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Archive for April, 2017

Blue Cohosh Flowering

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Blue Cohosh, one of our early spring wildflowers, has diminutive flowers that open before its leaves fully expand. Like Wild Ginger, Blue Cohosh flowers are the color of rotting meat, which may account for the fact that flies are its main insect visitors. Flies tend to feed at a single flower until satiated, which is not conducive to cross-pollination, and thus most fertilization in Blue Cohosh is the result of self-pollination.

Native Americans treated a wide range of afflictions with Blue Cohosh, including gallstones, fevers, toothaches and rheumatism. The most common use of its rhizomes, or underground stems, was as an aid to speed and ease childbirth. Even today it still serves this purpose — 64% of midwives surveyed reported using Blue Cohosh to treat women before or during childbirth. It has, however, had deleterious effects on some women and has not been evaluated by the FDA.

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Feathered Fishermen

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Using their keen eyesight and sense of hearing, Barred Owls typically sit and perch on a branch, surveying the ground beneath them for whatever morsel appears, small mammals and birds being at the top of their list during the winter, with more emphasis on amphibians, reptiles, fish and invertebrates during the warmer months.

Several times I have observed a Barred Owl taking advantage of a vernal pool that was teaming with life, specifically Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers. Perched in a nearby tree, the owl kept an eye out for any sign of movement in the water.  When ripples appeared near the shore it would swoop down to the water’s edge in an attempt to grasp a frog with its talons. Although it met with repeated failure, success was inevitable due to the plethora of distracted mating frogs.

Because they lack hair and feathers, frogs may be underestimated when scientists dissect owl pellets to see what Barred Owls eat. Given the frequency with which I have observed these feathered fishermen, I would think that might be very likely.

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Weaning of Red Fox Kits Nearing Completion

4-26 -17 red foxes nursingWhen Red Fox kits are about three weeks old they are introduced to solid food. Their mother’s milk continues to provide them with sustenance for several weeks more but it is increasingly fortified by prey that their parents catch. At about five weeks of age, just a week or so after the kits are seen above ground, the process of weaning begins. The mother physically prevents them from having access to her teats by lying down on her stomach or snapping at her kits if they attempt to nurse too often.

The kits in this photograph, taken on April 26 several years ago, are approximately two months old, enjoying what may be one of the last warm milk meals they will ever have.   Weaning is completed at about eight weeks or a little more, when the kits’ teeth have all come in.

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Mourning Cloaks Surviving On Sap

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Who doesn’t celebrate at the sight of a Mourning Cloak butterfly gliding through the woods on soft, spring breezes? Because the adults spend the winter hibernating behind loose bark, Mourning Cloaks are among the first butterflies to take flight in the spring. Most butterflies overwinter as eggs or pupae inside chrysalises, and have to complete metamorphosis before they can take to the air.

Surviving in March and April, when there is little, if any, nectar to be found, is challenging. Mourning Cloaks sustain themselves with the sap that exudes from broken tree branches or wounds in tree trunks. Oaks are their preferred source of sap. When they find some, they walk down the trunk to the sap and feed head downward (see photo).

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Leatherwood Flowering

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Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) is a slow-growing, deciduous shrub that is present but relatively uncommon in the Northeast. In the spring, as early as March in southern New England, its tiny, bell-shaped yellow flowers burst into bloom. The leaf buds have yet to open when this happens, so even though the flowering season is short, these shrubs and their flowers are very noticeable.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Leatherwood is its tough, elastic, and very strong bark for which it was named. Its twigs are pliable to the point where you can almost bend them in half without breaking them. Native Americans recognized these qualities and used the bark for making bow strings, baskets, fishing line and rope.

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Cavity-nesting Birds Wasting No Time

4-21-17 black-capped chickadee nest building IMG_4765There are roughly 85 species of North American birds that are cavity nesters – birds that excavate nesting holes, use cavities resulting from decay (natural cavities), or use holes created by other species in dead or deteriorating trees.   Many of them get a jump start on open-nesting birds, due to added protection from the elements. Barred owls, titmice, chickadees, wood ducks, woodpeckers, bluebirds, mergansers – many have chosen a nest site and are busy excavating, lining a cavity or laying eggs long before many other species have even returned to their breeding grounds.

The reduced risk of predation a cavity nest experiences is reflected in several ways:  many cavity-nesters have larger clutches of eggs than open-nesting birds and cavity-nesting young also spend a relatively longer period of time in the nest before fledging. When in the woods, keep an eye out for snags (standing dead trees) and stumps, for they provide housing for many cavity-nesting birds.  (Photo: Black-capped Chickadee removing wood chips from the cavity it’s excavating in a rotting stump.)

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Red Maples In Bloom

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Red Maples (Acer rubrum) are celebrated in the fall for their vibrant colors, but they produce equally vibrant reds and yellows in early spring when they are flowering. Most Red Maples have dense clusters of either male flowers or female flowers (dioecious), although some have both male and female flowers (monoecious). Under certain conditions, a Red Maple tree can sometimes switch from male to female, male to both male and female (hermaphroditic), and hermaphroditic to female.

