An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Archive for December, 2016

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Happy New Year!

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Woodpeckers Drumming

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Non-vocal communication between woodpeckers has become apparent in the last week or so — hairy woodpeckers have started to hammer out bursts of steady staccato drum beats on nearby trees. Both male and female woodpeckers drum year round, but they do so most intensively from January to May, especially during the courtship and early nesting seasons which begin in March. Woodpeckers drum for a variety of reasons: defending territory, attracting a mate, maintaining contact with a mate, signaling readiness for copulation and summoning a mate from a distance. Woodpecker pairs also engage in duet drumming, which is thought to play a role in nest site selection and in promoting and maintaining the bond between mates.

If you are hearing but not seeing a woodpecker drumming, it is possible to identify the species by the pattern and pace of its drumming. According to ornithologist David Sibley, the drum of the Hairy Woodpecker is extremely fast and buzzing, with at least 25 taps per second, but has long pauses of 20 seconds or more between drums. The Downy Woodpecker drums at a slower rate, only about 15 taps per second, and drums frequently, often with pauses of only a few seconds between each drum. (Photo is of a female Hairy Woodpecker.)

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Snapping Turtle Takes Advantage of Opportunity to Breathe Air

12-28-16-snapping-turtle-15622315_1172616449501958_3688331953512399657_nOpportunities to see turtles in winter are extremely limited, but a hole chopped in pond ice recently revealed a Snapping Turtle swimming in the water beneath the ice. According to Jim Andrews, Director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas(http://vtherpatlas.org/ ), most turtles don’t often burrow into the mud during winter. They need to take in dissolved oxygen from the water and there is not much available in the mud. Turtles take in oxygen through the linings of their mouths and sometimes thin-skinned, capillary-rich areas in their cloaca and armpits. Many turtles are just sitting on the bottom of ponds. They may use a rock, log, or maybe some leaves for a little protection from otters or other predators.

If the ice is clear, it is possible to see turtles swimming beneath it. Andrews suggests that the Snapping Turtle in the photograph is likely picking up an oxygen boost by using its lungs for a change. It may be four more months before it gets another breath of fresh air. (Thanks to Jim Andrews for post and Barb and Paul Kivlin of Shoreham, VT for photo.)

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Merry Christmas!

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Naturally Curious posts will resume on December 28th!


Bagworm Moth Bags

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If you find a tiny (1/2″ long) bundle of stick-like pieces of vegetation clumped together into a “bag” that is attached to a structure, you have discovered the abandoned home of a bagworm moth larva, and the overwintering site of bagworm moth eggs. The bags consist of parts of the vegetation that the larva was eating and then bound together with silk.

In the spring, the eggs hatch and the larvae all leave and build protective cases, or bags, for themselves, inside of which they live while feeding, growing and molting throughout the summer. As the larvae increase in size, they increase the size of their bags. Eventually the larvae attach the bags to branches, trees, etc. and pupate within them. Female bagworm moths are wingless, and thus are confined to life within a bag for their entire lives. Upon emerging, adult male bagworm moths seek out the females and mate with them before perishing. After laying eggs inside their bags, females exit and die.

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Tunnel Vents

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Frequently you find a hole about an inch wide in the snow in the middle of a field, with no tracks going in or coming out of it. Logic tells you it leads to the subnivean layer – where the snow, warmed by the ground, sublimates into water vapor, creating a small space between the surface of the ground and the snow where the temperatures is relatively stable at 32 F. It is here that small rodents such as mice and voles create a maze of tunnels through which they travel from their sleeping quarters to feeding stations, undetected by many predators.

However, the lack of tracks into and out of this hole indicates that it is not an exit or entrance to the subnivean layer, but rather, it is a vent leading from the subnivean tunnels to the surface of the snow. Carbon dioxide from animal respiration as well as carbon dioxide released from the ground builds up to an unhealthy level in these tunnels. The holes we see in the snow are ventilation shafts, allowing the carbon dioxide to escape from the tunnels. The formation of crystals around the edge of the pictured vent indicates that warm, moist air from rodent lungs is rising up out of it.

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Feeding Habits of the Purple Finch

12-21-16-purple-finch-074Purple Finches feed mainly on seeds, buds, blossoms, nectar, tree fruits and occasionally insects. In winter, when they are mainly eating seeds, nuts and fruits, they use their beak and tongue to crush seeds and extract nuts. In the summer, when feeding on nectar, Purple Finches use their beak to crush the calyx at the flower’s base and extract the nectar with their tongue, leaving the upper flower parts undamaged.

