An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Archive for November, 2016

Mouse Meals

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Deer and White-footed Mice are viewed negatively due to their association with Deer, or Black-legged, Ticks, carriers of Lyme Disease.  However, these mice are also beneficial, not only as a staple prey food for many predators, but as a vital contributor to the health of our forests.

Mice help spread various kinds of fungi by eating the fruiting bodies (which contain spores) and eventually excreting the spores.   Certain fungi colonize the root system of trees, creating a symbiotic relationship called mycorrhizae. The fungus provides increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities to the tree while the tree provides the fungus with carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis. For many temperate forest trees, these fungi have been shown to be an essential element in order for them to prosper. By consuming fungi and dispersing their spores, these small rodents are inadvertently contributing to the vitality of our forests. (Note: look for the tiny incisor marks of mice in the devoured fungus.)

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Modern Technology Reveals Snowy Owl Winter Behavior

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With the arrival of this winter’s first Snowy Owls in New England comes a renewed interest in the winter ecology of these birds of prey. An organization called Project Snowstorm (www.projectsnowstorm.org ) gathers detailed information every 30 seconds on the movement of Snowy Owls that they have outfitted with a backpack harness containing a solar transmitter. These transmitters use the cellular phone network, not a satellite, and when they are out of range of a cell tower, they store information which is transmitted when the bird is back within cell coverage territory – even if it’s years later.

The information that has been gleaned from this modern technology is stunning, and has allowed us to know far more about the behavior of Snowy Owls in winter. Some Snowy Owls stay within a quarter mile of where they are banded; others cover hundreds of miles within a few weeks. Some Snowy Owls spend much of the winter out on the frozen Great Lakes, where they prey on waterfowl they find in the cracks in the ice that open and close repeatedly.   Not only has it been confirmed that Snowy Owls feed heavily on birds in the winter (especially ducks, geese, grebes and gulls), but their use of channel markers and buoys as hunting perches while they seek prey over the open ocean at night has been documented.

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Fall Beaver Lodge Renovations

11-24-16-beaver-lodge-049a1681Beaver lodges undergo a great many renovations in late fall. If the water level is high, the floor of the lodge and the roof of the sleeping chamber are raised. The lodge is strengthened with the addition of new material to the roof. Long, debarked sticks are pulled up vertically to the apex of the lodge and shorter sticks are then jammed into the lodge in order to pin it all together. When the roof of the lodge is two feet thick or more, mud and vegetation are applied on top of it.

Most of the decomposing plant material used to reinforce the roof of the lodge is dredged up from all around the base of the lodge (increasing the area’s water depth). The lodge is then coated with mud gathered at the bottom of the pond. This final coating of mud is of utmost importance – eventually it will freeze as hard as cement, providing protection from predators such as coyotes that can walk across the pond to the lodge once the water freezes. (A layer of mud is applied to bank lodges (see photo), as well.)

A beaver reaches all portions of the roof by holding the mud beneath its chin with its front feet, and walking upright on its hind legs, using its tail as a brace. The mud is then applied and smoothed over with its front feet. At the top of the lodge, an area about 15” wide is not coated, allowing fresh air to filter down into the roof of the sleeping chamber. On very cold winter days, the escaping moist warm air from the beavers’ breath can be seen drifting from this “chimney” at the apex of the lodge.

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Fishers Crossing Logs

11-25-16-fisher-tracks-049a1848The first snow that sticks on the ground is cause for celebration, if only because it allows you to know so much more about what goes on in the woods and fields that surround you than you would know if it never snowed. At this point the snow isn’t deep enough to distinguish tracks very well in the leaf litter, but thanks to the fisher’s propensity for crossing logs (which are relatively smooth, an excellent substrate for tracks, and retain scents well), one resident’s presence was announced loud and clear recently.

Fisher have large, wide feet with five toes on each foot and semi-retractable claws. This makes them well adapted for walking on snow, climbing trees and grasping and killing prey. (They are also capable of rotating their hind feet nearly 180 degrees, which allows for a headfirst descent from trees.) Their track is very distinctive, and can be quite common in forested areas of the Northeast.

