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Archive for September, 2019

American Toads Preparing For Winter

In the Northeast, sometime in September or October you realize that you’re no longer seeing American Toads.  This is because they are taking steps that allow them to survive over the winter.  These steps consist of either finding another animal’s burrow or digging their own (up to 20 inches or so deep) in order to hibernate below the frost line.

As the photograph illustrates, toads dig their tunnels facing forward, using their hind legs to do the digging.  Special hardened knobs on their hind feet assist them in this endeavor. As they dig deeper, the tunnel in front of them collapses.  When deep enough to hopefully avoid being frozen, they stop digging and hibernate until the soil begins to warm.  Come April or May, American Toads dig their way up to the surface of the ground and head for breeding ponds. (Photo by Ashley Wolff)

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American Dagger Moth Caterpillars Roaming

American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana) caterpillars are present from June to October in the Northeast, but because of their size (up to 2 ½”) and their searching for a suitable site to pupate in over the winter, they are very evident right now.

American Dagger Moth caterpillars have lemon yellow (early instars) or white (late instars) setae, or hairs.  Their distinctive characteristic is the pattern of black tufts: two pairs of diverging tufts along the middle of the caterpillar and one thick black tuft at the end. As larvae they have a wide variety of host trees, including alders, ashes, birches, elms, hickories, maples, oaks, poplars, walnuts, and willows.

After locating a wintering site, these caterpillars will spin a cocoon in which they will spend the next several months as pupae.  Late next spring American Dagger Moths will emerge from their cocoons as two-inch-long brown moths.

If touched, these caterpillars can cause a mild allergic reaction (a rash) in some people who touch the them.

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Northern Flickers Migrating

The Northern Flicker is one of the few North American woodpeckers that is strongly migratory. However,  most of the eastern migrants are Canadian breeders.  They fly south from Canada with big flights moving down the Atlantic coast in the fall to the southeastern U.S.. Peak fall migration occurs from late September to early October, with some migration continuing to early November. As a result, New England sees an increase in the number of flickers sighted at this time of year.  More southern populations are sedentary, and do not migrate. Northern Flickers that nest in New England do both.  Some remain here for the winter, while some fly further south and return next spring to their northern breeding grounds.

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Equinox vs. Solstice

Today is the autumnal equinox – night and day are of almost exactly equal length, twelve hours each. Each year there are two equinoxes and two solstices. Both signify a change of season, but they are very different phenomena.

The biggest difference between the equinox and the solstice is that an equinox is the point during the Earth’s orbit around the sun at which the sun is at its closest distance from the equator, while during a solstice, it’s at its greatest distance from the equator.

In September and March during the equinoxes, all areas of the Earth’s surface receive the same amount of sunlight. The September equinox marks the moment the Sun crosses the celestial equator – the imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s equator – from north to south and vice versa in March. (Equinoxes are opposite on either side of the equator, so the autumnal (fall) equinox in the Northern Hemisphere is the spring (vernal) equinox in the Southern Hemisphere and vice versa.)

Solstice occurs when the sun reaches its northern or southernmost point (in June and December) — when its path is farthest from the equator. In the Northern Hemisphere the summer solstice happens in June, and in the Southern Hemisphere, the solstice happens in December (this is why the seasons are reversed in each hemisphere). So the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year while the summer solstice is the longest day of the year.

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New Children’s Book Release

A new addition to my children’s book series on Animal Anatomy and Adaptations has just been released. Animal Eyes, Ears, Mouths, Tails, Legs and Noses are now joined by Animal Skins.  This most recent book takes a look at how fur, feathers and scales help animals survive.  (Suitable for children ages 4 – 9.)

Copies can be purchased from independent bookstores, online and from the publisher (go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on Animal Skins image on right).


Woodchucks Fattening Up

This Woodchuck is doing what Woodchucks do this time of year – eating fast and furiously, and putting on fat equaling about a third of their weight (granted, an apple has only a tiny fraction of a gram of fat, but every bit helps).  Accumulation of fat is essential if they are to survive months of hibernation.  It’s not known what stimulates this increase in appetite, but most likely photoperiod (length of day) plays a part.

Soon these rodents will seek shelter in their winter burrows, where their heart rate is reduced from 100 beats per minute to 15 and their temperature drops from 96 F. degrees to 47 F. degrees.  During hibernation, they lose roughly 20% to 47% of their body weight.  Those Woodchucks not able to accumulate sufficient fat reserves may not survive the three or four months of hibernation that take place in the Northeast. (Photo by Erin Donahue)

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Ambush Bug, Not Assassin Bug, In Yesterday’s Post!

Thanks to Pat Nelson’s sharp eyes, I realized I had mislabeled the bug in yesterday’s blog.  It was an Ambush Bug, not an Assassin Bug.  While both are predators and in the same family (Reduviidae), Assassin Bugs are usually dark colored and have long, narrow heads compared to Ambush Bugs.  Ambush Bugs are usually quite stout and typically have bright colors such as yellow, red or orange.  They also have thickened front pincer-like legs with teeth-like structures that hold the prey while it is being consumed.  Although small (usually less than ½ inch), an Ambush Bug’s prey may be as large as a bumblebee, wasp or butterfly.

 


Drama In The Goldenrod Patch

At this time of year when most flowers have gone by, Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is a primary source of pollen and nectar for bees, beetles, butterflies, flies and many other insects. Consequently, goldenrod flowers are a popular place for insect-eating predators to linger.

Recently I spied an Ambush Bug that had captured a fly and had its proboscis inserted into it, contentedly sucking away the fly’s innards while I photographed it.  Unbeknownst to me or the Ambush Bug, another predator, a Bald-faced Hornet, had spied the bug with its prey. Although adult hornets consume liquids, usually sugars like the juice of fruits or nectar, their larvae are raised on a diet of insects, so adults are constantly looking for prey. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the hornet flew in, tussled with the Ambush Bug and flew off with the fly in its mandibles, landing on a nearby branch with the object of its thievery.

