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Archive for January, 2020

Wild Turkeys Foraging on Sensitive Fern Fertile Spores

Congratulations to Deb Marnich, the first of many Naturally Curious readers who identified the Sensitive Fern fertile frond visitors as Wild Turkeys.  I had neglected to check and make sure I hadn’t addressed this subject recently on this blog, which is my custom with every post, and indeed, just a year ago there was a post on this very subject.  Judging from the number of correct entries, either I have a very informed readership or their memory is better than mine – quite possibly both!

Wild Turkeys usually forage in flocks as they search the ground for food. Acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, ironwood and white ash seeds, hawthorn and witch hazel fruits make up a lot of their diet in fall, winter and spring. In the summer, seeds of grasses and sedges as well as invertebrates are eaten. In winter, when snow has accumulated, leaves of sedges, evergreen ferns, hemlock buds, burdock seeds and spore-covered fronds of sensitive ferns tend to be more accessible and readily eaten.

The fertile fronds of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) persist all winter, sticking up out of the snow as if beckoning to hungry turkeys. Upon finding a clump of these fertile fronds, a turkey will peck repeatedly at them, causing the sori (clusters of sporangia which produce and contain spores) to burst and release thousands of spores onto the surface of the snow.

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Mystery Photo

Any idea who has been visiting these Sensitive Fern fertile fronds?  If so, go to the Naturally Curious blog, scroll down to “Comments” and enter yours.  Answer will be revealed in Friday’s post.

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Osteoclast Correction

Thanks to Kitty Leonard, who caught the error in today’s post regarding osteoclasts.  They are cells, not chemicals as stated in the post, that become more active when the testosterone level drops after rut.  As Kitty so astutely stated in her comment, “… osteoclasts are cells rather than chemicals. Bone has osteoclasts which break down bone and osteoblasts which build bone. The balance of the actions of the two types makes for healthy bone by continually remodeling the structure. When one predominates in its activity, there is either more build up or more break down.”


White-tailed Bucks Shedding Antlers

White-tailed Deer bucks grow and shed a pair of antlers annually.  The main purpose of these bony growths is to serve as weapons against rival bucks during rut, or mating season.  During this time in the fall, prior to their 24-hour receptive period, does release chemicals to signal their readiness to bucks.  These chemicals keep the bucks’ testosterone level high, which in turn keeps antlers firmly attached to their heads.  Once rut is over, does stop emitting these chemicals, and as a consequence, the bucks’ testosterone level drops significantly.

When a buck’s testosterone level drops, it triggers cells called osteoclasts to become more active in the buck’s pedicles, the permanent bony bases which anchor the antlers to the buck’s skull. As a result, calcium is extracted from the pedicles which weakens the antlers’ connection to the buck’s skull, and eventually the antlers drop off.

It is rare that both antlers drop at the same time – usually there are four to eight days between the loss of the first and the second antler. I assumed that bucks needed to knock their antlers against something hard, such as the trunk of a tree, in order to get them to fall off.  However, years ago I witnessed a buck shedding an antler simply by dropping his head and then quickly flicking it upwards, sending an antler flying through the air. (Note pedicle where antler used to be attached. Photo by Alfred Balch)

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Red Foxes Marking & Mating

It’s that time of year again, when the odor associated with skunks wafts through the air, even though most skunks are denned up and in a state of torpor.  This odor is the perfumed urine of Red Foxes, especially intense during their mating season, which begins around the middle of January. They use both urine and feces to communicate their presence, dominance and sexual status to other foxes and do so frequently (urinating up to 70 times per hour when scavenging at this time of year!).  Stumps, logs and other raised surfaces often serve as scent posts.

According to scientist Dr. Mark Elbroch, Red Foxes “employ any of 12 different positions to urinate upon precarious perches…”.  It’s fun to imagine exactly which one was used that allowed both a foot print and urine to appear on the pictured raised log!