Usually, if given the option, fishers will choose walking on a log over walking on the forest floor. Why would they have developed this preference? There often is no water where this occurs, so it’s not done in an effort to avoid wet feet. My best guess as to the purpose of this behavior is scent-marking. Fishers have been observed sliding along logs on their bellies, as they rub the scent of their anal glands along the top of the log. The fisher scent-marks with cheek, abdominal, neck, flank, and plantar (feet) glands, in addition to anal glands. A fisher leaves its scent with every step of its hind feet, and if rotting logs are superior scent-absorbers, it may be why fishers choose them over the forest floor.

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The Persistent Capsules of Lady’s Slippers

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While the pink, yellow and white pouches of lady’s slippers no longer grace the landscape, the results of their pollination do. Capsules rising above the surrounding ground on single stalks can be seen where lady’s slippers used to reside. These fruits will persist through the winter and even into the next flowering season.

A close look reveals slits along the length of the capsule. Wind, rain or wildlife passing by will shake the capsule, causing thousands of dust-like seeds to be dispersed. Because they carry no food reserves, these seeds must establish a relationship with a mycorrhizal fungus in order to germinate. (photo: Showy Lady’s Slipper flower and fruit)

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An Opossum’s Opposable Thumbs

11-22-16-opossum-hind-foot3-untitled-1Virginia opossums have expanded their range into northern New England, but are still not commonly seen, except, perhaps, lying on roads where they met their demise. There is much to admire about opossums: they are the only North American marsupial, they have more teeth than any other North American land mammal (50) and they possess a prehensile tail and opposable thumbs (both of which are rarities among non-primates).

The recent discovery of a road-killed opossum provided me with an opportunity to examine its feet at close range. An opossum’s front feet have five toes, each bearing a nail. Their hind feet also have five toes, but only four of them have nails. The fifth toe, or “thumb,” lacks a nail and is opposable, allowing opossums to grasp branches and to climb. If you see their tracks, the hind foot is easily discernable from the front due to the fact that the thumb is at a 90-degree angle to the other toes.

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Partridgeberry Fruit

partridgeberry-049a1637Partridgeberry (the fruit is eaten by partridges, or ruffed grouse, as well as wild turkey, mice, foxes, skunks and deer) is a woody vine found creeping along the forest floor, often in large colonies. At this time of year there are bright red berries interspersed among the paired evergreen leaves. If you look closely at a berry, you will see two indentations at its tip. These are the result of the flowers’ unusual structure and the fruit’s development.

In late spring a pair of white flowers appears which share a set of sepals. Each small, fragrant flower has four white hairy petals that join to form a tube. The unusual aspect of these flowers is that they both must be pollinated to obtain a single berry. Each berry is the result of the fusion of the ovaries of the pollinated pair of white flowers. This fusion is what accounts for the two indentations on the surface of each fruit.

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Lovebugs Mating

11-18-16-lovebugs-mh_20091020_004606_2If you see a swarm of small black insects bobbing up and down in the air, you may well be observing the mating ritual of March Flies, also known as Lovebugs. These flies belong to the family Bibionidae, and the majority of species emerge in the spring, hence their common name. (In the Northeast, many appear in April and May.) However, there are certain species which emerge and mate in the fall and they are active now.

March Flies are dimorphic. Males (fly to the left in photo) are easily discernible because of their large eyes, essential for finding mates and chasing competing males. Males comprise most of a swarm, performing an aerial ballet as they bounce up and down, courting females as they emerge from the ground en masse. Once mating has taken place, the male and female of certain species remain attached to one another, even in flight. This is where the name “Lovebug” came from.

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Correction In Today’s Blog

11-17-16-correction-082Plants, animals, fungi, slime mold — they are all living “organisms!”


Striped Skunks Ferreting Out Fungi

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The perfectly round, inch-wide, ½-inch-deep holes in the ground that Striped Skunks leave when they’ve been digging for grubs are a fairly common sight. There are other edibles besides grubs, however, that they dig for: insects, earthworms, rodents, salamanders, frogs, snakes and moles, among others. The list isn’t limited to living creatures, however, as skunks are omnivores. Their diet, which changes with the seasons, also includes fruit, grasses, nuts and fungi. Pictured is a hole excavated by a Striped Skunk and the remains of the fungus that was fruiting there. At this time of year, it is not unusual to find that a meal of mushrooms is the object of their digging desire.

