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Archive for May, 2018

March Flies Emerging

5-30-18 march fly_U1A4814If you’ve been spending time in fields and meadows recently you may have been witness to the mass emergence of a species of fly known as the March Fly (Bibio albipennis). Their common name is a misnomer, for they are usually seen in April and May in the Northeast. The hatching of March Fly eggs in the soil produces larvae that feed mostly on decaying organic matter. After the larvae pupate and emerge as adults, you find dozens of flies clinging to grass and other vegetation.

Another species of fly in the same genus is known as “Lovebugs,” due to the habit of the males remaining “plugged into” the females during long copulations. Entomologist Stephen Marshall has this to say about their presence in southeastern U.S.: Even though adult Bibionidae are innocuous non-biting insects, the sheer number of fornicating flies fouling car windshields, pitting paint jobs and clogging up radiators renders Lovebugs a well-known Bible Belt nuisance.

The male and female March Fly are sexually dimorphic, differing in appearance. Like many other flies that form male swarms, the males have large heads with massive eyes. The females’ eyes are much smaller. Both are common on flowers and can be significant pollinators of fruit trees.

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Male American Redstarts

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Warblers — small, active, insect-eating birds — are often referred to as the “butterflies of the bird world” due to the striking breeding plumage of many of the males.  One warbler that’s hard to overlook due to its brilliant orange and black plumage is the male American Redstart.  Like most warblers, it is a very active feeder, flitting from branch to branch looking for insects.  However, it also occasionally feeds like a flycatcher — perching and flying out to capture insects in mid-air, giving you the opportunity to get a good look at it.

The breeding behavior of the American Redstart is of particular interest, in that not only is the male occasionally polygamous, as are many other bird species, the two females he mates with at the same time do not nest in the same territory.  The male holds two separate territories that can be separated by as much as a quarter-mile.  The male begins attracting a second female after the first has completed her clutch and is busy incubating the eggs.  Perhaps the bird world would benefit from a “Me Too” movement.

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Red Fox Kits Maturing

5-25-18 red fox kit_U1A4366Time is marching on…the blue eyes of Red Fox kits are turning brown, as they do once a kit is around two months old. Their coat is slowly being replaced by the reddish hairs for which they are named. While kits still spend most of their time close to their den, individuals will take short exploratory walks by themselves. Frequently they accompany their parent on forays during which they are instructed on the finer points of being a successful predator.

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Barred Owls Fledging (But Not Flying Yet)

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If you heard Barred Owls calling this winter, and have occasionally spotted one in the same vicinity this spring, now is the time to start looking up at the canopy to see if they produced any young owls. Having spent four or five weeks in a tree cavity being fed and cared for by their parents, Barred Owl nestlings get the urge to spread their talons (and eventually their wings) and leave their nest about this time of year. It will be roughly another month before they begin short flights; until then the fledglings are referred to as “branchers,” as that is where you will find them, perched and begging for food from their parents, who will continue to feed them until late summer or fall. (If you know a youngster who is captivated by owls, they might enjoy reading Otis the Owl by yours truly!)

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Dwarf Ginseng Flowering

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This perennial wildflower is 3-8” tall and graces the forest floor at this time of year with its globular mass of tiny, white flowers. Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) is related to the Ginseng used for herbal medicine, but because it’s not used for this purpose, its population is not threatened like that of its larger relative.

The flowers of some plants are all staminate (male), while the flowers of other plants are perfect (male & female). You can distinguish them from each other by closely examining the flower parts. Each staminate flower has a single non-functional style (stalk that connects the pollen-collecting stigma with the ovary), while each perfect flower has 3 styles. Individual plants are capable of changing their gender from year-to-year. (Photo: staminate Dwarf Ginseng flowers)

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Common Ravens Fledging

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Amazingly, there are birds that are fledging from their nests this early in the spring, among them Common Ravens. The intelligence of this species is well known, but perhaps less familiar are their antics, especially those of young birds.

Common Ravens have been observed “sliding down inclines on their belly, lying on their side grappling sticks, dropping and catching objects while in flight, hanging upside down by one or two feet, snow “bathing,” giving vocal monologues, caching inedible items, playing “tug-of-war” or “king-of-the-hill” with other ravens, and pecking predators on the tail.” (Birds of North America Online) If you hear their guttural call from above, be sure to look up and enjoy the show. (Photo: Common Raven fledgling. Thanks to Erin Donahue and Charlie Berger for photo op.)

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Stinking Benjamin – A Fly-eating Spider’s Best Friend

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Red Trillium (Trillium erectum) has many common names, among them Stinking Benjamin, due to its unappealing smell. It has no nectar to attract insects, so it uses its scent and the color of its petals (which resembles rotting meat) to lure pollinating insects, the majority of which are carrion flies and beetles.

