One of the first wildflowers to burst upon the scene in April is Trailing Arbutus, Epigaea repens – a true harbinger of spring. This plant is also referred to as Mayflower and Plymouth Mayflower, as it was a welcome sight to the Pilgrims after their first winter.
It is a first for me to find this plant in flower at this time of year; I have never even heard of this occurring. The flowers are often well hidden beneath leathery, evergreen leaves, so can survive the cold temperatures in April and May, but they face much greater challenges flowering in late October. Most of their main pollinators (bumblebees) die with the first hard frost, which most of northern New England has experienced. And even if, by some stroke of luck, a lingering bumblebee did land on and pollinate a blossom, it’s very doubtful that even with our warming climate, there would be time for fruit to form and mature. Certainly the energy used to produce fall flowers is an expense the plant can ill afford in its efforts to reproduce. (Photo taken 10-28-17 in Hartland, VT)
My latest book, ANIMAL TAILS, joins ANIMAL EYES, ANIMAL NOSES and ANIMAL LEGS as part of a children’s series I have written on animal adaptations. Readers are introduced to the many different ways animals use their tails, with two-page spreads for each of the photographs. ANIMAL TAILS is available from independent bookstores, online and from the publisher (click on cover image on my blog). This book (or possibly the whole series?) might make the perfect Christmas gift for your favorite 3 to 8 year-old!
At this time of year, yellow jackets, hornets and wasps take advantage of the plethora of fermented fruit that lies underneath fruit trees. Because the queen slows down the production of eggs in the fall, workers have time on their hands, as they have fewer larvae to collect food (chewed-up insects) for. Their life (but not the queen’s) is about to come to an end, and they go out in style. If you have observed these members of the Vespidae family acting more erratic, it may well be because they are drunk on hard cider. (Photo: yellow jackets binging)
So sorry – WordPress printed my previous calendar post message in black, which made it impossible to read!
Orders for the 2018 Naturally Curious Calendar can be placed by writing to me at 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT 05089. The calendars are printed on heavy card stock and measure 11″ x 17″ when hanging. There is one full-page photograph per month. They are $35.00 each (includes postage). Please specify the number of calendars you would like to order, the mailing address to which they should be sent and your email address. Your check can be made out to Mary Holland and guaranteed orders can be placed up until November 15th. After this date, orders will be filled as long as my supply of calendars lasts. Calendars will arrive at your door by mid-December (in time to be given as Christmas gifts). Thank you so much!
Orders for the 2018 Naturally Curious Calendar can be placed by writing to me at 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT 05089. The calendars are printed on heavy card stock and measure 11” x 17” when hanging. There is one full-page photograph per month. They are $35.00 each (includes postage). Please specify the number of calendars you would like to order, the mailing address to which they should be sent and your email address. Your check can be made out to Mary Holland and guaranteed orders can be placed up until November 15th. After this date, orders will be filled as long as my supply of calendars lasts. They are $35.00 each (includes postage). Calendars will arrive at your door by mid-December (in time to be given as Christmas gifts). Thank you so much!
If you see what look like miniature water striders skating on the surface of a stream or pond, you may have come upon an aggregation of Broad-shouldered Water Striders, a different family of water striders from the ones we commonly see. They are tiny (2-6 mm) and very fast-moving, zipping here and there with the speed of a bullet, staying on top of the surface film, or surface tension, that is created by the attraction of water molecules. Adaptations to this mode of travel include non-wettable hairs at the ends of their legs that don’t disrupt the surface tension, and claws that are located a short distance up the outermost section of their legs rather than at the end of their legs, so as not to break this film.
Broad-shouldered Water Striders are often found in the more protected areas of a stream, where they tend to congregate in large numbers. Members of a common genus, Rhagovelia, are known as “riffle bugs” and are often found below rocks that are in the current. Broad-shouldered Water Striders locate their prey (water fleas, mosquito eggs and larvae, etc.) by detecting surface waves with vibration sensors in their legs. There can be up to six generations a summer (photo shows that they are still mating at the end of October). Broad-shouldered Water Striders spend the winter hibernating as adults, gathering in debris at the edge of the water or beneath undercut banks.
