An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Archive for January, 2017

Cedar Waxwings Feasting on Fruit

1-31-17-cedar-waxwing-049a3342

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.

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.


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.

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.

 


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.

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.

 

 

 


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).

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.


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

 


Snow Conditions Making Life Challenging For Barred Owls

1-20-17-barred-owl-and-red-backed-vole-l-040

There has been an unusually high number of Barred Owl sightings reported in northern New England and New York this winter, primarily from the road and near bird feeders. This phenomenon, particularly with owls, is usually attributed to either a current lack of food or an abundance of food during the most recent breeding season resulting in a dramatic increase in the owl population.

In the case of Barred Owls, it is the former. Unlike Snowy Owls, which vary the size of their clutch depending on food availability, Barred Owls typically have two young, regardless of the size of the rodent population. Thus, a plethora of progeny can be eliminated as a viable explanation for the abundance of Barred Owl sightings this winter, which leaves a scarcity of food as the primary reason.

For several weeks there has been a thick crust on top of the snow, which makes hunting for mice and voles difficult for raptors. Because they are very territorial, Barred Owls rarely wander outside of their territory, even when food is scarce. Thus, especially in the past few weeks, they have been desperate to find small rodents. Roads are one reliable spot where mice, voles and shrews are exposed, and bird feeders are most definitely rodent magnets. Hopefully weather conditions will allow birds of prey access to the subnivean layer (space next to the ground where small rodents travel, shelter and breed) before too many more Barred Owls starve to death. (Source: Joan Collins, NYS Ornithological Association, UV-BIRDERS List) (Photo:  Barred Owl with recent Northern Red-backed Vole catch.)

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.

 


Where Do Grasshoppers Go In Winter?

1-19-17-red-legged-grasshopper2-img_4112Everyone knows that grasshoppers disappear once cold weather arrives. Where do they go and what is their strategy for surviving the winter?  Most grasshoppers overwinter as eggs.  They mate, lay eggs and die in the fall. The female Red-legged Grasshopper, New England’s most abundant species of grasshopper, deposits clusters of eggs one to two inches deep in the soil in the late summer and early fall. During this process, a glue-like secretion cements soil particles around the egg mass, forming a protective “pod.” Each pod is roughly three-quarters to one-inch long and curved. The top third is dried froth, the bottom two-thirds contain 20 to 26 eggs. Each egg is just over 1/10th of an inch long and pale yellow.

In the spring, nymphs hatch out of the eggs, crawl up to the surface of the soil and start to feed on grasses and other herbaceous plants. It takes about three months for them to mature and begin the cycle all over again. (Photo: gravid female Red-legged Grasshopper  in late summer)

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.

 


Porcupine Digestion

1-18-17-porc-img_3485Porcupines are herbivores, and as such, possess micro-organisms which digest the cellulose in the food that porcupines consume. These microflora, primarily bacteria, are located in a pouch called the caecum, located at the beginning of the large intestine. One of the most essential nutrients for porcupines is nitrogen, and their winter diet of bark does not provide enough to sustain them. Thus, most porcupines depend on reserves they build up in the summer and fall, and in so doing, lose weight during the winter.

One might wonder why porcupines don’t simply increase the amount of bark that they eat in order to get the required amount of nitrogen. The reason is that the process of bacterial digestion of cellulose is relatively slow – it takes two days for food to pass through the porcupine’s digestive system. If it were to pass through any quicker than this the bacteria would not have enough time to properly digest the bark. (Source: The North American Porcupine, by Uldis Roze)

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.


American Goldfinch’s Storage Solution

1-19-17-a-goldfinch-045When not consuming niger and sunflower seeds at feeders, American Goldfinches forage for seeds in the catkins and cones of trees, as well as from grasses and many “weeds.” As an adaptation for cold winter nights when additional fuel may be necessary, and for feeding young, the esophagus of goldfinches is very flexible and forms a rudimentary crop, or pocket, in which seeds may be temporarily stored.   In addition to some birds, honeybees, snails, slugs, earthworms and leeches possess crops.

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.


Snowshoe Hare Forms

1-13-17-snowshoe-hare-form-img_6225

Snowshoe Hares are nocturnal, so coming upon one is a relatively rare occurrence and even when you do they stand stock still and are so well camouflaged they can often escape detection. However, if they live in an area, signs of their presence are usually abundant. Tracks, runways, scat and their reddish-orange urine are quite obvious. A bit more subtle are their forms – protective spots where they rest during the day, often located under conifers branches.

