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Archive for May, 2017

Muskrats Busy Feeding Young

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Birthing time for Muskrats is late April/early May, so this year’s young are roughly a month old. Weaning begins now and young Muskrats, who have been able to swim since they were two weeks old, begin foraging for themselves. Parents continue to supplement their offspring’s diet during this transition.  Although Muskrats are omnivores, the majority of their diet consists of the roots, stems, leaves and fruits of aquatic vegetation. However, when you’re feeding half a dozen offspring, you harvest whatever is available, including bedstraw (see photo).

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Northern Mockingbirds: Aggressive Defenders of Nest & Young

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Besides being known for their vocal repertoire, Northern Mockingbirds are famous for pugnacious defense of their territory, nest, and young. Even more than most songbirds, Northern Mockingbirds aggressively stand guard over their nestlings as well as their young fledglings. Potential predators risk being mobbed and chased by nesting mockingbirds. While the female incubates, the male spends most of his time perched high on trees or rooftops, acting as a sentinel, and will chase away any animal (including humans) that approaches the nest. Northern Mockingbirds have also been known to join forces with other birds, including cardinals, thrashers and doves, to chase away potential nest predators.

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White Ash Flowering

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In 1935 Walter Rogers wrote a book on tree flowers (Tree Flowers of Forest, Park and Street) in which he described White Ash (Fraxinus americana) in the following words. “The Ashes are important trees with interesting features of form and foliage, but their flowers are among the least interesting.” I am of a different opinion, at least regarding White Ash’s male, or staminate, flowers.

White Ash is dioecius – individual trees have all male or all female flowers. Just before and as the tree is leafing out, the flower buds, located on the shoots of the previous season, begin to open. Male flowers are more noticeable than female flowers, partly because of the size of their clusters — there are between 200 and 300 flowers in each cluster – and their vibrant color (which resembles the fall color of some White Ash leaves). Being wind-pollinated, White Ash’s flowers lack petals as they would impede pollination. The stamens are a purplish-red, raspberry-like color until they mature, at which time the pollen’s yellow color is predominant.  The flowers are soon hidden by emerging leaves, so now is the time to see if you agree with Mr. Rogers!

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Barred Owl Chicks Fledging

5-25-17 barred owl fledging2Unlike most young birds, Barred Owls fledge before they can fly. On average, they leave their nest when they are around eight weeks old, and don’t master flight until they’re about 12 weeks old. Fledging for a Barred Owl consists of climbing up out of the tree cavity where they spent their first two months, onto a nearby limb where its parents will tend to it. More often than not there is a nearby branch which it can hop to.

In the fledging depicted, the closest limb was a good 10-15 feet above the nesting cavity. With the help of its strong talons, beak and wings, the fledgling managed to scale the tree trunk up to a somewhat horizontal stub where it could get a good purchase. It may not have been the most graceful ascension, but the fact that it could manage to climb straight up for this distance without the assistance of any grasping fingers was impressive, to say the least.  Fledged Barred Owls continue to be fed by their parents until they can fly and capture their own prey.  (Photo: Barred Owl chick fledging – clockwise, starting from upper left)

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American Dog Ticks Can’t Give You Lyme Disease

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With the plethora of ticks this spring, it is perhaps comforting to know that not every tick you extract from your body has the potential to give you Lyme disease (or the powassan virus or many of the other diseases carried by Blacklegged Ticks (Ixodes scapularis), also known as Deer Ticks).

The American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis) is the most commonly encountered tick in northern New England. It is found predominantly in areas with little or no tree cover, such as grassy fields and scrubland, as well as along walkways and trails. This species of tick feeds on a variety of hosts, ranging in size from mice to deer and humans. Despite the fact that the bacterium that causes Lyme disease has been found in American Dog Ticks, tests prove that the tick can’t transmit the organism to its hosts. Therefore, the American Dog Tick isn’t involved in the spread of Lyme disease. (It does transmit Rocky Mt. Spotted Fever, however, but there are relatively few cases of it in the Northeast.)

