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Witch Hazel Pollinators

October through mid-November is the typical flowering time for Witch Hazel. The last of the blossoms of this fall-blooming shrub can still be seen in parts of the Northeast. Its long, bright-yellow petals and the presence of a sweet-smelling nectar tell you that Witch Hazel flowers are pollinated by insects.  However, there are very few insects present this late in the year and its pollinators have been elusive to the human eye. With the exception of syrphid, or hover, flies, I have never seen any insects visiting these flowers. 

It turns out that I was observing them at the wrong time of day. Naturalist Bernd Heinrich discovered that a group of owlet moths called winter moths are active on cold nights and regularly visit Witch Hazel.  These moths have the ability to heat themselves by using energy to shiver, raising their body temperatures by as much as 50 degrees in order to fly in search of food. Solved is the mystery of what pollinating insects are still active this late in the year!

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Northern White-cedar

Northern White-cedars (Thuja occidentalis), also known as American Arborvitae, are often found in coniferous swamps and along lake shores. These conifers have a number of distinctive attributes: they are long lived, their bark is nearly fireproof, and their wood is very tough and can repel both the elements as well as insect pests.  

Northern White-cedars have a life expectancy of 200 to 300 years (hence, one of its common names – “tree of life” or Arborvitae), but there are records of them exceeding 1,000 years. And cedar wood can withstand a great deal of stress.  According to botanist and author Donald Peattie, “…a mere shaving from a carpenter’s plane may be laid on an anvil, folded, and struck repeatedly with a hammer, yet not break.” 

It did not take humans long to appreciate the qualities of this wood.  Its toughness, along with its being the lightest wood in the Northeast, made it ideal for the canoe frames of Native Americans. Lumber camps of the North Woods had cedar shingles because the wood resists decay practically forever. Today its durability lends itself to a number of outdoor uses, including fences, decks, boats and furniture.

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Northern Shrikes Arriving

The Northeast loses a lot of songbirds to migration in the fall, but it gains a few as well, one of which is the Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor).   As days shorten and temperatures drop, this tundra-nesting bird migrates southward into southern parts of Canada and northern U.S., arriving in October and November on its wintering grounds. In some areas Northern Shrike movements and winter numbers have been associated with the movements of Snowy Owls and Rough-legged Hawks.

The Northern Shrike is highly unusual in that it is a predatory songbird. Birds, mammals and insects are preferred over nectar, nuts and seeds. During the winter it preys mainly on small mammals (voles, mice, shrews) and birds. The Northern Shrike often kills more prey than it can immediately eat or feed its young, storing the excess food to eat later when available living prey may be scarce. The manner in which it stores this extra food is what gave it the name “butcher bird;” it often impales prey on a thorn, broken branch or even barbed wire, or it wedges prey into narrow V-shaped forks of branches, where they hang until reclaimed by the shrike. (Photo by Mary Sue Henszey)

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Gypsy Egg Moths Prolific

The Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar dispar) was introduced to North America from France by E.L Trouvelot in 1869 who had hopes of breeding a silk-spinning caterpillar that was more resistant to disease than the domesticated silkworm.  Unfortunately, the caterpillars escaped into his backyard. About 10 years later, they began to appear in large swarms, and by the late 1880s they were causing severe defoliation in the area. Since then the Gypsy Moth has become one of the most destructive pests of hardwood trees in the eastern U.S. 

The adult female moths emerged from their pupae this summer.  With a life span of one week, the adults do not feed; they do, however, mate and lay eggs. Although the female moth has fully formed wings, she cannot fly.  She emits pheromones that attract males, mates and then lays a cluster of 75-1,000 eggs close to where she pupated.  She then covers them with buff-colored, hairlike setae from her abdomen, which serve as protection from predators and parasites.  The eggs overwinter and hatch in the spring.  The larvae have a voracious appetite and feed on more than 300 species of trees and shrubs. 

Gypsy Moth egg masses appear to be prolific this fall, perhaps because there has been no significant wet weather to fuel the fungus (Entomophaga maimaiga) that feeds on the Gypsy Moth. While there are other natural controls for Gypsy Moths (birds, squirrels, mice, etc.) they don’t prevent infestations.  If you wish to rid your woodlot of these caterpillars, you can remove the egg masses and pour boiling water over them.  Scraping the eggs onto the ground is less effective as they can survive temperatures of 20°- 30°F. degrees below zero.