A Snowshoe Hare form is an oval, slightly depressed hollow about the size of the hare that scratched it out of the snow. The lining of the form often consists of snow melted and refrozen from the hare’s body heat. When in their forms, hares usually rest “alertly,” take brief naps and sometimes groom themselves. Often there is a pile of scat in or near a form. The fact that there is a pile, not one or two pellets, means that the hare spent a considerable amount of time there. When the sun begins to set, snowshoe hares leave their form and travel along their runways, feeding on the cambium of accessible woody plants.

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.

 


The Relationship Between Ruffed Grouse & Poplars In Winter

1-12-17-ruffed-grouse-aspens-049a2566Poplar (also called Aspen) buds are an important winter food source for wildlife, but for none as much as the Ruffed Grouse. During the course of a year, a Ruffed Grouse may feed from as many as 100 species of plants, but in the winter, species of poplar are by far its most important food source. In fact, the relationship between grouse and poplars is such that the range of the Ruffed Grouse is practically identical to the range of Trembling (also known as Quaking) Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and Big-tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata).

Poplars are dioecious – the male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Although grouse will settle for any poplar bud, it is the male flower buds of Trembling Aspen trees which they prefer, due to the buds’ high amounts of proteins, fats and minerals. (Female buds are smaller and have less nutrients, oddly enough.)  Ruffed Grouse seldom feed on a poplar tree that is less than 30 years old. Perhaps these older trees have more vigorous buds, or perhaps their branches are easier to perch on because they are larger. (Information source:  Ruffed Grouse: Woodland Drummer by Michael Furtman)

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.

 

1-13-1


White-tailed Bucks Shedding Antlers

1-2-16-antler-049a2440Antlers, the fastest growing mammal tissue on earth, are grown by male White-tailed Deer (and very occasionally females) every year and shed every year. They begin growing in the spring, usually April, and complete their growth in August or September. During this period they are covered with “velvet,” a soft skin containing blood vessels and nervous tissue that supply oxygen and nutrients to the antler. Once growth ceases, the velvet dries up and falls off or is inadvertently rubbed off. The mating season of White-tailed Deer, or rut, during which time their antlers are instrumental in establishing hierarchy and securing a mate, peaks in mid-November. Once mating is over, the disadvantages of antlers (cumbersome shape for traveling through woods, and the energy required to carry them) promote the shedding of these bony structures. Specialized cells (osteoclasts) destroy the bone tissue between the antlers and the skull and antlers are shed sometime between the end of December and the beginning of February.

Most sources state that antlers just fall off or that the buck knocks them off by striking them against a tree. My personal observation of a buck in captivity clarified the way antlers are dropped, at least in this one instance. The buck put his head down, quickly jerked it up and to one side, and the antler went flying.

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.

 


Red Squirrels Eating Snow

1-11-17-red-squirrel-eating-snow-049a2569Red Squirrels have very efficient kidneys, so most of their water requirements are supplied in fruit, buds, fungi and other food that they eat. They are said to rarely drink free-standing water or eat snow, even when it is available. However, both the scat and the chewing marks in the snow surrounding the scat in yesterday’s Mystery Photo were made by a Red Squirrel.

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.


Mystery Photo

1-10-17-mystery-photo-049a2573Who has been here, and what have they been doing (other than depositing their scat)? Individual pellets are ¼” long. Hint:  note marks in snow surrounding scat. Submit answers under “Comments” on Naturally Curious blog.

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.


Pine Grosbeaks May Be A Rare Treat This Winter

1-4-17-female-pine-grosbeak-img_5087

Several members of the Finch family of birds periodically fly south of their range into southern Canada and the northern U.S. during the winter in search of food. Pine Siskins, Common and Hoary Redpolls, American Goldfinches, Red and White-winged Crossbills, Purple Finches and both Evening and Pine Grosbeaks participate in these irruptions. Whether or not these species extend their range further south in any given year has much to do with their diet and its abundance or lack thereof on their wintering grounds . According to Ron Pittaway’s 2016-2017Finch Forecast (http://ebird.org/content/canada/news/ron-pittaways-winter-finch-forecast-2016-2017/ ), many of these birds will have a difficult time finding natural food sources this winter in Southern Ontario and the Northeast due to poor cone crops. Some may head north or west, where crops are much better.

