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Archive for March, 2017

River Otter Tails

3-31-17 otter tail impression2 026From their nose to the tip of their tail, North American River Otters measure three to four feet long. Their tail makes up anywhere from a third to nearly a half of their length. A River Otter’s tail is very thick at its base, packed with muscles, flexible, and tapers to a point. It is used to steer when an otter is swimming slowly, propel the otter when it is swimming at high speed and to help the otter balance when it stands upright on its hind legs. River Otters, known for their powerful swimming, can reach speeds of six to seven miles per hour with the help of this appendage.

When loping through the snow, River Otters often hold their tails up off the surface of the snow, but not always. Occasionally drag marks can be seen.  In the accompanying photograph, an otter had leapt up an incline, and in so doing left an imprint of its impressive tail in the snow.

(Thanks to Alfred Balch for photo op, and Joan Waltermire for her sharp eyes.)

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Tom Turkeys Gobbling & Strutting

3-30-17 tom turkey IMG_7637In the Northeast, male Wild Turkeys began gobbling and strutting in late February. Their courtship ritual usually starts before females are receptive, and continues into late March and early April, when mating typically takes place. Hearing a tom turkey gobble is as sure a sign of spring as the sight of one strutting.

At this time of year males are bedecked with blue wattles (flap of skin on throat) and snoods (fleshy piece of skin that hangs over beak), and bright red major carbunkles (bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat). Displaying these adornments while slowly gliding around a female, the male fans his tail, lowers his wings with the primaries dragging on the ground/snow, elevates the feathers on his back and throws his head backward the female. If she is receptive, she lowers herself and crouches on the ground, signaling to the male that he may mount her. (Thanks to Chiho Kaneko for photo op.)

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Blueberry Stem Galls

3-29-17 blueberry stem gall IMG_7405Up to a dozen tiny black wasps (Hemadas nubilipennis) will emerge from this gall in the spring, around the time when blueberry bushes are flowering. After mating, the female wasp lays her eggs under the surface of the blueberry stems. Once she has completed her egg-laying, she climbs to the tip of the shoot and repeatedly stabs it, preventing further growth.

The plant reacts to the wasp’s egg-laying by forming a kidney-shaped gall. The majority of galls (up to 70%) are formed on stems within the leaf litter. These galls can be up to an inch in diameter, and they contain many developing larvae that feed on the walls of the gall and grow during the summer, overwinter as larvae, pupate inside the gall in the spring, and then emerge as adults when the blueberry bushes are in bloom in late May and early June. The adults are almost entirely females.

If a blueberry bush has many galls, it can be problematic.  A branch possessing a blueberry stem gall will not produce flower buds, and no flowers means no blueberries.

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Snow Geese Resting & Feeding on Staging Areas As They Migrate North

3-28-`7 snow geese090Most of the U.S.’s eastern population of Snow Geese has been wintering along Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts to South Carolina, and will breed in the subarctic and arctic tundra near the coast.   These Snow Geese depart North Carolina and Virginia for Delaware Bay mid- to late February. After resting and refueling at Delaware Bay, they depart and migrate through western Connecticut, the Hudson River, and Lake Champlain throughout March and early April, stopping to rest and refuel along the way at various locations (referred to as staging areas).  Most Snow Geese arrive at their Arctic breeding grounds by mid- to late May.

During spring migration, flocks of family groups and individuals migrate both day and night.  These flocks consist of anywhere from 35 to 400 birds. Many factors influence the timing and duration of spring migration from year to year, including inconsistencies of weather and the availability of food at stopover sites and on breeding grounds. Snow Geese tend to migrate with southerly or southwesterly winds, high temperature, falling pressure, low humidity, good visibility, and no precipitation. Their northerly progress is closely related to the disappearance of ice and snow – they can feed only after both have melted and perennial vegetation is exposed.

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Tracking Bobcats

3-27-17 bobcat tracks IMG_1846Stella, our recent Nor’easter, extended the window snow provides into the lives of our four-footed neighbors, so we are privy to their comings and goings for a few more days, at least. February and March are prime breeding season for many creatures, among them the Bobcat. Males are polygynous – they mate with as many receptive females as they can find – and so they are on the move, leaving tracks in the snow. Prior to mating, a pair of Bobcats spends a considerable amount of time running, playing, and hunting together, so finding tracks of two Bobcats is not that unusual this time of year.