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2021 Naturally Curious Calendar Orders

The Naturally Curious 2021 calendars have been mailed out, but due to a computer malfunction I am requesting that anyone who placed an order for one or more calendars and has not received them by the end of this week to please email me (maryholland505@gmail.com).  I want to be sure that every order is filled and no-one has been overlooked.  Thank you!

I also want to let you know that I ordered quite a few extra calendars this year, so if there’s anyone who didn’t make the ordering deadline and would still like to place an order, please feel free to do so. The calendars will be mailed out as soon as I receive your order.

Orders for the  2021 Naturally Curious calendar can be placed by writing to me at 505 Wake Robin Drive, Shelburne, VT  05482. The calendars are printed on heavy card stock and measure 11” x 17” when hanging. There is one full-page photograph per month. The calendars are $35.00 each (includes postage). Please specify the number of calendars you would like to order, the mailing address to which they should be sent and your email address (so I can easily and quickly contact you if I have any questions). Your check can be made out to Mary Holland. Thank you very much.


Bald Eagles Year-Round Residents In Much Of The Northeast

Most immature Bald Eagles migrate, but if adults have nested in an area where water remains open year-round, they are more likely to remain in or near their breeding territories all year, defending their nest site.  The risks that migrating pose are not worth it if they can get all the food they need (1/2 – 1 ½ pounds/day) to survive the winter, which they can in much of the Northeast.  In the past few decades, the number of overwintering eagles has been increasing in New England to the point where it is not unusual to see adult eagles near and even at their nests any month of the year. (The accompanying photo taken in Vermont on 11-14-20.)

Eagles do make changes in order to adapt to winter conditions.  While they continue to feed on fish, they also do a fair amount of scavenging in the winter, feeding on roadkills and animals such as deer that may have wandered onto the ice, fallen and not been able to get back up.

Another behavioral change that occurs is the tendency to gather in large numbers, clustering close together on branches at overnight roost sites.  Often stands of white pine provide the birds with some protection from the cold wind, thus allowing them to conserve energy.  An additional advantage of this communal life style is that they get cues from each other as to where sources of food may be by watching the direction in which the first birds take flight in the morning (those with a known source of food often are the first to leave the roost).

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Mergansers’ “Toothed” Bills

Hooded and Common Mergansers can be found year-round in most of the Northeast.  The bills of these cold-hardy, fish-eating ducks are distinctive in that they may be four times as long as wide.  In addition, their structure differs from the bills of other ducks in that most ducks have plates (lamellae) or ridges on the cutting edges of their bills that let water escape from the bill when they bring prey to the surface of the water.  In mergansers, these plates have been modified to look like saw blades – they aren’t true teeth (birds lack teeth), but are very toothlike – perfect for capturing slippery fish. (Photo: juvenile Common Mergansers)

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Black-and-Yellow Argiope Spiderlings Hatching

Some species of spiders (including wolf and jumping spiders) overwinter as young adults and mate/lay eggs in the spring. Many spiders, however, mate in the fall, after which they lay eggs and die. Their white or tan egg sacs are a familiar sight at this time of year. One might assume that these species overwinter as eggs inside their silken sacs, but this is rarely the case as spider eggs can’t survive being frozen. Spider eggs laid in the fall hatch shortly thereafter and the young spiders spend the winter inside their egg sac.

Although egg sacs provide a degree of shelter (the interior is packed with very fine, very soft silken threads), the newly-hatched spiderlings do have to undergo a process of “cold hardening” in the fall in order to survive the winter. On nights that go down into the 40’s and high 30’s, these young spiders start producing antifreeze compounds, which lower the temperature at which they freeze. By the time freezing temperatures occur, the spiders are equipped to survive the winter inside their egg sac – as spiderlings, not eggs.  (Photos:  Black-and-Yellow Argiope egg sac and spiderlings – egg sac had been pecked open by a bird)

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Beavers Gathering & Caching Winter Food Supply

Beavers are busy reinforcing their lodges and repairing dams as the days shorten and temperatures fall.  Once these tasks are taken care of, they begin gathering and storing all of the food that they will need this winter, for once ice forms they will no longer have access to land.

Their winter food cache is placed as close to the entrance of their lodge as possible, as the inhabitants of the lodge will be swimming out to this pile frequently to obtain food.  After hauling branches and saplings to the lodge, the beaver dives down and jabs the butt end of the branch into the mud at the bottom of the pond.  Additional branches are woven into this base layer until eventually most caches weigh two or more tons. One can often see the pile’s top branches and leaves rising above the surface of the water. 

