An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Archive for November, 2019

Raccoons Preparing For Winter

Much like black bears, raccoons develop a voracious appetite in the fall and accumulate a life-sustaining layer of fat as a result (which comprises 50% of their weight).  Although raccoons are opportunists and will eat just about anything (except tomatoes), nuts (acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts and hazelnuts, especially) and corn are the food of choice at this time of year.

When the temperature consistently drops to 26-28° F. raccoons typically seek shelter in dens (hollow trees, woodchuck and fox burrows). They are not true hibernators, but do enter a state of torpor for weeks and even months at a time when the temperature is low, the snow is deep and the wind is blowing.  It’s not unusual for several raccoons, usually relatives, to den together.

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Wattles, Caruncles & Snoods

Wild tom turkeys have a number of ways of impressing hens in addition to displays involving their feathers. Among them are wattles, caruncles and snoods — fleshy protuberances that adorn their throats and beaks.

A large wattle, or dewlap, is a flap of skin on the throat of a male turkey. The bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat are major caruncles. Large wattles and caruncles have been shown to correlate with high testosterone levels, good nutrition and the ability to evade predators, which makes the genes of a tom turkey with them very desirable to a female.

The snood, another fleshy outgrowth which hangs down over the male’s beak, is normally pale and not very long. When he starts strutting and courting a hen, the tom’s snood (and caruncles) becomes engorged with blood, making it redder and longer. This impresses both male and female turkeys –the males avoid or defer to him and the females’ interest in him is heightened. A longer snood has also been correlated with a lack of internal parasites, making toms with large snoods even more irresistible to hens.

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Naturally Curious Order Deadline Extended

Due to several calendar orders I’ve received since the November 10th deadline, I have ordered additional calendars, but only have about ten extra ones.  If you would like one, please email me at mholland@vermontel.net and state the number you would like.  You can mail a check made out to me ($35/calendar) to 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT  05089.  They should arrive on your doorstep well before Christmas. Thank you so much.


Red Squirrel Belly Flop

Congratulations to Mary Pratt, the first reader to correctly identify the impression a Red Squirrel left in the snow.  Red Squirrels are fiercely territorial, and will chase each other furiously in order to defend their territory and their food caches. The photographer, Susan Bull Riley, witnessed this behavior as she watched two Red Squirrels racing after each other in the crown of a maple tree.  Suddenly one of them fell to the ground, where sleet and wet snow cushioned its fall and recorded the belly flop landing.  No time was lost in the resumption of the chase!

There were many “Flying Squirrel” responses, which makes great sense as they are approximately the same size as a Red Squirrel (just an inch or two shorter in length) and are gliding from tree to tree or from tree to the ground.  My assumption is that a Flying Squirrel’s landing impression might show some of the patagium, or membrane, that stretches from a squirrel’s wrists to its ankles, due to the fact that it is extended as the squirrel glides. (Any firsthand Flying Squirrel landing-in-snow impression observations welcome.) Thanks to all who submitted an answer to this Mystery Photo.  Many were very amusing!

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Mystery Photo

What do you think made this six-inch-long impression in the snow?  Please enter guesses under “Comments” on the Naturally Curious blog (scroll down). Answer will be revealed on Monday, November 25.

(Photo by artist Susan Bull Riley – http://susanbullriley.com/ )

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com  and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Bird Nests Revealed

Deciduous leaves have fallen, revealing bird nests that were right under our noses all summer without our even knowing it.  In addition to building in specific habitats and constructing different sized nests, each species of bird uses a combination of building material that is slightly different from every other species. Because of this, the material a bird uses to construct its nest can be diagnostic as far as determining what species built the nest.  Is the nest lined with rootlets? Are grape vines incorporated into the nest? Is moss covering the outside of the nest?  Is there a shed snake skin woven into the nest? The answer to these questions and others can help narrow down the list of possible builders.

This is the time of year to look for nests and try to determine, with the help of a good field guide such as Peterson’s Field Guide to Bird Nests, the identity of the birds that built them.  (Be aware that possession of a bird nest, egg or feather of most migratory birds, even for scientific research or education, is illegal if you do not have a Federal Migratory Bird Scientific Collecting Permit.)

Sometimes you’ll find material in nests that surprise you — some contain man-made, as well as natural, materials. Among the most unusual examples of this are a nest built solely out of barbed wire by a Chihuahuan raven in Texas and the pictured clothes hanger nest built by a crow near Tokyo and photographed by Goetz Kluge.