Other random facts regarding the Purple Finch’s eating habits include following: Research shows that Purple Finches weighed in the early morning increased their body weight by 3.5 grams (13.5%) when re-weighed in the afternoon. Carotenoid pigments in their diet are thought to be necessary for the normal development of male Purple Finches’ raspberry red plumage. The mean handling time of a single sunflower seed is just over a minute and they prefer thin to fat sunflower seeds.

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Fishers Climbing Trees

12-19-16-fisher-tracks-up-tree-049a2363If you look at the tree in the center of the photograph, you may be able to detect paired tracks in the snow along the length of its trunk.  As luck would have it, a fisher chose to ascend the one tree with snow still clinging to its trunk. Fishers are members of the weasel family and are well known for their ability to climb trees.  They do so in order to reach den sites as well as to catch prey. Fishers’ arboreal adaptations include semi-retractable claws and ankle joints that rotate so that they can descend trees head-first. Smaller females appear to be more adept in the trees than the larger males.

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Speckled Alder “Cones”

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Obviously there’s no fooling Naturally Curious readers! The trick part of yesterday’s Mystery Photo question was that the pictured fruit were not, botanically speaking, “cones” — true cones are found only on conifers, which Speckled Alder (Alnus incana) is not. The resemblance of Speckled Alder fruit to cones is marked (which is why they are referred to as “cones”) and there are many similarities between the two. They are both woody, contain seeds and develop from catkins (flowering spikes). However, the nature of their respective seeds is quite different. Angiosperms, or flowering plants such as Speckled Alder, produce seeds that are enclosed within a covering (the ovary), whereas gymnosperms (conifers) have un-enclosed or “naked” seeds. Alder “cones” open to release seeds in a manner similar to many conifer cones and, like most cones, do not disintegrate immediately after maturity. (Photo: female flowers/catkins of Speckled Alder which, if fertilized, will develop into “cones.”)

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Coyote Tick Update

e-coyote-tick-by-mholland-049a2231For those of you who might be interested, I heard back from the TickEncounter Resource Center (www.tickencounter.org/) after submitting my photograph for identification.

Their response: You’ve encountered an adult female blacklegged (deer) tick. These ticks typically become very abundant after the first frost and remain active all winter whenever temperatures are above freezing. You might be interested in checking our hyperlink to see how much ticks can change their appearance the longer they’re attached and feeding.  It appears your tick was attached and feeding for about 5-6 days and then it detached from whatever it was feeding on–we’re wondering how you knew it was from a coyote and not a deer; maybe the footprints in the snow?? Autumn IS peak adult deer tick season but the activity of these ticks typically slows as it gets colder. They don’t die though.

This site is a great resource on ticks, tick-borne diseases and tick prevention provided by the University of Rhode Island.(I sent them the photo of the coyote bed so they would know how I knew it had fallen off a coyote, not a deer.)


Mystery Photo

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What species of tree produces these cones? (Hint: this is a trick question.) If you think you know, please enter your answer on my blog, under “Comments.” Thank you!

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Bird Tail Feathers

mystery-photo-img_0672Although the number of tail feathers is quite variable across groups of birds, the most common number is 12. The left and right tail feathers are mirror images of each other. The outermost tail feather is highly asymmetrical (narrow outer vane, broad inner vane). The feathers become more symmetrical toward the center, with the two central tail feathers usually exactly symmetrical (vanes on both sides of the shaft equal in width). There is a similar change in the curvature of the tail feather shafts from outer to central, with the shafts of the outermost tail feathers usually strongly curved, gradually straightening toward the center, with the central tail feathers shafts completely straight.

Groups of birds can have certain tail feather traits in common. For instance, the tail feathers of most waterfowl are short (although the pictured female Hooded Merganser’s are relatively long), while many gamebird tail feathers are used in display and thus are boldly patterned and/or elongated. Woodpecker tail feathers have pointed, stiff tips that the birds use to brace themselves against tree trunks. Even within a group, such as waterfowl, there can be specific tail traits such as the drake Northern Pintail’s long twin tail feathers and the drake Wood Duck’s squared-off tail feathers.

