An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Archive for October, 2016

First Monarchs Have Arrived At Wintering Sanctuaries

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During the first two weeks of October, south winds prevented migrating Monarchs from making a lot of progress on their flight southward. Cold fronts were weak during this time, and wind blew from the north infrequently. On Oct.12 this persistent weather pattern broke, headwinds subsided and thousands of Monarchs were seen migrating through Texas. By Oct. 20 the first Monarchs entered Mexico and by the 23rd the first butterflies had reached their wintering grounds. Follow their progress as they continue to stream across northern Mexico, headed for their sanctuaries, at http://www.learner.org/jnorth/maps/monarch.html.

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Low Water Levels Provide Palette for Tracks

10-27-16-tracks2-1The low water levels in our ponds this fall do have one benefit – visitors leave obvious signs in the exposed muddy banks. It is fairly astounding how much nocturnal and crepuscular wildlife regularly visits these spots and remains undetected by humans under normal conditions.

 Under cover of darkness, White-tailed Deer, Mink, Raccoons and a variety of birds and small mammals frequently visit and leave traces of their presence in the form of tracks. Other creatures whose tracks you may well find in the exposed mud of wetlands this year include Beavers, Muskrats and River Otters.

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Witch-hazel Cone Gall Aphids Laying Eggs

10-26-16-witch-hazel-gall-s20161017_5388At this time of year there is a species of aphid, Hormaphis hamamelidis, that is laying eggs on Witch-hazel branches. Next spring female aphids will hatch out of these eggs and begin feeding on newly-emerged Witch-hazel leaves. The aphids inject the leaf with a substance that causes the leaf to form a cone-shaped growth, or gall, around the insect, providing it with both food and shelter. The galls are hollow, and have openings extending out through the leaves’ lower surfaces. Within the galls the unmated female aphids produce 50 – 70 young. Eventually the galls fill with winged female aphids which emerge through the cone openings, disperse, and repeat the process. The third generation of aphids consists of both males and females which mate and lay their eggs on Witch-hazel. The aphids that hatch from these eggs create the conical galls found on Witch-hazel leaves.

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Black Bears Gorging

10-28-16-corn-203Black bears are omnivores as well as opportunists.  They will eat almost anything that they can find, but the majority of their diet consists of grasses, roots, berries, nuts and insects (particularly the larvae).  As the days cool, and the time for hibernation nears, black bears enter a stage called “hyperphagia,” which literally means “excessive eating.”  They forage practically non-stop — up to 20 hours a day, building up fat reserves for hibernation, increasing their body weight up to 100% in some extreme cases.  Their daily food intake goes from 8,000 to 15-20,000 calories. Occasionally their eyes are bigger than their stomachs, and all that they’ve eaten comes back up.  Pictured is the aftermath of a Black Bear’s orgy in a cornfield.

If you  share a bear’s territory, be forewarned that they have excellent memories, especially for food sources.  Be sure not to leave food scraps or pet food outside and either delay feeding birds until bears are hibernating (late December would be safe most years) or take your feeders in at night.

NOTE:  Orders for 2017 Naturally Curious calendars must be received by October 31.

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.

 


Fall Amphibian Migration

10-24-16-red-backed-sal-089The migration of amphibians from the woodlands where they overwinter to their breeding pools in March is a familiar spring phenomenon to most. However, some of these amphibians engage in a fall migration as well. Amphibians (and reptiles) need to find a good overwintering spot, where they won’t freeze. In some cases, that might be a few feet upstream or into a seepage area, and in others it is a few hundred yards uphill. The extent of the migration and the species participating vary in different parts of the state.

In western Vermont, Jim Andrews, Director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas(http://vtherpatlas.org), has observed Blue-spotted and Four-toed Salamanders moving down into wetlands in the spring, staying close to the wetland for moisture and feeding during the summer, and then moving uphill back to wintering areas in the fall. On the other hand, he has found that most Spotted and Jefferson Salamanders, as well as Wood Frogs, move down in the spring to breed, and then head back uphill in stages soon after they are done breeding.

Eastern Red-backed Salamanders (pictured) migrate as needed during the summer to maintain their body moisture, and in the fall, search for an animal burrow or crevice to hibernate in. Migration often occurs at night, while it’s raining, so as to prevent their skin from drying out. (Amphibians need to have moist skin because a large portion of the frog’s “breathing” occurs via oxygen diffusing through the skin. Oxygen will not diffuse through a dry membrane.) After the very dry summer we’ve had, a large number of amphibians were observed taking advantage of the recent rain and migrating.

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Released: NATURALLY CURIOUS DAY BY DAY

Cvr_NaturallyCurious_D2newtrimI’m delighted to announce that my latest book, Naturally Curious Day by Day, has just been released. Like Naturally Curious, it takes a look at species and events that are likely to be seen/occur throughout the year in the Northeast. However, my new book presents new photos and text in a day-by-day format, as opposed to month by month. Each day of the year has anywhere from 2 – 4 entries/photos on subjects as varied as slime mold, sapsuckers and salamanders. Readers of my blog will be familiar with some of the material, as the book contains edited/expanded versions of many of the past six and a half years of posts. The book also includes new entries, short essays and sidebars. A concerted effort was made not to duplicate information found in Naturally Curious.