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An Artist’s Eye

Readers of my Naturally Curious blog have provided me with connections to kindred spirits, inspiring insights and probing questions. Sometimes I receive requests from non-profits to use my images in their newsletters, displays, etc. Occasionally an individual writes with a special request. Melissa Ball is such a person. She wrote me just about a year ago and introduced herself as an artist in Pennsylvania who would like to use an image of a Black Bear that I photographed settling in for a nap 20’ up in an Eastern White Pine as a reference for a painting. I said of course, and truthfully, pretty much forgot about this exchange. Little did I know what an honor had been bestowed upon me. It turns out that Melissa is an artist very well-known for her  unique and highly detailed artwork on turkey tail feathers. (You can see her work at http://www.turkeytails.com.)  Her Black Bear painting, however, is on canvas, not a feather!  There is no question that in my eyes, Melissa absolutely captured the essence of this winsome bear. (Original photograph is beneath Melissa’s painting.)

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Oak Leaf Shapes & Sizes

11-15-16-oak-leaves-049a1752There are roughly 90 species of oak trees in North America, several of which can be found in New England. (Eastern White, Northern Red, Eastern Black, Burr, Common Chinkapin, Swamp White, Pin, Chestnut, Bear, Scarlet and Common Post). When identifying oaks, several characteristics, such as buds, bark, branching pattern and leaves, can be used. Most Northeastern species of oak have lobed leaves, with the lobes deep or shallow, pointed or rounded.

One thing all oak leaves have in common is their variability. Even on a single tree, you can find leaves of widely differing shapes. One reason for this is that the amount of sunlight that reaches them affects their shape.   Leaves that are shaded are not only often larger than those that are bathed in sunshine, but their lobes are far more shallow. Both of these traits maximize the intake of sunlight.   Canopies of oaks have a larger proportion of small, deeply-lobed leaves than lower down on the trees, where you can often find relatively large leaves that appear to lack lobes completely. The two pictured leaves come from the same Northern Red Oak.  Can you tell where on the tree they probably grew? (Thanks to Penny March for post idea and leaves.)

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Winter Mouse House

11-14-16-mouse-house2-049a1332One of my very favorite animal signs is the winterized home of a Deer or White-footed Mouse. Most songbirds do not re-use their nests. Once the nestlings have fledged, what doesn’t get recycled directly from the nest by other birds or critters slowly disintegrates from rain and snow. That is, unless an agile mouse discovers it and renovates it first. Deer and White-footed Mice are known for using abandoned nests as larders (see  https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/mice-preparing-for-winter/) or as homes for the winter. For the latter, a roof is constructed, usually out of milkweed or cattail fluff, but I have even found man-made insulation used as construction material for a roof. (The pictured nest has been well insulated with a roof of cattail fluff.)

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Typo!

On average, a beaver consumes 1 ½ pounds of food PER DAY in the summer, and 2.2 pounds PER DAY in the winter.


Beaver Winter Food Supply Cache

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Once locked under the ice, beavers have only the food that they have had the foresight to store in their pond prior to it freezing to sustain themselves for the next four to five months. Sometime in September or October beavers start cutting down trees and limbing them. (The more northern the latitude, the earlier they begin this process.)  Beavers have been found foraging over a third of a mile from their pond in the fall.  At this time of year they tend to go further afield in order to find their preferred trees and shrubs – poplar, willow, alder and sugar maples. The branches are carried to the pond and hauled through the water to the lodge. When they approach the lodge the beavers dive down and push the butt end of the branches into the mud at the bottom of the pond and proceed to weave additional layers of branches into them.

Most caches are built as close to the entrance of the lodge as possible. A cache, or winter food supply pile, that feeds a colony of beavers consists of 1,500 to 2,500 pounds of edible bark, twigs and leaves. (On average, a beaver consumes 1 ½ pounds of food per day in the summer, and 2.2 pounds in the winter.)  Because beavers don’t eat the wood, they must gather several tons of saplings and branches in order to have enough to survive.

If you look closely at yesterday’s close-up view of the food cache, you will see larger limbs on top of the pile. These larger logs are used to weight down the pile –they often consist of species that beavers aren’t particularly partial to, if they eat them at all. (Note proximity of food cache to the lodge, which is to the left in photo.) 