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Leopard Frogs – Too Little, Too Late

leopard-frogs-in-puddle-by-kelly-maginnis-northampton-ma-12-10-16At this time of year one would expect to find Leopard Frogs lying on the bottom of a pond, partially but not completely covered with leaves or mud as they hibernate their way through winter. Because of the depth of a pond, and the fact that in winter the water temperature is around 39°F., ice isn’t an issue at the bottom of a pond, and the frogs and turtles that overwinter there don’t usually freeze.

However, sometimes ponds freeze over before amphibians or reptiles that overwinter in them arrive at their hibernacula. Apparently this is what happened to these Leopard Frogs, and they took refuge in the only open body of water they could find – a large but shallow puddle about 10’ wide by 20’ long in a dirt road. Shortly after they arrived temperatures dropped and the frogs were trapped under (and eventually will be encased in) the ice. Unlike Wood Frogs, Spring Peepers and Gray Treefrogs, Leopard Frogs are not freeze tolerant, so their demise is inevitable. (Thanks to Kelly Maginnis for photo, and Jim Andrews for his herpetological expertise.)

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Large Yellow Underwing Larvae Crawling On Snow

12-12-16-large-yellow-underwing049a2252The striped caterpillar that is crawling along the surface of fresh snow is the larval stage of a noctuid or owlet moth known as the Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba). Noctuids are dull-colored, medium-sized, nocturnal moths that are attracted to lights in the summer. They usually possess a well-developed proboscis (mouthpart) for sucking nectar. The Large Yellow Underwing larva is one of many species  known as cutworms that feed on herbaceous plants. Introduced from Europe to Nova Scotia in 1979, this species has since spread north to the Arctic Ocean, west to the Pacific, and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Larvae sporadically feed through the winter months whenever temperatures are above the mid-40s. The Large Yellow Underwing larva has been nicknamed the winter cutworm and the snow cut-worm for its ability to feed actively when other cutworms are dormant for the winter. Occasionally on warmer winter days, such as we had last week, you see them crawling on the snow.

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Coyotes & Lyme Disease

email-coyote-153Kathie Fiveash, a Maine naturalist and author, commented about today’s post, and I felt the information she conveyed was so interesting that I wanted to be sure readers saw it.  She wrote about a study done on Cape Cod coyotes by Jonathan Way, who often live captures coyotes and releases them. According to Kathie, “Jonathan said that he takes blood from captured animals and they almost all test positive for Lyme, but are asymptomatic. As I remember, it, he theorized that wild canids have been living with Lyme ticks for eons, and have developed resistance to the disease, while dogs and humans do not have that evolved resistance.”

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Bedfellows

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When I head out to photograph for a blog post, my quest is usually for signs of animal behavior (unless I’m focusing on plants). I fail more often than I succeed, but once in a while I hit the jackpot. I am well aware that what I call a jackpot may not be considered as such by others…and I know my heart beats fast at sights (and smells) that others’ hearts do not. Today’s post may be such an occasion.

I decided to follow coyote tracks this week in the hopes of finding evidence of some kind of canine activity. After an hour or so of crossing fields and woods, the coyote entered thick brush, so dense that even it must have had some difficulty slipping through the brambles. At the edge of this brush, its tracks led to an old stump, on the top of which the coyote had curled up and taken a nap or a much-needed rest. Eventually it jumped off the stump and continued its journey.

Coyote beds are not that rare a find, but they are always fun to come upon. Thinking I had captured a worthy post photo/topic, I clicked away, after which I observed the coyote bed more closely. It was then that I detected something small and dark in the snow at the edge of the bed (circled in red in photo). Close examination revealed that a very engorged tick had evidently had its fill of coyote blood, and had dropped off into the snow. Frosting on the cake for this morning’s quest!

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Red Fox Trail

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A majority of you nailed yesterday’s Mystery Photo! There are several hints in the tracks that help to identify the red fox that made them. One is the straightness of the trail pattern. This is due in part to the fact that red foxes “direct register” when walking. Their hind feet fall directly where their front feet were placed — each track represents where a front and hind foot has been placed. This creates a relatively narrow, straight trail pattern. (Domestic dogs often ramble to and fro, not in a direct, straight line like a fox.)