Naturally Curious Day by Day can be purchased in bookstores and online. If your local bookstore doesn’t have it, they will be able to order it from Globe Pequot’s distributor. I’m hoping it will help those stumped by what to give someone for Christmas! 456 pages, 1,300+ photos. Thank you!

 


Woolly Alder Aphids, Honeydew & Black Sooty Mold

10-20-16-woolly-aphids-026Once leaves start to fall, one often observes white, fuzzy patches along the branches of Speckled Alder (Alnus incana). These fuzzy patches consist of colonies of aphids feeding on the sap of the shrub. In order to get enough nitrogen, they must drink volumes of sap, much of which is exuded from their abdomens as a sweet liquid called honeydew. The honeydew accumulates and hardens onto the branches as well as the ground beneath the shrub. Yesterday’s Mystery Photo was the honeydew of Woolly Alder Aphids (Paraprociphilus tessellates) which has been colonized by a fungus known as black sooty mold, a fairly common phenomenon.

Woolly Alder Aphids produce white wax, or “wool,” filaments from their abdominal glands. Clustered together, these aphids look like a white mold. If disturbed, the individual aphids pulse their abdomens in unison – apparently an effective defense mechanism.

Woolly Alder Aphids, also known as Maple Blight Aphids, have two host plants at two different stages of their lives. In the fall they lay their eggs on Silver Maple trees. The eggs hatch in the spring and the aphids feed on the maple leaves. During the summer a winged generation flies from maple leaves to alder shrubs and establishes colonies. In the fall, some of these aphids fly to Silver Maples and lay eggs, while some overwinter in the leaf litter beneath alders.

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Mystery Photo

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If you think you might know what this black, crusty substance is, please go to my blog, scroll down to “Comments” and enter your guess as to what it is and how it got there. Answer revealed tomorrow. (Hint:  It is not a gall, and it was found on a Speckled Alder branch.)

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Small Birds Beware of Sharp-shinned Hawks

coopers-and-blue-jay-by-jeannieShort, powerful, rounded wings and a relatively long tail enable Sharp-shinned Hawks to maneuver in dense cover in pursuit of small birds, which compose 90% of their diet. Small mammals and insects are consumed, but not nearly as frequently as birds. The size of the birds eaten range from hummingbirds to Ruffed Grouse. Long legs and toes (especially middle toes) enable individuals to reach into vegetation and large eyes enhance its ability to catch fast-moving prey.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are familiar sights to those of us with bird feeders – this species is responsible for 35% of 1,138 predation incidents reported at feeders in continent-wide survey. In this photograph, a Blue Jay is successfully warding off an attack by a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk. (Photo by Jeannie Killam.)

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Abscission Layers Forming

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As the days grow shorter and the nights longer, cells near where a leaf’s stem joins a tree’s branch start to divide rapidly. This is the start of the creation of the corky layer of cells known as the abcission layer.

The annual growth of a tree ends with the formation of the abcission layer. This layer prevents the transport of materials such as carbohydrates from the leaf to the branch and it blocks the flow of minerals from the roots into the leaves. Chlorophyll, critical to the process of photosynthesis, breaks down with exposure to light and is replaced continually by the leaves during the summer. When the abcission layer forms, this is no longer possible.  The chlorophyll slowly breaks down and disappears, revealing the underlying xanthophylls (yellow pigments) and carotenoids (orange pigments) that the chlorophyll was masking. These pigments, in addition to the red pigments (anthocyanins) that are manufactured from sugars trapped in the leaf, provide us with our brilliant foliage.

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Identifying Animals By Their Scat

10-14-16-fisher-scat-20161012_5024Anyone who has tried to discover what wildlife resides in their woods knows that signs of animals are much more likely to be seen than the animals themselves. One of these signs is an animal’s scat. There are different factors regarding scat that help to reveal the identity of the animal that left it. One is where you find it. Different animals deposit their scat in different locations. For instance, foxes typically do so along and at the intersection of trails, Fishers often use stumps or other elevated surfaces.

Another helpful hint is the shape of the scat. Many mammal species have distinctively-shaped droppings, but they can vary depending on the animal’s diet. If you open any book containing scat descriptions, and turn to the page on Fishers, you will undoubtedly come across descriptive words such as “twisted”, “black”, “tapered”, and “pointed ends.” Indeed, if the Fisher has consumed prey, its scat is usually as described. But if the Fisher has been eating fruit, which they often do in the late summer and fall, its scat is tubular and quite smooth, with little twisting. While scat can be an excellent clue to the identity of an animal, interpreting it can be tricky! (Pictured is tubular Fisher scat filled with the seeds and skins of grapes behind old, rained-on Fisher scat filled with fur and bones.)