Apparently this strategy has not gone unnoticed by certain insect-eating predators, such as spiders. As you can see in this photograph, a spider has snared and is eating (drinking) a fly in the web it spun on top of the trillium’s pollen-laden stamens.

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Oak Catkins A Source Of Protein

5-14-18 gray squirrel eating oak flowers2 _U1A2327It’s common knowledge that you can often find warblers at this time of year by looking up into flowering oak trees, as the male flowers (catkins) attract an important source of protein for birds in the form of insects. Oaks (all parts) are host to more than 550 species of butterfly and moth larvae as well as many other invertebrates, many of which are attracted to catkins.

It turns out that birds are not the only creatures that visit oak catkins in order to secure a meal. Although we think of Gray Squirrels as consumers of nuts, seeds, fruit and fungi (and bird eggs and fledglings), their preferred food in the early spring includes the nutritious buds and catkins of oaks, elms and maples. Apparently their taste buds are not the same as humans’, as people who have consumed catkins say that their taste leaves a lot to be desired. (Photo: Gray Squirrel eating Red Oak catkins. Thanks to Sadie Brown for photo op).

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Happy Mother’s Day

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Changing of the Guard

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In approximately 85% of bird species, both the male and female of a mating pair contribute to the feeding and guarding of their offspring. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are of this ilk. Both members of a pair help excavate a nest cavity, incubate the eggs, brood the young and feed the nestlings for up to 10 weeks after they fledge. As seen in this photograph, when tending to their nestlings, one member of a pair wastes no time in departing as soon as its mate appears.

Thanks to the extension of the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s range northward, even northern New Englanders now have the opportunity to observe the nesting behavior of these medium-sized woodpeckers. (Photo: female Red-bellied Woodpecker leaves nest as food-bearing male arrives. Note continuous red crown on male, which is broken in female.) (Thanks to Sadie Brown for photo op.)

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Blister Beetles Mating

5-9-18 blister beetles mating_U1A1519Blister beetles derive their name from the fact that they secrete a yellow blood-like substance called hemolymph which contains the blistering compound cantharidin. Severe burns and even poisoning can occur if the quantity encountered is large enough. (Baled hay containing the carcasses of blister beetles can be lethal to livestock that eat it.)

Defense isn’t cantharidin’s only function, however. Cantharidin is secreted by the male blister beetle and given to the female as a copulatory gift during mating. Afterwards, the female beetle covers her eggs with it as a defense against predators.

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Red Fox Pups Establishing Hierarchy

4-27-18 red fox kit3 IMG_7484When Red Fox pups are born, they weigh less than a stick of butter and have charcoal gray fur (with the characteristic white-tipped tail). Eventually eyes open, fur grows more dense and teeth begin to come in. For their first month the pups remain in their den, and then, cautiously at first, emerge into the great outdoors.

Around the time they are leaving the safety of their den the pups are engaged in another important process – that of establishing a strict dominance hierarchy. The largest member of the litter, male or female, usually becomes the alpha pup. This position allows it to steal food from its litter mates. Each pup steals food from litter mates below it in the hierarchy. Should food become scarce, the dominant pups get a larger portion of the food and have the best chance of surviving while smaller and more submissive pups may die. By the time the pups are spending enough time outside the den to be noticed by humans, the hierarchy has been established, and we are witness to the less aggressive, playful, puppy-like behavior we associate with fox pups.

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Early Post for May 11th

Due to an itchy finger, tomorrow’s post has been emailed to you tonight!


Beaked Hazelnut Flowering

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Some of the most dazzling flowers this time of year are easily overlooked due to their diminutive size and the fact that they are not found on the ground. The flowers of Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), a native shrub, are in this category. The shape and position of the male and female flowers illustrate their respective strategies for successfully producing seeds.

The female flower, located at the tip of the branch (where other branches don’t obstruct it) extends its tiny, star-like pistils into the air in several directions so that they easily collect pollen.

Down below the female flowers hangs the pendulous male catkin, dangling its pollen-laden stamens so that the wind can easily disperse the pollen. Because it is positioned below the female flower, there is a reduced likelihood of self-pollination.

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Bumblebees Active On Cool Mornings

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There is a reason why we often see bumblebees before we see honey bees in the early spring. It’s a matter of 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Bumblebees will fly when the air temperature is as low as 50°F. and sometimes lower. Honey bees cannot fly if it’s colder than 55°F.

Even though they can fly at 50°F., bumblebees cannot take off unless their flight muscles are above 86°F. and they must keep the temperature of their thorax between 86°F. and 104°F. In order to accomplish this, bumblebees uncouple their wing muscles so that the wings themselves do not move, and then use the muscles to shiver and raise their thorax temperature. (Photo: Tri-colored Bumblebee & Trailing Arbutus)

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