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Archive for January, 2018

Basic Botany: Bud, Leaf and Branch Arrangement

1-31-18 twigs-1

In winter it is common to use the pattern by which branches and buds are arranged on a deciduous tree as a first, quick clue to the tree’s identity.  There are two large groups of trees, those with alternate and opposite patterns, and a third less common pattern, whorled.  Trees with alternate arrangement have only a single leaf/bud/branch attached at one location (node) on a branch.  Those with opposite arrangement have two leaves/buds/branches attached at a node, opposite one another on either side of the branch.  When more than two leaves/buds/branches arise from a node (rare) this is called a whorled arrangement.

At this time of year, when deciduous trees are bare, you can see the arrangement of buds, branches and leaf scars (where leaves have fallen off) clearly.  Relatively few trees have opposite branching – Maples, Ashes, Dogwoods, and Horse Chestnuts – while a majority have alternate branching.  More characteristics are needed to narrow a tree down to species, but noting its arrangement is an easy and quick way to eliminate certain species.

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Snow Flies Appearing

1-29-18 snow fly IMG_9481It always comes as a surprise to see tiny creatures moving nimbly over the surface of the snow. However, there are quite a few insects and spiders that do, thanks to the glycerol that they produce in their body fluids that keep them from freezing. The Snow Fly (Chionea sp.) is a type of wingless crane fly.  Most likely its lack of wings is due to the fact that at sub-freezing temperatures it would be very hard to generate enough energy for maintaining flight muscles. They (along with other flies, mosquitoes and gnats) do have two vestigial wings called halteres, the little knobs on the fly’s thorax. They inform true flies about the rotation of their body during flight, and are thought to act as sensory organs for the flightless Snow Flies.

Throughout most of the year Snow Flies can be found in leaf litter, but come winter the adults emerge, mate and lay up to 200 eggs. The lack of predators such as dragonflies and most insect-eating birds makes winter a relatively safe time for Snow Flies to be out and about. Their life span is about two months, during which time they drink by pressing their proboscis against the snow, but they don’t eat.   (Snow Fly in photograph is a female, measuring less than ½”.)

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What Goes On Beneath Our Feet In Winter

Alfred's mouse2 2018-01-16 20.39.08 (003)It’s fairly unusual to see Deer or White-footed Mice, especially in the winter – they are nocturnal and they spend much of their time in the airspace under the snow next to the ground known as the subnivean layer. (A blanket of snow traps the earth’s heat, which melts the bottom of the snow, creating this layer of space.) Here both Deer Mice and White-footed Mice travel extensively, protected from both the cold (it stays within a degree or two of 32 F. regardless of outside temperature) and the eyes of predators. On cold winter days, groups including both species of mice keep warm by huddling in a common nest. (Photo of White-footed/Deer Mouse – extremely difficult to tell the difference by sight – by Alfred Balch.)

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Coyotes Courting & Mating

1-24-18 coyote tracks 072While I can’t say definitively that these are the tracks of mating Coyotes as I was not witness to the activity itself, it is a distinct possibility. Female Coyotes come into heat only once a year, for two to five days sometime between January and March. For two to three months prior to mating, there is increased howling and scent-marking (often in tandem, one after the other) on the part of both male and female. A pair of Coyotes may mate with each other for up to 12 consecutive years, but not necessarily for life. (Inset photo is of female in estrus scent-marking.)

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Wild Turkeys Dine on Sensitive Fern Spores

1-22-18 wild turkey IMG_0600Wild Turkeys usually forage in flocks as they search the ground for food. Acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, ironwood and white ash seeds, hawthorn and witch hazel fruits make up a lot of their diet in fall, winter and spring. In the summer, seeds of grasses and sedges as well as invertebrates are eaten. In winter, when snow has accumulated, leaves of sedges, evergreen ferns, hemlock buds, burdock seeds and spore-covered fronds of sensitive ferns tend to be more accessible and readily eaten.

The fertile fronds of sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) persist all winter, sticking up out of the snow as if beckoning to hungry turkeys. Upon finding a clump of these fertile fronds, a turkey will peck repeatedly at them, causing the sori (clusters of sporangia which produce and contain spores) to burst and release thousands of spores onto the surface of the snow.

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Mystery Photo

1-19-18 mystery photo 049A2150Who has been here and what have they been doing?  (Hint: inset photo is of Sensitive Fern, Onoclea sensibilis, fertile frond & spores)

Please respond by clicking on “Comments” at the bottom of this post on my blog, www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com .

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Long-tailed Weasel

This morning’s post should have read “Long-tailed Weasels” not “Long-Weasels.”  Please excuse typo.  Thanks, Margaret!


Mink Exploring Streams

1-16-18 mink tracks IMG_2664

The pattern of diagonally-paired tracks indicates that it’s likely that a member of the weasel family has been travelling on top of this mostly-frozen stream.  The presence of water makes it likely that a Mink made them. For the most part, Mink are restricted to forest cover and ponds, streams and rivers. When bounding, their hind feet register almost exactly where their front feet were, creating this double-print pattern.

Many members of the weasel family, including Long-Weasels, Ermine (Short-tailed Weasels), and Fishers, also make these paired tracks, especially in deep snow. Size is one way to discriminate between them, with the size of Mink tracks (1 ½”-long) falling in between 3″- long Fisher tracks and 1”- long weasel tracks.