The number of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) is beginning to build as their fall migration from eastern Canada breeding grounds to southeastern U.S. gets under way. Late migrants, Hooded Mergansers won’t reach the peak of their migration until mid-November. They will not completely vanish from sight, however, as many Hooded Mergansers remain in New England on open marshes, ponds, rivers and creeks where they can find fish and crustaceans to feed on throughout the winter.
Every year I receive questions about this unusual-looking insect which is often found on and in houses in the fall. As a result, I publish a post about it every couple of years. For those of you with good memories, please excuse the repetition.
Roughly 30 years ago Western Conifer Seed Bugs (Leptoglossus occidentalis) started moving east. They are now well established coast to coast. Here in the East they seek shelter during the winter, often choosing to share our domiciles with us. Fear not – though they look fairly menacing, they will do you no harm. Western Conifer Seed Bugs do not bite or sting, and in their semi-dormant condition they do not feed or breed. If you choose not to co-habit with these bugs, be forewarned. When disturbed, they can emit a noxious smell.
In the spring they will vacate your house and feed on the sap of the young cones and flowers of conifers, including Eastern White Pine, Red Pine, Scotch Pine, White Spruce and Eastern Hemlock. Mating takes place, eggs are laid and the young nymphs feed on conifer seeds which they find by detecting the infrared radiation that the cones emit.
These bugs are also called “leaf-footed bugs,” and if you look at their hind legs you will see that a section, the tibia, is flattened. Some species display this specialized leg structure during courtship, and others may use it for defense purposes.
Every fall Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) grow skin-like fringes called pectinations on either side of each toe. They serve as snowshoes, helping grouse stay on top of the snow when walking, as well as cling to icy branches while eating the buds of poplars and other trees in the winter. In the spring grouse shed these adaptive fringes.
Ornithological texts describe these growths as appearing in the fall, but usually do not specify exactly when they develop. A recent look at a road-killed grouse’s foot (photo) showed that pectinations have begun to develop, but have not completed their growth. The pectinations shown here will double their length by the time snow flies.
If you look on the underside of the leaves of a Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) tree at this time of year, you often find light-colored, raised bumps, commonly referred to as Hackberry Nipples Galls. The creatures responsible for these growths (through chemical interactions with the leaves) are a group of small insects called jumping lice, or psyllids, which resemble miniature (1/6 “ long) cicadas, with their large eyes and wings held roof-like over their backs.
Adult Hackberry psyllids emerge in September and October from the galls they have formed and seek shelter for the winter, often in the cracks and crevices of tree bark. Because they are attracted to lights and can often fit through the mesh of window screens, these insects also seek shelter in houses. Although considered a nuisance by some, Hackberry psyllids do not sting, nor do they carry disease. They pass the winter as adults and when they break dormancy in the spring, the psyllids exit houses, tree bark fissures, etc. and lay eggs on the emerging leaves of Hackberry trees. After the eggs hatch, the young psyllids start feeding, stimulating abnormal growth in the leaves, forming small pockets, or galls, surrounding the insects. The psyllids spend the rest of the summer sucking on tree sap safely within the protective galls before exiting in the fall. As a rule, these insects do not cause serious damage to their Hackberry tree hosts.
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is named after the male’s red patch on the top of its head, which is barely discernible (see photo) unless the bird is excited or agitated. Often the only glimpse you get of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet is the constant flicking of wings as it actively forages in shrubs and trees for insects or fruit. Keep an eye out for this tiny bird (one of North America’s smallest songbirds) as this is the peak of its fall migration from its breeding grounds in Alaska, northern New England and Canada to southern U.S. and Mexico.
