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Archive for April, 2018

Common Grackles Nest-building

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Common Grackles are hard to miss and hard to mistake for any other bird, with their yellow eyes, iridescent bronze or purple plumage and long, keel-shaped tails. Most of the spring migrants have reached their breeding grounds, and courtship, mating and nest-building are underway.

Because grackles begin reproduction so early in the season, conifers are the nesting site of choice due to the cover they provide. Females tend to choose the actual site for a nest, and in so doing can be quite fickle, often abandoning partially constructed nests and selecting alternative sites. They earn this right, as they’re usually doing all the construction work, although males have been observed with nesting materials, helping to build and repair nests.

Look for their 6-8”-diameter, large bulky nests near water, agricultural fields or near human habitation. They are usually built four to twenty feet above the ground. If you find a bird on the nest, it will most likely be an incubating female (slightly less glossy than male) – males not only do not have a brood patch and do not participate in incubating the eggs or brooding the young, but roughly half of the males desert their mates during this time. Those that do remain participate in the feeding of their young nestlings.

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Painted Turtles Basking

4-27-18 painted turtle2 0U1A1070When a Painted Turtle crawls out of the roughly 39° F. degree mud at the bottom of a pond in early spring, it immediately heads to the nearest log or rock to bask and raise its body temperature. Turtles are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and must rely on external sources for the regulation of their body temperature. Thermoregulation is achieved both physically and behaviorally. A dark carapace (top shell) absorbs the sun’s heat, warming up the turtle’s internal temperature and the turtle regulates its temperature by shuffling in and out of the sun. It is imperative for the core body temperature of male Painted Turtles to reach 63° F., for only then can they start to produce sperm.

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When a Painted Turtle crawls out of the 39° F. degree mud at the bottom of a pond in early spring, it immediately heads to the nearest log or rock to bask and raise its body temperature. Turtles are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and must rely on external sources for the regulation of their body temperature. Thermoregulation is achieved both physically and behaviorally. Dark carapaces (top shell) absorb the sun’s heat, warming up the turtle’s internal temperature. The turtle regulates its temperature by shuffling in and out of the sun. It is imperative for the core body temperature of male Painted Turtles to reach 63° F., for only then can they start to produce sperm.

Adult Butterflies Emerging, Mating & Laying Eggs

4-23-18 eastern comma3 0U1A0780Butterflies that remain in New England during the winter spend it in one of many stages – some as eggs, others as larvae or pupae, and a few as adults. Mourning Cloaks, Compton Tortoiseshells, Milbert’s Tortoiseshells, Question Marks, Gray Commas and Eastern Commas all overwinter as adult butterflies. They store fat in their bodies in the fall and replace a portion of the water in their blood with an antifreeze agent, which prevents the lethal formation of ice crystals in their bodies. These butterflies then slip into cracks, behind loose bark, in a hollow tree or some other sheltered spot where they enter a stage referred to as winter diapause. Metabolic and respiratory rates are greatly reduced, and the butterflies remain inactive until the warming, lengthening days of March and April, when they emerge to mate and lay eggs. They often look rather tattered, as they put many miles on their wings the previous summer. Unlike most adult butterflies which live only a few weeks, butterflies that overwinter as adults have a lifespan of eight to ten months. (Photo: Eastern Comma – note white “comma” on under side of hindwing)

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Wood Frogs Mating

4-23-18 mating wood frogs2 0U1A0777Wood Frogs have emerged from their hibernacula and migrated to their ancestral woodland breeding pools, or vernal pools, to sing (males), mate and lay eggs (females). A chorus of duck-like quacking reveals where these hidden temporary bodies of water are located. The male Wood Frog in this photograph is on top of a female, grasping her behind her front legs in a hold referred to as “amplexus.” They will remain in this position until she lays her eggs and he then fertilizes them externally. Note that even though he has attracted a female and is in the process of mating with her, the male is continuing to sing (one of his two vocal pouches is inflated on the near side of his body).