Usually four of a Bobcat’s five toes make an impression. They are asymmetrically arranged and oval or tear-drop in shape. The leading edge of the heel impression is two-lobed, while the bottom edge is three-lobed. In deep snow, or when stalking or walking on a muddy surface, a Bobcat’s tracks will show a “direct register,” with the hind feet placed directly in the impressions made by the front feet, leaving a relatively straight trail of single tracks (see photo).

Many tracking books state that dog tracks have nail marks and that cat tracks lack them. While this is true a majority of the time, this is not always the case for either group. If a cat’s nails do happen to register, they will make a narrow slit mark in snow or mud, whereas dog nails are wider and more blunt.

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Tufted Titmice Singing & Calling

3-24-17 tufted titmouse 085The two-note “Peter-Peter” song of the Tufted Titmouse has just started to ring out through northern New England woods. Although titmice may pair up any time of year, the singing of the males is still a vital part of establishing territory and courtship. The rate and the volume at which these songs are sung is highest during pre-nesting, nest-building, egg-laying and incubation.

While the Tufted Titmouse’s song is familiar, its calls are more numerous and varied. Twelve different Tufted Titmouse calls have been identified. They range from the ‘chick-a-dee’ and ‘seet’ calls made in reponse to predators, to the hissing done by a female titmouse in a cavity, defending her nest.

To hear both songs and calls of the Tufted Titmouse, go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tufted_Titmouse/sounds.

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Red Foxes Giving Birth

3-22-17 red fox kit IMG_7433Red Fox vixens are giving birth to one to seven pups (usually three to five) in their underground dens at this time of year. The pictured pup is about four weeks old, and is starting to acquire its sand-colored coat. Red Fox pups are born with a temporary coat of dark grey-brown fur which we rarely see, as they stay in their den for the first month or so, where their mother provides warmth and milk.  At the age of four weeks or thereabouts, the pups begin to emerge from the den and sit, nap and play near its entrance. At that time they grow a second coat that is very close to the color of the sandy terrain in which their den is usually dug. Their red coat, for which they are named, develops later in the summer.

Although it’s too early to see Red Fox pups, keep an eye out for active dens which are easiest to find where there is still snow on the ground, as the dirt around the entrance is usually visible. Males can sometimes be seen going back and forth, delivering food to the vixen and her pups.

The next Naturally Curious post will be 3/24/17.

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Carpenter Bees Hibernating

email-carpenter bee holes IMG_1408If your home, shed or barn has weathered, unpainted wood and is riddled with ½”-diameter, perfectly round holes, there is a chance that carpenter bees are hibernating in them. Carpenter bees resemble bumblebees in both size and appearance (a carpenter bee has very few hairs on the top of its abdomen, which appears black and shiny, whereas bumble bee abdomens are often yellow and hairy), but they are not social insects. Instead of having a common nest in which they live and raise their young, carpenter bees drill  holes in wooden structures or trees inside of which they chew tunnels that contain six to eight brood chambers for their young. After creating the chambers, the female carpenter bee places a portion of “bee bread” (a mixture of pollen and regurgitated nectar) in each one. On top of each pile of food she lays an egg and then seals off the chamber. The larvae eat and grow, pupate and emerge as adult bees in late summer. At this point they feed on nectar, pollinating a wide variety of flowers before they return to their tunnels to over-winter.

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American Woodcocks’ Wintry Arrival

3-20-17 A. Woodcock 014Over the past decade or so, there appears to be a trend of increasingly early American Woodcock arrivals on breeding grounds in Vermont. It used to be that when March arrived, you started looking for the very first returning migrants. Now you need to keep your eyes open for this forest-dwelling shorebird in February.

The start of the Woodcock migration northward and the rate of their progress is said to be greatly influenced by photoperiod and weather. With the unusually warm weather we had in February and early March this year, American Woodcocks, as well as several other migratory species, have been returning earlier than normal. Since their return, we have had early thaws interspersed with hard frosts and several days in a row staying below freezing which created a hard crust on what snow remained. This was followed by a storm that dumped one to two feet of snow on the ground and colder than usual temperatures.

