An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Archive for September, 2018

Mystery Photo

9-26-18 mystery photo 031Can you name this 1/3-inch-long flower? If so (or even if you want to make a wild guess), go to the Naturally Curious blog (www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com), scroll down and click on “Comments” to submit your entry. Look for the answer Monday, in the next Naturally Curious post.

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Dark-eyed Junco Numbers Increasing

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Although Dark-eyed Juncos can be found year-round in New England, their numbers increase dramatically at this time of year, and they become much more noticeable. In addition to our year-round residents, many individuals that have bred further north migrate to the Northeast and even further south to overwinter. For this reason they are sometimes referred to as “Snowbirds.” From late September through October their numbers build and remain high until next May, when many return to their Canadian breeding grounds.

During the winter Dark-eyed Juncos can often be found in flocks, hopping and scratching on the ground as they forage for the seeds that make up 75 percent of their diet. Their two-toned white and gray plumage, and their white outer tail feathers are distinctive.

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A Butterfly’s Proboscis May Act More Like A Paper Towel Than A Straw

9-24-18 sulphur butterfly IMG_9736The chewing mouthparts of a butterfly larva, or caterpillar, undergo changes when the larva develops into an adult butterfly. They are turned into a tube consisting of two parts, or galeae, that when joined form a structure called a proboscis. The proboscis looks like a straw, and has long been thought to act like one. It is often referred to as a sipping tool through which nectar is obtained by butterflies. However, recent discoveries have scientists thinking that the proboscis works more like a paper towel than a straw.

The liquid that a butterfly feeds on in addition to nectar – animal tears, juice inside decomposed fruit, tree sap, sweat, liquid contained in scat – is so viscous that sipping or pumping it through the proboscis, or feeding tube, would require an enormous amount of pressure. It’s been suggested by entomologist Konstantin Kornev of Clemson University that butterflies draw liquid upwards using capillary action – the same force that pulls liquid into a paper towel. The proboscis actually resembles a rolled-up paper towel, with tiny grooves that pull the liquid upwards along the edges, carrying along the bead of liquid in the middle of the tube. (Photo: Sulphur Butterfly on New England Aster)

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Orders for 2019 Naturally Curious Calendars Can Be Placed

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Orders for the  2019 Naturally Curious Calendar can be placed now 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 and one thumbnail photograph (new this year) per month. The calendars 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 (so I can easily and quickly contact you if I have any questions). Your check can be made out to Mary Holland.

Guaranteed orders can be placed up until November 10th. Orders placed after this date will be filled as long as my supply of extra calendars lasts. (To be candid, I have had so many last-minute requests in past years that I have not been able to fill all of the orders placed after November 10th, so if you want to be sure of having your order filled, I encourage you to place your order before that date.)  Calendars will arrive at your door by mid-December. Thank you so much!

Monthly subjects: January – Snowy Owl; February – Otter Slides; March – Spotted Salamander; April – Spring Peeper; May – White-tailed Deer Fawn; June – Gray Fox kit; July – Red-bellied Woodpeckers; August – Chicken of the Woods; September – Monarch; October – Moose; November – Ruffed Grouse; December – Black Bear mother & yearlings.

 


Wild Grape Vines: Male or Female?

e-grapes_U1A9687Have you ever noticed that some wild grape vines bear fruit, while others appear barren? There is a very good reason for this — it depends on whether you are looking at a male or a female grape vine.  The most common wild grapes in New England are Vitis labrusca (Fox Grape) or Vitis riparia (Riverbank Grape, or Frost Grape) – both of which have separate male and female plants (dioecious).  The female plants, if their flowers are fertilized, produce grapes, whereas the flowers of the male vines do not.  In contrast, most cultivated grape varieties are hermaphroditic — their flowers have both male and female reproductive structures, and can self-pollinate and produce fruit.

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Broad-winged Hawk Migration Peaking

9-17-18 juv. broadwing_U1A7043The migration of raptors has begun, and one of the first species to migrate in the fall is the Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus). While it is quite secretive when nesting, it is one of the more conspicuous species of birds when migrating.  This is for two reasons. They are one of the few North American raptors that flocks during migration, and much of their migratory behavior is concentrated in the Northeast in a two-week period around the middle of September.