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Witch Hazel Flowering

witch-hazel-20160917_0860Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is nature’s final fanfare of the fall. As colorful fall foliage begins to disappear, the yellow strap-like petals of Witch Hazel’s fragrant flowers brighten denuded woods. This year, with a somewhat late peak foliage, they are both providing brilliant colors to the landscape at the same time.

Witch Hazel flowers are pollinated by moths that are still active this late in the season, and develop into small, hard capsules that remain dormant throughout the winter. During the following summer, these capsules develop to the point where they expel two shiny black seeds 10 to 20 feet away from the tree. The seeds take another year to germinate, making the length of time from flowering to germination approximately two years.

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.


Two Weeks Left To Order Naturally Curious Calendar

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Please specify the number of calendars you would like as well as the mailing address to which they should be sent, and mail them to me at 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT  05089 along with a check made out to Mary Holland. Orders can be placed up until October 31st. The calendars are printed on heavy card stock and are $35.00 each (includes postage).  They will be delivered by mid-December. Thank you!


Porcupines Foraging For Acorns

10-12-16-porcupine-20161011_4950If you live near a stand of Red Oak trees, your chances of seeing a Porcupine this fall are greater than average. At the end of August, when the apple supply has dwindled, Porcupines move on to important new food sources – acorns and beechnuts. While American Beech trees in central Vermont have not produced a bumper crop of beechnuts this year, Red Oaks are experiencing a very heavy mast crop. These acorns provide sustenance for many animals – Black Bears, Red and Gray Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks and other small rodents, White-tailed Deer and Wild Turkeys, to name a few.

Porcupines are typically one of the first acorn consumers, as they are able to climb oaks and eat the acorns before they drop and are accessible to many of the other animals that are limited to foraging on the ground. If you see the tips of branches nipped off with acorn caps (but no acorns) still attached lying under an oak tree, it’s likely that a Porcupine has been dining in the tree and discarding branches after scooping out and eating the acorns.If the tree is large, the Porcupine may reside in the canopy for several days. (Thanks to Emma for photo op.)

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Hay-scented Fern’s Fall Colors

10-11-16-hay-scented-fern-20161005_4101Hay-scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) is well-named, for when the leaves, or fronds, are brushed against or bruised, they release a fragrance reminiscent of fresh mown hay. This fern often grows in colonies, spreading from rhizomes underground. Hay-scented Fern is easily detected at this time of year because the fronds turn beautiful shades of pale yellow. It can be found in both dry and moist soil as well as in full shade and full sun. Hay-scented Fern often thrives in wooded areas where there is a high population of White-tailed Deer, as it is not a preferred food source.

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Barn Spiders Spinning

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If there is a fairly large spider spinning orb webs in a corner of your shed or barn and it has striped gray, brown and white legs, chances are great that it is a Barn Spider, Araneus cavaticus. These spiders are nocturnal, so it’s often the early-rising/late-to-bed folks that observe these arachnids. During the day, Barn Spiders hide in a nearby crevice where birds and other predators cannot easily find them.  Webs are freshly constructed every night (or every few nights) and the remains of the old web are eaten in order to conserve the valuable silk. During the night Barn Spiders can be found hanging in the center of their web, awaiting prey.

Male Barn Spiders reach between ¼” and ½” in size and adult females typically are around ¾”. Most males spin webs less frequently and spend much of their lives wandering, attempting to find a female to mate with. Thus, most Barns Spiders you see in webs tend to be females.

The spider in E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web was based on a Barn Spider. In his inimitable way, White named her Charlotte A. Cavatica, a reference to the Barn Spider’s scientific name. One of Charlotte’s daughters, after asking what her mother’s middle initial was, names herself Aranea.

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Early Splashes of Maroon

10-6-16-white-ash-leaves-20161005_4124At this time of year, our eyes are immediately drawn to the brilliant orange, red and yellow pigments of Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) leaves. However, there’s much to be said about the less flamboyant splashes of color adorning some of the species of trees that provide New England’s spectacular fall foliage. One such subtley-colored fall tree that often grows in upland forests along with Sugar Maples is White Ash (Fraxinus americana). One of the first trees to change color in autumn, White Ash can turn shades of yellow, orange and red, but deep red, maroon and purple are typically the grand finale of this species. Often its leaves progress from green to yellow and eventually maroon.  While it might not be the first tree that catches your eye, make a point of looking for its colorful, compound leaves – you won’t be disappointed.

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Shy Cosmet Moth Larvae Overwintering In Cattails

9-30-16-shy-cosmet-moth-larva-20160924_3140If you look at the seedheads of a bed of cattails in the fall, some are in pristine condition while others have places where their seeds have started to burst from the stem. Such a “fluffed out” seedhead can indicate that something (s) is living within the 250,000 or so packed seeds. A bit of investigation into these heads often reveals tiny, tan larvae (as well as larval skins and frass) that have burrowed their way into the depths of the seedhead, where they overwinter. These are the larvae of the Shy Cosmet (Limnaecia phragmitella), a slender tan moth. Come spring they will pupate and emerge as adults.

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Brief Hiatus

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