The UNH Extension Service has such a succinct description of this tick’s life cycle that I am sharing it here. It is a “three-host tick,” so named because it must find and feed on an animal three times to complete its two- year life cycle…The dog tick begins life as an egg, one of hundreds laid in a mass on the ground by a female tick. The egg hatches into a larva, which has six legs. The larva remains on the ground in leaf litter, or in low vegetation while waiting for a small mammal (usually a rodent) to brush by. It attaches to the animal and feeds for several days. Then it drops off and molts to the nymph stage, which has eight legs. Again it waits for a host (usually a rodent) to brush by. When that happens, the tick attaches and feeds on it for several days. When fully fed it drops off and molts to the adult stage. Adult ticks wait on shrubs or tall grass and attach to larger mammals such as people, deer, or pets. They also take several days to fully engorge (feed). A female fully engorged with a blood meal can be almost the size of a dime, appearing smooth and shiny. Mating takes place on the host, and when fully fed, the females drop off and lay eggs. The life cycle can be as short as three months. (Photo: American Dog Tick, Dermacentor variabilis)

CDC TICK PREVENTION TIPS:

Use repellents that contain 20% or more DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) on exposed skin.

Use products that contain permethrin on clothing. Treat clothing and gear, including boots, pants, socks and tents.

Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you.

Check yourself, your kids, and your pets for ticks daily, especially after they spend time outdoors in areas where ticks may be found.

Remove attached ticks as soon as possible. The preferred method of removal is to grasp the tick close to the skin with tweezers or fine-tipped forceps and gently pull upward with constant pressure.

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Baltimore Orioles Building Nests

5-26-17 b oriole building nest2 243Although male Baltimore Orioles have been known to partake in nest building, usually it’s the female who selects the specific site within the male’s territory and builds the nest. Located at the tip of a slender branch, this pendulous nest provides its occupants with as much protection from predators as is possible.

The material with which the nest is started usually consists of flexible plant, animal or human-made fibers, and provides support. “Springy” fibers are then woven into the inner bowl and downy fibers are used to line the nest.  The oriole usually brings only a single fiber at each visit, and works it into the nest with a complex series of bill-weaving techniques. The nest is completed in roughly one week.

Construction material includes hair (especially horsehair), twine or string, wool, synthetic fibers (one oriole nest was made entirely of cellophane), various types of plant fibers including grasses, milkweed stems and grapevine bark, cottonwood or willow seed “cotton,” milkweed seed plumes and feathers. Females have been observed flying more than a quarter of a mile in search of construction material. (Photo:  Female Baltimore Oriole on her first day of nest-building)

YESTERDAY’S MYSTERY PHOTO: Once again, Naturally Curious readers outdid themselves with creative solutions to a Mystery Photo. If you want a thoroughly enjoyable 5 minutes of entertainment, read yesterday’s comments! I will let you know if this mystery is ever solved.

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Mystery Photo

5-23-17 blue scat by Adam Riquier IMG_3657 (002)Normally I am well acquainted with the natural history of any Mystery Photo I post, but today is an exception.  I have no idea whose scat this is, nor the origin of its color.  A forester, Adam Riquier, discovered it in Lake Placid, NY. He writes that “The forest type is hardwoods (maple beech, birch with some red spruce) right at an edge where it transitions to a cedar forest. It was taken three or four days ago, so there are no berries out yet. There is some blue stain fungus on downed hardwood nearby. The scat is roughly golf ball sized.”

In hopes that a Naturally Curious reader might be familiar with this oddity, I secured Adam’s permission to post his photograph.  If you think you know whose scat it is, and/or the origin of its color, please share your expertise with us!  (The scat was found at least a mile from any houses, not eliminating the possibility of (blue) rat poison having been ingested, but making it fairly unlikely.)

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Painted Turtles Hatchlings Emerging From Nests In Northern New England

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Adult Painted Turtles leave their ponds in May, June and July to find a sandy spot in which to dig a hole and deposit their half dozen or so eggs.  In most of their range, Painted Turtles hatch and emerge from their nest several months later, from August through early September. In the northern part of their range, however, the young turtles hatch in the fall but usually overwinter in their underground nest and emerge in the spring.

