Have you noticed a fuzzy-looking, pinkish-gray border of flowers roughly a foot high, lining the sides of the roads you travel? Rabbit-foot Clover (Trifolium arvense) is easy to distinguish from other plants because of its exceptionally hairy flowerheads and trifoliate leaves (leaves divided into three leaflets). This member of the legume/pea/bean family derives its common name from the resemblance of its flowerhead to a rabbit’s foot, due to the abundance of hairs which protect the flower and help the fruit disperse in the wind. Unlike some clovers which are perennial, Rabbit-foot Clover is an annual species found growing in sunny, sandy disturbed areas, such as the shoulders of roads. It was introduced from Europe and can be toxic to livestock.
Painted Turtle eggs hatch in late August or early September. The young turtles remain in their nest for varying amounts of time, often emerging soon after hatching but frequently not until the following spring in the northern part of their range. Once hatched and out of the nest, they head to ponds and rivers. Because they’re so small (roughly the size of a quarter) they are vulnerable to a wide variety of predators, including frogs, snakes, birds and fish.
This slimy, purple mushroom belongs to the genus Cortinarius, the largest genus of mushrooms in the world. Mushrooms in this genus have partial veils, or cortinas – tissue that covers and protects the spore-producing gills, and they also have a rusty brown spore print and mature gills.
While it is relatively simple to determine that a mushroom is in this genus, identifying one down to species can be difficult. Two identical-looking species, C. iodes and C. iodeoides, can be found in the Northeast – both are purple and have slimy caps. Mycologists distinguish them by the size of their spores. For those more daring than I, there is a licking/taste test — the slime on C. iodeoides is said to be more bitter tasting than that of C. iodes.
Both species are mycorrhizal with oaks, in that both benefit from an association with each other. The mushroom helps the tree absorb water and nutrients while the tree provides sugars and amino acids to the mushroom. It is estimated that about 85% of plants depend on mycorrhizal relationships with fungi.
By the end of August, White-tailed Deer fawns are about three months old. Their mother weans them between two and four months of age and during this time they molt, losing their white spots. A new gray-brown winter coat replaces the coat they were born with.
Pollinators of the plant known as Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) are too many to list. The nectar and pollen of its fragrant flowers which bloom in late summer and fall attract many kinds of insects, including bees, flies, wasps, butterflies, and beetles. Being a member of the Composite family, Boneset’s flower structure is such that the nectar is very accessible and therefore a popular feeding site, especially for Honey Bees (see photo) which are reliant this time of year upon the flat-topped clusters of small, white flowers for nectar which they convert to honey and store for their winter supply of food.
Every year in late July or August a young Spring Peeper crosses my path and I cannot resist photographing it. At this time of year they are roughly the size of a Japanese Beetle, and during early mornings and late afternoons can be found in shrubbery where they intermittently rest in the shade and feed on insects even smaller than themselves. If you live near a pond where it sounded like sleigh bells were ringing last spring, keep an eye out for these irresistible frogs that are no bigger than your tiny finger nail.
Muskrats are primarily herbivorous. The majority of their diet consists of the tubers, roots, stems, leaves and fruit of a variety of aquatic and terrestrial plants, particularly those of bulrush, cattail and arrowhead. A diet of high fiber is possible because of bacterial fermentation which takes place in their intestines. The digestion of many herbivores is aided by bacteria, but many plant-eaters are restricted in what they can eat because they are unable to change their diet without killing the bacteria. Muskrats, however, can and do consume large amounts of meat (frogs, fish, turtles, crayfish, etc.) and still maintain a healthy population of fiber-digesting bacteria. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam for photo op.)
There are over 1,000 North American species of solitary hunting wasps. All of them prey on arthropods, which the female stings and paralyzes (but doesn’t kill so that they don’t begin to decompose immediately). Most solitary wasps specialize on a single type of prey, and many build highly characteristic burrow nests. Once the prey is stung, the wasp carries it back to her nest where she then lays a single egg and closes up the nest. The developing wasp larva feeds on the paralyzed prey, pupates and emerges as an adult wasp.
One group of solitary hunting wasps is referred to as thread-waisted wasps (family Sphecidae), due to their long, stalk-like waists. While most close up their nests (by kicking sand over the entrance) after stocking it with prey and laying an egg, some species close their nest with a pebble and return, remove the pebble, and periodically restock the nest with fresh caterpillars for the growing larva. (Photo by Mardie Holland: thread-waisted sphecid wasp with caterpillar prey)
The fungal family Clavariaceae includes simple, unbranched upright clubs and fleshy, intricately branched, coral-like forms. This family includes several groups of fungi that, due to their appearance, are commonly known as coral fungi. Coral fungi come in every color imaginable and among them are “fairy clubs” – small, mostly fragile fungi that live off of dead or decaying organic matter. They are found on the ground or occasionally on rotting wood. These delicate fungi are usually unbranched or sparingly branched and shaped like slender, erect clubs. Appearing in late summer/early fall, they are often found growing in clusters. Due to their small size and fragility, they are not considered to have any food value.