Migrating Broad-wings conserve energy by frequently soaring in thermals and mountain updrafts. Flocks of birds, or “kettles”, soar up the heated columns of air, peel off and glide to the next thermal where they repeat the process. Very little wing-flapping is necessary in order to cover a lot of ground. The flocks, or “kettles,” range from several individuals to thousands of birds (larger kettles generally occur nearer their Central and South America wintering grounds).

The number of birds migrating often grows following a cold front, when winds die down and thermals increase. Fall migration of Broad-wings in the Northeast is associated with good visibility, moderate favorable winds, high temperatures, and afternoons (vs. mornings). (Photo: juvenile Broad-winged Hawk)

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Black Blister Beetles Consuming Asters

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Blister beetles are so-called because they contain a chemical in their hemolymph, or blood, called cantharidin.  If rubbed or pressed the beetles release cantharidin as a defense mechanism, which causes blistering on human skin.  The Black Blister Beetle (Epicauta pennsylvanica) belongs to a genus of beetles that are highly toxic to horses — a few beetles fed in a single feeding of alfalfa can be lethal.

As larvae, most blister beetles are predators, often invading wild bee colonies and consuming bee larvae, as well as nectar and pollen.  Black Blister Beetle larvae and other blister beetles in the genus Epicauta prey on the eggs of grasshoppers.  Female Black Blister Beetles lay clusters of eggs in the soil in late summer. The small, active larvae that hatch from these eggs crawl over the soil surface entering cracks in search of grasshopper egg pods which are deposited in the ground. After finding an egg mass, the blister beetle larvae become immobile and spend the rest of their developmental time as legless grubs. The following summer they transform into the pupal stage and soon emerge in the adult stage. This is why blister beetle numbers increase dramatically following high grasshopper populations.

Once they mature into adulthood, Black Blister Beetles feed on plants (phytophagus) and are commonly found on flowers, especially those in the Aster/Composite family. They are said to be there for the nectar and pollen, but the Black Blister Beetle pictured denuded several aster blossoms of all petals during the time it was observed.

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Japanese Knotweed Flowering

9-12-18 Japanese bamboo_U1A9517Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) was introduced from Japan in the 1800’s as an ornamental; it was widely cultivated, escaped and is now well established throughout the Northeast. The World Conservation Union lists Japanese Knotweed among the top 100 worst invasive plants.  Its dense canopy and rapid spread through underground rhizomes make it a formidable threat to native plants and the animals that depend on them.

There are some redeeming qualities to this invasive plant, however. In addition to goldenrod and asters, Japanese Knotweed is a crucial source of late-season nectar and pollen. At this time of year, when Japanese Knotweed flowers, you can almost locate a stand using just your ears, the buzzing of honey bees gathering the last of their winter food supply from the thousands of tiny flowers is so loud.  A wide variety of  insects can be found on this member of the Buckwheat family eating leaves, foraging for nectar and pollen, and preying on the former. A recent survey revealed honey bees, bumble bees, ladybug beetles, flies, hornets, yellow jackets, stink bugs and tussock caterpillars, to name just a few.

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.


Fall Webworms

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For several weeks white webs on the tips of branches have been apparent on many trees.  These silken tents are the work of the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea), a moth most associated with its larval stage. Fall Webworm caterpillars construct a web over the end of a branch, enclosing leaves on which they feed.  As the hairy, white caterpillars grow, they enlarge the web to encompass more leaves, with tents sometimes extending two to three feet.

Often mistaken as the work of Eastern Tent Caterpillars, the tents of these two moths can be distinguished by the season they appear (ETC are active in the spring, Fall Webworms in the fall) as well as the location of the tents (ETC are usually in the crotches of trees, Fall Webworms at the tip of branches). As soon as the eggs hatch in early summer, the Fall Webworm larvae begin to spin small silk webs over the foliage of the deciduous trees on which they feed (over 90 species). By fall the tents are conspicuous. A look inside one  reveals caterpillars, dead partially-eaten leaves, and fecal droppings.

The larvae feed together inside the increasingly large web for roughly six weeks, at which point they often start feeding independently before pupating in the ground over the winter and emerging as adult white moths the following summer.

