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Archive for July, 2018

Maybe A Great Year For Monarchs?

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I have no idea what the status of monarch caterpillars is in other parts of the country this year, but at least in parts of Vermont and New Hampshire, they are plentiful!  Two on one plant — just like the old days! (Thanks to Sadie Brown for NH input.)

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Bird’s Nest Fungus Fruiting Bodies Maturing

7-25-18 bird's nest fungus IMG_2701The observant eye may have spied what look like miniature bird nests filled with tiny eggs growing in gardens and wood chips this time of year.  They are a type of fungus that forms fruiting bodies that employ a “splash-cup dispersal” mechanism in order to disperse its spores.

The nests (peridia) serve as splash cups; when raindrops strike the nest, the eggs (peridioles) are projected into the air.  In some species, each peridiole is attached to the inner surface of the cup by a slender, hollow stalk which contains an inner, coiled, threadlike “funicular cord.” The fragile outer layer of the stalk is easily ruptured, thus releasing the inner, coiled cord. When wet, the cord elongates greatly and may reach a length of 6-8 inches. The base (hapteron) of this elongated cord is very sticky and adheres readily to solid objects after it is released from the cup. Like a wad of glue, the sticky cord base strikes a solid object, such as a nearby plant, adheres to a branch, and as the peridiole continues in flight the cord expands to its full length. Then the peridiole winds around the branch where the hapteron has become attached and is suspended in the air. Upon drying, the peridiole splits open, releasing its spores.

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Eastern Black Swallowtails Laying Eggs

7-23-18 black swallowtail female laying eggs_U1A2171Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) butterflies are mating and laying eggs.  The female Eastern Black Swallowtail can appear quite frantic as she visits multiple host plants just long enough to leave a very tiny, spherical, pale yellow egg before heading on to the next plant.  In the wild, Queen Anne’s Lace, Wild Parsnip, Golden Alexander and Poison Hemlock are favorite host plants; in vegetable gardens you frequently find larvae (if you should miss the eggs) on dill, fennel and parsley.  Entomologists have found that host plant odor is one of the cues involved in the Eastern Black Swallowtail’s choice of where to lay eggs.

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American Bur-reed Flowering

7-23-18 bur weedAmerican Bur-reed, Sparganium americanum, is an aquatic, perennial plant that grows two to four feet high and looks a lot like a grass due to its narrow leaves (but isn’t).  This member of the Cattail family grows in shallow water (up to a foot deep) in marshes and along muddy shorelines.  The flower stem forms a zig-zag pattern with flower clusters at each stem juncture.   The large, spherical female flowers are located on the lower part of the stem, with the smaller male flowers at the top.

Considered an important plant for conservation purposes, American Bur-reed has the ability to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from wetlands.  It can help prevent eutrophication by lessening the buildup of nitrogen (often from agricultural land) and phosphorus (households, industry) from runoff.

American Bur-reed spreads rapidly through its underground root systems of rhizomes, and is relied upon by many birds as an important source of food.  Waterfowl, including Mallards, Redheads, Ring-necked Ducks, Greater Scaup, Buffleheads, Canvasbacks, American Wigeons and Blue-winged Teal, consume the seeds, as do Soras, Virginia Rails and Wilson’s Snipe. Muskrats eat the entire plant. (Thanks to Kay Shumway for photo op.)

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Abbott’s Sphinx Moth Larvae Maturing

7-23-18 Abbott's sphinx moth_U1A2632The larvae of sphinx moths, commonly called hawk or hummingbird moths, are easily recognized by the horn, eye spot or hardened button that is near the tip of their abdomen.  Most readers are probably familiar with the larval stage of tobacco and tomato hornworms (Carolina Sphinx Moth and Five-spotted Hawk Moth, respectively) which are found on tomato plants. A less observed sphinx moth, Abbott’s Sphinx Moth (Sphecodina abbottii), can be found on grape and Virginia creeper vines.  As a larva it molts several times and assumes three different appearances by the time it pupates.