While perhaps not as impressive as the square miles of fields and trees that have been totally covered in spider webs in New Zealand, Pakistan, Tasmania and Southern Australia over the past year or two, New England does have its share of fields adorned with spider silk. The silk in foreign lands was the result of spiders ballooning (floating aloft on gossamer they spin that is lifted by the wind) in spring – an effective means of dispersal. The silk we see highlighted in fields in the early morning dew of autumn in New England serves as webs, or traps, for unsuspecting insects. A majority of these webs are made by grass spiders, many of which weave a horizontal sheet of silk that have a funnel often on one side leading down to a spider hide-a-way. When vibrations alert the spider to a potential meal that is caught in its web, it rushes out, injects the insect with digestive enzymes, and drags it back into its retreat where it begins to feed.
Northern New England is quieting down. Many birds are migrating; turtles, frogs, toads and snakes are soon to seek their winter hibernacula; insects have laid eggs or are overwintering in sheltered spots. Naturally Curious is also making a seasonal change. From now until the end of March there will be three posts a week – on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Come spring, a five-days/week schedule will resume.
How do herons, egrets, bitterns, kingfishers, loons and other fish-eating birds with spear-shaped bills capture their prey? Do they use their bill as a spear and pierce through a fish, or do they grab the fish between their mandibles? You often read about one of these birds “spearing” a fish. However, a majority of these birds, most of the time, do not spear fish, but open and shut their bills fast enough to capture a fish in them — the spear shape of their bill lends itself to the tong-like action it performs. In addition, its shape enhances the movement of the bill through the water as the bird dives (its head or body) into the water to grasp the fish between its upper and lower mandibles.
One exception to this rule is the Anhinga, which does run its bill (which is equipped with backward grooves to prevent slippage) through fish in order to capture them. After spearing a fish, an Anhinga then shakes it vigorously off its bill, tosses it in the air, and catches and swallows it headfirst. (Photo: Great Blue Heron)
Orders for the 2018 Naturally Curious Calendar can be placed by writing to me at 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT 05089. The calendars are printed on heavy card stock and measure 11” x 17” when hanging. There is one full-page photograph per month. They are $35.00 each (includes postage). Please specify the number of calendars you would like to order, the mailing address to which they should be sent and your email address. Your check can be made out to Mary Holland and guaranteed orders can be placed up until November 15th. After this date, orders will be filled as long as my supply of calendars lasts. They are $35.00 each (includes postage). Calendars will arrive at your door by mid-December. Thank you so much!
North American River Otters are not territorial in the classic sense of marking territorial boundaries. Instead they mark prime resource areas within their territory. Often, the site is near their den or a productive food area. They visit these sites repeatedly to urinate, defecate and roll around on the ground – so much so that the surrounding vegetation is often dead or dying and is referred to as a “brown-out.”
If an otter has been eating fish, its scat is often just a pile of fish scales. However, if it has been dining on crayfish and it is fresh, the scat can be tubular. No matter what form otter scat takes, a tell-tale sign (in addition to fish scales and/or crayfish exoskeletons) is the presence of clear, white or yellow mucus (scat-jellies). It is not always deposited, but occasionally you do find it. The origin of this mucus is not known – most likely it’s from the otter’s intestinal tract or its anal glands. Research shows that the presence of mucous deposits in some otter species indicates reduced prey availability or reproductive state. (Photo: Tubular otter scat is circled in red. Mucus is on right side of photo. Thanks to David Putnam and Natalie Starr for yesterday’s and today’s photo op.)
Reasons why Mystery Photo was not
Black Bear: Scat consists primarily of crayfish remains.
Beaver: Beavers defecate only in water, and individual pellets consist of tiny woody fragments resembling sawdust.
Raccoon: Raccoons have latrines where multiple scat is deposited, similar to otters. However, only otters deposit mucus.
Whose scat??? (Hint: Size – ¾” diameter; Location – near body of water) Please respond on Naturally Curious blog site, www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com under “Comments.”
