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Archive for August, 2019

Spring Peepers Peeping

The peeps of male Spring Peepers can be heard fairly consistently this time of year. Unlike in the spring, these calls are coming not from bodies of water, but from the woods nearby. And they are single peeps coming from individual peepers, not the chorus of “sleigh bells” one hears in the spring. This phenomenon occurs so regularly in the fall that herpetologists have given it a name – “fall echo.” They speculate that the calling of peepers is spurred by light and temperature conditions that mimic those that occur in the spring, during Spring Peeper mating season.

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I meant “beeches!”

The last sentence of this morning’s post should have read : “The diminishing number of healthy beech trees will have a significant effect on consumers of beechnuts as well as a broad array of other organisms.”  Believe it or not I proof read it several times and just didn’t catch that my fingers weren’t typing what my mind was thinking!


A Promising Fall Beechnut Crop

Beechnuts, high in protein and fat, are the primary fall and winter food for many forest wildlife species including Red, Gray and Flying Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks, Black Bears, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice, Wild Turkeys, and Ruffed and Spruce Grouse.  The dependence of these animals on this food source makes them vulnerable to the American Beech’s cyclical nut production.

In the Northeast, American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) mast crops (amount of beechnuts produced by beech trees) have a two-year cycle: one year they produce an overabundance of nuts and the following year very few. Among other animals, Black Bears rely on these nuts to sustain themselves over the winter.  That a bear’s nutritional health affects its reproductive health was documented in  a study in Maine that showed that the mean proportion of female bears producing cubs decreased to 22% when a denning period followed a poor beechnut crop. During denning periods following good beechnut production, 80% of the productively available females produced cubs.

Many American Beech trees in the Northeast suffer from Beech Bark Disease which has seriously compromised their ability to produce nuts.  Invasive scale insects (Cryptococcus fagisuga) invade a tree. Through a presently unknown mechanism, excessive feeding by these insects causes two different fungi (Neonectria faginata and Neonectria ditissima) to produce annual cankers on the bark of the tree. This disease decreases nut production, and eventually lesions around the tree girdle it and causes the tree’s death. The diminishing number of healthy beech trees will have a significant effect on consumers of beechnuts as well as a broad array of other organisms.

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Snowberry Clearwing Moths Gathering Nectar

There are four species of clearwing (also referred to as hummingbird) moths in North America. The most familiar ones are the Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) and the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe).  These day-flying moths fly and move like hummingbirds (hovering near flowers while drinking nectar) and the males have a flared “tail” like that of a hovering hummingbird.  It is also very easy to mistake one for a bumble bee.  Scales cover the wings of butterflies and moths, but clearwing moths lose many of these scales and thus have partially transparent (“clear”) wings.

Like most moths, clearwing moths have a very long tongue (can be twice as long as their body) which they carry rolled under their heads and that they use to reach the nectar of long-necked flowers.  They are attracted to the flowers of phlox, beebalm, honeysuckle and swamp milkweed (pictured), among others. If you approach a clearwing moth as it hovers, you may detect the humming sound that they make with their wings.

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Monarchs Splitting Exoskeleton For The Fifth And Final Time

In the Northeast there appears to be an amazingly large number of Monarch larvae this year, and most of these larvae will complete their metamorphosis by transforming into a beautiful green chrysalis. Once mature, the larva, or caterpillar, wanders about and finds a suitable spot (usually protected and stable) to spend the next two weeks hanging precariously in the wind.  It then spins a silk mat in this location, and puts a silk “button” in the middle of the mat.  It clasps the button with its last set of prolegs (it has three pairs of true legs, and five pairs of so-called prolegs) and spends about 18 hours hanging in a “J,” with its head down, preparing to split its exoskeleton for the last time and reveal the chrysalis within it.

Ba Rea, a Monarch specialist (and publisher of my children’s book, Milkweed Visitors), informs her “Monarchchaser’s Blog” (https://monarchchaser.wordpress.com/about-monarchs/) readers that even though the visible changes between the larval and pupal (chrysalis) stages of a Monarch are sudden, inside the caterpillar these changes are taking place gradually and long before we can see them.  “The parts that will transform the caterpillar into a butterfly are present from the time that the egg hatches.  Inside the caterpillar are “imaginal disks.”  As wonderfully fanciful as the word imaginal sounds, it is actually referring to the adult stage of the monarch which is called the imago.  These disks are the cells that will become the butterfly’s wings, legs, proboscis and antennae, among other things.  By the time the caterpillar is half an inch long its butterfly wings are already developing inside it.