Abbott Sphinx Moth larvae start out green, with a horn near the tip of their abdomen, like most other sphinx moths. However, when they are about half-grown, they turn blue-green and the horn develops into an orange knob (see inset).  In the last stages before they pupate, the larvae molt and the knob turns into an “eye,” complete with a black pupil and encircling iris.  The finishing touch is a white reflection spot that makes the eye appear moist and shiny.  At this point, the larvae may be either brown with a “wood-grain” pattern (resembling grape vines, a host plant) or brown with ten pale green saddles along the back (thought to resemble grapes).  Pictured are the second and third stages of a brown “wood-grain” Abbot’s Sphinx Moth larva.

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Land Snails Eating

7-20-18 snail_U1A2042While there are some terrestrial snails that are omnivorous and even carnivorous, most are herbivorous.  Each species has a diet dependent on its size, age, habitat and individual nutritional requirements.  They all must feed on foods that include significant amounts of calcium in order to keep their shell hard.

Those species that are herbivorous consume a variety of plants, including the leaves, stems, bark and fruits, as well as fungi and occasionally algae.  They do so in an unusual way. Snails have an organ in their mouth with rows of tiny teeth, called a radula.  When the food reaches this structure that looks like a sack, the teeth do not cut or grind it like human teeth would. Instead of being chewed, the radula scrapes the food and breaks it down before it passes through the esophagus to continue the digestion process.

The tiny teeth on the radula suffer much wear and tear as time passes. Therefore, they are continually replaced by others. Not all species have the same number of teeth. Some have rows with just a few teeth, while others have hundreds.

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Great Blue Heron Chicks Enjoying Home Delivery

7-18-18 gbh chicks & parent IMG_5874Great Blue Heron chicks spend roughly two months in their nest before fledging, during which time they are totally dependent on both of their parents for food.  During the first week after their eggs have hatched, the parents return to the nest after foraging and stand on the rim while placing regurgitated food into their chicks’ open beaks.  By the second week the chicks grasp the adult’s beak briefly when the parent arrives with food, and by the end of the third week the chicks are pulling the adult’s beak into the nest, which they continue to do until they fledge.  Occasionally chicks reach into an adult’s open beak to get food, but most of the time the parents put the food into their offsprings’ beaks.

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Mantisflies Preying

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There is a small group of insects (family Mantispidae) known as mantisflies, so-called because of their resemblance to small praying mantises. Climaciella brunnea (pictured) is the most commonly encountered mantisfly in the Northeast. Not only does it have the grasping forelegs of a praying mantis, but it also mimics a paper wasp.

A newly hatched Climaciella brunnea larva attaches itself to an arachnid host, preferably a wolf spider. It lives off the blood of the spider until the spider lays eggs, and then the larva positions itself so that it gets wrapped up in the spider’s egg sac along with the eggs.   Once inside the sac the larva feeds on the eggs until it pupates. The adult mantisfly emerges and preys on other insects, often those visiting flowers, and consumes nectar and sap as well. Although they lay an enormous number of eggs, mantisflies are relatively rare.

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Stink Bugs Preying On Insects

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Shield-shaped stink bugs (Pentatomidae) are fairly distinctive looking and smelling. Their common name comes from the presence of scent glands that open on their thorax, discharging pungent compounds over a wick-like surface near the bug’s hind legs. These compounds serve as a chemical deterrent for would-be predators, and also as an alarm for other stink bugs.

About a third of the 200 North American species of stink bugs are predaceous – they actively hunt and kill their prey. (The other two-thirds are plant feeders.) After spearing the prey with its piercing mouthpart, or beak, the stink bug injects digestive enzymes into its victim. These enzymes help liquefy tissues in the body of the prey and a muscular pump in the head of the stink bug enables the bug to suck nutrient rich liquid from its prey. Many predaceous stink bugs are major predators of webworms, tent caterpillars, Colorado Potato Beetles and a number of other insects that are considered garden pests. Unfortunately, non-pest species, such as the monarch caterpillar (see photo) are also subject to stink bug predation.

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Beavers Eating & Grooming

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This photograph conveys the essence of a beaver’s summer – eating and grooming… more eating, more grooming. During the summer months, beavers feed on non-woody vegetation (grasses, ferns, aquatic plants, etc.) 90% or more of the time. (During March/April and October/November, their diet switches to 60%-90% tree bark, and during the winter, bark from trees stored under water composes 100% of their diet.)