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Black Bears Scent Marking

4-20-18 black bear biteIn the Northeast, Black Bears typically emerge from their dens in April and mate sometime between mid-May and late June. Prior to mating, Black Bears of all ages and both sexes announce their presence to other bears by rubbing their scent on marking trees (maintaining several on their territory). These “trees” often include utility poles, such as the one pictured. While most of the marking is done by mature males during the mating season, this week’s storm provided proof that scent marking actually resumes in April soon after bears come out of hibernation.

Scent marking can include a bear’s rubbing its shoulders and neck against the tree/pole as well as clawing and biting the tree. Claw marks are usually quite shallow, but incisor bites are deep enough that pieces of bark and wood are sometimes pulled out.  This photograph shows where a Black Bear stood on its hind feet and with its head sideways, grabbed the pole with its mouth open and closed its jaws, scraping a horizontal groove across the pole as its upper and lower canine teeth came together.  The height of the bite was about six feet.

Fresh bear signs indicate that it’s time to bring bird feeders in (either permanently or, at the very least, at night), in order to avoid creating “nuisance” bears,  thereby putting the bears’ lives at risk.

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Downy Woodpeckers Nest-building

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Downy Woodpeckers are beginning to scout for potential nest sites, preferring the dead stubs of a living or dead tree. Both sexes have been observed selecting the nest site, although females do so more commonly. Just because you see a Downy Woodpecker pecking at a site, however, doesn’t mean it will end up nesting there, as excavation is often started at several sites before one is chosen.

When a potential nest site is decided upon by either sex, it often drums to inform its mate, and its mate often flies to the site and taps or drums in response. It takes about 16 days for both male and female to excavate a cavity. A round entrance hole of roughly 1 ¼” in diameter can make it hard for an egg-bearing female to squeeze into the nest. Egg-laying begins anywhere from one to ten days after the completion of the nest cavity, and three to eight eggs are laid, one per day, usually before 10 a.m.. (Photo: male Downy Woodpecker excavating nesting hole)

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Beavers Up and Out

4-16-18 beaver l 690Although most of the Northeast is snow-free, parts of northern New England still have a while to go before bare ground is visible. Most beaver ponds, however, are open and the beavers have been taking advantage of their ability to access fresh food after a long winter of water-logged woody plants. While this particular beaver is dining on bark, most beavers head for any green plants, buds, grasses, etc. that are poking their heads above the ground. A particular beaver delicacy this time of year are the leaves and blossoms of skunk cabbage.

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Eight Years of Your Support

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I want to take a moment to acknowledge the magnanimous spirit of Naturally Curious readers. You have supported me and my family multiple times — by donating to Sadie’s family’s future, supporting my blog and helping me replace my camera. I am truly indebted to you, and I will do my very best to continue to provide you with insight into the events and natural phenomena that we are all privilege to throughout the year. Thank you so much for your continued support of my work and my family. Naturally Curious is a joint effort – you are an integral part of this endeavor – your questions and comments, your continued loyalty and your financial support. I am so grateful to begin the 8th year of this blog with you. (Photo: Spring Peeper, Pseudacris crucifer)


Big Night!

4-13-18 amphibsA magical migration awaits all who take note of the first rainy spring day (in the 40’s) when the rain continues into the night. Last night these conditions resulted in what herpetologists refer to as “Big Night.” While snow still covers parts of the forest, there is ample bare ground that has warmed up enough to waken hibernating frogs and salamanders at this time of year. As if silently communicating with each other, thousands and thousands of these amphibians emerge from their subterranean hibernacula on the very same night and migrate en masse to their ancestral breeding pools, known as vernal pools. They avoid the lethal sun by travelling at night, in the rain. Unfortunately, many die, as they often must cross hazardous roads in order to reach the pool where they breed every year. If you are driving in these conditions, please keep an eye out for these jaywalkers and try to avoid them. Roads can quickly become slick with their squashed bodies.

