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Archive for March, 2019

Big Night Approaching

3-29-19 big night IMG_7508Every spring there comes a day when the temperature approaches or exceeds 45 degrees, and a gentle spring rain occurs and extends into the night.* These conditions signal the impending nocturnal migration of many amphibians to their breeding pools. Spotted Salamanders, Jefferson/Blue-spotted Salamanders, Wood Frogs, Spring Peepers and an occasional American toad rise from their state of hibernation to crawl out of the dirt and make their way to wetlands (often vernal pools) where they will breed and lay their eggs. So many migrate en masse that the first night that this migration takes place has been dubbed “Big Night.”

It goes without saying that in many cases, roads have to be crossed when going from hibernaculum to breeding pool. This poses a major threat to the frogs and salamanders that are on the move, and roads often become slick with their carcasses due to unwitting automobile drivers. If you are out driving on the first warm, wet evening this spring, drive slowly while keeping an eye out for lumps in the road, and if you see them and have a flashlight or head lamp handy (to find the frogs and salamanders, as well as to announce your presence in the road to other drivers), stop and lend them a hand (usually there are concentrated areas where crossings occur). (Perhaps a group of well-marked volunteers could gather to monitor and assist migrating amphibians at major road-crossing locations in your town.) It should be obvious which direction the frogs and salamanders are all headed in, and they can be placed well off that side of the road. (Photo: left to right, Wood Frog, Spring Peeper, Spotted Salamander)

*With one to two feet of snow on the ground and vernal pools still frozen over in many parts of northern New England, this event will most likely not occur with the impending warm, rainy weather, but will happen in the next few weeks.

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Animal Noses

4-20-19 AnimalNoses (002)A new addition to my children’s book series on Animal Adaptations has just been released. Animal Eyes, Ears, Mouths, Tails and Legs are now joined by Animal Noses.

Noses come in all kinds of shapes and sizes that are just right for their particular animal host. Not only do most animals use their noses to breathe but for many animals, the sense of smell helps them find food, a mate, or even to know when danger is near! Following Animal Tails, Animal Eyes, Animal Mouths (NSTA/CBC Outstanding Trade Science Award), Animal Ears and Animal Legs, Mary Holland continues her photographic Animal Anatomy and Adaptations series by exploring many different animal noses and how those noses help the animals survive in their habitats.” Arbordale Publishing

Copies can be purchased from independent bookstores, online and from the publisher by going to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and clicking on image of cover on right.


Time To Take Down Bird Feeders !

3-25-19 black bears 1214Black Bears have just started to emerge from hibernation in northern New England, and their appetite is fierce. Male black bears will typically drop between 15 and 30 percent of their body weight, while reproductive sows can lose up to 40 percent of their weight over the winter. Although omnivores, a black bear’s diet consists of 85 percent plant material, especially in the spring and summer. At this time of year bears favor the tender emerging shoots of sedge and grasses, willow catkins, leaf buds and skunk cabbage. However, these plants are not always available to them when they first become active. Being opportunists, if bears can’t find natural food sources, they go looking for alternatives, such as those provided by humans.

Sunflower seeds are a Black Bear’s dream come true, nutritionally speaking. A bird feeder full of them replaces hours of foraging in the wild. With an outstanding sense of smell (many times greater than a bloodhound’s), Black Bears will find and raid feeders at this time of year when there is a lack of other food sources. Therefore, if you wish to avoid creating a “nuisance” bear, it is advisable to take down your feeders by April 1st. Black Bears have excellent memories, particularly regarding food sources. They will return time after time, and may resort to unwanted (by humans) behavior in order to get more of the food that was at one time available. Once this occurs, their well-being is jeopardized.

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Beavers Seeking Green Food

3-22-19 beavers 935Although spring is arriving a bit later than usual this year, there are beaver ponds where the ice has started to melt and resident beavers have wasted no time in exiting the water. (Where ice is thinning, they are known to bump their heads up against it in order to break through.)