Migration is demanding enough on birds, but those fortunate enough to reach their destination then have to find food and stay warm.  It is most challenging for those species with a fairly limited diet, such as Woodcocks, whose diet consists primarily of earthworms. In a typical year there are frequently brief freezes after Woodcocks return, and even storms that leave several inches of snow. But it warms up relatively quickly and there are usually ditches and wet, thawed areas where long bills can probe the soil for life-sustaining food. Not so this year – a deadly combination of early arrivals and late frigid weather spells disaster for American Woodcocks.

The Raptor Center, a wild bird rehabilitation center in New Jersey, reports that during a recent 24-hour period, they admitted more Woodcocks than in all of 2016. After flying hundreds of miles, these birds are exhausted and very hungry when they arrive on their breeding grounds. Should you find one in distress, you can locate a wildlife rehabilitator that accepts birds (in all states) by going to www.owra.org/find-a-wildlife-rehabilitator .

Special thanks to Maeve Kim and Ian Worley for the data and information in this post.

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Snowfleas’ Soft Landing Gear

3-17-17 snowflea IMG_0947Snow fleas, a species of springtail, are not a type of flea. Neither are they insects, though they are close relatives. During most of the year they live in the soil and leaf litter, consuming fungi and decaying vegetation. On warm winter days they appear on the surface of the snow, and are often described as “pepper on snow” due to their black color and tiny size (1 – 2 millimeters long).

Although they lack wings, they have two tail-like spring projections, or furcula, which are held like a spring against the bottom of their abdomen by a kind of latch. When the snow flea wants to move, the furcula springs downward, catapulting the snowflea as far as 100 times its body length. Snowfleas in the genus Hypogastrura possess three pinkish anal sacs which are usually located inside the snowflea, hidden from view. Just before jumping the snowflea everts these sacs from its anus. Their function has not been confirmed, but many biologists believe they serve as a sticky safety bag which prevents the snowflea from bouncing around when it lands.

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Red-tailed Hawks Building & Refurbishing Nests

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Red-tailed Hawks are on eggs, or soon will be.  Whether their nest is in the canopy, on a building ledge, transmission tower or elsewhere, it usually has a commanding view of the surrounding area and unobstructed access from above.

Both members of a pair share in nest site selection, which is often in mixed woods adjacent to open fields. They build their nest together, working most diligently in the morning, and construction is completed within four to seven days. If a nest is re-used, which it often is, it is refurbished with sticks and greenery. Red-tails are very wary during this nest-preparation period and may discontinue nest-building if humans are detected, so should you come upon a nest during this stage, best to remove yourself quickly.

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Woodchucks Active

3-15-17 woodchuck burrow IMG_0618Our recent snowstorm will make it a bit more challenging for male Woodchucks intent on mating, for they must work their way up through a foot or more of snow upon wakening. In March and April they come out of hibernation having lost 20 – 40 percent of their weight over the winter. Even so, sex is the driving force, not food, which is fortunate, as there is little for them to eat this early in the spring. Males dig their way out of their burrows and head straight for the burrows of females.   After mating, the female goes back to sleep for several weeks and the male returns to his burrow and does the same. Snow makes these tunnels much more obvious and thus easier to find, as dirt is scattered around their entrances. Equally obvious are the muddy trails males leave when in search of females.

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The Feathered Feet of Northern Owls

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Most owls have feathered legs, but the feet and toes of some owls, especially those living in colder, higher latitudes, are also densely feathered. The feathers keep the feet of these birds warm, allowing them to hunt where snow is on the ground and temperatures are very low. Great Gray Owls (pictured), Snowy Owls and Northern Hawk Owls are all examples of this phenomenon. Owls living in warmer climes, such as Barn Owls, have sparsely feathered feet and toes, and tropical owls have nearly featherless feet. This variation can also be found within a given species that has a range that extends over many degrees of latitude, such as the Barred Owl.

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Eastern Chipmunks Emerging & Mating

3-13-17 e. chipmunk IMG_2353

All winter long, Eastern Chipmunks have been intermittently napping and running to their underground larder to snack every week or two. As spring approaches, the timing of their emergence above ground is affected by the weather, even though their tunnels are 18” – 36” below the surface. Within the last week chipmunks have been seen above ground.  One would think they must be in a state of confusion, given the erratic weather we’ve experienced this spring.