After eight to fifteen days, the adult Monarch emerges from its chrysalis and heads towards Mexico (butterflies that emerge after the middle of August migrate). It is the great grandchildren and great great grandchildren of these migrating monarchs that will return next summer.  (Photo: Monarch hanging in a “J” from Jewelweed, also known as Touch-Me-Not — not the sturdiest of plants to hang from!)

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Young Snowshoe Hares Dispersing

Snowshoe Hares have up to four litters a summer (females mate within 24 hours of giving birth).  Their litters range from two to nine young (leverets), with larger litters the further north you go. Unlike cottontails, the Snowshoe Hare gives birth to precocious young – their eyes open shortly after birth, they have a dense coat of fur, and they are able to weakly move about within 30 minutes.

The female leaves the nest once she’s through giving birth, and returns once a day to nurse her young.  By the fourth day, the young hares scatter from the nest.  They reassemble at the same time each evening and their mother appears and nurses them for five to ten minutes.  She then leaves and the young disperse. This behavior continues for about a month, until the young are fully weaned.  (Thanks to Virginia Barlow and Wendell for photo op.)

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Turtlehead Flowering & Being Pollinated By Bumble Bees

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) can be found growing along stream banks and wetlands throughout eastern North America. This plant gets its common name from the flower’s long arching upper lip, or hood, which overlaps the lower lip like a turtle’s beak.

The male parts of the flower mature before the female parts, and when pollen is being produced these lips are very hard to pry open. Pollinators are primarily bumble bees, which are some of the only insects that have the strength to open the flower. When the female pistil matures, the lips relax a bit, so entry is easier. However, access to the nectar at the base of the flower is restricted (by a sterile stamen) to long-tongued insects. Thus, it is specifically long-tongued bumble bees that are able to both enter the flower and to reach the nectar. (Photo:  bumble bee collecting pollen (see filled baskets on hind legs) from Turtlehead)  Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo op.

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“Mating Wheels”

Dragonflies and damselflies both create what are called “mating wheels” when they mate.  The male grasps the female at the back of her head with the terminal appendages at the end of his abdomen and the female curls her abdomen forward until the tip of her abdomen reaches the male’s sex organs.

Many male dragonflies go to great lengths to make sure their sperm have reproductive success. Prior to mating they often remove any sperm that happen to be in the female from previous matings.  In addition, depending on species, they may leave after mating, fly with and guard the female as she lays her eggs, or remain grasping the female as her eggs are laid.  His proximity to the female during egg laying prevents other males from removing his sperm.

Much of this information, as well as excellent photos for identifying dragonflies and damselflies, can be found in A Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Massachusetts, by Burne, Loose and Nikula. Another excellent Odonata resource is Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson.  (Photo:  Mating darners (fast flying, large dragonflies), male above female)

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Cardinal Flower Blossoming

You can’t get much redder than the red of Cardinal Flowers.  Their petals act as brilliant red flags beckoning Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, who favor red, to come drink their nectar (and at the same time, pollinate them).  Because their chief pollinator has wings and the ability to hover as it drinks, Cardinal Flower has no need for a landing platform, which most insect-pollinated flowers have.

Cardinal Flower has both male and female flowers.  Above the red petals is a red tube, at the tip of which the reproductive parts of the flower emerge.  First to appear are the male flowers, displaying pollen-bearing stamens.  After they die, sticky, Y-shaped pistils extend from the flower, ready to receive pollen.  The female flowers thus follow the male flowers (protandry).  These flowers mature from the bottom to the top of the spike and you often see both male and female flowers on the same plant (just barely discernible in pictured flower spike).

Male flowers produce more nectar than female flowers, and hummingbirds seem to know this, as they spend most of their time at the youngest, and therefore male, flowers on the top half of the flower spike.

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Family Update

About two years ago, many, many Naturally Curious readers showered my daughter Sadie with a phenomenal amount of support and compassionate wishes after she lost her husband, Waylon.  Both Sadie and I were stunned by the warmth and generosity of all of you who responded, 99% of whom we have never met.  I just wanted to share with you a recent photograph of Sadie, Otis (4 years old) and Lily Piper (1).  Your thoughtfulness helped make the past two years as good as they possibly could have been, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.  As you can see, Otis and Lily Piper are thriving!

 


Juvenile Least Bitterns Foraging

The Least Bittern is the smallest member of the heron family, measuring 11-14 inches in length with a 16-18 inch wingspan.  It is so secretive and well camouflaged that it is heard far more often than seen. A soft cooing song is sung by the males in spring, and a variety of calls are given on their breeding grounds. (You can hear both types of vocalizations at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Least_Bittern/sounds.)