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Cooper’s Hawk Preys On Pileated Woodpecker

1-12-18 cooper's and pileated IMG_4375Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Goshawks are the three accipiters (a category of hawks possessing long tails and relatively short, rounded wings) found in New England. The one you’re most likely to see is the Cooper’s Hawk. Built for speed and maneuverability, these raptors are able to fly incredibly fast through the woods as they search for prey in amongst trees. Their diet consists largely of birds, but they also have been known to consume mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish.

You may have seen a Cooper’s Hawk perched near your feeder, or perhaps have been witness to an explosion of feathers after a songbird was captured by one, but for the most part, medium-size birds such as Mourning Doves, European Starlings, Northern Flickers, Ruffed Grouse and American Crows are preferred.

On a winter day several years ago, the pictured Cooper’s Hawk captured, killed and ate a Pileated Woodpecker, an unusually large prey that is about the same size as the hawk that caught it. Chances are great that this is a female Cooper’s Hawk, as female raptors are generally larger than males, and therefore capable of capturing larger prey.

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Porcupine Trails

1-12-18 mystery photo 049A2042Porcupines are forced to exert a lot of effort if they are in need of food and the snow is deep. Unlike many rodents that are light enough to travel on top of the snow, Porcupines must plow their way through it. Their weight, short legs, and bare footpads make traveling in snow challenging, to say the least.

If the snow is deep, the winter ranges of Porcupines are considerably smaller (18 acres in one research study) than their summer ranges (160 acres in same study).  Because of the energy needed to travel through the snow, Porcupines usually feed just a short distance from their winter dens, more often than not within 200 feet. Their feeding trails from rocky or hollow tree dens to their woody food sources (often Eastern Hemlock-note bits of branches on snow in photo, American Beech and Sugar Maple), are very distinctive. They are used every night when Porcupines leave their dens to feed and again several hours later when they return.  These trails become well marked with urine, and less frequently with scat and quills. (Photo insert: Porcupine rock den entrance)

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White-tailed Deer Browsing

1-10-18 white-tailed deer eating hemlock 049A1922Microorganisms inside a deer’s four-chambered stomach enable cellulose in the plant material consumed to be digested. In winter, the microorganisms within the deer stomach are different from the microorganisms in spring, summer, and fall. This change allows deer to digest a diet of woody browse during winter months and turn the high-fiber diet into proteins through intricate physiological processes. Among their preferred browse are White Cedar, Yew, American Basswood, Alternate-leaved and Flowering Dogwood, Maples, Staghorn Sumac and Witch Hobble.

Offering food items during this period other than woody browse (such as hay) is detrimental to deer, as it requires different microorganisms in the stomach in order to be digested. Thus, even though a deer’s stomach might be full (of hay, for instance), it may starve due to the inability to digest it.   (Photo: White-tailed Deer browsing on Eastern Hemlock)


Why You See Birds On Dirt Roads

1-5-17 goldfinches in road 049A1683There are two parts to a bird’s stomach, each of which has a different function. The proventriculus, or glandular stomach, secretes enzymes that begin the digestive process. Lacking teeth, birds also have a gizzard, or muscular stomach, that grinds up the food that a bird has eaten. For this reason, the gizzard is usually very strong and muscular. Seed-eating birds often eat seeds whole and need to break them into tiny pieces in order to digest them. Many of these birds can be seen on dirt roads, picking up small stones and grit which then collects in their gizzards and helps pulverize the food they’ve eaten.  (Photo:  American Goldfinches)

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Snow Stories Begin

1-5-18 owl print in snow - Rob Foote IMG_4571 (002)

With snow on the ground, the season of stories in the snow has begun. Many of the animals that remain active in New England during the winter are nocturnal so we rarely get a glimpse of them. But, more than at any other time of year, we are privilege to their activities due to the tracks and traces they leave in and on the snow during the night.

Much information can be gathered from these signs. Often at a kill site, the identity of the predator as well as the prey can be determined by shape, form or measurement. One can see from this photograph that a bird of prey (measurements indicate a barred owl) swooped down on a small rodent (judging from tracks, probably a meadow vole) and was successful in capturing it.

Even though a kill scene such as this, or any other wildlife activity recorded in the snow, may reveal the probable identity of the characters in the story, there are always more questions than answers, which is what gets us out in this frigid weather, day after day. The main question I’m left with after viewing this scene is why do voles and mice risk their lives by travelling on the surface of the snow at times, when they just as well could have covered the same ground in the maze of tunnels they’ve created deep in the subnivean layer between the ground and the snow (where they would be out of sight of hungry predators)? (Thanks to Rob Foote for photo.)

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Birds Keeping Warm

1-3-18 dark-eyed junco2 049A1736

Birds utilize a number of behavioral adaptations that afford them some protection from frigid air such as we have been experiencing lately. They include sunning (turning their backs to the sun, exposing the largest surface of their bodies to the heat), shivering, tucking (placing one foot up inside feathers while standing on other leg, or squatting to cover both legs and feet with feathers; tucking their bill into their shoulder feathers and breathing air warmed by their body), roosting together in small groups (often in a small cavity, so as to conserve heat) and, most obvious of all, fluffing themselves up (creating air pockets that are warmed by body heat).

While feathers serve many purposes, from helping to attract a mate to providing camouflage, one of the most important jobs they have in winter is to keep a bird warm and dry. A bird’s body heat (the average bird’s body temperature is 105 degrees Fahrenheit), warms the air between its feathers. Birds fluff up in the cold to trap as much air in their feathers as possible, as the more trapped air, the warmer the bird. They can appear two or three times larger than they appear on a 32 degree day. This insulation is effective because it also is a barrier to water. The oil that birds apply to their feathers when they preen serves to waterproof the feathers. (Photo: Dark-eyed Junco)