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Cavity-nesting Birds Wasting No Time

4-21-17 black-capped chickadee nest building IMG_4765There are roughly 85 species of North American birds that are cavity nesters – birds that excavate nesting holes, use cavities resulting from decay (natural cavities), or use holes created by other species in dead or deteriorating trees.   Many of them get a jump start on open-nesting birds, due to added protection from the elements. Barred owls, titmice, chickadees, wood ducks, woodpeckers, bluebirds, mergansers – many have chosen a nest site and are busy excavating, lining a cavity or laying eggs long before many other species have even returned to their breeding grounds.

The reduced risk of predation a cavity nest experiences is reflected in several ways:  many cavity-nesters have larger clutches of eggs than open-nesting birds and cavity-nesting young also spend a relatively longer period of time in the nest before fledging. When in the woods, keep an eye out for snags (standing dead trees) and stumps, for they provide housing for many cavity-nesting birds.  (Photo: Black-capped Chickadee removing wood chips from the cavity it’s excavating in a rotting stump.)

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Red Maples In Bloom

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Red Maples (Acer rubrum) are celebrated in the fall for their vibrant colors, but they produce equally vibrant reds and yellows in early spring when they are flowering. Most Red Maples have dense clusters of either male flowers or female flowers (dioecious), although some have both male and female flowers (monoecious). Under certain conditions, a Red Maple tree can sometimes switch from male to female, male to both male and female (hermaphroditic), and hermaphroditic to female.

The showier male, or staminate, flowers contain between four and twelve stamens, with long, slender filaments and red (young) or yellow (mature) anthers at their tips. Both red sepals and petals can be seen at the base of the stamens.  A staminate Red Maple in full bloom is a blaze of gold and red. (Photo: mature staminate Red Maple flowers)

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Flies Mating

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As readers are aware, I spend a significant portion of my time outdoors examining scat, and in so doing, have discovered a family of hairy flies, Heleomyzidae, that are often present on the freshest specimens, especially in early spring and late fall. This spring I have found them mating on both coyote and bear scat.  The ardor of males is impressive – without exception the males pounce upon each and every fly of their own species they see. Repeated rejections do not appear to slow them down – just the opposite. In fact, moments after the pictured pair left the surface of a coyote scat and landed on a nearby branch, they were joined by another fly and the threesome tumbled to the ground in an attempt at a menage a trois (see inset).

Different species of flies in this family feed on different food sources. Look for them in and on carcasses, scat, compost, fungi, caves, and bird nests.

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Snowy Egrets Becoming More Colorful

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For those New Englanders fortunate enough to live on the coast, Snowy Egrets are a welcome sight this time of year as they return from their wintering grounds to breed. Like most herons and egrets, they acquire plumes – long, wispy feathers – on their back, neck and head during the breeding season. (These plumes were highly sought after by the women’s hat trade in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They were valued at $32 per ounce, twice the price of gold at the time. Eventually laws were passed to protect the birds.)

Something slightly more subtle but equally as dramatic as ornate plumage highlights the appearance of these birds in the breeding season and that is a change in bill and feet coloration. Different species of herons and egrets exhibit different color changes. Snowy Egrets’ greenish-yellow feet turn a much richer orange-yellow hue during the breeding season, and the patch of bare skin at the base of their bill (lore) changes from a yellowish color to a pinkish/reddish color, only seen at this time of year.

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Vernal Pool Obligate Species

3-15-17 vernal pool IMG_4814This is the time of year when vernal pools become a main attraction for certain breeding amphibians and invertebrates. Most of these ephemeral wetlands, due to evaporation and transpiration, dry up during part of the year and therefore cannot support a population of fish. This makes them a highly successful breeding environment for creatures that need water in which to reproduce, for both they and their eggs stand a much better chance of surviving without predatory fish.

Vernal pools attract certain species of amphibians and invertebrates that are completely dependent upon these pools for parts of their life cycle (obligate species). In much of the Northeast these include wood frogs, spotted salamanders, blue-spotted and Jefferson salamanders, marbled salamanders (southern N.E.), eastern spadefoot toads (southern N.E.), vernal fairy shrimp (southern N.E.) and knob-lipped fairy shrimp (northern N.E.). If you discover a woodland body of water that has one or more of these species breeding in it, you have found what is technically referred to as a vernal pool. (Photo insets clockwise:  Wood Frog, upper right; Blue-spotted Salamander by E. Talmage; Spotted Salamander)

The next Naturally Curious post will be on 4/18/17.

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On the Cusp Of A Spring Smorgasbord

4-12-17 beavers out 936At long last beavers have been released from their winter lodge confinement and it’s hard not to read a sense of delight into the expression of the yearling beaver in this photograph!  In addition to the welcome sun and fresh air, beavers now have access to a variety of food that was not available to them in the winter. One thinks of beavers as strictly bark (cambium) eaters but their diet is far more extensive. In the winter, in addition to their pile of branches stored in the pond in the fall, they have access to the rhizomes of yellow and white pond lilies, which they appear to relish. Once their pond opens up in the spring, they head for the closest green plants – grasses, sedges, ferns and other herbaceous plants which are just starting their spring growth.

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Red Squirrel Sign

4-11-17 squirrel nip twig2 019An obvious sign of Red Squirrels, especially noticeable if snow is still on the ground, is the remains of their feeding activity. In winter and early spring, when snow may make finding food on the forest floor difficult, Red Squirrels show a preference for conifer buds. Rather than scurrying up a tree and eating the buds, they first prune the branch tip from the tree, eat the buds and then discard the tip onto the ground. Spruces, hemlocks and firs are some of their main sources of buds. If the squirrel feeds for a significant amount of time, the forest floor under the conifer it is feeding in can become littered with branch tips. Nip twigs scattered on the ground beneath hemlocks are also a sign of Porcupine feeding, but the tips they drop are much longer than the 2- to 4-inch tips discarded by Red Squirrels. (Photo:  Balsam Fir branch tips; Inset – lateral buds of Balsam Fir branch tip eaten by Red Squirrel)

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