitrate and phosphate.  On the plus side, Duckweed provides waterfowl, juvenile fish and other wildlife (including humans in Southeast Asia) with a protein-rich (40%) food.

Under this green coating is a Snapping Turtle, one of the largest freshwater turtles in North America. Most often encountered in June, when females leave their ponds to lay eggs, Snapping Turtles are infrequently observed at other times of the year. This is primarily due to their crepuscular and nocturnal habits as well as their tendency to spend a lot of time under water feeding on plants, insects, fish, frogs, small turtles, young waterfowl, and crayfish.

Found in most ponds, marshes, streams and rivers, Snapping Turtles are not aggressive towards humans. Their size is impressive (a full-grown Snapping Turtle’s top shell, or carapace, can measure up to 20 inches in length) but they shy away from human disturbance. Miniature versions with one-inch long carapaces can be seen this month as the young Snappers crawl up out of their subterranean nests after hatching from eggs laid in June and head for the nearest water.

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Mystery Photo

9-14-16-mystery-photo2-20160912_8791Amphibian? Reptile? Loch Ness Monster? Please post your answer to this mystery photo under “Comments” Answer will be posted tomorrow!

(Apologies for no post yesterday – no Internet access due to fiber-optic issue.)

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Waterfowl In Eclipse Plumage

9-9-16-revised-wood-duck-eclipse-20160904_3910Most ducks shed their body feathers twice each year. Nearly all drakes lose their bright plumage after mating, and for a few weeks resemble females. This hen-like appearance is called the eclipse plumage and provides drakes with the ability to camouflage themselves. The necessity for waterfowl not to be seen by predators at this time is great, for this is when ducks undergo a “simultaneous” wing molt – losing all their wing feathers at the same time. It takes a month or so to replace these feathers, and during this time they are completely flightless. As soon as drakes can fly again in late summer, they begin a second molt and gradually develop their breeding plumage as fall progresses.

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Crab Spiders Well Camouflaged

9-8-16-crab-spider-20160822_0529Some say crab spiders derived their common name from the way in which they move sideways like a crab. Others liken their first two (longer) pairs of legs to those of crabs. Still others feel their short, wide, flat bodies resemble those of crabs. Whatever the source of their name, this group of spiders consists of ambush predators. Instead of stalking their prey, or catching them in a silk web, crab spiders tend to stay put (often on flowers), and blend into the background as much as possible in order to pounce on unsuspecting prey.

In order to meet with success, crab spiders camouflage themselves extremely well. Some resemble bird droppings, while others look like fruits, leaves, grass, or flowers. The Goldenrod Crab Spider, a fairly common white or yellow crab spider with pink markings, is capable of changing its color from white to yellow over a period of days, depending on the color of the flower it is on. (Crab spiders often remain in the same location for days and even weeks.) The likeness of the pictured crab spider to one of the Turtlehead’s buds is surely not coincidental.

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Great Blue Herons Cooling Off

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Birds have a number of ways of keeping cool. They don’t sweat, nor do they pant, but birds do have several behavioral adaptations which reduce their temperature. Often nestlings that are exposed to the relentless heat of the sun for long periods of time, such as platform-nesting raptors and herons, resort to what is called gular fluttering. They open their beaks and “flutter” their neck muscles, promoting heat loss – an avian version of panting.

Another avian strategy for cooling off is demonstrated by this adult Great Blue Heron — that of arranging its wings in a certain position in order to reduce its body heat.  Great Blue Herons droop their wings while standing, which allows air to circulate across their body and sweep away the excess heat.

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Milkweed Tussock Moths

9-6-16  milkweed tussock moth larvae 20160830_1764Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars are responsible for eating all portions of milkweed leaves but the largest veins that contain sticky latex. They can tolerate the cardiac glycosides within the milkweed plant that are toxic to most other insects as well as certain mammals and birds. Like Monarchs, these caterpillars retain the toxic compounds as adults, and are therefore avoided by many predators.

Female Milkweed Tussock Moths lay their eggs in masses on the underside of milkweed and dogbane leaves, which their larvae will eat. The hatching caterpillars are gray and hairy, but in no time they have developed the tufts of hairs that give them their name. When fairly young, the larvae tend to stay together, skeletonizing the leaves they consume. As they mature, the caterpillars tend to wander, and it’s unusual to find large groups of them on a single leaf.

Many of the insects that feed on milkweed have orange and black patterns as both larvae and adults. These colors serve as a warning to would-be predators. One of the adult Milkweed Tussock Moth’s main predators is bats. While the moth possesses these colors during its larval stage, as a pale brown adult (the stage that nocturnal bats prey on them) it lacks the bright coloration (which would provide little protection in the dark) but has an organ that emits an ultrasonic signal easily detected by bats. The signal warns that an attack will be rewarded with a toxic and distasteful meal, thereby deterring predation.

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Mystery Photo

9-5-16  MYSTERY PHOTO - milkweed 20160830_1767Several species of insects feed on the leaves, pods and seeds of Common Milkweed, even though the cardiac glycosides they contain are toxic to many animals. One such species is known for its habit of skeletonizing the leaves of  milkweed plants (see top of plant in photo), leaving only the largest veins. Do you know what insect is responsible for this diagnostic behavior? Please submit answers under “Comments.”

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Green-capped Jelly Babies Fruiting

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Typically found growing in clusters, this diminutive fungus, Leotia viscosa, stands between one and three inches tall. These rubbery fungi have yellow, orange or white stems, and green caps. Their slippery, jelly-like texture and variety of cap shapes have earned them the common names Green-capped Jelly Babies and Chicken Lips.

Green-capped Jelly Babies are saprophytes, living off dead or dying organic matter, and are often found growing under conifer trees or on dead logs. They are a type of sac fungus, and their microscopic spores are borne not in gills, but inside elongated cells or sacs known as asci that cover the outside surface of their cap. Thus, underneath the irregular caps the surface is smooth rather than being gilled.

( Naturally Curious posts will resume Monday, September 5.)

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