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Archive for February, 2020

Red-winged Blackbirds Returning to Northern New England

Except for the coast, most of northern New England doesn’t see many Red-winged Blackbirds during the winter months.  Numbers usually start increasing the last week of February with males arriving before females.  In the fall it’s the reverse, with males departing after females.

Practically as soon as male Red-winged Blackbirds return, you can hear them singing and see them displaying as they claim their territories.  If you could tell the females apart, you might well recognize some of them, as research shows that nearly half of the females return to the previous year’s territory.

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Eastern Gray Squirrels Lining Nests

Congratulations to Wanda Rice, the first Naturally Curious reader to recognize sign made by a squirrel collecting nesting material. Many people thought it might be a porcupine at work, but porcupines, as “hellomolly” pointed out in her comment, do not leave strips of bark hanging, while squirrels do.

In the Mystery Photo, an Eastern Gray Squirrel had been shredding and collecting the thin bark of a Maple Sugar sapling to line its nest with.  Gray squirrels nest throughout the year, but nesting activity peaks during their two mating seasons (December -March, and May – July).  They build two types of nests – large, round, leafy nests among tree branches (dreys) and cavity nests, the latter being preferred during the colder months. Abandoned woodpeckers nests as well as natural-formed cavities provide additional protection in the winter from predators as well as the elements. (Drey broods are 40 percent less likely to survive than squirrels born in tree cavities — a hole no wider than three or four inches protects them from large predators such as raccoons.) Both types of nests are lined with soft material such as lichen, moss, grass, pine needles and shredded bark.

The effect of a squirrel’s stripping a tree’s bark depends on the extent of the damage. Usually a young tree is chosen due to the thinness of the bark and the ease with which it can be stripped.  Although a tree can survive with some of its bark removed, it will die if the damage is too severe or bark is stripped off around the tree’s circumference.  Stripped bark not only provides nesting material but the process of stripping the bark exposes the tree’s cambium layer which contains the nutrients and sugars a tree has produced and which squirrels readily consume. (Eastern Gray Squirrel photos by Margaret Barker Clark)

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Mystery Photo: A New Perspective

In my desire to show a close-up of the shredded nature of the bark-stripping in Friday’s Mystery Photo, I didn’t take into account that knowing the height of the stripping was as crucial to solving the mystery as the shredded bark!  Today, instead of revealing the creature that is responsible for this activity, I am posting a photograph that gives the viewer the perspective necessary to correctly identify the sign-maker. Please feel free to resubmit a guess with the aid of this added information if you would like to.  The photograph was taken within the last two weeks, and the sign was very fresh. The bark stripper’s identity will definitely be revealed on Wednesday, February 26th!

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Mystery Photo

Who has been hard at work on this young Sugar Maple tree?  If you think you might know, go to the Naturally Curious blog site, scroll down to “Comments” and enter your guess.  The answer will be revealed on Monday, February 24th.  (Photo by Margaret Barker Clark)

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Blackberry Seed Gall

Galls, abnormal plants growths caused by many agents including insects, are formed during the growing season on the buds, leaves, roots and branches of plants as a response to chemicals or physical irritation. Many of these galls serve as shelters and a source of food for their developing inhabitants.

Blackberry is host to numerous gall-making insects, including mites, midges and gall wasps, and their temporary homes (galls) are most obvious in the winter. The Blackberry Seed Gall is caused by a tiny cynipid gall wasp, Diastrophus cuscutaeformis.  A cluster of small, globular, seed-like galls within which the gall wasp larvae live are pressed together in a lump surrounding the cane.  These galls derive their species name from their resemblance to dodder (Cuscuta) fruits. Each of these 1/10th-inch diameter chambers bears a spine, and together they create a reddish-brown hairy mass.