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Mystery Photo

11-10-16-mystery-photo-049a1301If you think you know what this is, please go to the Naturally Curious blog page, http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com, and enter your answer under “Comments.”  Thank you!  (Identification will be posted tomorrow.)


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White-tailed Deer Starting to Consume Red Oak Acorns

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Acorns are a preferred food for White-tailed Deer in the fall, thus it may seem strange to see an abundance of Red Oak acorns  still lying on the ground as the weather starts turning cold. The reason that deer haven’t already consumed them has to do with the amount of tannic acid in acorns. The acorns of different oak species contain different amounts of tannic acid — the more tannic acid, the more bitter the acorn.

Red Oak acorns have relatively large amounts of tannic acid in them, and thus, are not at the top of a deer’s list of preferred acorns. White Oak acorns have very little tannic acid and as a result quickly disappear. In addition, Red Oak acorns remain viable, and edible, far longer on the ground than White Oak acorns. Deer have learned this, and consequently, signs of their pawing through the snow in order to reach Red Oak acorns are common during the winter.

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Black Cherry Gum

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When the inner walls of cambium cells in a Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) tree (and other members of the Rosaceae family) are damaged by insects, enzymes can break down pectin, producing jelly-like lumps of clear sap that appear from beneath the bark. This “gum” is often the result of aborted attacks by bark beetles, particularly the peach bark beetle, for the tree uses it to seal off infection. Both direct feeding by insects as well as the process of egg-laying can cause this phenomenon called gummosis. Other factors, including fungi, stress and physical injury to a tree, can produce this reaction.

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Fox Sparrows Passing Through

11-7-16-fox-sparrow-049a1364Fox Sparrows are named for the red hue of their plumage, but their coloration varies and not all Fox Sparrows are as rusty red as those we see migrating in the spring and fall through New England. Many of these birds have spent the summer breeding in the boreal forests of northern North America, and are currently on their way to the southeastern U.S. to spend the winter. Most passed through the Northeast during October, but a few stragglers can still be seen under feeders, scratching in leaf litter for insects and seeds. Although the number of Fox Sparrows is relatively high and they aren’t a species of special concern, their population has declined by about 51% in the past 50 years.

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Naturally Curious Calendars Are In The Mail!

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Just a brief note to let those of you who ordered 2017 Naturally Curious calendars that they are on their way to you. I ordered extras, so if you are reading this and would like to place an order, they’re available until there are no more. You can see ordering information and the calendar’s monthly photos at https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/naturally-curious-2017-calendar/ . Thank you so much!

 


White-margined Burrower Bugs Soon To Hibernate

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White-margined Burrower Bugs (Sehirus cinctus) are true bugs, members of the order Hemiptera. The red and black bugs in this photograph are immature nymphs and have molted once. Their coloring serves as a warning to would-be predators that they are at the very least distasteful, and possibly poisonous. Adult White-margined Burrower Bugs are roughly ¼” long, and black with a white margin (not visible in photo) along the edges of their forewings.

These bugs feed on the seeds of plants in the mint and nettle families. Being true bugs, they feed not by chewing but by piercing seeds with a sharp beak, injecting digestive enzymes, and then sucking in the partially digested food.

White-margined Burrower Bugs are fairly unusual for non-social insects in that the mothers provide care and provisions for their young, much like social insects such as ants, paper wasps and honeybees. The adults dig shallow burrows into which they place a supply of seeds and lay between 120 and 150 eggs next to the seeds. They guard their eggs and brood and bring more seeds as needed for 1-3 days after the eggs hatch. At this point, the young bugs can forage for themselves.

Adults dig down into the leaf litter in late fall, where they overwinter and emerge next spring ready to mate. If you see a large cluster of White-margined Burrowers Beetles, do not be alarmed, as they do not bite nor are they interested in eating anything but species of mint and nettle.

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Sweetfern’s Buds Set

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Although its name implies otherwise, Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) is not a fern. Rather, it is a flowering shrub in the Bayberry family, Myricaceae, whose leaves bear some resemblance to fern fronds. It does deserve the other half of its common name, however. When Sweetfern’s aromatic leaves are crushed (or just brushed against) a sweet, spicy fragrance can easily be detected.

Male and female Sweetfern flowers are formed separately. At this time of year, the male flower buds, or catkins, running along the stems are very evident, although they become more so in the spring when they expand and dangle in the breeze, distributing pollen (see insert).

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