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Some Ways Mammals Stay Warm In Winter

When temperatures drop significantly, mammals that stay active in the winter have a variety of ways to keep warm, one of which is to have layers of insulation to prevent their body heat from escaping.  Often there is a layer of fat under the skin. In addition to providing a source of energy, fat doesn’t transfer heat as well as other tissues such as muscle or skin, and thus helps to insulate an animal’s body. The next layer consists of a short, dense coat of underfur which is filled with air pockets that provide insulation.  Lastly there frequently is a third layer of oily, water-repellent guard hairs which excel at keeping out water. They are often transparent and hollow, providing extra thermal insulation.

Voles, mice, shrews and red squirrels use elaborate tunnels systems under the snow to escape cold temperatures and strong winds.  Flying Squirrels huddle together in groups to keep warm. Shivering is a warming technique used by many mammals, including humans.  And some active animals, like the pictured Gray Squirrel, simply find a sheltered spot in the sun, close their eyes, and soak up the warmth!  (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo op.)

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Fishers Leaving Sign

If you see five-toed tracks, and they don’t belong to a bear, opossum, skunk or beaver, chances are they belong to a member of the weasel family.  Size and habitat help to narrow down which mustelid they belong to.  Although our recent snow produced just a dusting, it was enough to confirm the presence of at least one fisher in nearby woods. Logs appear to be irresistible to these large weasels and are one of the first places to check for their tracks once snow falls.  Even when a log isn’t providing them with a way of keeping their feet dry, fishers often choose it over traversing the forest floor.

Fishers have been actively trapped since the 1700’s and because trapping was largely unregulated, fishers were extirpated in much of the Northeast in the 1930’s.  Restrictions on trapping, the regrowth of forests and the re-introduction of fishers in locations where porcupines were thriving all contributed to the comeback of the fisher. Today they populate most of New England.

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Common Loons Migrating

Much has been learned about the fall migration of Common Loons in northern New England.  They are diurnal migrants, parents generally migrate first, young loons remain on the lakes where they were born or adjacent lakes until close to when the lakes freeze up, and the greatest number of fall migrating loons occurs in late October and the first half of November.

The very large loons in Maine, New Brunswick, and eastern New Hampshire do not migrate far and primarily over-winter in the Gulf of Maine, while smaller loons from other New England states and New York migrate to Long Island Sound south to New Jersey. Many loons migrate singly but group together on larger lakes referred to as staging areas. Overland migration altitudes range from a mile to a mile and a half, while over water loons often migrate within 300 feet of the surface.  One-and two-year old Common Loons remain throughout year on wintering sites. (Cornell’s Birds of North America)

(Photo of adult and juvenile Common Loons taken in early October, just as molting was beginning at the base of the adult’s bill. By December most adult loons have fully molted into their gray winter plumage.)

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Spider Winter Survival Tactics

Spiders are cold-blooded, or ectotherms. Their body temperature is regulated by external sources and can vary with the environment without doing them any harm. When cold weather comes spiders that overwinter as adults adapt in several ways. Their metabolism slows down and they become less active. Eventually they become dormant, entering diapause, a hibernation-like state.  At the same time, they start producing glycol and protein compounds which act as antifreeze and lower the temperature at which their cells will start freezing.  A spider has to get to at least 23 degrees F. to freeze, and sometimes considerably lower.

Where a spider spends the winter depends in large part on the species. Some seek shelter in places where temperatures remain a little warmer than outdoors, such as in leaf litter, rock piles, building cracks and under loose bark. To help block cold wind, some will even build themselves a little pod with their silk, enclosing themselves until it is warm enough to become active again.  (Photo:  spider in silk pod behind loose bark)

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Autumn Beauty In A Bog

During the summer, peat bogs (acidic wetlands with soft, spongy ground composed largely of living and decaying (peat) sphagnum moss) display an abundance of colorful flowers, including those of bog laurel, rhodora, bog rosemary and numerous orchids including the vibrant grasspink, among others. With the onset of autumn, long after these blossoms have disappeared, an even more impressive blaze of colors erupts in bogs. The foliage transitions from summer green to autumn yellows, oranges and reds. Tamarack’s deciduous needles form a golden haze backdrop before falling to the ground. Much of the spongy sphagnum moss turns a deep maroon. The intensity of pitcher plants’ greens and reds is noticeable, and the ground is often covered with ripe red cranberries and glistening sundew. There really isn’t a more colorful time of year to visit a bog! (Photo: pitcher plant, cranberry and sphagnum moss)

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Oak Leaf Galls

 

Galls are irregular plant growths which can be stimulated by the reaction between plant hormones and powerful growth regulating chemicals produced by some insects, mites, nematodes and fungi.  Galls may occur on leaves, twigs, flowers, buds or roots.  Many plants serve as gall hosts, but certain plant groups are more attractive to gall producers than others. The Oak family is by far the most popular (with 805 species of gall makers; the next largest family being the Daisy family, with less than 200 gall makers). Galls on oaks are most often caused by small wasps or midges.