When turtles hatch, they use a modified scale called an egg-tooth, or carbuncle, located on the front of their upper jaw, to puncture their leathery egg shell.  (Although referred to as an egg-tooth, it is not a real tooth.) Typically the egg tooth disappears in a matter of days or weeks after hatching.  However, Painted Turtle hatchlings in northern New England retain their egg teeth through the winter, and emerge in the spring with it still intact, as this photograph demonstrates.  (Thanks to Nancy and Rob Foote for photo op.)

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False Morels

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At this time of year, many people are foraging for (true) morels to eat. Also found fruiting in the woods right now are false morels – species of morels that contain varying levels of the chemical monomethyl hydrazine (MMH). MMH causes vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, and sometimes death. Some false morel species contain very little, others contain lethal amounts. MMH levels also vary among geographic regions within a single species. While they are harvested in certain parts of the U.S., nobody knows with any certainty how toxic any false morel will be in any location. Thus, it is important to be able to tell them apart from true morels.

First, make note of the cap shape. False morels tend to be more rounded; true morel caps more cylindrical. Most false caps are “wavy” or “lobed.” They appear to be bulging outwards. True morels have a more uniformly shaped cap with pits or ridges; they appear to be pitted inwards rather than bulging. Also, the cap of the false mushroom typically hangs freely from the stem. A true morel has a cap that is usually attached to the stem. Lastly, if you slice a true morel open from top to bottom it will be hollow inside. A false one will usually be filled with wispy cotton-like fibers or chunks of tissue. (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo op.)

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Belted Kingfisher Nests

5-18-17 female kingfisher 025I unintentionally neglected to mention the diameter of the holes in yesterday’s Mystery Photo. They were approximately 5” wide. Bank Swallow nest holes, similar looking and also dug into banks, are anywhere from 1 ½” to 3” in diameter. Being colonial nesters, Bank Swallows also typically have many more nests in a given bank (see photo inset) than Belted Kingfishers, which usually have one but may have several in a single bank, only one of which they occurpy during a given season.

After courtship takes place, a pair of Belted Kingfishers flies to a sand bank in a road cut, landfill or sand/gravel pit that is usually near water, and proceed to excavate their nesting tunnel. The male begins to slash and probe the soil with his bill while the female remains perched nearby, calling the distinctive rattling call of Belted Kingfishers. She eventually lends a hand (bill) and they call to each other throughout the construction of their nest.

The tunnel extends three to six feet into the bank, ending with an unlined chamber. (A bed of undigested fish bones, scales and arthropod exoskeletons from regurgitated pellets eventually forms.) Typically the tunnel slopes upward from the entrance, which may help drain any water that accumulates in the nest. Furrows directly below the bottom of the nest hole are made by the feet of the birds as they enter and leave the nest.

Belted Kingfishers are starting to lay their six to seven eggs which will begin hatching in three to four weeks. (Photo:  female Belted Kingfisher)

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Mystery Photo

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What are these holes and who made them?  Please post your answers on Naturally Curious website under “Comments.”

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Dutchman’s Breeches Corms

5-16-17 dutchman's breeches corms IMG_9125Dutchman’s Breeches has corms similar to Squirrel Corn, but they are pink, not yellow!

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Squirrel Corn Vs. Dutchman’ s Breeches

5-16-17 squirrel corn 130There are two white spring wildflowers that have nearly identical dissected leaves, are both suspended in multiple numbers from a single stalk, and have petals that form long spurs within which nectar is located. Their names are Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis). Although Dutchman’s Breeches usually flowers a week or so earlier than Squirrel Corn, they can both be found flowering now.

As their name implies, Dutchman’s Breeches flowers are shaped like tiny pantaloons hanging from a wash line. Squirrel Corn is a close relative of Dutchman’s Breeches. If you look closely you will see that Squirrel Corn flowers have no yellow “waistband” like Dutchman’s Breeches, and their spurs are more rounded, giving the flower more of a heart shape. Squirrel Corn is named for the yellow underground corms, or storage structures, on its roots which are shaped a bit like corn kernels, absent in Dutchman’s Breeches.

