An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Archive for December, 2018

Merry Christmas!

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This  Black Bear cub and I wish you the happiest of holidays! May the magic of  natural discoveries enrich your life today and every day.

Naturally Curious posts will resume on Wednesday, January 2nd.

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.


Winter Solstice

12-21-18 winter solstice IMG_1706The tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation gives different parts of the planet exposure to the Sun at different times of the year, providing seasons.  In December, the Earth’s North Pole turns away from the Sun, giving the Southern Hemisphere the most sunlight.

The annual winter solstice brings us the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The date and time of the solstice vary each year, though it typically falls between Dec. 20 and Dec. 23.  This year’s winter solstice is at 5:23 p.m. Eastern Time today. At that moment, the sun appears directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23.5 degrees south latitude. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun takes its lowest and shortest path through the southern sky. The day will feature just 8 hours and 49 minutes of daylight — compared to our typical 12 hours or so.

This year’s winter solstice won’t be quite as dark as usual (weather permitting). On Saturday, the first full day of winter, a full moon will brighten the long, dark night. The December full moon, also known as the Cold Moon or Long Night’s Moon, arrives less than a day after the solstice, at 12:49 p.m. on Dec. 22. The last time the full moon and the winter solstice occurred less than a day apart was in 2010, and it won’t happen again until 2029.

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Pileated Woodpeckers Foraging For Last of Wild Grapes

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Carpenter Ants and wood-boring beetle larvae are the mainstay of the Pileated Woodpecker’s diet.  Long slivers of wood in trees and logs are removed in order to expose ant galleries, creating large rectangular excavations.  The woodpecker’s long, pointed, barbed tongue and its sticky saliva enable it to catch and extract ants from the ants’ tunnels.

While ants and beetle larvae are consumed year-round, fruits and nuts are eaten when available. A study that took place in the Northeast found seasonal shifts in primary food items: fruit in fall, Carpenter Ants in winter, wood-boring beetle larvae in early spring, and a variety of insects in summer.

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Distinguishing Small Weasels

12-21-18 ermine_U1A8001New England has two small weasels: Long-tailed and Short-tailed.  Both of these predators molt twice a year, from brown to white in the fall, and white to brown in the spring.  The name “Ermine” can refer to either of these two species, but it is most commonly used when referring to the Short-tailed Weasel.

Telling the two species apart can be challenging. Long-tailed Weasels are the larger of the two (head to tail = 12-14 inches), while Ermine are slightly smaller (head to tail = 7-13 inches).  Unless you have both species in front of you, however, their size is hard to assess.  A more helpful distinguishing characteristic is the length of their tail relative to their body length. Long-tailed Weasels have a tail longer than half their body length with a black tip. Ermine have a tail length which is around a third of their body length — it also has a black tip. (Photo:  Ermine (Short-tailed Weasel). Thanks to Sharon and Chad Tribou for photo op.)

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Foxes Scent Marking

12-14-18 fox tracks_U1A8060Foxes, like all canids, tend to mark their territories frequently with both scat and urine.  Both convey information to other foxes regarding hierarchy and sexual status, in addition to marking territory. As these Gray Fox tracks crossing a pond illustrate, it’s rare for an elevated object in a fox’s line of view not to be visited and anointed. Research shows that when scavenging, foxes urinate up to 70 times an hour, allowing just a small amount of urine to be left in any one place.  In addition to rocks, stumps and other raised objects, the remains of a meal are often urinated on, indicating that the nourishing portions have already been consumed.

Red Foxes are generally solitary animals, except during their courtship period, which occurs any time between December and February.  At this time mates pair up, so it is not unusual to see two sets of fox tracks together.  This is also the time of year when the males’ urine acquires a strongly pungent, skunk-like odor detectable from hundreds of yards away.

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American Basswood Buds

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Bark, silhouettes and buds are the three keys to identifying trees in winter. Buds of different tree species are so distinctive they are an excellent identification tool. American Basswood, also known as American Linden,  (Tilia americana) has plump, oval, asymmetrical reddish or green buds, which bear only one or two bud scales.