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Maple Leafcutter Moth Larvae Descending

This time of year it looks like someone has visited every other Sugar Maple (and to a lesser extent, Red Maples and birches) leaf with a hole punch.  The Maple Leafcutter Moth (Paraclemensia acerifoliella) is the hole-punching culprit.  At the beginning of the summer, leafcutter larvae hatch and begin mining tissue between the upper and lower layers of maple leaves.  The mines are barely discernible, as the larvae are so small at this stage.  A bit later in the summer the larvae start using their mandibles to cut out round discs of leaf tissue.  They take two of these discs and fasten them together with silk, forming a protective case around themselves as they consume additional tissue between the leaf veins. It is this feeding that causes the “punch holes.”   As the larva grows, it cuts larger and larger discs to form its case.

When September comes, the larvae are mature and descend to the ground, carrying their homes with them as they move into the topsoil to pupate. Orange-headed, metallic blue-winged adult moths will emerge in the spring, leaving their leaf homes behind.

Because leaves have produced most of the sugar they are going to produce by late summer, the feeding behavior by the moth larvae that occurs from August until leaf fall isn’t a threat to the health of the tree unless complete defoliation occurs for three consecutive years or more.

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Some White-tailed Deer Fawns Still Nursing

White-tailed Deer are ruminants.  The process of rumination (gathering a lot of food at once and then digesting it later by chewing one’s cud) is fully developed by the age of about two months, or roughly by the end of July.  Fawns can be completely weaned and survive without milk at this time, but does often don’t wean them until 3 to 4 months. It’s not unheard of to see a fawn born in May or June still nursing, or attempting to, in October. It stands to reason that it’s hard to give up this valuable source of nutrition, for deer milk is richer in fat, protein and energy than cow’s milk. (Photo taken by Erin Donahue on September 2nd.)

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Birds Molting Old Feathers And Growing In New Ones

With birds, molting refers to the loss of old, worn feathers and the growth of new ones.  A molt can involve all of the bird’s feathers (complete molt), or just some of them (such as wing or tail feathers – a partial molt). Most birds have a complete molt once a year (chickadees, hummingbirds, owls, etc.), or one complete molt and a partial molt before the breeding season (buntings, tanagers, warblers, etc.), or two complete molts per year (Bobolinks, Marsh Wrens).

Complete molts often occur in late summer and early fall, after the breeding season is over. When you think about it, the timing of this “prebasic” or “postnuptial” molt makes a great deal of sense. Growing new feathers takes an inordinate amount of energy; food is plentiful now, the demands of breeding are over and for many birds, migration isn’t quite under way. It is the perfect time to look for molted feathers on the ground.  (Photo:  molted Red-tailed Hawk tail feather)

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Bald-faced Hornet Queens Laying Specialized Eggs

A Bald-faced Hornet colony begins in the spring when a queen emerges from winter hibernation. The queen builds a small nest, creates a few brood cells within the nest, deposits eggs in them and feeds the larvae when they hatch.  These larvae are female workers — they will continue the nest building, food collection, feeding the larvae and protecting the nest while the queen concentrates on laying eggs.

During the summer the colony (and size of the nest) grows until there are between 100 to 400 workers. Toward the end of the summer the queen lays two special types of eggs. The first will be, like the workers’ eggs, fertilized eggs that will develop into females, but these females will be fertile (and develop into queens). The second group of eggs will be unfertilized eggs. These eggs will develop into fertile males. The maturation and emergence of the new queens and the fertile males marks the end of the functioning of the colony. At this point the workers are not replaced and die out. The ruling queen, having served her purpose, also dies. The newly-emerged adults (queens and fertilized males) leave the nest, mate, and the fertilized queens overwinter and begin their colony cycle all over again in the following spring.  Some small nests complete their cycle by mid-September, while some large nests are still going strong until the cold kills the larvae in late November.

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Monkey Slug Season

Congratulations to Rinky Black, who was the first person to accurately identify the Mystery Photo as a Monkey Slug!

Some of our dullest-looking moths started their lives out as colorful, bizarrely-shaped caterpillars.  In particular, there is a family of caterpillars (Limacodidae) known as “slug caterpillars” which come in all kinds of unusual forms and colors.  They can be naked or densely hairy, and they usually have stinging hairs. The Hag Moth (Phobetron pithecium), found throughout eastern North America, is one such moth. Whereas the adult moth is a dull brown, the caterpillar stage is anything but dull.  Known as the Monkey Slug, the caterpillar stage of this moth has three pairs of long “arms” and three additional pairs about half as long.  Its appearance has been likened to a tarantula (many of our insectivorous birds winter in the tropics, where there are tarantulas (which the birds avoid), and therein lies the reason for the caterpillar to look like one).  Although most photographs make Monkey Slugs look large, they measure only about an inch in diameter. Adult moths bear a slight resemblance to bees and wasps.

What is eye-catching about Monkey Slugs (as well as other slug caterpillars), besides their bizarre appearance, is the way in which they move.  Monkey Slugs glide – instead of the typical prolegs (located behind six true legs) they have suckers (see bottom right inset).  This gliding is responsible for its being classified as a “slug” caterpillar, for it moves much like a slug does.  The Monkey Slug is one of the slug caterpillars that does not sting, so you can handle it safely should you find one. (Thanks to Kathy and Geoff Marchant for photo op.)

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Mystery Photo

Who’s peeking over this leaf???  Go to the Naturally Curious blog and scroll down to “Comments” to enter your response.  Imaginative answers welcome.  This mystery will be solved in Wednesday’s 9/4/19 post.

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