Having had a diet of bark all winter (from the underwater supply of branches they stored last fall), beavers head for a greener diet if it can be found. Skunk cabbage, where it’s present, is the first fresh food of the season for beavers. The rhizomes (underwater stems) of water lilies, as well as the leaves and flowers when they appear, are also favorite foods. As spring advances into summer, grasses ferns, sedges, and all manner of herbaceous flowering plants are eaten.

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Vernal Equinox (a day late)

3-20-19 hepatica IMG_7248
And Spring arose on the garden fair,

Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;

And each flower and herb on Earth’s dark breast

rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Sensitive Plant”

(Photo: Round-lobed Hepatica, Anemone americana)

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“Konk-la-ree”

3-18-19 red-winged blackbird IMG_2331While Red-winged Blackbirds are present year-round in southern New England, their return is one of the key indicators that spring has sprung further north. Males have just started appearing in northern New England, and females will follow shortly. Hearing these harbingers of spring is as delightful as seeing them.

Both males and females have a repertoire of songs and calls. The male redwing has nine distinct song types, the most familiar of which is its “konk-la-ree” song. Females have three main categories of much shorter songs.

The male sings throughout the year, but most frequently during the breeding season when territories are being established. In addition, he uses this song to initiate female courtship behavior once she is settled on his territory. Initially the female redwing does not answer the male’s song, but she does so frequently once she becomes a regular resident of his territory.

Singing is obviously a successful procreation strategy for male Red-winged Blackbirds, for up to 15 females have been observed nesting on the territory of a single male (although he does not necessarily sire all of the offspring).

To hear Red-winged Blackbird songs and calls, go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-winged_Blackbird/sounds. (Photo: singing male Red-winged Blackbird)

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Bohemian Waxwings Headed Northwest To Breeding Grounds

3-15-19 bohemian waxwing dropping crab apple_U1A5117Northern New England and, to a lesser extent, southern New England, are visited by Bohemian Waxwings most winters. This nomadic bird often occurs in large single-species flocks, but sometimes mixes with Cedar Waxwings and/or American Robins. These flocks, varying in size from a few individuals to several hundred, and even a few thousand, range widely during migration and winter. Their dietary preference in the winter for sugary fruits makes crab apple and mountain ash trees (and the ground underneath them) as well as highbush cranberry bushes likely locations to spot them.

Most Bohemian Waxwings begin their migration to their breeding grounds in Alaska and the boreal forests of western Canada in March. Like its close relative, the Cedar Waxwing, it breeds late compared to most birds. Eggs are not laid until mid-June, presumedly in order to time the fledging of their young with the ripening fruits of summer.

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Light, Paper and A Vision

3-13-19 calvin nicholls b7591623-2112-4f88-abf0-288f30c89899Occasionally the desire to share someone’s talent compels me to post about it. This is one such occasion. In my opinion, the next best thing to seeing a live bird or animal is seeing one through the eyes of Calvin Nicholls, a Canadian artist who makes paper sculpture images of birds and animals that are so realistic and appear so three dimensional they draw you in instantly. The illusion of depth through Nicholls’ use of light heightens the finest details in each of his subjects. To think that he accomplishes these realistic likenesses with nothing but finely carved pieces of paper boggles the mind. To read more about Nicholls and his paper sculpture process, go to Cornell’s site https://www.allaboutbirds.org/paper-sculptures/?utm_source=Cornell%20Lab%20eNews&utm_campaign=40248d11a6-Cornell-Lab-eNews-2019-03-11&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_47588b5758-40248d11a6-277956657. Of particular interest is the video illustrating how Nicholls creates his pieces.

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Hooded Merganser Gender I.D.

3-11-19 hooded mergansers IMG_3457At the last minute I changed the photograph used in this morning’s post, and forgot to revise the description of their genders. The male Hooded Merganser is leading (to the left in the photo) and the less colorful female is to the right. My apologies for the confusion!