Chipmunks waste no time once they are active.  Most adult females are in breeding condition when they emerge (as opposed to males, which are in a state of constant readiness) and mate within a week. This involves 10-30 couplings within about a 6-7 hour receptive period.  In a month or so, the results of these efforts will be born.

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Hooded Mergansers Courting

3-10-17 hooded mergansers 186

Before Hooded Mergansers seek out their nesting cavities in snags and stumps they engage in extensive courtship displays. Males tend to outdo females when it comes to these displays. As the accompanying photograph illustrates, courtship occurs in small groups consisting of at least one female and several males. Males engage in many more types of displays than females. The extent of female courtship consists mainly of head-bobbing and head-pumping. Male displays include crest-raising, head-throws with turn-the-back-of-the-head, head-pumping, head-shaking, upward-stretch, upward-stretch with wing-flap and ritualized (repeated) drinking.

Head-throws  (see male in foreground of photo) are the most elaborate display. With crest raised, males bring their head abruptly backward touching their back. A rolling frog-like crraaa-crrrooooo call is given as the head is returned to the upright position and turned away from the intended female. This call sounds so much like a frog that the first time I observed courting Hooded Mergansers I thought it was pure coincidence that I was watching male mergansers display while Leopard Frogs were simultaneously giving their snore-like call. In actuality, the displays as well as the vocal accompaniment were being produced by the mergansers.  (Note that one female Hooded Merganser appears not to be all that impressed.)

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Striped Skunks Seeking Mates

3-9-17 skunk 118

Striped Skunks are on the prowl, as your nose may have told you recently – males are eagerly seeking out the company of females at this time of year and are often hit by cars traveling at night. The peak of the Striped Skunk breeding season — the third week of March — will soon be upon us. Males will mate with several females in succession and then they often protect their harem against other males by hitting them (other males) with their shoulders or biting their legs. Once a female has been successfully bred, she will not allow further mating activity and will viciously fight any male that attempts it.

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Eastern Cottonwoods & European Honey Bees

3-7-17-eastern-cottonwood-resin-072

One species of tree you might encounter if you’re in a floodplain is the Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoids), a member of the Willow family and the Poplar genus. Because it can tolerate flooding, it often grows near river banks and disturbed wet areas. The buds of Eastern Cottonwood are large and somewhat sticky, due to the resin that they contain. Resin exudes from the buds during the fall as well as the spring, and is evident even in winter when you see it frozen in droplets on the buds (see photo). In trees, resin serves to seal wounds and defend against bacteria, fungi and insects.

European Honey Bees discovered that the properties of cottonwood resin which benefitted cottonwood trees could also benefit them. They collect the resin from the outside of Eastern Cottonwood buds, mix it with wax and apply it to the walls of their nest cavity. This “bee glue” is referred to as propolis, and, as it turns out, serves as an antimicrobial barrier as well as a sealant. Various bacteria, fungi and other harmful microbes are kept at bay by the resin contained in propolis. It also directly reduces two diseases of Honey Bees, chalkbrood and American foulbrood.

Interestingly, if a mouse or small rodent happens to die inside a hive, and the bees can’t remove it through the hive entrance, they often seal the carcass inside an envelope of propolis.  This prevents the hive from being affected by the mouse’s decomposition.

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Rare Winter Visitors – Great Gray Owls

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Great Gray Owls are impressive birds – at 27” in length, they are our largest owl (Great Horned Owl – 22”, Snowy – 23”) but at 2.4 pounds, not our heaviest (Great Horned Owl – 3.1 pounds, Snowy – 4 pounds). The feathers that make a Great Gray Owl look so massive are what keep it warm during winters in the northern boreal forests where it resides.

Most of a Great Gray Owl’s diet consists of rodents, and some winters, when prey is scarce, individuals wander south to southern Canada and northern U.S. to sustain themselves. Sometimes Great Gray Owls are highly irruptive, and the number of sightings in the Northeast is high. In the winter of 1978-79 there were over 150 sightings in New England and Quebec. While there were numerous sightings in southern Canada this winter, northern New England was visited by only a few individuals, including the one pictured (in central New Hampshire).

