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Archive for January, 2022

Fishers Can, But Don’t Often, Climb Trees

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While fishers are known for their ability to climb trees, it is actually a behavior reserved primarily for when they are being harassed. They are basically a terrestrial animal. Even so, it’s possible to find evidence now and then of their arboreal prowess.

 You can occasionally find a fisher’s body imprint in the snow at the base of a tree, made when it jumped off the tree trunk (see Less common are visible fisher tracks running up the length of a snow-covered tree.  Fishers have the dexterity this feat demands in part because of their semi-retractile claws. Their agility is enhanced by the fact that they can turn their hind feet nearly 180°, allowing them to descend trees headfirst.

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Eastern Bluebirds — Partial Migrants

Some Northeastern nesting birds, such as hummingbirds and warblers, are strictly migrators. If they were to remain, they would not find enough food to sustain themselves over the winter months.  Nut and seed-eating birds, including jays and chickadees, don’t have quite the challenge as insect and nectar feeders. Food is continually present (along with some caching strategy in the fall) making a perilous migration unnecessary.  There are still other birds, including the Eastern Bluebird, that are known as “partial migrants.”  Some individuals migrate and some spend the winter near or on breeding sites. 

Those bluebirds that remain in the Northeast supplement their mostly insect diet with small fruits. In addition, they have also adapted behaviorally to the demands of winter.  Communal roosting in holes in trees and other cavities of two to several dozen individuals during particularly cold nights conserves warmth.  And during especially cold days, bluebirds retreat to heating sources such as chimney tops of gas-burning stoves. (Photo: female Eastern Bluebird)

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Praying Mantis Egg Cases Overwintering

In the fall, after mating, the female Praying Mantis lays up to 400 eggs in a frothy liquid produced by glands in her abdomen. This one to two-inch long mass is attached to vegetation, often grasses and goldenrod stalks, about a foot or two off the ground. The frothy structure hardens, providing a protective case for the eggs.

In the spring, miniature (wingless) mantises, called nymphs, will hatch from this egg case. When hatching, the nymphs appear all at once, crawling from between tiny flaps in the case and then hanging from silk threads about two inches below the case. Within an hour or two, after drying out, they disappear into nearby vegetation. (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo opportunity.)

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Harlequin Ducks: Aquatic Acrobats

Picture a roiling sea off the coast of northern New England, foaming with white caps with waves crashing onto a rocky shore.  Then imagine yourself just a few yards offshore, diving down and being able to both find and capture a snail, crab or barnacle as the water bounces you up and down and sideways.  Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) not only choose this turbulent habitat in the winter, but embrace it in the summer when they seek out fast-flowing white water rivers and streams on which to breed. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology states that the Harlequin Duck’s ability to swim and feed among the boulders of a raging river is unmatched. Small wonder that they have been found to have more broken bones than any other species!

According to, the Harlequin Duck’s name derives from a character of traditional Italian comedy and pantomime, the harlequin, who appeared in costumes of multicolored triangular patches and displayed histrionics (tricks) – note scientific name of genus and species. They are also known as sea mice, due to their squeaky vocalizations when interacting with each other.

Sadly, the East Coast wintering population is estimated at no more than 1,500 and this species has been listed as Endangered in Canada. (Photo: from left to right – two females, two males and a female Harlequin Duck mid-wave)

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Black Bears Giving Birth

It’s hard to imagine at this time of year, but sometime between the last half of January (the full moon in January is often called the ‘bear moon’) and the first part of February Black Bears give birth to between one and five (usually two) tiny, blind, almost hairless, 9-inch long, one-half pound cubs, each about the size of a chipmunk. The cubs are totally dependent on their mother for food and warmth.

Most dens are exposed to the cold air, as they are located under fallen logs and brush, or are dug into a bank. Occasionally they are on the ground with little or no cover; in all of these locations, the mother acts like a furnace, enveloping her young and breathing on them to keep them warm. The cubs do not hibernate, but nap frequently. Like human mothers, Black Bear mothers sleep when their young sleep, and are alert when their cubs cry and let them know that they are in need of attention. (Photo: taken in March of two-month old Black Bear cubs)

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Winter Cutworms Active In Winter

One of the last things you expect to see on top of snow is a caterpillar, but it can happen.  Certain species can withstand the cold of northern New England winters and remain active throughout the colder months. Among them is the “Winter Cutworm,” or larval stage of the Large Yellow Underwing Moth (Noctua pronuba), a relatively common Noctuid (a family of moths that typically has dull forewings and pale or colorful hind wings).

These larvae actively feed on the roots and foliage of plants (grasses, weedy plants and a variety of garden vegetables) through the winter, and on warm days can appear on top of the snow.  They pupate and emerge as adults in spring and early summer. (Photo: Winter Cutworm that appears to have been caught short by a sudden drop in temperature.)


A Note To Monthly Donors

Bobcat “Sit-down”

If you live where there is an abundance of rabbits or hares, you may have a population of Bobcats as well.  These felines are elusive and shy — setting eyes on a Bobcat is a notable event.  One must, for the most part, settle for signs of their presence and the chances of this are much greater in winter.

Bobcat signs include tracks, scrapes/scat, beds, kill sites ( and cache sites (see .  Tracks are by far the most common sign.  Occasionally you come across a protected spot where a hunting cat has sat and surveyed the area for prey (see photo). Because time was spent in the same position the details of its tracks can be well defined in the right snow conditions: four toe impressions (one slightly leading) with a large heel pad that often shows two lobes at the top and three on the bottom, and no claw marks.

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Where Do Common Loons That Breed in New England Spend The Winter?

In northern New England, Common Loons nest and raise their young on inland lakes and ponds.  By late fall, when most of the lakes have started to freeze over, the majority of loons head for the East Coast although some do overwinter on open, inland, freshwater lakes.  Loons that migrate spend the winter in their new, drabber plumage off the Northeast coast where they apparently have no problem adapting to salt water and the change of diet which that entails. 

Predominantly fish-eaters, Common Loons favor yellow perch, pumpkin seed and bluegill in addition to other species of fish, crayfish and aquatic invertebrates.  In the winter they feed primarily on flounder and herring, as well as crustaceans.  Most of their food is consumed under water, but a large fish or crustacean, such as a crab (see photo) or an occasional lobster, is usually eaten after surfacing. One adaption that serves them well in the winter is a salt gland that excretes excess salt that they ingest while feeding in the ocean. 

Just as they have territories on their breeding lakes, many wintering loons return to the same area year after year, occupying a 6-12 square mile “home range” area for the duration of the winter. Common Loons typically stay close to shore and their large size makes them relatively easy to spot. (Thanks to Susan Holland for photo opportunity.)

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