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Purple Martins Face Challenges Upon Returning To Breeding Grounds

Many of the Purple Martins that return from South America to the Northeast to breed have flown across the Gulf of Mexico to get here.  Once they’ve made this impressive trip, their challenges are far from over.  The reproductive success of Purple Martins depends not only on their arriving on their breeding grounds, but on surviving once they have arrived. One of the largest challenges that faces them upon their return is related to their diet, which consists exclusively of flying insects.  Purple Martins are particularly susceptible to spells of cold and rainy weather during the spring and early summer which can drastically reduce their supply of food.

Even when the weather doesn’t present them with nutritional challenges, Purple Martins have to contend with European Starlings and House Sparrows, both of which aggressively compete with them for artificial/human-made nest sites. Human intervention and management is often needed in order to protect the martin population. (Photo: male Purple Martin)

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Raccoons Seeking Dens

Pregnant female Raccoons have recently been exploring potential natal dens where they will soon give birth to four or five young. This year’s litters will be well hidden from potential predators deep inside the tree cavities, caves and rock crevices their mothers have chosen.  We won’t see the offspring for another month or two, after they have developed enough motor skills to be able to walk.  Sometime in June or July their mother will venture out of the den at night with her offspring and introduce them to solid food and the great outdoors.

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Spotted Sandpipers Returning To Breeding Grounds

Northern New England is starting to see the return of Spotted Sandpipers, small shorebirds easily identifiable during the breeding season by their spotted chest and belly, teetering movement and stiff wingbeats while flying low over the water.

Spotted Sandpipers distinguish themselves in a number of ways, most notably when it comes to their reversed sex roles.  Females arrive first on breeding grounds, stake out territories and attempt to attract males (this is the opposite of the standard avian breeding procedure).  Females are more aggressive and active in courtship than males, and males are the primary parent. While some pairs are monogamous,  females may mate with up to 4 males, each of which cares for a clutch and a brood.

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Large-flowered Bellwort Flowering

Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), a member of the lily family, strikes one as a rather modest plant, hiding its six-parted flowers by hanging them face down towards the ground. This arrangement influenced Linnaeus when he was assigning this plant the generic name Uvularia, as he felt the pendant blossoms resembled a uvula, that lobe that hangs from the upper palate at the back of our throats!

Many insects are attracted to this plant’s pollen and nectar, particularly bumble bees and other types of bees.  Ants distribute Large-flowered Bellwort seeds, attracted by the fatty elaiosomes attached to the them. And White-tailed Deer graze so heavily on this plant that you won’t find it in woods that are overpopulated with deer.

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A Busy First Month

We are seeing Red Fox kits above ground as they emerge from their den for the first time since birth, but much has transpired since they were born a month or so ago. Like other canids, including coyotes and wolves, their natal coat of fur was charcoal brown.  A new, second, coat of sandy-colored hair (that matches the sandy soil of the den site) has grown in, to be replaced again within the next two months by a brilliant red coat. The weaning process, which won’t be completed for some time, has begun by the time the kits venture above ground. Their eyes have opened (at 10-12 days), their first set of teeth has come in and they have established hierarchy among themselves.  Down in the den during the past month vicious fighting has taken place among the kits in order to determine which kit was “top dog,” or the alpha (usually the largest kit) and gets the lion’s share of the food delivered by the parents.

By the time we see Red Fox kits, much has happened in their young lives.  They’ve gained sight, a new coat, a set of teeth, the introduction of solid food, and most importantly, hierarchy has been established. Peace now reigns and we get to enjoy the kits’ playful antics as they are introduced to the world above ground.

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Mourning Dove Nesting Idiosyncracies

Nest-building and chick-feeding are a bit unusual for Mourning Doves.  As to nest construction, the female remains at the nest site while the male dove collects the nesting material (twigs, grasses, pine needles, etc.). He returns to the nest and proceeds to stand on his mate’s back while presenting the material to her and she weaves it into the nest.  

The hatchlings, or squabs, are fed by regurgitation.  For the first four or five days, the squabs insert their bills in each side of either parent’s mouth and drink what is referred to as crop milk, a secretion from the lining of the crops of the parents.  All pigeons and doves produce crop milk for their young.  Seeds are regurgitated in increasing amounts and by the time the squabs fledge, they are essentially seed eaters like their parents. (Note: With a little effort, scruffy feathers of squabs can be seen beneath the breast of this nesting Mourning Dove.)