Much of track identification involves the process of elimination. The presence of nail marks and the fact that you can draw an “X” between the toe pads indicates that it is a canine, limiting the choice in the Northeast to domestic dog, red or gray fox, or coyote. A diagnostic trait is the impression of the metatarsal pad (behind toes) which often appears as a straight or boomerang-shaped bar on the front foot track. (It is much less obvious in hind foot tracks.) When a red fox direct registers, placing its hind foot on top of its front foot track, it does not erase the bar. Because no other canine’s track has this bar, we know a red fox traveled here. (Photo by Susan Holland)

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1 There are several hints in yesterday’s tracks that help to identify the red fox that made them. One is the straightness of the trail pattern. This is due in part to the fact that red foxes “direct register” when walking. Their hind feet fall directly where their front feet were placed. Each track represents where a front and hind foot has been placed. This creates a relatively narrow, straight trail pattern. (Domestic dogs often ramble to and fro, not in a direct, straight line like a fox.)

Much of track identification involves the process of elimination.  The presence of nail marks, and the fact that you can draw an “X” between the toe pads indicates that it is a canine, limiting the choice in the Northeast to domestic dog, red or gray fox, or coyote.  A diagnostic trait is the bar, either straight or boomerang-shaped, which often runs across the heel pad of a red fox’s front foot. (It is much less obvious in hind foot tracks.) When a red fox direct registers, placing its hind foot on top of its front foot track, it does not erase the bar. . Because no other canine’s track has this bar, we know a red fox traveled here. (Photo by Susan Holland)

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Mystery Photo

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Who’s been walking in the snow? To submit an answer, go to my blog and click on “Comments.”

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The Nuthatch Name

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Have you ever thought about the derivation of the Red- and White-breasted Nuthatch’s common name? It comes from their habit of wedging a nut, acorn, etc. into a tree’s bark, and by repeatedly striking the nut, “hatching” or exposing the seed within it.

Many of these seeds are then stored in bark furrows for later consumption. In one study it was found that nuthatches spend more time caching husked than unhusked seeds (71% of sunflower seeds cached were husked). This inevitably would lower the expenditure of energy and time spent when consuming the cache later in the season. Hiding time, and time and distance flying from feeders to cache sites were longer when nuthatches hoarded husked than unhusked seeds, perhaps indicating their increased value to the birds. (photo:  White-breasted Nuthatch with husked sunflower seed)

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Plant Bloom

bloom-049a1993Often you will notice a powdery white coating on raspberry and blackberry stems, as well as on a variety of fruits, including plums, blueberries, grapes and apples, and on the leaves of plants as well. This outer layer is referred to as bloom, and is produced by the plant’s epidermal cells. It consists particles of cutin, a waxy, water-repellent substance, embedded in epicuticular wax. One of its main functions is to reduce the loss of water. In repelling water, bloom also prevents bacteria and mold spores as well as air pollutants from entering the plant. In addition, it is responsible for the self-cleaning mechanism of plants. Bloom prevents dirt and other particles from sticking to the plant, so that when water rolls off the plant, it takes the dirt away. Using biomimicry, scientists have developed paint and textiles that stay clean by repelling dirt and water. Bloom is routinely harvested to polish and protect cars and furniture.

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Budding Naturalist Library

blog-post-photo-animalmouthsI thought I would mention that my children’s (4 – 8 years) series on animal adaptations currently has three books (ANIMAL MOUTHS, ANIMAL EYES, ANIMAL LEGS) available, in paperback and hard cover. ANIMAL TAILS, EARS and NOSES are in the works. Might be a good way to start a budding naturalist’s library this holiday season! (Available on my blog, from publishers, or local bookstores and online.) Happy to sign any copies if you can come to me! (Please excuse self-promotion!)


River Otter Brown-out

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River Otters have latrines on land where they come to defecate, urinate and roll around, all in the same area. This area is used over and over and is referred to as roll or brown-out. The latter name is derived from the fact that much of the vegetation dies as a result of the urine and acid build-up. Most otter scat (also referred to as spraint) disintegrates fast and consists of piles of fish scales, with little form. However, if you come upon a recently-visited brown-out, or if the otter has consumed prey other than fish, such as crayfish, tubular scat can be present (see photo insert). Look for River Otter brown-outs on narrow strips of land that stick out into ponds, or a strip of land between two bodies of water. (Thanks to Squam Lakes Natural Science Center for rolling otter photo op.)

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Mystery Photo

mystery-photo-049a1982Who has been here and what has it been doing? Hint: blue in upper left is water, not sky. (Difficulty: 9 out of 10, 10 being the most difficult)  Please post answers under “Comments” on my blog.  Thank you.