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Northern Cardinal Nests: Safety in Numbers

This is the time of year to keep an eye out for bird nests that were hidden by leaves all summer. Their location can reveal more than one might guess.  As with many bird species, the female Northern Cardinal does most of the nest-building herself, usually selecting a site that is in dense shrubbery, often in a tangle of vines.  Frequently there are two broods, but rarely is a nest reused.  Instead, a new nest is built for the second clutch of eggs, and it can intentionally be located quite close to the first nest.

The two pictured Cardinal nests were both built this year, only four feet apart in a grape vine-covered stand of Staghorn Sumac. Two different birds would not have nested so close to each other due to territoriality; thus, the same bird most likely built both nests. Ornithologists feel that the presence of old nests may function as protection against predation.  They found that when they placed an empty Cardinal nest adjacent to a Cardinal nest containing plastic eggs, there was significantly less predation than with single Cardinal nests. (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo opportunity.)

(NB:  Even though most songbirds only use their nest once and then abandon it,  one needs a federal permit to collect bird nests.)

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Cedar-Apple Rust Galls

Galls are abnormal plant growths caused by various agents including insects, mites, nematodes, fungi, bacteria and viruses.  During the summer spores of a particular fungus cause the formation of brown Cedar-Apple Rust galls (Gymnosporangium juniperivirginianae) on Eastern Red Cedar trees. Members of the fungal family Pucciniaceae are known as rusts because the color of many is orange or reddish at some point in their life cycle.

This fungus requires two hosts, Eastern Red Cedar and primarily apples or crabapples, to complete its life cycle.  The two host trees are usually located within a mile of each other. When the Cedar-Apple Rust galls on cedar trees get wet from spring rains, orange, spore-filled fingers or horns, called telia, emerge from pores in the gall. As the horns absorb water, they become jelly-like and swollen (see inset). When the jelly dries, the spores are carried by the wind to apple trees, where they cause a brownish mottling on apples, referred to as Cedar-Apple Rust, which makes apples difficult for growers to sell, even though it doesn’t affect the flavor or texture of infected apples. The rust produces spores on the underside of apple leaves in late summer, which, if they land on Eastern Red Cedar trees, cause galls to form, thereby continuing the cycle. 

Spores produced on apple trees do not infect apple trees, only cedar; spores produced on cedar trees infect only apple trees. (Photo: Brown winter form of Cedar-Apple Rust gall & (inset) orange spring form of Cedar-Apple Rust gall. Blue “fruit” on Eastern Red Cedar branch is actually a cedar cone.)

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Shaggy Manes Dissolving

Shaggy Mane, Coprinus comatus, is one of a group of mushrooms known as Inky Caps. Both of these common names reflect the appearance of the mushroom at different stages of its development – the cap has white, shaggy scales, and as the mushroom matures its gills liquefy into a black substance that was once used as ink.

Most Inky Caps have gills that are very thin and very close to one another, which does not allow for easy release of the spores. In addition, the elongated shape of this mushroom does not allow for the spores to get caught in air currents as in most other mushrooms. The liquefication/self-digestion process is actually a strategy to disperse spores more efficiently. The gills liquefy from the bottom up as the spores mature. Thus the cap peels up and away, and the maturing spores are always kept in the best position for catching wind currents. This continues until the entire fruiting body has turned into black ink.

NB: WordPress has not been attaching the photograph that accompanies each post that is emailed to readers. I am working on getting it fixed, but meanwhile, if this continues, you can click on the title in the emailed version and it will take you to the Naturally Curious website, where you can see the photo. So sorry for the inconvenience.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Millipedes Migrating

We don’t often see millipedes because of their preference for secluded, moist sites where they feed on decaying vegetation and other organic matter. They are also more active at night, when the humidity is high. At this time of year, however, your chances of seeing a millipede are increased due to the fact that these invertebrates are migrating in search of overwintering sites.  Adults overwinter in nooks and crannies that provide them with some protection.  Many, like the one pictured, end up under loose bark.

Millipedes are harmless, so if you see one that accidentally found its way into your home, you can safely return it to the outdoors.

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Snakes Basking & Brumating

Being ectothermic (unable to regulate their own body temperature) snakes cannot afford to spend the winter in a spot that freezes. After basking and feeding heavily in the late fall, they seek out sheltered caves, hollow logs, and burrows where they enter a state called brumation.  Brumation is to reptiles what hibernation is to mammals – an extreme slowing down of one’s metabolism.