The bud that forms at the end of a branch is referred to as the terminal bud and those along the length of the branch are lateral buds.  In the case of Basswood, the bud at the tip of the branch is a “false” terminal bud, because it is actually a lateral bud that has assumed the function of the terminal bud.  When the growing tip of the branch withers or falls away, the closest lateral bud to the twig tip substitutes as a terminal bud.

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Eat And Run Strategy

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Ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer and moose, all prey species and all plant eaters, share certain characteristics that have to do with food consumption and digestion.  They all tend to eat large quantities rather quickly in one spot, and then move to another, safer, spot to digest their food.  This technique minimizes the amount of time that they are likely to be out in the open and focused more on eating than on predators.  Eating quickly and storing the consumed food in a chamber and digesting it later at their leisure, under cover, makes a lot of sense.

All three animals have a multi-chambered stomach and microorganisms efficient at breaking down cellulose and extracting nutrients from plants.  After browsing on branches and buds, deer and moose seek shelter where they then regurgitate and chew their cud. Grouse do not linger over their meals – 20 minutes of foraging will sustain them all day. Leaves, buds and twigs are stored in their crop (a wide portion of the esophagus) until the grouse seeks shelter, where the food eventually reaches their gizzard.  Here, with the aid of gravel, it is ground up.

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North American River Otters Foraging For Fish

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Whether or not North American River Otters made the original holes evident in Wednesday’s Mystery Photo, they were responsible for keeping them open by frequently poking their heads up through them for some air. Congratulations to Noel K. for being the first to correctly identify their surface holes.  This was a tricky Mystery Photo, as there were none of the usual signs of otter activity (tracks, fish remains, etc.) on the ice surrounding the holes.  This is probably because the ice was too thin to support the weight of an otter.  To find the most humorous response, scroll down on Wednesday’s Mystery Photo comments until you get to Peg Emerson’s.

These semiaquatic members of the weasel family are active year-round and while they are mainly nocturnal and crepuscular during the summer, they are frequently spotted during the day in winter.  If otters encounter open water, they rarely resist the urge to enter it and pursue resident fish.

Thanks to their webbed feet and streamlined body, otters are accomplished swimmers and divers. They are able to reach a depth of around five feet and remain submerged for up to four minutes as they hunt underwater. Top swimming speed is seven miles per hour. (They can achieve a speed of up to 18 miles per hour when running and sliding on snow or ice.)  While fish are their mainstay, these carnivores also consume frogs, snakes, turtles, insects, birds and bird eggs and the occasional mammal (mainly muskrat).  Though called “river” otters, they forage in fresh, salt and brackish waters. (Thanks to Rita and Dave Boynton for photo op.)

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.


Mystery Photo

12-5-18 mystery photo2 _U1A2595The icing over of ponds has begun as a result of the recent cold weather. Holes are appearing in the (thin) ice of some ponds.  How do you think these one-to-three-foot holes are formed? Responses may be submitted by going to the Naturally Curious blog site (www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com) and scrolling down to “Comments.”  The answer will be revealed on Friday, 12/7/18.

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.


Some Of My Favorite Natural History I.D. Guides

12-3-18 books IMG_5296 (002)I have a fairly extensive natural history book collection which is heavily used for research.  It occurred to me that if there’s a naturalist, or a budding naturalist, on your holiday gift-giving list, or if you would like to expand your own natural history library, you might appreciate some suggestions.  The three books I’ve chosen are not fresh off the press.  One was published 15 years ago.  But they are all in print, and each of them has solved many an identification mystery for me.

March Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks & Sign covers a wide range of categories – photographs and extensive text regarding North American mammal tracks, scat, trails and a million other signs.  David Wagner’s Caterpillars of Eastern North America has never failed me when I’ve found an unfamiliar caterpillar.  He includes photographs and information on habitat, range, common food plants and more.  And who hasn’t found a bird feather and wondered what species it came from?  In addition to Scott and McFarland’s photographs of feathers in Bird Feathers, they go into the history, structure and types of North American bird feathers.

Any one of these books would answer most identification questions in their respective fields.  If you have a naturalist in mind to give one to, you might want to subtly check to make sure these aren’t already in his or her possession.  Of course, this post was written with the assumption that the lucky person who receives your gift already has Naturally Curious and Naturally Curious Day by Day! I hear the author also writes children’s nature books for the very young (3-8).

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.