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Coyotes Scavenging

Coyote tracks from three different directions led to an area where a deer’s well-cleaned skull was the only remnant of a communal meal. It had been dug up from a spot nearby where it had been cached, and carried to a more protected area to work on.  Coyotes are omnivores, but about 90% of their diet consists of mammals.  Coyote scat I’ve examined has included, among other things, the hair of Muskrat, Snowshoe Hare, White-tailed Deer and small rodents as well as feathers, grass and apples.

Coyotes are commonly blamed whenever there is a decline in the White-tailed Deer population.  Studies involving the removal of deer populations in a given area have not found any evidence that Coyote removal caused an increase in the deer population, nor did it affect the overall deer population growth. The fact that Coyotes are not causing deer populations to decline can also be seen in the devastating effect White-tailed Deer are having on forest ecosystems throughout the eastern United States as the Coyote population increases.

That’s not to say Coyotes don’t hunt deer – they do, primarily in the spring (fawns) and in the winter, especially when there is enough snow and/or crust to slow deer down but not Coyotes. However, much of their venison consumption is a result of their scavenging deer carcasses, which they do any time of year. Examine Coyote scat and the chances are great you will find deer hair in it; chances are also great that it came from a carcass, not a living deer.

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North American River Otters Sliding & Gliding

North American River Otters spend much of their time foraging.  They often have a circuit they travel along rivers and lakes which takes them up to a week or more to complete.  In between bodies of water, they travel overland on well-used paths, often during the day in winter.

These circuits are miles long, and for much of the time otters lope along in typical weasel fashion.  However, in winter the snow permits them to occasionally flop down on their bellies, tuck their front feet next to their chest and push off with their hind feet as they slide effortlessly on top of the snow, both down slopes as well as along flat surfaces.  Once they obtain a certain speed, they give their hind legs a rest and lift them off the ground so as not to slow them down as they slide (see photo).  Otters have been clocked up to 17 miles per hour running and sliding in this manner.

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Beavers Foraging

Even in the coldest of winters, there is often a thaw around this time of year that frequently allows beavers to escape the cold (+/- 34°F) dark lodge where they reside during most of the winter.  Our most recent thaw was such that in many beaver ponds, ice didn’t even have to be broken in order for resident beavers to forage for food on land.

When beavers are confined to complete darkness (under the ice) their 24-hour circadian cycle extends to a 28 hour day. During this time beavers sleep for longer periods at a time and thus need less food.  As spring approaches and the days lengthen, the slightest exposure to daylight will reset the beaver’s biological clock back to the circadian cycle. (Leonard Lee Rue, Beavers)  (Photo by Alice Trageser)

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American Goldfinch Plumage Anomaly

Molting, the replacement of all or some of a bird’s feathers, occurs in response to a mixture of hormonal changes brought about by seasonal changes. This process serves to replace worn feathers (they cannot repair themselves) and can play a part in seasonal camouflage as well as attracting a mate.

All of our small songbirds have a complete molt, replacing all of their feathers in late summer. In addition, many species have a partial molt (replacing body feathers but not wing or tail feathers) in the spring.

According to David Sibley, American Goldfinches begin to molt all of their (alternate/breeding plumage) feathers in September, with the males replacing their brilliant gold feathers with much duller feathers by November.  Come spring and the breeding season, male goldfinches replace their dull (basic/non-breeding) body feathers (but not the wing or tail feathers) with new, bright feathers.

Imagine my surprise when I spied a brilliantly colored American Goldfinch at my feeder this week.  According to ornithologist George Clark, it’s usually March before one starts to see an American Goldfinch in breeding plumage. One can only wonder what prevented this individual from molting its breeding plumage in the fall. (Photo: male American Goldfinch, winter plumage; inset – male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage in January)

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Bobcats Foraging

Bobcats are active all winter, particularly at dawn and dusk, when their primary prey (hares and cottontails) are active.  Mice and voles are also a significant part of their diet, and occasionally larger-bodied male Bobcats successfully prey on White-tailed Deer.  The pictured tracks reveal that while foraging for food, a Bobcat discovered the remains of a Porcupine that had been killed and skinned by a Fisher.