How many Spring Peepers, Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders can you find in this photograph taken on Big Night? (There are six.)  Thanks to the unbelievable generosity of Naturally Curious readers, this photograph was taken with my new camera and lens.  I cannot tell you how deeply touched I am by your kindness and generosity.

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Lily Piper Brown Arrives!

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To my Naturally Curious family,

As you know, I’ve been away attending the birth of my beautiful granddaughter. She took her time in coming, but three days ago my daughter Sadie delivered her daughter, Lily Piper. Otis has a sister, and we all have joy in our hearts! I was so honored to be asked to be present during the birth, and it was one of the most incredible and emotional experiences of my life.

While I was at Sadie’s I kept my camera and lenses in my car so they would be handy both to photograph my grandchildren and to also photograph the nesting woodpeckers down the road from Sadie’s house. Sadly, on the third or fourth day of my visit my camera and five lenses were stolen from my car! Blog photos for the next week or two may well be from previous years as it will be a little while before I can replace the camera and lenses. Rest assured I will insure the new ones now that I have learned the hard way that not everywhere is as trustworthy as Vermont!

Thank you (in advance) for your patience this week, as I catch up before returning to help Sadie. If I don’t answer your emails promptly (or answer them twice) please understand that I am still just a bit overwhelmed.  Naturally Curious posts will resume next week. However, over the next few weeks I will still be making trips down to help Sadie from time to time, so I may still miss a posting or be a bit late. Bear with me, please, and I will do everything I can to see that Naturally Curious posts resume a regular schedule as soon as possible. With a little luck, the snow will soon be gone and Greta and I can go exploring the woods for signs of spring with a new camera!


A Rare Privilege

4-6-18 four black bears 636-RecoveredThe hours I spent with this ursine family were some of the most special hours of my life.  It’s possible, and probably likely, that because they lived relatively close to human habitation, they were cognizant of the fact that I meant them no harm.  Regardless, they allowed me to observe their natural behavior, and that is a priceless gift to anyone, particularly a naturalist.

Black Bears are not  the monsters Goldilocks would have you believe. Offensive attacks are very rare — aggressive displays are much more an expression of their fear than anything else.  Chattering of jaws, false charges and the like are just that — bravado. Even when it comes to defending their young, they are very reluctant to be aggressive — that is much more likely with Grizzly Bears, which are not found in the Northeast. If not encouraged to become a nuisance by the presence and easy access of human lures such as garbage and bird seed, Black Bears can coexist with humans with little to no conflict.

If you’ve enjoyed the photographs of this family of bears, you (or your very young friends) might enjoy my recently-released children’s book, Yodel the Yearling, in which many of these photos plus others appear .

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Black Bear Yearlings Still Nursing

4-6-18 mother black bear with three yearlings nursing in light snow by MHolland 1077

Female Black Bears mate every two years. Their young are born in January or February and  they stay with their mother for the first year and a half of their lives. Although many sources state that cubs are weaned during their first summer, I discovered firsthand that young bears continue to nurse well into their second year (even though they’ve been eating solid food since they were a few months old).

Two different times while I was within a stone’s throw of her, the mother lay down on the ground and her yearlings proceeded to nurse. Soon, in May or June, shortly before she mates, the mother will drive her yearlings away, forcing them to disperse. Life’s lessons have been taught. By their second spring the yearlings have learned the basics from their mother: what to eat and where to find it, how to defend themselves, where to find safety and how to interact and communicate with other black bears. and they should be able to survive on their own.

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Black Bear Yearlings Active

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Just like other young mammals, young Black Bears are highly energetic. When they aren’t sleeping, they can be found wrestling, biting, grooming, climbing and playing hard with each other. All of these activities, including the pictured yearlings mock-fighting, equip them with necessary survival skills.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.