This elusive bird of freshwater and brackish marshes is foraging for itself soon after it leaves its nest at two weeks of age.  Long agile toes and curved claws enable the Least Bittern to climb and grasp reeds while it looks for frogs, snakes, salamanders, leeches and other prey from on high.

Like its relative the American Bittern, the Least Bittern freezes in place when alarmed, with its bill pointing up, turns both eyes toward the source of alarm, and sometimes sways to resemble windblown marsh vegetation. (A few wisps of white down still remain on young Least Bitterns at this time of year, as is evident in photo.)

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Great Ash Sphinx Moth

Sphinx moths are notable for their fast flight and rapid wingbeat.  These attributes account for one of their common names — “hawk” moth. Most species of sphinx moths are capable of hovering in front of the flower from which they are drinking nectar, and some species are referred to as “hummingbird” moths.

In their larval form, sphinx moths are notable for the horn which extends upward near the end of their abdomen.  Tomato growers are familiar with the Tobacco Hornworm (Tobacco Hawk Moth/Carolina Sphinx Moth) and Tomato Hornworm (Five-spotted Hawk Moth).

Less frequently encountered is the larva of the Great Ash Moth (Sphinx chersis). Named for a host plant of the adult moth, this greenish or pinkish caterpillar has seven long diagonal lines along its body, which are sometimes edged with pink. Its black spiracles (external openings that allow gas exchange) are elongate and ringed with white. Its horn is blue or pink.  As an adult moth, it is gray with black markings and has a wingspan of up to five inches. You’re most likely to see this moth at dusk, feeding at deep-throated flowers. (Thanks to Heidi Marcotte and Tom Wetmore for photo op.)

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Wintergreen Flowering

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), also known as Checkerberry and Eastern Teaberry, is an aromatic, evergreen plant in the heath family (Ericaceae) that creeps along the ground.  This plant loves acid soil, and you can often find it growing alongside Blueberry (Vaccinium sp.).  Its single, white flowers develop into bright red berries which Ruffed Grouse consume with relish.

Not surprisingly, these berries taste like oil of wintergreen. The active ingredient in this oil is synthesized and used as a flavoring in chewing gum, toothpaste, breath fresheners, candy, and medicines, including Pepto Bismol.  This same ingredient, methyl salicate, is related to aspirin, which explains why Native Americans chewed and made a tea from the leaves and berries of Wintergreen to alleviate pain.

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Gray Treefrogs Metamorphosing

Gray Treefrogs are often heard but rarely seen, due both to their cryptic coloration as well as the fact that they are arboreal.  They tend to perch (grasping trees with their toes which bear large, adhesive, mucous-secreting disks at their tips) in vegetation surrounding swamps and ponds, where their robust, territorial and mating trilling can be heard (males call between 500-15,000 times per hour). To hear trilling Gray Treefrogs go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSkhM24Fi-k.

After choosing a mate and mating, Gray Treefrog females lay up to 2,000 eggs which hatch in 2-5 days.  For the next month or two the tadpoles breath with gills and consume vegetation.  Full-sized tadpoles are green or black with red or orange tails.  Towards the end of summer, the tadpoles begin their transformation into frogs, developing limbs and lungs, absorbing their tails and changing from a diet of plants to one of insects.

Adult Gray Treefrogs are mottled gray or green (depending on their surroundings, temperature, and humidity) and have an uncanny resemblance to lichen. Recently-metamorphosed young treefrogs such as the one pictured are a brilliant emerald green.  (Photo: young Gray Treefrog with adult Gray Treefrog inset) (Thanks to Brian Long for photo op.)

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Chestnut-sided Warbler Sitting On Eggs

Different species of birds have different numbers of broods (sets of eggs/young).  Eastern Bluebirds can have up to four broods per breeding season, American Robins up to three and Eastern Phoebes often two.  Chestnut-sided Warblers typically only raise one family in a summer. If weather or predation destroys their first attempt, however, they will re-nest, which is just what the pictured female Chestnut-sided Warbler is doing.

By August, a majority of birds have raised their young, but there are birds that nest late in the season, some naturally (American Goldfinches) and some, such as this Chestnut-sided Warbler, by necessity.  Where birds nest, geographically, affects the number of broods they have. Birds nesting at higher latitudes tend to produce fewer broods per year.  Because it gets colder earlier than further south, there is less time to raise their young.  In warmer regions, birds often raise two or even three broods per year. (Thanks to Dean and Susan Greenberg for photo op.)

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