If your favorite tree has one or more Fall Webworm nests in it, there’s no cause for alarm. These caterpillars may defoliate a tree occasionally, but rarely kill it, and usually only build tents on a handful of branches, if that. The larvae have more than 50 natural predators and 36 parasites that help control them. Also bear in mind that Fall Webworms do not eat the buds of next year’s leaves and the leaves they are feeding on will soon to drop to the ground. Next year leaves will appear on the currently affected branches with no sign of last year’s damage.

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.


American Goldfinches Dining On Thistle Seeds

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American Goldfinches are almost exclusively granivorous (consumers of seeds/grains).  Very few insects are consumed by these birds, even when feeding nestlings.  This is highly unusual in that spiders and insects are an essential part of 96% of N.A. terrestrial bird species. At the very least, most seed-eating birds feed their nestlings insects. (Brown-headed Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving the raising of their young up to the host bird. It is rare that a cowbird chick will survive to leave an American Goldfinch nest, probably because it cannot thrive on a diet of virtually all seeds.)

The seeds of plants in the Composite family (sunflowers, thistles, dandelions, etc.) are the preferred food of goldfinches. Thistle seeds, being high in fat and protein, are high on the list. There appears to be a correlation between the late nesting period of goldfinches (late June or early July) and the flowering of thistles.  By the time American Goldfinch eggs have hatched, there is an ample supply of thistle seed for the nestlings.

Now is the time to keep an eye on the seedheads of thistles, dandelions and other composites for the acrobatic seed-plucking antics of American Goldfinches.

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.


Chicken of the Woods Fruiting

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Even though Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) is one of the few edible fungi that is easily identified, it’s always best to have an expert confirm its identity if you are collecting it for consumption.  The bright yellow and orange coloring of its bulky, fan-shaped shelves is distinctive. On the underside of these shelves you will find tiny pores, instead of gills, containing spores, making it a polypore mushroom.  You can find single clusters of this fungus growing on living and dead trees, as well as logs totally covered with them.

Chicken of the Woods gets its name from its taste and texture, which is much like that of chicken.  If you are foraging for a meal, you want to be sure to pick a young specimen, and eat the outermost portion of the shelves (for their tenderness).  There are several species of Laetiporus fungi; the ones growing on hardwood are preferable for eating.

Chicken of the Woods is saprotrophic – the fungus feeds on dead trees.  It is also parasitic, and kills living host trees by causing the wood to rot, and the tree to become hollow and easily topple over.

For those interested, here is a recipe that the Oregon Mycological Society recommends:

POLYPORE OMELET

3 Tablespoons butter

1 cup diced Chicken of the Woods

1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack or cream cheese

2 or 3 shallots, diced

1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

5 or 6 eggs

1/2 cup cream or half and half

Salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a heavy frying pan over low heat.

Beat the eggs and cream, add salt and pepper to taste; pour into the pan.

As the eggs start to cook, sprinkle the Chicken of the Woods, cheese, shallots and parsley over the top.

Cook for 1 to 2 minutes more until the egg mixture sets.

Fold the omelet over and remove from the heat; cover and let sit for 1 minute.

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How Webs Work

9-7-18 orb webs_U1A7834Spiders produce different types of silk for different purposes, including draglines, egg sacs, ballooning, building a web and wrapping prey.  Much of the silk spiders use to spin webs has a sticky consistency, in order to catch flying insects. It turns out that sticky silk isn’t the only reason spider webs are such efficient insect catchers.

According to scientists at Oxford University, not only is much of a spider’s web silk sticky, but it is coated with a glue that is electrically conductive.   This glue causes spider webs to reach out and grab all charged particles that fly into it, from pollen to grasshoppers.  Physics accounts for the web moving toward all airborne objects, whether they are positively or negatively charged.

According to Prof. Vollrath of Oxford University, electrical attraction also drags airborne pollutants (aerosols, pesticides, etc.) to the web.  For this reason, it’s been suggested that webs could be a valuable resource for environmental monitoring. (Thanks to Elizabeth Walker and Linda Fuerst for introducing me to this phenomenon.)

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.