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Sedges Flowering

Often it’s the spring ephemerals – Trout Lily, Red Trillium, Dutchman’s Breeches – that catch our eye as we walk through the woods this time of year. But there are other, more modest flowering plants which shouldn’t be overlooked.

Sedges, often found growing near wetlands but also in woods, are one of these inconspicuous plants.  Related to grasses and rushes, they are wind-pollinated, and have no need for large, showy petals in order to attract insects.  As a result, it’s fairly easy to miss their flowers, some of which are in full bloom right now.

Male and female sedge flowers are typically found on the same plant. The arrangement of the flowers, or inflorescence, usually consists of a cluster of male flowers on the end of a spike (see photo) with female flowers located on separate spikes. A dissecting scope is necessary in order to identify most species of sedges, but an easy way to know it’s a sedge is to feel the shape of the plant’s stem – sedge stems are three-sided — triangular in cross-section (unlike rushes which are round, and grass stems which are hollow). Hence, the saying “Sedges have edges, rushes are round.”

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Great Horned Owls Raising Their Families

Roughly two months ago the courtship calls of Great Horned Owls could be heard throughout the U.S. as their breeding season began. Mating took place, eggs were laid and incubated for about a month, and several weeks ago those eggs hatched.  Looking like balls of tan fluff, the downy chicks can now be seen with their mother in attendance.

Great Horned Owl chick appetites are voracious. At the ripe old age of two weeks they are capable of swallowing a mouse whole.  The chicks weigh about an ounce when they are born, and for the first month or so, they gain roughly that much every day.  In another month they’ll be taking short flights, but will remain with their parents throughout most of the summer. 

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Bloodroot In Flower

One of our earliest spring ephemerals, Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), a member of the Poppy family, greets the longer, warming days by having its short-lived flower emerge from within its protective leaf and spread its white petals wide open on sunny days. (The flower only opens on days when the temperature reaches 46 degrees, as that’s when pollinators are active.)

To encourage cross-pollination, when the flower opens it is in the female stage, relying on pollinators covered in pollen to land and drop pollen to the receptive stigma. Within a few hours of opening the stamens begin to release pollen. The flower will open for up to three days or until cross-pollination has occurred. Once pollination has taken place the flower begins to drop its petals.

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Ospreys Courting & Copulating

Ospreys have returned to their breeding grounds in New England, where both courtship and copulation is taking place.  The males engage in an undulating courtship display flight high over the nest site, often with fish or nesting material clutched in their dangling legs while they repeatedly issue forth screaming calls.  This can go on for up to ten minutes or so before they descend to the nest.  In addition, “courtship feeding” often takes place with the male providing his mate with food, often just prior to breeding.

Although an osprey pair copulates frequently (an average of 160 times per clutch), nearly half the time there is no cloacal contact. Most of the breeding takes place at or near the nest site. (Note the protective positioning of the male’s toes and talons as he mounts his mate.)

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Silver Maples One Of Earliest Trees To Flower

For several weeks the red flower buds of Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) have been swelling, preparing to open and expose their flowers to the wind, their pollinating agent.  While Silver Maple can have both male and female flowers on the same tree, (monoecious) it much more commonly has flowers of only one sex (dioecious).  Less than 10 percent of flowering plant species have male and female flowers on separate trees — the other 90 percent combine both sexes in one plant.

The pictured branch of Silver Maple bears only male flowers, each possessing several pollen-loaded stamens.  Like many wind-pollinated flowers, Silver Maple’s flowers have no flashy petals to attract insects, rather they lack them entirely, as they would only get in the way of pollen dispersal.  Like other maples, if fertilized, the female flowers develop winged fruit referred to as samaras.  Silver Maple samaras are larger than those of any other native maple species.

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Wood Ducks Returning To Northern New England

A welcome sign of spring in northern New England is the return of the Wood Duck to wooded swamps and wetlands.  There are seven species of North American ducks that regularly nest in cavities and the Wood Duck is uniquely adapted for doing so.  Its slim body allows it to use Pileated Woodpecker cavities for nesting and the acuity of its large eyes allows it to avoid branches while flying through wooded areas.  Even so, it still tends to make one look twice to see ducks perched up in a tree!