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Amphibians Migrating

3-6-17-spotted-salamander-2-img_7608Vermonters were witness to a record-breaking (early) amphibian migration in the Champlain Valley last week on March 1st, when night temperatures were in the low 50’s.   Not only did it occur a week earlier than any other previous major migration, but records show that migration for the earliest amphibians in Vermont is now approximately two to three weeks earlier than it has been during the last decade. (as reported by Jim Andrews, www.VtHerpAtlas.org).

Spotted Salamanders, Four-toed Salamanders, Eastern Red-backed Salamanders, Blue-spotted Salamanders, Jefferson Salamanders, Spring Peepers, Wood Frogs and even an American Toad were on the move. According to Andrews, “this is a concern if the weather turns really cold and the ground and ponds refreeze. If that happens, many of the early migrants (that are not freeze tolerant) could freeze and die. If the weather stays relatively mild, with only short cold snaps, they should be fine.” Weather since these sightings has been unseasonably cold, and one can only hope they survived. (Photo: Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum)

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Black Bears Emerging From Hibernation

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Time to take in bird feeders, at least at night. Black Bear sightings are being reported throughout northern New England, a bit earlier than usual probably due to the erratic weather we’ve been having. Adult males emerge from their dens first, females with cubs  last – the opposite order in which they entered in the fall.

Having survived the winter by living off the fat they accumulated last fall, Black Bears weigh considerably less upon waking. Males will typically drop between 15 and 30 percent of their body weight, while lactating mothers can lose up to 40 percent. Even so, for the first two or three weeks following hibernation, bears eat and drink less than they normally do, while their metabolism adjusts to the changes. This is referred to as “walking hibernation” by some biologists. Once normal activity resumes, and until herbaceous green shoots appear in wetlands, bird feeders  are a main attraction.

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Wingless Snow-walking Crane Flies

3-2-17-snow-walking-wingless-crane-fly-img_9477Thanks to a sharp-eyed Naturally Curious blog reader, a recently mis-identified active winter insect can be correctly identified. What I referred to as a “snow scorpionfly” last week was, in fact, a type of crane fly that, as an adult, has no wings. Like snow scorpionflies, these wingless snow-walking crane flies appear on top of the snow on warm winter days. These two kinds of insects are also very similar in shape and size, but, unlike snow scorpionflies, this group of crane flies have what are called halteres, knobbed filaments which act as balancing organs (see photo).

Scorpion snowflies, despite their name, are not true flies in the order Diptera.  Crane flies are.  Most species of true flies have one pair of wings, instead of the usual two that winged insects have, as well as halters, which take the place of hind wings and vibrate during flight. While wingless snow-walking crane flies lack a pair of wings, they do possess halteres, which are the key to distinguishing between a wingless snow-walking crane fly and a snow scorpionfly, which lacks them!  (Thanks to Jay Lehtinen for photo I.D.)

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Waterfowl Returning To Northern New England

3-1-17-wood-ducks-084Northern New England birders starved for the sight of colorful waterfowl in their binoculars and scopes are celebrating the timely arrival of waterfowl in open bodies of water. Both ducks that will remain and breed here, such as Wood Ducks, as well as those that are just stopping to refuel on the way to their more northern breeding grounds, such as Green-winged Teal, have made their appearance in recent days, and many more will follow in the coming weeks.

Wood Ducks can be found year-round as far north as southern Vermont and New Hampshire, but further north we lose them to the south in the winter. Like most ducks, migrant Wood Ducks depart shortly around sunset or shortly thereafter, and are thought to fly most of the night at speeds of 37 miles per hour or more. As the sun rises, they descend to rest and refuel. Look for them in rivers, swamps, marshes and ponds, where they refuel during the day.

Green-winged Teal typically migrate in large bunched flocks of up to a few hundred individuals, mostly at night. They tend to spend days during their migration in shallow inland wetlands and coastal marshes, typically with heavy vegetation and muddy bottoms.  (Photo:  Wood Ducks)

(Please excuse absence of Naturally Curious posts this week due to illness and lack of internet access.)

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