The showier male, or staminate, flowers contain between four and twelve stamens, with long, slender filaments and red (young) or yellow (mature) anthers at their tips. Both red sepals and petals can be seen at the base of the stamens.  A staminate Red Maple in full bloom is a blaze of gold and red. (Photo: mature staminate Red Maple flowers)

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Flies Mating

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As readers are aware, I spend a significant portion of my time outdoors examining scat, and in so doing, have discovered a family of hairy flies, Heleomyzidae, that are often present on the freshest specimens, especially in early spring and late fall. This spring I have found them mating on both coyote and bear scat.  The ardor of males is impressive – without exception the males pounce upon each and every fly of their own species they see. Repeated rejections do not appear to slow them down – just the opposite. In fact, moments after the pictured pair left the surface of a coyote scat and landed on a nearby branch, they were joined by another fly and the threesome tumbled to the ground in an attempt at a menage a trois (see inset).

Different species of flies in this family feed on different food sources. Look for them in and on carcasses, scat, compost, fungi, caves, and bird nests.

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Snowy Egrets Becoming More Colorful

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For those New Englanders fortunate enough to live on the coast, Snowy Egrets are a welcome sight this time of year as they return from their wintering grounds to breed. Like most herons and egrets, they acquire plumes – long, wispy feathers – on their back, neck and head during the breeding season. (These plumes were highly sought after by the women’s hat trade in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They were valued at $32 per ounce, twice the price of gold at the time. Eventually laws were passed to protect the birds.)

Something slightly more subtle but equally as dramatic as ornate plumage highlights the appearance of these birds in the breeding season and that is a change in bill and feet coloration. Different species of herons and egrets exhibit different color changes. Snowy Egrets’ greenish-yellow feet turn a much richer orange-yellow hue during the breeding season, and the patch of bare skin at the base of their bill (lore) changes from a yellowish color to a pinkish/reddish color, only seen at this time of year.

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Vernal Pool Obligate Species

3-15-17 vernal pool IMG_4814This is the time of year when vernal pools become a main attraction for certain breeding amphibians and invertebrates. Most of these ephemeral wetlands, due to evaporation and transpiration, dry up during part of the year and therefore cannot support a population of fish. This makes them a highly successful breeding environment for creatures that need water in which to reproduce, for both they and their eggs stand a much better chance of surviving without predatory fish.

Vernal pools attract certain species of amphibians and invertebrates that are completely dependent upon these pools for parts of their life cycle (obligate species). In much of the Northeast these include wood frogs, spotted salamanders, blue-spotted and Jefferson salamanders, marbled salamanders (southern N.E.), eastern spadefoot toads (southern N.E.), vernal fairy shrimp (southern N.E.) and knob-lipped fairy shrimp (northern N.E.). If you discover a woodland body of water that has one or more of these species breeding in it, you have found what is technically referred to as a vernal pool. (Photo insets clockwise:  Wood Frog, upper right; Blue-spotted Salamander by E. Talmage; Spotted Salamander)

The next Naturally Curious post will be on 4/18/17.

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On the Cusp Of A Spring Smorgasbord

4-12-17 beavers out 936At long last beavers have been released from their winter lodge confinement and it’s hard not to read a sense of delight into the expression of the yearling beaver in this photograph!  In addition to the welcome sun and fresh air, beavers now have access to a variety of food that was not available to them in the winter. One thinks of beavers as strictly bark (cambium) eaters but their diet is far more extensive. In the winter, in addition to their pile of branches stored in the pond in the fall, they have access to the rhizomes of yellow and white pond lilies, which they appear to relish. Once their pond opens up in the spring, they head for the closest green plants – grasses, sedges, ferns and other herbaceous plants which are just starting their spring growth.

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Red Squirrel Sign

4-11-17 squirrel nip twig2 019An obvious sign of Red Squirrels, especially noticeable if snow is still on the ground, is the remains of their feeding activity. In winter and early spring, when snow may make finding food on the forest floor difficult, Red Squirrels show a preference for conifer buds. Rather than scurrying up a tree and eating the buds, they first prune the branch tip from the tree, eat the buds and then discard the tip onto the ground. Spruces, hemlocks and firs are some of their main sources of buds. If the squirrel feeds for a significant amount of time, the forest floor under the conifer it is feeding in can become littered with branch tips. Nip twigs scattered on the ground beneath hemlocks are also a sign of Porcupine feeding, but the tips they drop are much longer than the 2- to 4-inch tips discarded by Red Squirrels. (Photo:  Balsam Fir branch tips; Inset – lateral buds of Balsam Fir branch tip eaten by Red Squirrel)

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Sapsuckers & Hummingbirds

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The Morse Code tapping of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers has just started reverberating in northern New England woodlands once again – a sure sign of spring. There is an interesting relationship between sapsuckers and hummingbirds, with hummingbirds reaping most of the benefits.   It is thought that the Ruby-throated Hummingbird may time its migration north to coincide with that of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in some areas. In northern New England, hummingbirds arrive on their breeding grounds about a month after sapsuckers, insuring that sapsucker-drilled sap wells will be waiting for them. The reason this is important is that these wells are an important source of nutrients (both sap and insects attracted to it) for hummingbirds as well as sapsuckers.  In addition, and not surprisingly, hummingbirds often place their nest near sap wells. This affinity for sap continues well past the nesting season – – hummingbirds have been observed following sapsuckers throughout summer days. (Photo:  male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker & male Ruby-throated Hummingbird)

