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Archive for May, 2019

Muskrats Feeding Young

5-29-19 muskrat final 1B0A0292Female muskrats bear one to four litters a summer, with each litter consisting of one and 14 young (average is 6-7). The first litter is born in late April or early May and for the first two weeks they subsist solely on milk, but soon thereafter the parents start supplementing their offspring’s diet with vegetation.

When the young are about a month old, weaning will occur and the young will be out foraging for themselves. Until then, the parents work diligently bringing back the roots, stems, leaves and fruits of aquatic vegetation to their den where their young devour it. (Photo: muskrat bringing cattail leaves back to den)

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Black-capped Chickadee Robbing Peter To Pay Paul

b-c chickadee 1B0A9061The time for nest-building has arrived for Black-capped Chickadees. They most often choose dead aspens and birches as nesting trees, and the punkier the wood the better so that the birds can easily excavate a cavity with their small beaks. While both male and female create the nest hole, the female builds the nest within the cavity by herself.

Most chickadee nests are used only once, and consist of coarse material such as moss for the foundation and finer, softer material such as the hair of rabbits or deer for the lining. The pictured chickadee is only a day or two away from laying eggs, for she is collecting shed fur from red fox kits (they grow three different coats on their way to maturity – gray, sand-colored and red) for the lining of her nest. She found a bonanza of nesting material on the dirt mound at the entrance of an active fox den, where the kits spend much of their time. (Thanks to Jim Block for photo op.)

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Boys, Bears & Birthdays

5-24-19 Otis in bear den2 _U1A8010Happy 4th Birthday, Otis! How brave of you to squat inside a bear’s den which was occupied by a hibernating bear until shortly before you visited it. Four or five months without eating, drinking, peeing or pooping. Think you could do that?

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Tadpole Maturation

5-22-19 green heron and tadpole _U1A1148The eggs of Wood Frogs, the earliest species of frog to breed in the Northeast, are just hatching and tiny Wood Frog tadpoles can be found swimming about at this time of year. This Green Heron is devouring a tadpole, but it is anything but tiny – certainly not a Wood Frog tadpole. How can this be?

The answer is that the tadpole that the Green Heron caught did not hatch this spring – it hatched last summer. Unlike Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers that mature in roughly two months, Green Frogs and American Bullfrogs can take two or even three years to metamorphose into adult frogs. By their second summer they are of substantial size. The Green Heron has caught a Green Frog or Bullfrog tadpole that has overwintered and would probably have matured this summer.

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What Goes On When We’re Not Looking

5-17-19 beaver and ducks_U1A0432A blind is a wondrous thing, allowing you to observe natural behavior in a natural setting. Having watched beavers for over 50 years, I thought I had seen most of what there is to see regarding Beaver behavior, but this particular morning I was witness to a new activity, namely a game of tag.

The resident Beaver spent the better part of half an hour chasing ducks around its pond. A pair of Mallards were subjected to this annoyance first. When approached, the Mallards would swim away together, with the drake quacking loudly, but obviously weren’t put out too much by this game as they tolerated it for about ten minutes before taking off (undoubtedly in search of a more serene body of water).

No sooner had the Mallards left than a pair of Hooded Mergansers arrived. The Beaver greeted the newcomers and proceeded to chase them around and around the pond, occasionally catching up to them, and then restarting the game all over again. Eventually the mergansers, too, departed, leaving the Beaver king/queen of his/her castle. (Thanks to Mike Keating for photo op.)

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Great Horned Owl Nestlings About To Fledge

5-17-19 great horned owls_U1A8938Great Horned Owls do not build their own nests, though they may provide some lining to an existing cavity or nest. Snags, cliffs and man-made structures provide nesting sites, but most commonly Great Horned Owls use the tree nests of other species such as hawks (especially Red-tailed) crows, ravens and squirrels. Most, but not all, nests are used for only one season. Pictured is a Great Blue Heron nest that has been usurped by a Great Horned Owl family – a feat achieved by the owls claiming the nest as early as February, prior to the return of herons.

After incubating her eggs for roughly a month, the female Great Horned Owl then broods her young for two to three weeks. The father’s role consists of bringing food to the female while she is incubating and brooding. She then tears the food up into bite-size pieces for the nestlings.

When the nestlings no longer need the heat their mother’s body provides, brooding ends but the mother stays with her nestlings until they fledge at about seven weeks of age. (Pictured: Great Horned Owl mother and two downy nestlings, roughly six weeks old. Thanks to Marc Beerman for photo op.)

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False Hellebore – A Skunk Cabbage Look-alike

5-15-19 false hellebore_U1A0086There are two unrelated plants whose very similar leaves are emerging at this time of year in many wetlands. One is Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), the other False Hellebore (Veratrum viride), also known as Indian Poke. There are foliage differences between these two plants. False Hellebore leaves emerge before its flowers whereas Skunk Cabbage flowers before its leave emerge. In addition, False Hellebore’s leaves clasp the plant’s stem and are elongated and oval, while Skunk Cabbage’s leaves do not clasp the stem and are rounded.

The flowers of these two plants are distinctly different as well. Skunk Cabbage’s yellow, globular flowers are near the ground and have already gone by. In June, False Hellebore produces flowers that are green, star-shaped and borne in large clusters on a tall stalk.