When beavers are not eating, much of their time during the warmer months is spent grooming, both themselves as well as each other.  Combing debris out of their coat (with the help of a split nail on both hind feet) and applying oily material from their anal glands to waterproof their fur consume much of their waking hours, both at night as well as at both ends of the day. (Castoreum, produced in castor sacs, differs from anal gland secretion, and is used primarily to mark territory.) (Thanks to Roger and Eleanor Shepard, and Sara and Warren Demont for photo op.)

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Hearts Filled With Gratitude

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One year ago today my daughter Sadie lost Waylon– her husband, best friend and the father of her son Otis and daughter Lily Piper. In the past twelve months Sadie has showered Otis with love and has given birth to his sister, Lily Piper. Relatives, Naturally Curious readers and friends have given her their love and support but at the end of the day, Sadie has met the challenges of single-parenting by herself:  two children in diapers, the demands of a job, daycare, an active toddler, a nursing infant, meals, daily laundering, shopping, etc. While the physical tasks are daunting, she also has lived through every poignant and bittersweet holiday and birthday remembering past ones shared with Waylon. Sadie’s strength, resiliency and passion for her children’s well-being will serve as an inspiration to me for the rest of my life. I am honored to be her mother.  Thank you, dear readers, from Sadie, Otis, Lily Piper and myself for your immeasurable help during this first challenging year.


Eastern Dobsonflies Emerging

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Eastern Dobsonfly (Corydalus cornutus) larvae, known as Hellgramites, are the top invertebrate predators in the rocky streams where they occur. In this stage they look like underwater centipedes and consume tadpoles, small fish, and other young aquatic larvae. Adults keep watch over them from a nearby area above the water.

After leaving their stream and pupating on land, the 4”-5 ½”-winged adults, referred to as Eastern Dobsonflies, emerge. Males can easily be distinguished from females by their large, sickled-shaped mandibles which the females lack. (The short, powerful mandibles of the female are capable of giving a painful bite, which the males’ mandibles are not.) Adults are primarily nocturnal and they do not eat. During their short lifespan (about three days for males, eight to ten days for females) they concentrate on reproducing.

The elongated jaws of the male are used both as part of the premating ritual (males place their mandibles on the wings of the females) and as weapons for fighting rival males.   (Thanks to Clyde Jenne for photo op.)

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Mystery Photo: Young Eastern Black Walnuts

7-6-18 black walnuts IMG_8342Congratulations to “Deb” – the first person to correctly identify the subject of the most recent Mystery Photo as young Eastern Black Walnuts!

Eastern Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra) produce abundant tiny male flowers on long, dangling, finger-like catkins. Female flowers, located on the same tree as male flowers, are fewer in number and are slightly larger. Being wind-pollinated, Black Walnut produces female flowers with stigmas (the top-most, pollen-receiving structures) which have a large surface area designed to catch pollen drifting in the wind. (These are the “rabbit ears.”) The stigmas often persist while the fruit matures  — they are barely visible on the left walnut in photo.

By September, the walnuts will have matured. They then fall to the ground where their outer husk slowly decays. The fruits are well-known for leaching chemicals into the soil that inhibit the growth of other plants, an interaction known as “allelopathy” (literally meaning “making your neighbor sick”).

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Mystery Photo

7-4-18 mystery photo_U1A9838Identify these mystery objects with ¼-inch “rabbit ears” by going to the Naturally Curious blog site (www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com) and clicking on “Comments” at the bottom of this post. Answer will be posted on Friday, July 6th.


Indian Cucumber Root Flowering & Fruiting

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Indian Cucumber Root, Medeola virginiana, lives up to its name, as its rhizomes have a mild cucumber taste. Equally as enticing are its flowers — delicate and oh so intricate.

This member of the Lily family has one whorl of leaves if it isn’t going to flower (too young or without enough energy to reproduce), and two if it is. If there are two whorls of leaves, look under the top whorl and you will find flowers unlike any other you have seen. The pale petals fold back and from the center emerge three long reddish styles and several purple stamens (reproductive parts). Occasionally the flowers are above the topmost leaves, but typically they are below.

The change in position that Indian Cucumber Root flowers undergo as they develop into fruit is as fascinating as their appearance. The pedicels, or stalks, of these flowers become more erect once the flowers have been pollinated and fertilized, to the point where the dark blue berries mature above the upper whorl of leaves. You can see both stages in this photograph (styles have yet to fall off the developing fruits).

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