While similar, these two states have their differences. Hibernating mammals slow their respiration down, but they still require a fair amount of oxygen present to survive.  Snakes can handle far lower oxygen demands and fluctuations than mammals.  Also, hibernating mammals sleep the entire time during their dormancy, whereas snakes have periods of activity during brumation.  If the weather is mild, they will take advantage of the opportunity to venture out and bask.  They also need to drink during this period in order to avoid dehydration. (Photo: DeKay’s Brownsnake (Storeria dekayi) basking)

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White-crowned Sparrows Migrating

White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) breed north of New England and overwinter south of New England.  The only time we get to admire their elegant plumage is during migration, primarily in May and October. 

White-crowned Sparrows are strong migrators (A migrating White-crowned Sparrow was once tracked moving 300 miles in a single night.) but they do have to stop and refuel along the way.  Because they are now passing through New England, you may see what at first might appear to be a White-throated Sparrow, but is a White-crowned Sparrow.  Their bold black-and-white striped crowns are one quick way to tell one species from another. (Immature birds have brown and gray stripes.)  Look for them foraging in weeds along the roadside or in overgrown fields.  About 93% of their diet is plant material, 74% of which is weed seeds.

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Reminder: 2021 Naturally Curious Calendar Orders Due By October 31st

Orders for the 2021 Naturally Curious Calendar can be placed now by writing to me at 505 Wake Robin Drive, Shelburne, VT  05482. The calendars are printed on heavy card stock and measure 11” x 17” when hanging. There is one full-page photograph per month. The calendars are $35.00 each (includes postage). Please specify the number of calendars you would like to order, the mailing address to which they should be sent and your email address (so I can easily and quickly contact you if I have any questions). Your check can be made out to Mary Holland.

Guaranteed orders can be placed up until October 31st. Orders placed after this date will be filled as long as my supply of extra calendars lasts. (To be candid, I have had so many last-minute requests (after the deadline) in past years that I have not been able to fill all of the orders, so if you want to be sure of having your order filled, I encourage you to place your order before October 31st . I hate to disappoint anyone.)  Calendars will arrive at your door in early December in time for the New Year. Thank you so much!


White-tailed Deer Molting

The signs of fall are plentiful – skeins of migrating geese, disappearing insects, falling leaves.  Another transformation that takes place in the fall (as well as spring) with White-tailed Deer and other mammals is the molting of a summer coat and the growing in of a winter coat.

The thinner summer coat of a White-tailed Deer consists of shorter, reddish hair.   The shorter length of the hair allows the deer’s body heat to easily escape and the light color reflects rather than retains warmth from the sun.  Come fall, deer molt the rusty red hairs of summer, and replace them with a coat consisting of longer, darker hairs. This grayish-brown hair is warmer and absorbs more of the sun’s warmth. A spring molt occurs in reverse.

The process of molting happens relatively fast and is often completed within two to three weeks.  During this period, deer can look a bit ragged (see photo), as both the red summer hairs as well as the brown winter hairs are evident. If you see a deer at this time, it’s easy to assume that such a deer has mange, but it is just the way a seasonal molt takes place. (Photo by Erin Donahue)

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker & European Hornet Sign

Congratulations to “mariagianferrari,” who came the closest to solving the Mystery Photo when she correctly guessed that the missing bark was the result of a partnership between an insect and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).  The sapsucker arrived first and pecked the vertical rows of rectangular holes in the trunk of the tree in order to obtain sap as well as the insects that the sap attracts.  (Usually these holes are not harmful, but a tree may die if the holes are extensive enough to girdle the trunk or stem.)

The second visitor whose sign is apparent between the sapsucker holes is the European, or Giant, Hornet (Vespa crabro).  This large (3/4″ – 1 ½ “) member of the vespid family was introduced to the U.S. about 200 years ago. Overwintering queens begin new colonies in the spring and the 200-400 workers of a colony then forage for insects including crickets, grasshoppers, large flies and caterpillars to feed to the larvae. 

In addition, the workers collect cellulose from tree bark and decaying wood to expand their paper nest, which is what has occurred between the sapsucker holes, effectively girdling the apple tree.  The nutritious sap that this collecting exposes is also consumed by the hornets. We don’t often witness this activity because most of it occurs at night.

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Mystery Photo

Do you know who has visited this apple tree and left this sign? Hint: This is the work of two creatures whose identity will be disclosed in Friday’s post.

If you think you know who’s been here, go to the Naturally Curious blog and submit your answer under “Comments.” (Thanks to Jim Chadwick for the photograph, and Jan Gendreau for submitting it.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com  and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Canada Goose Migratory Formation

“V’s” of migrating Canada Geese are a common sight and sound in the Northeast during October.  The inevitable question arises:  why fly in a V formation?  In part, because it conserves energy.  But exactly how does it do this?