Each gall-making species of insect produces a uniquely shaped and colored gall.  Thus, it is possible to identify the insect within a gall just by noting the appearance of the gall itself as well as what plant it is on.The growth of the galls takes place in the spring. Gall-making insects lay eggs on the host plant, and the insect larva resides inside the gall that the plant forms. The galls provide the insects within them with both shelter and food. Because many oak leaves persist well into the winter, there is still the opportunity to find galls, though some may be lacking residents at this stage, as many insects emerge as adults in the fall after pupating within the galls.

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Final Reminder: 2020 Naturally Curious Calendar Orders Due By November 10th

Orders for the 2020 Naturally Curious Calendar can be placed now by writing to me at 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT 05089. The calendars are printed on heavy card stock and measure 11” x 17” when hanging. There is one full-page per month. The calendars are $35.00 each (includes postage). Please specify the number of calendars you would like to order, the mailing address to which they should be sent and your email address (so I can easily and quickly contact you if I have any questions). Your check can be made out to Mary Holland.

Guaranteed orders can be placed up until November 10th. Orders placed after this date will be filled as long as my supply of extra calendars lasts. (I have had so many last-minute requests in past years that I have not been able to fill all of the orders placed after November 10th, so if you want to be sure of having your order filled, I encourage you to place your order before that date.)  Calendars will arrive at your door by mid-December. Thank you so much!

Monthly subjects: January – Screech Owl; February – Bohemian Waxwing; March – Eastern Chipmunk; April – American Bittern; May – Coyote pup; June – Pileated Woodpeckers; July – Painted Turtle; August – Cardinal Flower; September – Laurel Sphinx Moth Caterpillar; October –  N.A. River Otter; November –  Downy Rattlesnake Plantain; December – Beavers.

 


Spruce Grouse Foraging

While Ruffed Grouse are plentiful throughout most of New England, one has to go to northern Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine to see its cousin, the Spruce Grouse.  Associated with boreal forests, this largely herbivorous bird feeds primarily on the needles of pine, spruce and fir (a small amount of animal matter is consumed in the summer as well as ground vegetation). Especially in the winter, a large volume of conifer browse is consumed in order to meet energy demands.

The grouse holds the needle between the tips of its mandibles and breaks it off by flicking its head.  This action, and the fact that Spruce Grouse feed exclusively on needles in the winter, leads to the wearing off of the tip of the bird’s upper mandible by spring.

If you are searching for a Spruce Grouse, you might want to concentrate in the middle of the crowns of trees, as this is where the birds tend to forage. Theories for this preference include the fact that needles in this location have higher nutritive value, branches provide sturdy support, and grouse can see approaching avian predators while remaining partially concealed. (Birds of North America, Cornell Lab of Ornithology). (Photo: male Spruce Grouse browsing on Tamarack needles and (inset) looking for grit on the ground.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.

 


Fairy Rings

Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you may come upon a circle of mushrooms in the woods or in a lawn.  To some, these are Fairy Rings, where the fairies dance.  To those more scientifically minded, they are the fruiting bodies of an underground fungus (mycelium) that is growing outward in all directions from an initial spot (in the center of the ring), feeding on nutrients in the soil.  As it grows, the mycelieum secretes enzymes into the ground ahead of it. These chemicals break down the organic matter, releasing nutrients so that the mycelium will have food when it reaches this area. When conditions are right for spore production, the active mycelium produces a circle of mushrooms just behind its outer edge.  Growth of the mycelium continues, accompanied by the formation of wider and wider circles of fruiting bodies every year.

There are roughly 60 species of fungi that produce Fairy Rings.  As a rule they form these in evenly composed soil, such as lawns and less frequently in woods.  It’s possible to recognize Fairy Ring evens when they haven’t sent up mushrooms, as they form rings of grass up to 15 feet in diameter that have a distinctly different color or texture than the grass inside or outside of the ring. (A Fairy Ring in France measured 2,000 feet in diameter and was estimated to be 700 years old.)  (Photos by Julie George)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.