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Wood Ducks Returning

4-7-17 wood ducks 288Among the first groups of birds to move north in the spring are waterfowl. Many ducks, geese, and swans begin migrating as soon as frozen lakes and marshes start to thaw. Although an occasional Wood Duck is spotted in northern New England during the colder months, most winter further south (band recoveries indicate that in eastern U.S. about one-third of Wood Ducks are permanent residents and the others are migratory). They begin to be seen in open water in February and March but it is April before their numbers really swell, and sometimes it seems that on every stream and in every flooded field you can find at least one pair. With their distinctive plumage, it’s hard to miss them, especially the males. Soon they will be seeking out natural cavities in trees, including Pileated Woodpecker holes, in which to nest.

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Woodland Recycler

4-7-17 chickadee on scat 116The ability to find food is crucial for all creatures.  It involves looking in every potential location, including the waste material of other animals.  Nothing goes to waste in the natural world, and I was fortunate to observe an example of this recycling phenomenon recently in bear-inhabited woodlands.

Even though feeding birds is discouraged at this time of year due to the seeds’ appeal to hungry, emerging Black Bears, many find it a hard habit to stop. Inevitably Black Bears will smell the seeds in feeders and help themselves to them.  If this continues long enough, the bears will become habituated and eventually this can lead to their being considered a nuisance, which can lead to their demise. Thus, it’s best to stop feeding birds now that Black Bears have emerged from hibernation.

That said, those who continue to fill feeders in the spring and have had them raided by bears need not fear that their birds are without recourse should they find the feeders empty or missing. Much of what goes in comes out, and bears deposit their seed-laden scat throughout the woods, creating ground “feeders” for all kinds of creatures. In this instance, a Black-capped Chickadee repeatedly helped itself to uncracked sunflower seeds amongst a great deal of millet and sunflower seed husks in the scat of a Black Bear.

This post is dedicated to Sadie Brown, Solid Waste & Recycling Coordinator for the town of Melrose, MA.

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Boxelder Bugs Active

4-6-17 boxelder bugs 095You may have noticed ½-inch-long black insects with red markings emerging from cracks and crevices inside or outside your home with the recent arrival of warmer weather. These are adult Boxelder Bugs that have been hibernating all winter and have become active with the warming days. They may disappear on days such as today when the weather turns cold again, but they’ll emerge for good in late April or May, just about the time buds on Boxelder trees are beginning to open.

During the spring and early summer they seek out and feed on low vegetation and seeds on the ground. Starting in mid‑July, they move to female seed-bearing Boxelder trees (or occasionally other maple or ash trees) where they lay eggs on trunks, branches, and leaves.  Red nymphs hatch in roughly two weeks, and proceed, like their parents, to feed on Boxelder foliage and seeds by using their piercing-sucking mouthparts. Even if their numbers are large, there is no noticeable feeding injury to these trees.   Come fall both adults and nymphs congregate in large numbers on the south side of trees, buildings and rocks exposed to the sun (only adults survive the winter) before settling in a protected hibernaculum. Boxelder Bugs are most abundant during hot, dry summers followed by warm springs. They do not bite people and are essentially harmless to property.  (Photo: adult Boxelder Bugs in spring; insert – adults and nymphs in fall) Thanks to Jeannie Killam for photo op.

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“Naturally Curious” Blog Celebrates Seven Years!

4-4-17 - loons 203Seven years ago today, after my book Naturally Curious was published, this blog made its debut.  Since then, close to 2,000 posts (initially there were 7 posts a week) have appeared.  They have produced one book (Naturally Curious Day by Day), many questions, comments and exchanges, new friends, generous donations and hopefully new insight into this magical world of ours.  Thank you all for seven very rewarding years.

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Don’t Let the Snow Fool You!

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The recent major snow storm in the Northeast inevitably confirmed climate change doubters’ convictions. However, dramatic swings in temperature are also part of the changing climate, and the overall trend is unquestionably one of shorter winters.

The U.S. Geological Survey says spring is showing up two to three weeks earlier than normal in the southeast United States this year, from Texas to Washington, and is making its way gradually north. This scientifically-proven phenology finding is based on flowering and leafing out times. In the Arctic, some grasses are flowering a month early, depriving hibernating animals of a crucial early-spring food source. Snowshoe hares and ermine are failing to molt their white winter coats before the world turns green, leading to less successful protection (and for the ermine, predation) for these animals. The climate scientists have it right, regardless of the white world outside our windows — New York City’s forecast is for the mid-60’s on Wednesday. Who knows what flowers we’ll find when the snow soon melts – perhaps the unfurling flower buds of Round-leaved Hepatic (pictured).

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