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Barred Owls Parents Tending Chicks

5-12-17 adult owl in nest hole 241For about a month the female Barred Owl sits on her 1-5 eggs (usually 2 or 3) until her white, downy chicks hatch, usually around the end of April or beginning of May. At about two weeks (mid-May) their natal down is being replaced by a white-tipped gray-buff secondary down, and primary feathers are beginning to grow in.  They remain in their cavity nest for their first month.

It is pretty safe to assume that the adult owl in this photograph is a female as she is in constant attendance during the chicks’ first two weeks. The male brings her food which she tears into little bits so the chicks can swallow it. At the beginning of the third week, the female begins leaving the nest frequently to hunt. When she is at the nest, she often takes breaks from the kids and sits at the entrance surveying her surroundings.  At this point the chicks start consuming prey (that is delivered to them) on their own. In a week or two the chicks will also start appearing at the cavity entrance.  By their fourth or fifth week, the still-flightless chicks will leave the nest, but parental provision of food continues until fall.

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Happy Mother’s Day!

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Trinity Flower

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Purple Trillium, Large-flowered Trillium and Painted Trillium all flower in the month of May. Another name for trilliums is Trinity Flower, referring to the plant’s parts which are arranged in three’s or in multiple of threes. Three leaves, three sepals, three petals, six stamens, three stigmas and an ovary that has three compartments. (Photo: Purple Trillium, Trillium erectum)

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Squirrels Digging For False Truffles

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Such creative and informed answers to yesterday’s Mystery Photo, and many that were right on the mark!  To set the stage, several 2” to 4”-deep holes riddled the ground under a stand of Eastern Hemlocks. Something had obviously been digging for something, but who and what? Close inspection of the holes revealed two things. The animal that had dug the holes had run into some thick hemlock roots, and with a clean 45° angle cut, had snipped them in order to have access to the soil beneath them. Secondly, some of the holes had pea- to marble-size, spherical tan objects that resembled puffballs both lying at the bottom and wedged into the sides of the holes.

Only because I had read Paul Rezendes’s Tracking & the Art of Seeing years ago did I recognize these holes and spherical structures within as the work of an animal looking for false truffles (a genus of fungi) to eat. By putting the various clues together – a hemlock stand, 3” to 6”-wide holes, clean incisor-snipped roots, and a few remnant truffles – the mystery at to what was being sought was solved.

As to who had done the digging, white-tailed deer, squirrels and porcupines all fancy false truffles. Both porcupines and squirrels have incisors that would make a clean cut through the roots. If porcupines had been digging here, there would likely be scat and/or quills lying about, which there were not. Thus, most likely it was a squirrel that had smelled, unearthed and eaten the false truffles.

Rezendes found that the truffles he discovered had dried spores inside them, and assumed that this made them undesirable to the animal that unearthed them and therefore they were not eaten. The spores of the truffles I found were not dried out, so I have no idea why they weren’t eaten, but I’m very glad they weren’t, as their presence allowed me to solve this mystery and see this phenomenon which I’ve been looking for for decades.

It may interest some to know that false truffles and Eastern Hemlocks have a symbiotic relationship. The fungi are attached to hemlock roots, so the minerals and water they absorb are available to the hemlocks. The hemlocks provide the fungi with sugars that they (hemlocks) produce through photosynthesis. Squirrels (and porcupines and white-tailed deer) and eastern hemlocks have a similar mutually beneficial relationship in that hemlocks provide the truffle-eaters with food, and the squirrels, porcupines and white-tailed deer disperse the spores of the truffles they’ve eaten. (Caution: Do not eat false truffles – they are considered toxic to humans.)

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Mystery Photo

5-8-17 mystery photo 019Who has been digging here, and what have they been digging for? This hole is roughly 4” wide at the surface of the ground and about 2” deep. There is a marble-size indentation in the soil at the bottom of the hole. Careful scrutiny will give you another hint.

Please post your answer under “Comments” on Naturally Curious’s blog site. (Difficulty: 10 on a scale of 1-10, 10 being most difficult)

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This Year’s Black Bear Cubs Growing Up Fast

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It’s hard to believe that four months ago when it was born this Black Bear cub weighed less than a pound and measured about eight inches in length! Most Black Bears mate in June, but because of delayed implantation their fertilized eggs don’t implant in the uterine wall and the embryos don’t begin developing until the fall (if the mother has had a sufficiently nutritional diet), just as the mother is entering hibernation.

