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Archive for January, 2017

Cedar Waxwings Feasting on Fruit

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Cedar Waxwings are strictly fruit eaters in the winter, expanding their diet to include insects during the warmer parts of the year. As their name implies, one often finds these birds in areas where there are a lot of cedars, as they’ve historically fed on cedar berries in winter. However, they increasingly rely on the fruit of mountain ash as well as apple, crabapple and hawthorn in the Northeast. Waxwings run the risk of intoxication and even death after eating fermented fruit such as the apples pictured. In recent years Cedar Waxwings have started feeding on the fruits of invasive honeysuckles, a habit which ornithologists feel might be responsible for a shift in waxwing distribution as well as regional population increases.

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Check Your Bird Feeder Before Heading To Bed

1-30-17-flying-squirrel-img_0397If you feed birds, you might want to glance at your feeders on your way to bed at night. With luck, you may encounter a Northern or Southern Flying Squirrel, or a swinging feeder indicating the recent departure of one. These nocturnal rodents remain active all year and often take advantage of the ample supply of food that bird feeders provide. Flying squirrels often refurbish abandoned tree cavity nests of birds and squirrels for winter use. During very cold weather they stay in these nests for prolonged periods, often huddling with several other flying squirrels. The relative warmth of this winter means the chances of seeing a “flying” night visitor at your feeder are greatly increased.

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Check Cat Tracks Twice

1-27-17-bobcat-tracks2-024These feline tracks were found in central Vermont. The position of the four toes (front two not aligned side by side like canids), lack of nail marks, three lobes on hind edge of heel pad, and the overall shape of the tracks (more round than oval) confirm that they were made by a member of the cat family. The size of the tracks (2 ½” long, 2 1/4″ wide) falls right in between those of a Bobcat (1 ½” long, 1 3/8″ wide) and a Mt. Lion (3 ½” long, 4″ wide). The observer of the animal that left these tracks was confident that its overall shape, size, color and long tail were those of a young Mt. Lion.

There have been confirmed (DNA from scat, tracks) signs of these large cats in recent years in New England, as well as the body of a road-killed male Mt. Lion (Connecticut, 2011). DNA testing found that the animal was from South Dakota. Males seem to be moving into the Northeast, but a breeding population has yet to be established according to most biologists.

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Using All Your Senses

1-26-17-deer-urine-049a2725Many wild animals are nocturnal or crepuscular, limiting our chances of firsthand observation of them. Those of us curious to learn more about their lives take advantage of whatever signs these elusive animals leave. In winter, evidence of their presence in the form of tracks and scat can tell us not only their identity, but their diet, direction of travel, size, etc. Beds, kill sites and signs of feeding also provide crucial information. There is one more sign that is often overlooked and under-utilized for identification purposes, and that is the scent of an animal’s urine.

Not everyone will necessarily wish to add this identification tool to their arsenal of naturally curious skills, but for those willing, scent-detection can be extremely useful, especially if conditions for tracking are poor, or if scat is not found. Not only is the scent of a species’ urine distinctive, it can often be detected at a distance. At this time of year (breeding season) red fox urine can easily be mistaken for striped skunk spray. Porcupine urine is strong and distinctive, but hard to describe. Once you’re familiar with it, it can guide you to the location of a den. Coyote urine is very dog-like; bobcat very cat-like. Surprisingly agreeable is the pine-like scent of White-tailed Deer urine (pictured).

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Sentinel Crows

american-crow-sentinel-049a2673Ornithologists have noted that especially during the winter, American Crows assign one or more of their flock to keep watch over the rest of the group, or “murder,” as they feed on the ground nearby. While acting as sentinels, the crows will call frequently, even when predators are not present. When they intensify their calling, the crows that are feeding often flush.

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Distinguishing the Hornbeams

1-23-17-hophornbeam-img_5028There are two trees, both in the Birch family, which, due to the similarity of their common names, are occasionally mixed up with each other. One is known as American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) and the other as American or Eastern Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). Due to the hardness of their wood, they also both go by the name Ironwood, adding to the confusion. A perfect example of when Linnaeus’s binomial system, which gives each species two scientific names, one of which is unique to each species, is helpful.

While the fruits and leaves of both species are superficially similar, their respective bark is very different. Carpinus caroliniana’s bark resembles flexed muscles (see   https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/american-hornbeam/ ), earning it yet another common name, Musclewood, while Ostrya virginiana’s bark (pictured)  has a “shreddy” appearance, with the bark broken into small, narrow plates which curve away from the trunk. Look for C. caroliniana in valleys and along streams, and O. virginiana on well-drained slopes and ridges.

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Coyote Breeding Season Approaching

1-23-17-two-coyote-trails-img_6155While coyotes form packs consisting of two breeding adults (the alpha pair) and up to eight offspring, they often are solitary hunters, leaving only one set of tracks. At this time of year, however, it is not uncommon to find two coyotes traveling together. The reason for this is that the peak of coyote breeding season is in late January and February, and for two or three months prior to this they engage in pre-mating behavior. Signs to look and listen for include two sets of tracks (headed in the same direction) that periodically separate and then rejoin one another, scent marking and duet howling.

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