An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Archive for April, 2020

Whirligig Beetles Active

Congratulations to Stein Feick, the first person to correctly identify the Mystery Photo as a Whirligig Beetle!  You usually see this aquatic beetle swimming around and around in circles on the surface of a pond searching for prey. A unique feature of most beetles in this genus is their divided eyes.  Each eye is completely separated into two portions (see photo). One portion (dorsal) is above the water line and the other (ventral) is beneath the water on each side of their head, allowing them to see both in the air/on the surface of the water as well as under the water.  The dorsal eyes have a limited field of view, so these beetles rest one of their antennae on the surface of the water to help them detect any motion caused by prey.

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Mystery Photo

Can you identify this Mystery Photo?  Hint:  In all likelihood if you’ve visited a pond, you have seen one.  If you think you might know what this creature is, go to the Naturally Curious blog site, scroll down to “Comments” and enter your guess.  The mystery will be solved on Wednesday, April 29th.

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An Ingenious Recycler

Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects.  In the natural world, agents such as fungi and bacteria that turn dead plant and animal matter into air, water and nutrients come to mind.  If you broaden the definition of recycling to include the re-use of material, however, many more organisms come into play.

Some humans continue to feed birds in the spring after Black Bears have emerged from their dens.  The bears have not eaten for four or five months and once their digestive system adjusts, they are extremely hungry.  Available bird feeders are often raided by hungry bears at this time of year, and end up discarded on the forest floor with the seeds they contained ending up inside the bears’ stomachs.  Eventually the bears defecate and their feces contain little else but the husks of sunflower seeds interspersed with intact seeds.  Keen-eyed Black-capped Chickadees are very quick to take advantage of these recycled sources of protein.  (Check the Chickadee’s beak closely.)

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Trout Lily Flowering

Although at this time of year you often find the pollen- and nectar-consuming Red-necked False Blister Beetle visiting Trout Lily (also known as Dog-tooth Violet and Adder’s Tongue), bees are its most common pollen collectors. When a bee visits a Trout Lily flower, it usually removes half of the available pollen in one visit. After packing it into its pollen baskets the bee heads directly back to its hive to unload the pollen. Unfortunately for the Trout Lily, this hampers cross-pollination, as it severely limits the amount of pollen that reaches other Trout Lily flowers.

As compensation for the pollen-collecting habit of its apian visitors, Trout Lily has two sets of anthers – one set opens one day, the other opens the next, preventing a bee from collecting all the pollen from a given flower in one day, giving other insects the opportunity to cross-pollinate. (Photo:  Red-necked False Blister Beetle on Trout Lily.  Note beetle is on unopened anther; opened anther is to left of beetle.)

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Black Bears Emerging From Dens & Ejecting Fecal Plugs

This may look like Black Bear scat to many viewers and it is close to being just that, but technically it is a fecal plug.  A plug differs from scat in several ways.  Rather than passing through and out of the digestive system, it remains in the lower 7-15” of a bear’s intestine for four or five months, while the bear hibernates.  Unlike feces, which consist mostly of waste from digested food, a fecal plug, due to the length of time it spends in the intestine, contains a considerable amount of intestinal secretions and cells that have sloughed off the inside of the digestive tract.

Usually you find hair and bedding as well as recently-eaten indigestible food incorporated into a plug.  Prior to hibernation, Black Bears engage in grooming — licking and swallowing their fur and the leaves, etc. that are caught in it.  These indigestible materials end up in the plug.  During winter bears shed the calloused soles, or footpads, of their feet and it’s not uncommon to find pieces of them in a plug, as well.

Most plugs measure 1 ½” to 2 ½” in diameter and  7-15″ long. Fluids have been absorbed from the plug by the intestinal walls, leaving it quite dry and hard, and it has very little scent. If you happen to know where a bear has denned, the surroundings are a prime location for finding a plug, as the bear ejects it soon after emerging from its den in April. (Thanks to Andy Rowles and Erin Donahue for photo op.)

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Please Stay Safe

I consider myself so fortunate that COVID-19 has not diminished my ability to pursue my  passion, and I’m sure all of you are celebrating the gifts of nature during these trying times as well.   I hope all of Naturally Curious’s readership stays safe and is gifted with daily spring discoveries.  It’s reassuring that despite what humans are experiencing right now, the rest of the natural world continues its annual re-awakening without missing a beat. (Thank you to Ginny White for my favorite face mask.)

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Crayfish Mating

Crayfish mate in the early spring and females carry the fertilized, developing eggs inside their bodies for 4 to 6 weeks. These developing eggs are then transferred to the outside of the female’s body and glued with a sticky substance called “glair” to the female’s tail. The eggs then hatch by the end of spring.