The cubs are born in January, after only a few months inside their mother. They are just a fraction of one percent of the mother bear’s weight, compared to an average human baby that is about seven percent of its mother’s weight. The cubs nurse constantly for the next four months (during which time their mother is not eating or drinking).  The fat content of Black Bear milk can be as high as 20-25 percent. Human milk is comparable to cows’ milk, generally ranging between three and five percent fat. (A biologist who had the opportunity to sample Black Bear milk reported that it was similar in taste to sweetened condensed milk.)

In April, when the cubs emerge from their den, they weigh about six pounds.  Milk production and intake now increases four-fold. Peak lactation (45 ounces of milk per day per cub) occurs in June and July. As a result, the cubs have a huge growth spurt their first summer and will weigh between 40 and 60 pounds by the end of it.

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Hobblebush Flowering

5-5-17 hobblebush 065At this time of year moist, rich woods are brilliantly lit up with the white flowers of a scraggly shrub called Hobblebush, whose name is derived from the tendency of its sprawling branches to trip people walking through the woods.

Hobblebush’s inflorescences consist of clusters of blossoms that together can measure six to eight inches across. The smaller flowers in the center (still buds in this photo) are fertile, possessing both stamens and pistils, while the larger flowers in the outermost ring are sterile. The inner fertile flowers produce fruit if pollinated and fertilized. The larger outer flowers, being sterile, do not produce fruit — their sole function is to attract insects to pollinate the central mass of fertile flowers.

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Meaty Morsels For Red Fox Kits

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All too soon Red Fox kits will have to fend for themselves, but as of right now, they are still enjoying having most of their meals delivered to them by their parents. If you were to sit and watch what tasty morsels were caught and presented to them, you would see many small rodents, especially squirrels, chipmunks, voles and mice, along with insects, birds and more often than you would think, snakes (see photo). Their diet will expand to include fruits and fungi as the summer progresses, but at this stage fast-growing youngsters need the protein that prey provides.

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Bigtooth Aspen Male Catkins

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Aspens, cottonwoods, poplars – all are names for certain species of trees in the genus Populus. These trees, as well as birch, hickory, oak and willow trees, produce their flowers on spikes called catkins. Telling the catkins of these trees from one another is challenging, to say the least, yet some of NC’s readers correctly identified the catkins in the photograph as those of Bigtooth Aspen, Populus grandidentata. This tree blooms for one to two weeks in the spring and its mature male catkins open and extend to two to four inches in length. The wind, as opposed to insects, disperses the light, fluffy yellow pollen as the catkins dangle in the breeze. Some of the pollen remains intact even after the tree has shed its spent catkins onto the ground.

Because Bigtooth Aspen, and most species of Populus, are dioecious (male and female flowers develop on separate trees), there are only male flowers in this photo and beneath this tree. After fertilization, female flowers remain on the tree and form capsules which contain several small seeds embedded in tufts of fine, white hair. They will fill the air in several weeks looking like bits of floating cotton.

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Mystery Photo

5-2-17 mystery photo 011Do you know what these yellow “worms” are?

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Bumble Bee Queens Searching For Nest Sites

5-1-17 bumblebee 008This is the time of year when queen bumble bees have emerged from hibernation and are exploring for good nest sites, using both sight and smell. When searching for a suitable place in which to build a nest, a queen bumble bee flies in a distinctive zig-zag pattern low over the ground. If a certain cavity or hole interests her she will land on the ground and investigate by going into the crevice or hole.

Nest sites vary between bumble bee species. Most of the more common species prefer dry, dark cavities. Some nest underground, in places such as abandoned rodent holes, under sheds and in compost heaps. Of those that nest above ground, some make nests in thick grass, while others make nests in bird boxes and in trees.

Bumble bee nests are quite small, as they house only around 400 bumble bees (as opposed to a honey bee hive with a colony of 50,000 bees). At the end of the summer, if the nest has been successful in rearing new queens, they will leave the nest to mate and then go on to hibernate somewhere in the soil – ready to emerge the following spring to start their own colony. The original queen and the rest of the bees die as cold weather approaches.

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