It is not advisable to consume the (raw) leaves of either of these plants. Skunk Cabbage leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals which cause a severe burning sensation in the mouth and the leaves of False Hellebore contain alkaloids which are highly toxic.

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Watching For Warblers

5-13-19 yellow warbler_U1A8433Spring migration has begun in earnest and we are at the height of warblers arriving in and passing through New England. These little jewels, especially the colorful males, are a sight to behold as they flit about in shrubs and trees, constantly gleaning insects amongst the branches, flowers and emerging leaves. Getting and keeping a warbler in your binoculars can be challenging, to say the least — these busy little birds give the Energizer Bunny a run for its money.

As to when to look for warblers, the best times (“fallouts”) are when there’s a south wind (saves birds flying north considerable energy) and a change in the weather, such as a storm. The birds are forced to seek land, which is where we find large concentrations referred to as “waves” feeding furiously to fuel the rest of their journey.

The pictured Yellow Warbler, weighing 1/3rd – 1/4th of an ounce, left its wintering ground in Central or South America and travelled perhaps as far as 4,000 miles or more in order to return to Vermont this spring.

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Happy Mother’s Day !

5-10-19 ear cleaning IMG_5535It’s universal and never-ending — mothers (and fathers) devote much time and energy to caring for their offspring, whether it’s providing them with food, keeping them safe or cleaning their ears! A very happy Mother’s Day to all this coming Sunday.

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Great Blue Herons Building & Renovating Nests

5-6-19 great blue heron with white pine2_U1A7932A visit to a Great Blue Heron colony at this time of year will be rewarded with a great deal of avian activity, for their nesting season has begun and renovations are going full tilt. Males usually arrive first and settle on nests (more often as not using a different nest from last year) or begin building their own. Courtship then begins.

Great Blue Heron nests are found primarily in trees, up to 60 feet or more above the ground. Where trees are not available, herons will nest on the ground (usually only on predator-free islands). Males gather sticks and other nesting materials from the ground, nearby trees and shrubs, or from unguarded and abandoned nests, and females are usually responsible for the placement of the sticks into the nest. Nests are often reused for many years. Pictured is a Great Blue Heron returning to its nest with a branch from a White Pine tree which will be used for lining the nest. Nesting material is added throughout the nesting period.

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Canada Geese Nesting On Beaver Lodges

4-29-19 c. goose on beaver lodge _U1A7241If you are fortunate enough to have a beaver pond near you, you should give the lodge more than a cursory glance this time of year. It is common to find Canada Geese nesting on beaver lodges, for obvious reasons – safety from most land predators. While Common ravens have been known to raid Canada Goose nests for eggs and goslings, the overall rate of survival of the goslings of lodge-nesting geese is very high.

A Canadian study showed that ponds with beaver lodges (and therefore Beaver activity which warms the water and thaws the ice) thaw at least 11 days sooner than ponds without Beavers, allowing early access to water for Canada Geese returning for the spring nesting season. Battles between pairs of geese vying for these coveted nesting sites are not uncommon.

Canada Geese have much to thank Beavers for. Not only can geese get an early nesting start on beaver lodges, they have a relatively safe spot to incubate their eggs and raise their young.

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Porcupines Giving Birth

porcupine IMG_3096Towards the end of April/beginning of May, Porcupines give birth to one offspring. The newborn is covered with quills, but they are soft and enclosed in a sac, which protects the mother as she gives birth to her young. The young Porcupine’s eyes are open, and it is fully alert. Its quills harden within an hour. The Porcupine starts supplementing its mother’s milk with vegetation after the first two weeks, but isn’t completely weaned for four months.

During the day the young Porcupine stays hidden in a crevice or at the base of a tree near the tree in which its mother rests. Instinct takes over immediately in the face of danger, as it tucks its head down, turns its back to the predator and vigorously flicks its tiny, two-inch tail. When night falls, the mother and young Porcupine reunite. (Photo: days-old Porcupine)

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Painted Turtles Basking

5-1-19 painted turtle_U1A7417Water temperature of fifty-nine degrees Fahrenheit is the magic number for Painted Turtles in the fall. Below it, their metabolism slows to a near standstill – their heartbeat slows to only one beat every few minutes and they do not breathe through their lungs (if conditions allow, they may absorb oxygen dissolved in the water through specialized skin cells near the tail). Their body temperature averages 43°F. when hibernating in the mud at the bottom of ponds. Occasionally a Painted Turtle is seen swimming under the ice, but for the most part, hibernation rules from October to April in northern New England.

When the water reaches 59°F.- 64°F. in the spring, Painted Turtles become active again. In addition to foraging, they immediately start basking in the sun. Being cold-blooded, or ectothermic, they need this external source of heat to warm their body, but the UV light also regulates their metabolism and breeding as well as helps produce Vitamin D3, which is essential for the health of their bones as well as their internal organs.

Basking can also help relieve aquatic turtles of ectoparasites. Leeches are a blood-sucking ectoparasite that can cause anemia in reptiles. Drying out in the sun causes the leeches to shrivel up and die. Algae on basking aquatic turtles can also dry out and fall off, allowing the shells to retain their aerodynamic nature.

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