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Mourning Cloak Butterflies Emerging

With the recent warm temperatures, Mourning Cloak butterflies have been seen gliding through fields and leafless woods.  Unlike most butterflies, Eastern Commas, Question Marks, Red Admirals and Mourning Cloaks overwinter as adults, seeking shelter in protected spots such as under loose bark. When spring arrives, they slip out from their winter quarters and take to the air.

Mourning Cloaks resemble dead leaves so much that from a distance the entire insect seems to disappear when it lands on the forest floor.  Up close you can see the velvety texture of the wing scales, said to resemble the clothing mourners used to wear; hence, their common name. Mourning cloaks live up to ten months — an impressive life span for a butterfly.  As they age, the yellow border of their wings fades to an off-white.

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Bohemian Waxwings Bulking Up For Migration North

Named for the nomadic ranging patterns of their large winter flocks, Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) are winter visitors in northern New England, where flocks can be seen eating the sugary fruits of mountain ash, serviceberry and crab apples, among others. Very soon they will return to their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of Alaska and western Canada.

Adults and some juveniles of Bohemian (and Cedar) Waxwings have variable numbers of red, wax-like nubs on the tips of their secondary feathers. Research shows that these nubs are important in the social hierarchy of a flock. They, and other plumage characters (brightness of yellow tail band and wing-stripe), increase in number and/or prominence with age. The red and yellow carotenoid pigments of waxwing plumage are derived exclusively from dietary sources.

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Overwintering Moth Larvae Becoming Active

One of the last things one might expect to see on a newly-exposed grassy field in the middle of March is a caterpillar crawling along. This would be unexpected because most moths overwinter as eggs or pupae inside cocoons, not as caterpillars (larvae).  Most moths, but not all.  Some species of moths overwinter as larvae (and adults). 

Tiger Moths (and Tussock Moths) overwinter as caterpillars and pupate in the spring before emerging as adults during the summer.  One member of the Tiger Moth group that is familiar to many is the Isabella Tiger Moth, known as the Woolly Bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) in its larval stage.  Another member of this group that overwinters as a caterpillar is the Great Tiger Moth (Arctia caja).  As early as mid-March you can find both of these caterpillars wandering in search of a protected spot where they will form hairy cocoons that surround and protect their pupal cases.  The pictured Tiger Moth adult (Great or Garden Tiger Moth) bears the white geometric stripes that give the members of this group their common name. 

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Clean-up Crew Has Arrived

New England’s skies have been devoid of the wheeling antics of our most prominent avian scavenger, the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) since last October.  The first migrants are returning, and just in time to recycle winter’s roadkills such as the raccoon carcass pictured.

Turkey Vultures have keen vision and road-killed animals are fairly easy to spot, but scientists have wondered for many years how they locate carrion hidden from view, such as those within forests.  It’s been determined that they do so primarily with their highly developed sense of smell. Turkey Vultures have an extremely large olfactory bulb—the area of the brain responsible for processing odors.  When it comes to detecting food by smell alone, the Turkey Vulture has the most finely-attuned sense of smell among nearly all birds and is known to be able to smell carrion from over a mile away.

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Striped Skunks Breeding

The peak of the breeding season for Striped Skunks is in March, which is why their tracks in the snow are fairly easy to come across, and why road-killed skunks are not an unusual sight at this time of year. Both males and females are actively seeking mates and travel as far as 2 ½ miles to scout out other skunks’ winter den sites.

 A female is in estrus for a little over a week; only after mating does she ovulate, thereby increasing the chances of fertilization.  After mating, the female skunk will aggressively attack any subsequent suitors, whereas the polygamous male will attempt to mate with all the females within his territory. (Photo: striped skunk den)

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Beavers Released

Most beavers in northern New England have been trapped inside their lodge for several months, with their only food supply being the branches they cut last fall and piled up on the floor of the pond or river near their lodge. Ice has sealed them in, not only to a life of darkness and dampness, but to a diet of cambium. 