Even if there were plenty of cones in the Northeast this year and many Canadian seed-eating finches were headed south of their normal range, we might not see large numbers of Pine Grosbeaks. This is due to the fact that the Pine Grosbeak’s diet is not limited to seeds, but includes buds, insects and fruit. Most of these birds are staying north this winter because of an excellent crop of Mountain-ash berries across the boreal forest. They eat these and other fruits by biting through and discarding the pulp and crushing the seed (which gives them a slightly unkempt look). We will see some — there have been several sightings of mostly small flocks of Pine Grosbeaks in New England in the past few weeks, lingering just long enough to consume what European Mountain-ash berries and crabapples they can find. But those of us who see them are very fortunate this year. (Photo: female Pine Grosbeak eating crabapples.)

Thank you to all of you who so kindly wished me well. I’m sure those wishes are what hav me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed once again!

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.

 


Missing Posts

My apologies to all.  A bout with bronchitis has had me laying low but Naturally Curious posts will resume on Monday, January 9th.


White-tailed Deer Winter Diet

1-4-16-fungus-eaten-by-deerimg_0948The diet of White-tailed Deer varies with the seasons, but in general deer require a high-quality diet and tend to choose the most nutritious options available. In addition to mast (fruit, acorns, beechnuts) and browse, herbaceous plants and fungi make up the greatest portion of their food. However, their foraging choices are extensive. White-tailed Deer have been known to consume the washed-up carcasses of alewives after they (the alewives) have spawned as well as insects, mice and the nestlings of ground-nesting songbirds.

Microorganisms inside a deer’s four-chambered stomach enable cellulose in the plant material consumed to be digested. In winter, the microorganisms within the deer stomach are different from the microorganisms in spring, summer, and fall. This change allows deer to digest a diet of woody browse during winter months and turn the high-fiber diet into proteins through intricate physiological processes. Offering food items during this period other than woody browse (such as hay) is detrimental to deer, as it requires different microorganisms in the stomach in order to be digested. Thus, even though a deer’s stomach might be full (of hay, for instance), it may starve due to the inability to digest it.   (Photo: shelf fungus eaten by White-tailed Deer, showing lower jaw incisor grooves)

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.

 

 

 


Pine Tube Moth Pupae Overwintering

1-3-16-pine-tube-moth-049a2457

In eastern North America, the Pine Tube Moth’s primary host is the Eastern White Pine. The moths deposit their eggs on White Pine needles in the spring. The larvae hatch and use silk to form a hollow tube by binding together 5 – 20 needles. They then move up and down their silk-lined tube to feed on the tips of the bound needles. When the tube walls (needles) have been eaten down to one inch, partially developed larvae will abandon their tubes and begin constructing new ones. When feeding and development is completed, larvae pupate inside the needle tubes. There are two generations per year, with second generation pupae spending the winter inside needle tubes and emerging as adult moths in early to mid-April. Pine Tube Moths are not considered a significant pest.

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.

 


Snow Rollers

1-2-17-snow-donuts-049a2495Once in a great while nature provides us with a spectacular display of snowballs littering the surface of  flat, snowy fields or woodlands. These rounded structures, called snow rollers or snow donuts (there is often a hole in the center of them), require a precise balance of air temperature, ice, snow, moisture and wind in order to form.

To begin with, the ground surface (typically quite level) must have an icy, crusty snow, on which new falling snow cannot stick. On top of this, there needs to be about an inch of loose, wet, sticky snow. The air temperature needs to be around 32 degrees F. Last, but not least, there must be a strong, gusty wind blowing 25 miles per hour or more. Snow rollers begin to form when the wind scoops chunks out of the top inch or so of snow and these chunks roll, bounce and tumble just like tumbleweeds, downwind. They gather additional snow as they roll and become larger and larger until they are too large for the wind to push. Snow rollers can be as small as a tennis ball or as much as two feet in diameter, depending on how strong the wind is and how smooth the surface of the snow is. There can be hundreds of them in a field or patch of woods. When a snow roller starts to form, there is no hole in the center of it. As it picks up speed and snow, the thin center often crumbles, forming snow “donuts.” (Thanks to Judy Howland for photo op.)

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.

 


My New Year’s Wish

12-31-16-new-year-wish-301

That every child has someone in their life who shares and fosters their innate sense of wonder in the natural world.

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.