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River Otter Scat

Because fish make up a large part of their diet, North American River Otters live along streams, lakes and wetlands.  Although crayfish, hibernating frogs and turtles, insects and other aquatic invertebrates are also consumed in the winter, the telltale identifying feature of otter scat (spraint) this time of year is the presence of fish scales.

Look for otter scat on raised areas near water, especially the shortest distance between two water bodies or on peninsulas.  It is usually found on the ground, but occasionally on logs and at the intersection of two streams. Otters frequently form large latrines of multiple scats.

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Wrong Mystery Solved!

My apologies to the 50+/- NC readers who responded with great creativity to the latest Mystery Photo!  The photographer and I had a miscommunication, and I misdirected readers about the actual mystery you were to solve!  I thought the photographer had observed a goose making the two parallel lines in the ice with their feet (nails) as they landed. However, these two lines are actually just cracks in the ice, as many readers guessed (Susan Cloutier was the first to correctly identify them).   While Canada Geese do use their feet as well as their wings as brakes to slow themselves down before they land and they do have a hind toe which conceivably could scratch the ice, the landing imprints of the geese (and what I should have asked readers to identify) are actually in the upper half of the photo (see red circle) where the snow has been plowed aside, revealing the darker ice underneath.   The presence of a considerable amount of goose droppings confirms the identity of the birds landing on the ice.

Observers often ask how Canada Geese or other waterfowl can stand for long periods of time on frozen lakes and ponds.The legs and feet of waterfowl play an important part in maintaining their body temperature.  In the summer, their large, flat feet cool their body by releasing a good deal of heat.  In winter, the heat exchange system (counter-current circulation) in a bird’s legs prevents a great deal of body heat loss due to the fact that the warm arterial blood going into the bird’s feet is cooled by the colder blood traveling back to the body in adjacent veins.  Constricted blood vessels in their legs further conserves heat. (Photo by Mike Hebb)

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Mystery Photo

Do you know what is responsible for the two parallel lines that run diagonally across the bottom of this photograph?  If so, enter your comment on the Naturally Curious blog.  Scroll down and click on “Comments.” Hint: there are numerous clues in photo.  Answer will be revealed on Wednesday’s (1/8/20) blog post.  (Photo by Mike Hebb)


Seeing The World Through A Naturalist’s Eyes

There are innumerable resources for anyone interested in identifying any part of the natural world — field guides to feathers, fungi, tracks, butterflies, mosses, bird nests — the list goes on and on.  What has been lacking, in my opinion, is an introduction to the art of discovering what it is that you may then wish to identify.

If you are very lucky in your lifetime, you may cross paths with someone who heightens your awareness of the natural world that surrounds you and teaches you how to look at it and ask the questions that will provide you with insight into it.  These are skills that one rarely finds in a book.  To the good fortune of all who open the pages of The Naturalist’s Notebook – An Observation Guide and 5-year Calendar Journal for Tracking Changes in the Natural World Around You, this book does this and more.  Not only does it present the reader with the keys to observing the natural world around them, it provides the means to record these observations so that the daily details one observes are preserved for posterity and for comparison in years to come.

I can’t think of a better way for a budding or experienced naturalist to start a new year than to open the pages of this book and delve into the words that will allow them to connect themselves more intimately to the world that is right outside their door. Not only would they reap the benefit of the morsels within this book, but all royalties from the sale of The Naturalist’s Notebook are donated to conservation and environmental education. Nathaniel T. Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich have given the world a true gift – one that could ultimately affect the future of this fragile planet we live on.

NB:  In addition to this publication, Nathaniel Wheelwright has produced an exceptionally informative and entertaining series of short videos about the natural history of eastern North American plants and animals: https://research.bowdoin.edu/nature-moments/.

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