One of the more interesting facts about crayfish copulation is that it is preceded by a relatively unusual courtship ritual.  Females release a steady stream of urine in order to attract a mate. Their urine is an aphrodisiac, attracting numerous males.  When males approach the female she responds aggressively, fighting the males in a quest to find the most fit one to mate with.  The female only stops resisting if the male can flip her over so that he can deposit his sperm on her underside.  (Photo by Owen Astbury)

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Wood Frogs Laying Eggs

Have you ever wondered how grapefruit (and larger)-size masses of up to 2,000 eggs come out of a 2- to 3-inch-long Wood Frog that weighs about a third of an ounce?  It turns out that a Wood Frog’s eggs are highly compressed into a mass the size of a golf ball when laid!  In under an hour they have absorbed enough water to have expanded to the size we usually associate with Wood Frog egg masses. (Photo: three freshly-laid (darker) egg masses amongst older egg masses)

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Red Fox Kits Emerging From Dens

When a Red Fox kit first emerges from its den, its senses are on full alert and much utilized as it gets to know its new environment.  Every leaf and stick is picked up and investigated.  Every insect that flies by is snapped at.  Every scent is caught. Every bird (American Crow, in this instance) overhead is duly noted and watched.

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Common Gartersnakes Mating

During these first days of April, Common Gartersnakes emerge from their hibernacula and often bask in the sun near the den where they spent the winter.  (At this time they are more approachable than later in the season, should you desire a close look at one.)  Males usually appear first; when the females appear, the males follow them in hot pursuit.

Common Gartersnakes are known for their impressive courtship ritual.  Prior to copulation, as many as a hundred males will often writhe around a single female, forming a mass which is referred to as a “mating ball.”  The male closest to the female rubs his chin on the head, back and sides of the female while aligning himself with her and eventually mating takes place.  When it does, the other males that were in the mating ball leave and seek out other females.  Female gartersnakes mate once; male may mate with several females.  (Photo by Sally Fellows)

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Male Wood Frogs Calling

Usually it’s your ears that tell you that Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) have emerged from hibernation.  They are one of the first amphibians to announce themselves, often appearing before snow and ice are completely gone.  Male frogs congregate in shallow ponds and vernal pools, where their ardent courtship ensues.

Unlike most frogs, which have a single vocal sac below their mouth, Wood Frogs have two paired sacs, called paired lateral vocal sacs, located on either side of their body just behind their head (see photo). With their mouth and nostrils are closed, male frogs pump air back and forth from their lungs to their inflated vocal sacs which vibrates their larynx and produces a duck-like quacking sound.  The vocal sacs act as resonating chambers, amplifying the frogs’ calls so as to attract females from far and wide.

Vocal sacs serve a dual purpose for some frogs. As soon as the eggs of Darwin’s Frog (Rhinoderma darwinii), found in Chile and Argentina, hatch, the male scoops the tadpoles into his mouth and they spend the next six weeks metamorphosing inside his vocal sac.  The male does not eat until the tadpoles have matured into adults and exited his mouth.

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Naturally Curious Blog Celebrates 10th Anniversary

Ten years ago, on April 4, 2010, the Naturally Curious blog was launched, not because I was suddenly inspired to have a blog but because the publisher of my recently published book, Naturally Curious, insisted on it!  My wonderful editor, Rebecca Didier, offered to design it — I just had to provide the photos and texts.  Reluctantly, as I’m extremely technologically-challenged, I plunged into the Internet, starting the blog with seven posts a week.  After a few years I paired it down to five and then a couple of years ago, when life became a bit more complicated, I went to three posts a week. I envision continuing this schedule indefinitely (with a brief hiatus while I move across the state this summer).

This blog which I agreed so reluctantly to has become the focal point of my life. I love every aspect of it, from spending hours in the woods and fields in order to find something “blog worthy” to photograph, to researching the subject photographed, to writing about it and posting it in a timely manner.  Ask anyone who knows me — I am almost never without my camera, and am never not looking for something I think might hold readers’ interest (even while driving).

You have been there through the thick and thin of my personal life, and supported me and my family every step of the way. Your comments and questions have fueled my curiosity and increased my knowledge about natural history.  I feel a very strong connection with you because we share this curiosity about and reverence for the natural world. Thank you for inspiring the past ten years of peering and poking in every nook and cranny.  I am so grateful to have the opportunity to share my discoveries with kindred spirits.

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American Toad Succumbs To Winter Challenges

Last fall most American Toads burrowed below the frost line, digging backwards one to two feet into the ground before beginning their winter hibernation. This spring, as soon as the temperature is consistently above 40°F., they will emerge.

Unfortunately, it seems that the pictured toad emerged too early during one of our warm spells this winter (of which there were many). One can’t know for sure, but it looks as though this is what happened, and without an adequate food supply it died of starvation or froze when the temperature dropped back down.  To the left of the desiccated toad is some scat which looks very much like American Toad scat to me.

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