Needless to say, they are quick to take advantage of melting ice that allows them to exit their lodge and make their way to shore to sample fresh food.  One of the first delicacies they dine on, if it’s available, is skunk cabbage.  The rhizomes, leaves and flowers of both yellow and white pond lilies are also favorites.  No longer restricted to woody plants, beavers head for grasses, sedges, ferns, fungi, berries, mushrooms, duckweed and even algae as the water warms.  Their palate must jump for joy with the melting of ice in early March.

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Wild Turkeys Feeding and Making Burdock Balls

Almost every response to this Mystery Photo was spot-on, but “myip2014” was the first NC reader to recognize the signs left by a Wild Turkey feeding on Common Burdock (Arctium minus) seeds. A variety of plant material is eaten by Wild Turkeys in the winter: white pine and hemlock needles and buds, evergreen ferns, lichens, moss, and buds and stems of Sugar Maple, American Beech and American Hophornbeam trees. Especially when there is deep snow, Common Burdock is a favorite due to having seeds that are within reach and usually above the snow.

Turkeys consume these seeds in such a distinctive manner that one can recognize what animal has been feeding on burdock, even if tracks and scat are not present. The burdock burrs, or fruits, are plucked off the plant by the turkey, opened and the seeds are eaten. The burrs end up nearly inside out as a result of the turkey prying them open to get the seeds, and often are stuck together and form “burdock balls.“  The presence of these balls is a sure sign that turkeys have dined on the seeds they once contained.

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Mystery Photo

Using all the information provided above, do you know who has been here and why? If so, enter your answer by scrolling down on the Naturally Curious web page, clicking on “Comments” and writing your answer. Mystery will be solved on Monday, March 8th.

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Virginia Opossum Tracks

Virginia Opossums have extended their range far enough north that even in parts of northern New England they are present and remain active year-round.  Opossum tracks in the snow provide an opportunity to observe the unusual toe structure of these marsupials. 

Opossums have five toes on all four feet.  The toes on their front feet can spread wide apart, often resulting in a star-shaped track.  The inside toe of their hind foot, or “thumb,” is opposable, has no nail, and often points in the opposite direction of the other four toes. (Thanks to Connie Day for opossum track photo op.)

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North American River Otters Use Abandoned Beaver Lodges As Dens

North American River Otters use dens (called holts) for giving birth and for shelter from weather extremes.  Den sites are usually close to the water line of rivers and lakes, and have multiple entrances underwater as well as on dry land.  They are often excavated under trees or rocks or in river banks, but otters also use abandoned muskrat burrows and beaver lodges as shelters (cohabitation with beavers has also been documented – see https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/beaver-otter-cohabitation/).

One of the most obvious and distinctive signs of otter occupancy of a den is the presence of their scat in the vicinity.  It usually has little form; rather, it consists of loose piles primarily composed of fish scales. Pictured is an abandoned beaver lodge that is currently occupied by several otters whose scat in the foreground and tracks and slides in the vicinity confirm their presence. A lack of any beaver sign indicates the lodge has been abandoned by its original inhabitants.

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American Tree Sparrows : Winter Visitors

One of New England’s common winter visitors from the far northern tundra is the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea), often spotted in large flocks in weedy, snow-covered fields moving from one spot to another as they feed..  These seed-eating sparrows are known to beat weeds with their wings and then fly to the surface of the snow beneath the weeds to retrieve seeds they have caused to fall.  

Their common name is a misnomer, for American Tree Sparrows feed on the ground and often breed and nest on the ground above the treeline.  They apparently reminded European settlers of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus), a cavity-nesting bird which has very different habits than the American Tree Sparrow. 

In part because of the loss of weedy old fields and other open habitats, the American Tree Sparrow population has declined by 53% over the last 50 years.  Even so, they are a common sight during the winter in fields, on road sides and at feeders throughout the northern half of the United States.

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Bobcats Preying On Rabbits & Hares

Bobcats are capable of preying on animals as large as White-tailed Deer (which they rarely do), but far more frequently they choose the easier-to-catch rabbit or hare. Typically at dawn or dusk a Bobcat will head out to locate and stalk its prey, slowly getting close enough to pounce on it.  Although they sometimes eat their prey immediately, Bobcats often carry it to a concealed area under brush where they eat it. (see photo).  In this scene, in addition to leaving some of the hair of the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit it consumed, the Bobcat defecated, leaving its blunt-ended, segmented scat as further evidence of its presence (lower right in photo). (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo op.)

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