When it comes to ingenuity, the Golden Tortoise Beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata) larva has all others beat! Instead of discarding its feces, it collects them and uses them as a means of chemical protection. Golden Tortoise Beetle larvae have a “fecal fork” on their last abdominal segment which they hold over their body. They also possess a muscular, telescopic anus which they can manipulate in such a manner as to deposit their feces onto their fecal fork. Bits of shed exoskeleton combined with days of feces accumulate on this fork and create an effective fecal shield. Golden Tortoise Beetle feces contain alkaloids from the plants that they’ve eaten (Bindweed and other plants in the family Convolvulaceae) and consequently the shield wards off predators. (Photo: Golden Tortoise Beetle larva with fecal shield; inset – adult Golden Tortoise Beetle)
Being my favorite species of frog, the Gray Treefrog may get more than its fair share of exposure on the Naturally Curious blog. This amphibian is rarely noticed outside of its June mating season, when the males’ bird-like trills can be heard throughout the night from shrubbery bordering wetlands. Due to its emerald green coloration when young, and its mottled gray/green adult appearance, in addition to its nocturnal habits, this beguiling amphibian escapes detection by most of us throughout the rest of the summer.
However, if you keep an eye out in August, near where you heard those trills in June, you may be successful in spotting a juvenile Gray Treefrog. Having developed legs and lungs, absorbed their gills and tails, and reinvented their digestive system for insects, not plants, they are now permanently terrestrial, except during the breeding season. When a Gray Treefrog is young and newly metamorphosed, it usually remains near the forest floor. As it ages, it may transition to living in the forest canopy. (Photo: juvenile Gray Treefrog; inset – adult Gray Treefrog)
Ambush bugs, a type of assassin bug, are true bugs, in the order Hemiptera. (Although insects are often referred to as “bugs,” technically only insects in this order are classified as bugs by entomologists.) All true bugs have piercing and sucking mouthparts, and wings which are membranous and clear at the tips, but hardened at the base.
Ambush bugs are usually brightly colored (yellow, red or orange) and have thickened front legs which are used to capture prey up to ten times their own size. They live up to their name, patiently lying in wait for unsuspecting prey, often in goldenrod flowers where they are very well camouflaged. An ambush bug, upon sighting an insect, suddenly seizes the prey in its powerful forelegs and quickly dispatches it with a stab from its sharp beak. It then injects digestive enzymes into its prey, after which it drinks the resulting liquid innards.
Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), a multi-stemmed shrub, is named for its fruit — a nut with a tubular husk (a modified leaf known as an involucre) that extends at least an inch beyond the nut, resembling a beak. The surface of the involucre is covered with fine filaments that can irritate the skin. The fruit grows individually as well as in clusters. There are two species of hazel in the Northeast. The other, American Hazel (Corylus americana), lacks the prolonged husk and instead has a short involucre with fringed edges.
The nuts of Beaked Hazelnut may be roasted and eaten — they ripen in August and September. One must be quick to harvest them, however, as they are highly sought after by Ruffed Grouse, Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, White-tailed Deer and squirrels, due to being rich in protein and fat. Most (99 percent) of the hazelnuts consumed by the U.S. are from a European species of hazel and are grown in Oregon.
Sightings of Monarchs have been far more numerous this summer than in the recent past, and there is reason to celebrate. The Monarch population that will be migrating to Mexico in a month or so is projected to be higher than it’s been since 2012. This optimistic forecast by Monarch Watch (www.monarchwatch.org is based on several factors: higher numbers of overwintering Monarchs in Mexico last winter, relatively good migrating conditions throughout their flight north this past spring, and summer temperatures and rainfall conducive to survival. Both migrating and well as overwintering numbers are projected to be significantly greater than in recent years. Those of you with children may have the best opportunity in years to raise a Monarch caterpillar and have your children witness the miracle of Monarch metamorphosis!
For those of you who have been there for me and my family this past month, this is the little guy who most benefits from your kindness and generosity. Thank you again for your support. (We took time to smell the tansy last week.)
The Pruinose Squash Bee (Peponapis pruinosa) is most often noticed when it’s gathering nectar or pollen from squash, pumpkin, watermelon or gourd blossoms. (Squash bees have been shown to be excellent pollinators of zucchini and butternut squashes, among others. If numerous, they thoroughly pollinate all available flowers, rendering later visits of honeybees superfluous. Before Europeans brought honeybees to the New World, squash bees were busy aiding the adoption, domestication, spread, and production of squashes and gourds by indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.) The bee’s black and white striped abdomen is easy to recognize.
While female squash bees are busy foraging for pollen in the flowers of plants in the Cucurbitae family, male squash bees can be seen darting between flowers, searching for mates. By noon, they are fast asleep in the withered flowers.
Pruinose Squash Bees are solitary bees, with every female digging her own nest in the ground. These consist of vertical tunnels that end with a number of individual chambers that are a foot or two deep in the soil. Each chamber is provided with an egg and a lump of pollen so that when the egg hatches, food is readily available. (Photo: five Pruinose Squash Bees packed into a single Bindweed flower)
The structure of a Green Heron’s foot lends itself to a life of wading at the water’s edge while foraging for food and not sinking into the sand. Three long toes pointing forward and one pointing backward create a considerable amount of surface area, and the more the surface area the less pressure that is placed on the sand. Webbing between its outer toes adds to the snowshoe effect (and also aids the heron when it dives below the surface of the water for prey and must swim back to shore).