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New Children’s Book Release

“Animals are all around us. While we may not often see them, we can see signs that they’ve been there. Some signs might be simple footprints in snow or mud (tracks) and other signs include chewed or scratched bark, homes or even poop and pee (traces). Children will become animal detectives after learning how to “read” the animal signs left all around. Smart detectives can even figure out what the animals were doing! This is a perfect sequel to Mary Holland’s Animal Anatomy and Adaptations series.” (Arbordale Publishing)


Snowshoe Hare Pellets

Snowshoe Hares digest their food twice in order to extract the most nutrients possible from their food.  Two kinds of pellets are produced by hares: hard pellets (twice digested) and soft pellets called cecotropes (digested once).  Food is ingested and passes through a sac-like structure between the small and large intestine called the cecum.  Bacteria in the cecum synthesize proteins and vitamins and as a result of this synthesis, cecotropes have twice the protein and half of the fiber of the typical hard pellet. They also contain high levels of vitamin K and B vitamins.  In order to obtain the nutrients produced in the cecum, Snowshoe Hares eat and redigest the soft cecotropes (often produced early in the morning which is why we rarely see them). These pellets which have been digested twice provide up to 20 percent of a hare’s daily protein.

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Winter Adaptations of the Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse have both behavioral (diving into the snow on cold nights) and physical strategies for dealing with the cold, snow and ice of New England winters.  Three of the physical changes that take place in the fall are evident by looking closely at a grouse’s legs, feet and beak. The feathers on its legs grow thicker and further down towards its feet, to provide better insulation.  Small comb-like growths of skin, called pectinations, develop along either side of each toe.  These increase the surface area of a grouse’s foot, and serve as snowshoes in deep snow.  They also help the grouse cling to icy branches while it quickly snips off poplar and other buds at either end of the day.  And on its beak, feathers expand downward to cover its nostrils, slowing the cold air and giving it a chance to warm up before it is inhaled by the grouse.

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Red Bark Phenomenon

In the past five years an odd phenomenon has been observed on the bark of over twenty species of trees in New England — an intense reddish-orange coloration.  It’s been determined that this is due to the presence of a microscopic green algae (Chlorophyta), tentatively identified as belonging to the genus Trentepohlia.  A branching mat of thick-walled algal cells containing a bright orange-red pigment alters the color of the bark.

Red Bark Phenomenon is especially prevalent on White Pine, Eastern Hemlock, Red Oak and American Beech trees.  Affected trees appear to be of varying ages and are often, but not exclusively,observed near bodies of water, such as swamps and rivers. Frequently (as pictured) only one side of a tree is affected.

The exact conditions that promote this growth of algae are not known, but theories include climate change in the Northeast, in particular warming seasonal temperatures, increased precipitation punctuated by droughts, and more turbulent weather.  (Photo by Adeline Casali)

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Great Horned Owls Courting & Mating

Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest species of birds to breed in the Northeast. Their intense hooting begins in late December or early January, about a month before actual mating takes place. Males call during most seasons of the year, but the period when the males are hooting vigorously lasts for a month or six weeks. During the mating season the deep, rich tones of the males are occasionally interspersed with the higher and huskier notes of the females. The answering calls of the females are typically heard for only a week or two, toward the end of the six-week period.

Eventually, when a male and female approach each other, they do a sort of courtship “dance.” The male cocks his tail, swells his white bib (see photo), and with much bobbing and jerking utters a series of deep sonorous calls that elicit calling responses by the female. He cautiously approaches the female, continuing much tail-bobbing and posturing. The owls nod, bow, and spread their wings as well as shake their heads. Courting pairs have been observed engaging in high-pitched giggling, screaming, and bill-snapping. Mutual bill rubbing and preening also occurs. Copulation concludes the courtship ritual, with both owls hooting at a rate of 4 or 5 hoots per second throughout copulation, which lasts 4 – 7 seconds.

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Coyotes Scent-marking & Mating

You may have been hearing Coyotes howling more than usual lately.  This is because their mating season has begun, and they are much more vocal prior to and during it.  Another Coyote sign to be aware of this time of year is the abundance of Coyote scent-marking, with both urine and feces.

Female Coyotes come into heat, or estrus, only once a year for two to five days, in late January or February in the Northeast.  It is not unusual to come across spots where both male and female Coyotes have scent-marked during this time.  Often one will mark on top of or next to its mate’s marking.  Sometimes the female’s blood can be seen in her urine, or, in the case of the pictured marking, her blood dripped onto the snow as she investigated her mate’s urine.

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