Hooded Mergansers Returning

3-11-19 hooded mergansers IMG_3457Keep your eye out for increasing numbers of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) on open lakes, ponds and rivers. Although these birds can be found in most of New England year-round (some overwinter as far north as ice permits), much of the population overwinters in the Southeast. Hooded Merganser migration northwards begins particularly early in the spring — they often arrive on breeding grounds within days of ice out. (Photo: Hooded Merganser pair, female in foreground)

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Moose Incisor Scrapings

3-8-19 moose scrapingIn the winter Moose feed mainly by browsing on twigs and by scraping bark off of trees. Like White-tailed Deer and other ruminants, Moose lack incisors in their upper jaw; they bite off their food between their lower incisors and a hard pad on the upper gum.

An obvious sign of Moose is the “incisor scrapes” they make when removing bark from trees with their lower incisors. An upwards movement of their head enables them to scrape a strip of bark from the tree. Sometimes instead of a clean scrape, neatly cut at both ends, you will see shredded bits of bark flapping at the top of a scrape. This occurs when a Moose begins a scrape and then grabs the piece of bark between its incisors and hard palate and pulls it upwards, peeling off a strip.
When in Moose habitat, look for the incisor scrapes of Moose on Red and Striped Maple, Willow, Trembling Aspen, Balsam Fir and Mountain Ash. Moose scrapings can be found starting as low as ten inches from the ground and can extend as high as eight feet (most likely made by a Moose standing on snow).

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American Crows Building Nests

3-6-19 A. crow IMG_1920Congratulations to Robyn Deveney and Chris Wings, the first Naturally Curious readers who accurately suggested the Mystery Photo depicted the tracks of an American Crow collecting nesting material. As I approached the pictured area, I flushed two black birds who were soon cawing and flying overhead, with a stick protruding from one of their beaks.

Crows are one of the earliest passerine, or perching, birds to engage in nest-building and egg-laying. Crows tend to build new nests each year, seldom reusing a nest from a previous year. In New England both members of a pair are busy collecting nesting material such as sticks, bark strips, weeds and mud, in March. They bring this material back to the nest site, which is typically a conifer, and construct a bulky nest usually in the crotch of the tree or on a horizontal branch. It takes anywhere from one to two weeks for crows to complete a nest and up to six days to lay 2 – 6 eggs. Incubation typically begins in early April.

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Mystery Photo

3-4-19 mystery photo_U1A3795I encountered this scene days ago after a light snowfall when I was on a trail that had been cleared through woodlands last fall. I noticed large bird tracks (present, but not identifiable as such in photo) leading to debris that had been piled just off the cleared trail. Why, I wondered, was any bird attracted to this particular site. As I continued snowshoeing there were several more areas where a similar scene (bird tracks and stumps/logs/branches/sticks) presented itself. What I saw moments later above my head solved the mystery of these scenarios for me. Can you solve it without the revelatory clue I was presented with?

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Hungry Barred Owls Near Feeders

3-4-19 barred owl _U1A2992Over the past few weeks many people in northern New England have discovered Barred Owls perching near their bird feeders during the day. At this time of year, with snow on the ground, food is harder to find and owls are forced to hunt during the day as well as at night. Bird feeders are a sure source of food, as mice and voles are coming out to feed on spilled seed (most often at night).

The owls we see are relying primarily on their sense of hearing to locate small rodents. Their ear openings are asymmetrically placed, which means that sounds reach the owl’s ears at different times. This helps them zero in on the exact location where the sound is coming from, both when they are perched as well as in flight.

Although Barred Owls can detect the sound of a mouse scurrying through tunnels two feet beneath the snow, this winter has been more challenging for them than many. Almost every snow storm has been followed by rain, which has created multiple layers of icy crust. Although sound may be heard through solid, liquid, or gaseous matter, one wonders if these multiple layers of crust compromise an owl’s ability to hear. In addition, these conditions can’t help but impede an owl’s ability to reach its target as quickly as it normally does.

A dear friend whose compassion for creatures big and small is unmatched was going to great lengths (coating balls of hamburger with hair cut from her dog’s coat so they would bear some resemblance to small rodents) to help a resident owl in a time of need. Some would argue that nature shouldn’t be interfered with, but those readers with a desire to come to the aid of a hungry owl could let a little seed fall on the snow that’s packed down around the feeder in hopes that a large supply of accessible food might attract more rodents which might fill more owl stomachs.

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