This foot structure comes in handy when wading in shallow water, standing on emergent vegetation or perched a low-hanging branch at the water’s edge. As testimony to this, the pictured Green Heron spent an entire morning navigating from water lily pad to water lily pad foraging for fish, insects, frogs and other aquatic life.
Teasel (Dipsacus sp.) is classified as an invasive plant. It was originally brought to North America from Europe and has thrived here. Even though it is considered a noxious weed, this biennial’s form and flower are striking. The first year, Teasel produces a rosette of leaves. The second year the flowering stem can grow to a height of almost eight feet.
Teasel is unique in the way in which it blooms. Flowers first form in a ring around the middle of the head. The ring of flowers grows in width over a few days, but since the flowers are relatively short lived, the center of the booming section may die off leaving two rings, one growing towards the top and one towards the bottom. Several long, leaf-like bracts branch out from the base of the flower and curve upward around the head.
Historically, Teasel’s seed head was used in the textile industry to raise the nap on woolen cloth. Although it is invasive and does crowd out native plants, Teasel redeems itself somewhat by providing insects with nectar and birds with a multitude of seeds (2,000 – 3,000/head). (Photo: Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) on Teasel)
Monarch larvae aren’t the only insects equipped to feed on the toxic cardiac glycoside-filled leaves of milkweed. Milkweed Tussock Moth larvae also dine on them, avoiding veins due to the latex-like, sticky white sap that could glue them in place. When they first hatch, Milkweed Tussock Moth larvae tend to stick together in “herds,” all feeding on the underside of the same leaf. This behavior provides a gold mine for predators such as predatory stink bugs (pictured) that discover them. Unlike their (plant) sap-sucking stink bug relatives, predatory stink bugs feed on more than 100 species of insect pests, often attacking insects much larger than themselves, drinking their body fluids with their needle-like beak. (Photo taken and kindly donated by Chris Doyle)
Ninety-eight percent of a Killdeer’s diet consists of animal matter. Beetles, insect larvae, earthworms, grasshoppers and crayfish make up the majority of what a Killdeer eats. In the summer, adult beetles (see photo) and beetle larvae make up almost half of what they consume.
Much of the time we observe Killdeer they are running, stopping, waiting and then running again. This is typical feeding behavior. Another method of obtaining food consists of patting the ground or the bottom of a pond in shallow water with one quivering foot. Killdeer also engage in probing into mud and chasing prey, and they have been known to follow tractors in search of earthworms.
Food normally passes through a Killdeer’s digestive tract in about two hours, but the spore-bearing structures of some ferns that it eats take five to sixty hours. All birds have gizzards, where food is ground up. Some birds swallow grit to aid in the grinding process, and the Killdeer is one of them. It has been proposed that the sporocarps take longer to pass through a Killdeer because they are retained in the gizzard where they function as grit.
A favorite past-time of mine is peering under logs and rocks to see what might be living there. (The logs and rocks are carefully replaced in the position in which they were found so as not to disturb the inhabitants any more than is necessary.) Recently I discovered a Crane Fly larva under a rock that was adjacent to a stream – a typical spot in which to find a soon-to-pupate larva. Roughly an inch long, the most distinguishing features are the ridges along its body, and the star-like appendages at the tip of its abdomen. If you examine the appendages closely, you will find two spiracles, through which the Crane Fly larva breathes, located in a recessed area in the center. Although you can’t see a head, it has one that is tucked into its thorax.
The Crane Fly family is the largest family of true flies, in terms of number of species. They can be found in aquatic, semi-aquatic and terrestrial habitats. True flies do not have segmented legs that they can use to hold on to the substrate when they catch their prey. Many Crane Fly larvae feed on decomposing leaves, but those species of Crane Flies which are predators are capable of forming a large knot with the muscles at the end of their abdomen. When they catch prey with their mouthparts, they enlarge the end of their abdomen and wedge the knot between stones in order to anchor themselves.
The yellow, bell-like flowers of Clintonia (Clintonia borealis) that were fertilized earlier in the summer are now developing into the blue berries from which their other common name, Yellow Blue-bead Lily, was derived. Transitioning from green to white, and ultimately to a deep porcelain blue, the berries of Clintonia are beautiful to gaze upon, but are said to be unpleasant-tasting and mildly toxic.
One morning several weeks ago, broods of Wood Duck nestlings leaped out of their nest holes onto the ground or into the water beneath their nest trees. After leaving their nests, most traveled long distances (an average of 1 1/4 miles) with their mothers to rearing areas.
The earliest broods to hatch already have their juvenile (or “first basic”) plumage, which will remain through August. Male juvenile Wood Ducks can be distinguished from female juveniles by the two white finger-like projections that go up their cheeks and neck from their throat. The females lack these stripes but have a wider white patch around their eyes. The pictured male juvenile Wood Ducks are between eight and nine weeks old. Very soon their eyes will turn red and they will be able to fly.