As the lead goose flaps, it creates tiny vortexes (circular patterns of rotating air) swirling off its wings as well as into the space behind it.  The vortex behind a goose goes downward, while the vortexes on either side of its wings go up.  If a goose flies directly behind the goose in front of it, air will be pushing it down.  If it flies off to the outer side of the goose in front of it, air is pushing upward and the goose will get a slight lift, making flying easier.

Picture two geese flying behind and to the outer sides of the lead goose.  Additional geese, in order to avoid the vortex behind the lead goose as well as the vortexes directly behind the next two geese, will fly behind and to the outside of the wings of the two birds in front of them, getting a lift and forming a “V.” 

Because the lead goose has no vortex to get a lift from, it tires more easily than the other geese. It periodically falls back and is replaced by another goose in the formation. This cooperative process of taking turns leading the flock minimizes the need for the birds to stop and rest.  

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Bur Oak: An Uncommon Source of Acorns in the East

Oaks are generally divided into two major groups:  red oaks and white oaks.  Red oaks have bristle-tipped leaves, acorns with hairy shell linings and bitter seeds that mature in two seasons.  White oaks have leaves lacking bristles on the lobes, acorns with a smooth inner surface that are sweet or slightly bitter and mature in one season. 

Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). also called Mossycup Oak, is in the white oak group and is easily identified by the corky ridges on its young branches, deeply furrowed bark and acorns with knobby-scaled caps (cupules) with a fringed edge.  This member of the beech family (Fagaceae) derived its common name from the resemblance of its heavily fringed caps to the burs on a Chestnut tree, though the caps only half cover the nut.  Common in central U.S., Bur Oak is relatively uncommon in New England, occurring in in central Maine, New Hampshire, the western edges of Massachusetts and Connecticut, and the Champlain Valley in Vermont.

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Northern Leopard Frogs Migrating

Northern Leopard Frogs (Lithobates pipiens) are often found in wet, grassy meadows where they spend the summer after breeding in a body of water.  Come fall, they typically migrate towards the shoreline of a pond, traveling up to two miles in order to do so. 

Northern Leopard Frogs cannot tolerate freezing temperatures, so as it begins cooling off in October and November, these irregularly-spotted amphibians seek protection by entering the water and spending the winter months hibernating on the bottom of the pond. They are sometimes covered with a thin layer of silt, sometimes not. Usually they clear the area either side of themselves in order to facilitate respiration. Movement, if there is any, is very slow. 

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Pollen Baskets

Due to their tolerance of cold temperatures, bumblebees can still be found foraging on late-blooming flowers such as New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). Most worker bees collect and carry pollen in a dense mass of elongated and often branched hairs (setae) on their hind legs called a scopa.  Honeybees and bumblebees, however, have pollen baskets, or corbiculae, in which they place and carry pollen back to their hive. Pollen baskets consist of a polished cavity located on the tibia of each of their hind legs which is surrounded by a fringe of hairs. Pollen is pressed on to the pollen basket when it has been collected by the combs and brushes on the inside of the bee’s legs. The bumblebee moistens the pollen with some nectar to make it sticky and stay in the basket. The pollen is loaded at the bottom of the pollen basket, so the pollen that has been pushed towards the top is from flowers the bumblebee visited earliest on her foraging trip. When a pollen basket is full it can weigh as much as 0.01 gram and contain as much as 1,000,000 pollen grains.

Only queen bumblebees overwinter, and they must start a new colony in the spring.  When the queen first emerges you can tell whether or not she has started a nest by looking at her pollen baskets. If she is carrying pollen then she has found a nest site.

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Raccoon Latrines

A reliable way to determine an animal’s diet is to examine their scat, ideally several scats over the span of a few days, in every season. This is easily done with Raccoons, as they often create communal sites called latrines where they repeatedly defecate. The pictured latrine consists of several scats containing corn, apples and grapes.

Latrines are usually found at the base of trees, in forks of trees, or on raised areas such as fallen logs, stumps, or large rocks.  Should you discover a latrine and your curiosity has you inspecting the scat contents, do so with caution.  Raccoons are the primary host of Baylisascaris procyonis, a roundworm that is the cause of a fatal nervous system disease in wild animals.  The eggs of  Baylisascaris procyonis can be harmful to people if they are swallowed or inhaled. Raccoon roundworm eggs (invisible to the naked eye) are passed in the feces of infected raccoons at the rate of 20,000 eggs per gram of feces. Although human infections are rare, they can lead to irreversible brain, heart, and sometimes eye, damage and death.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.