There is a group of evolutionarily ancient ferns referred to as “Grape Ferns.” Although they are true ferns, they are only distantly related to the ferns growing today. They derive their common name from the resemblance of their (spore-producing) sporangia to a bunch of tiny grapes. Grape Ferns have two blades. One is sterile and does the photosynthesizing; the other is fertile and bears the grape-like sporangia.
Different species of Grape Fern mature at different times during the summer. Leathery Grape Fern (B. multifidum; Sceptridium multifidum) is the largest of the Grape Ferns. Its triangular, sterile blade is very leathery and fleshy. If the fern is growing in full sun, the stalk of the sterile blade is usually quite short, and the branching, fertile blade rises above it. The spores on the fertile blade mature in late summer or early fall.
Upon inspecting a skeletonized Alternate-leaved Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) recently, I found the culprits responsible. Wasp-like insects called Dogwood Sawflies (Macremphytus tarsatus) were eating every vestige of leaf (except for the midveins) on the tree. Although called sawflies, they are not true flies — they are in the same order (Hymenoptera) as ants, bees and wasps. The first part of their common name comes from the saw-like appearance of the females’ ovipositor which they use to cut into plant tissue and lay eggs.
Dogwood Sawfly eggs are laid in dogwood (any Cornus species) leaves in the spring. A translucent yellow larva hatches from each egg. As a larva feeds on dogwood leaves, it grows and molts several times. After molting a second time the larva is covered with a powdery, white waxy coating which makes it look like a bird dropping (a survival technique used by several species of insects). After the final molt it is yellow below with a single row of black spots above (see photo). In late summer or early fall, Dogwood Sawfly larvae seek shelter in logs or other decaying wood, and pass the winter in a pre-pupal state in cocoons made of rotted wood. They pupate in the spring, emerge as adults, mate and lay eggs.
Some species of spiders (including wolf and jumping spiders) overwinter as young adults and mate/lay eggs in the spring. Many spiders, however, mate in the fall, after which they lay eggs and die. Their white or tan egg sacs are a familiar sight at this time of year. One might assume that these species overwinter as eggs inside their silken sacs, but this is rarely the case as spider eggs can’t survive being frozen. Spider eggs laid in the fall hatch shortly thereafter and the young spiders spend the winter inside their egg sac.
Although egg sacs provide a degree of shelter (the interior is packed with very fine, very soft silken threads), the newly-hatched spiderlings do have to undergo a process of “cold hardening” in the fall in order to survive the winter. On nights that go down into the 40’s and high 30’s, these young spiders start producing antifreeze compounds, which lower the temperature at which they freeze. By the time freezing temperatures occur, the spiders are equipped to survive the winter inside their egg sac – as spiderlings, not eggs. (Photos: Black-and-Yellow Argiope, Black-and-Yellow Argiope egg sac, Black-and-Yellow Argiope spiderlings inside egg sac)
Some species of Northeastern spiders (including wolf and jumping spiders) overwinter as young adults and mate/lay eggs in the spring. Many spiders, however, mate in the fall, after which they lay eggs and die. Their white or tan egg sacs are a familiar sight at this time of year. One might assume that these species overwinter as eggs inside their silken sacs but this is rarely the case, as spider eggs can’t survive being frozen. Spider eggs laid in the fall hatch shortly thereafter and spend the winter as young spiders inside their egg sac.
Although egg sacs provide a degree of shelter, the newly-hatched spiderlings do have to undergo a process of “cold hardening” in the fall in order to survive the winter. On nights that go down into the 40’s and high 30’s, these young spiders start producing antifreeze compounds, which lower the temperature at which they freeze. By the time freezing temperatures occur, the spiders are equipped to deal with them throughout the winter – as spiderlings, not eggs. (Photo: Black-and-Yellow Argiope (Argiope aurantia) egg sac)