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Female Sumac Gall Aphids Leaving Galls To Colonize Moss

The sac-like galls, often referred to as “Red Pouch Galls,” found on Staghorn and Smooth Sumac are anywhere from marble to ping pong ball-size, and usually become obvious in late summer and early fall when they often acquire a rosy pink blush. Inside the thin walls of these galls is one big hollow cavity, teeming with tiny orange woolly aphids (Melaphis rhois) referred to as Sumac Gall Aphids.

In the spring, female aphids lay an egg on the underside of a sumac leaf, causing the plant to form an abnormal growth, or gall, around the egg.   The egg hatches and the aphid reproduces asexually within the gall. Thus, all the aphids inside the gall are identical clones of one another. In late summer or early fall, the winged females fly to patches of moss, where they establish asexually reproducing colonies. At some point these clonal colonies produce males and females which mate and it’s these mated females that fly off to lay eggs on sumac leaves in the spring.

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The Ubiquitous Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

Goldenrod is a vital source of nectar and pollen during late summer and fall for many insects, including Goldenrod Soldier Beetles, Chauliognathus pensylvanicus.  In fact, it’s unusual not to see one or more of these beetles if you’re near a flowering patch of goldenrod.  One of many species of soldier beetles, Goldenrod Soldier Beetles superficially resemble fireflies, but do not have light-producing organs. 

Their outer wing covers, or elytra, have two prominent brownish-black spots on them and are soft and semi-flexible, unlike most beetles, which have hard, shell-like elytra. For this reason they are also known as Leatherwings. Both adults and larvae produce defensive chemicals from glands in their abdomens that discourage predation from birds, bats and other small predators.

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2023 Naturally Curious Calendars Available

2023 Naturally Curious Calendar orders can be placed starting today through November 10 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 let you know I received your order and can quickly contact you if I have any questions). Your check can be made out to Mary Holland.  You will receive your calendars within 1-3 weeks of my receiving your order.

Orders placed before November 10 are guaranteed; those placed after 11/10/22 will be filled as long as my supply of extra calendars lasts. (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 November 10th. I hate to disappoint anyone.)  Many thanks.

Monthly photos: Cover-moose; January-horned lark; February-barred owl impression in snow; March-beaver; April-great horned owls; May-showy lady’s slipper; June-black-crowned night heron; July-hummingbird clearwing moth; August-gray treefrog; September-red-eyed vireo; October-porcupine; November-wild turkey; December-black-capped chickadee.


Oak Leaf Seed Galls Releasing Wasps

One of the most unusual looking insect galls, the Oak Leaf Seed Gall, is produced by a tiny gall wasp, Dryocosmus deciduus, on Black and Red Oaks. The leaves of these trees react to a wasp laying an egg on them by creating a unique swelling, or gall, around it. You can find clusters of up to 40 Oak Leaf Seed Galls at this time of year starting to burst open, releasing the adult wasps which have matured inside them.

Few records exist of galls, many of which are homes for developing young insects, being used as food for humans or for domestic animals but Oak Leaf Seed Galls, known as “black oak wheat” in Missouri and Arkansas, have been used to fatten cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens due to their high starch content.

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Snapping Turtle Eggs Hatching

For the past three months, Snapping Turtle eggs have been buried roughly five to ten inches deep in sandy soil (depth depends on the size of the female laying them), absorbing  heat from the sun-warmed soil.  Come September, the relatively few Snapping Turtle eggs that have avoided predation are hatching.  The sex of the baby turtles correlates to the temperature of the clutch. Temperatures of 73-80 °F will produce males, slightly above and below will produce both sexes, and more extreme temperatures will produce females.  The miniature snappers crawl their way up through the earth and head for the nearest pond, probably the most perilous journey of their lives. 

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Common Hazelnuts Maturing

There are two species of native hazelnuts that you are likely to come upon in the Northeast – Beaked Hazelnut, Corylus cornuta, (see https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2017/08/14/beaked-hazelnuts-maturing/) and American Hazelnut, Corylus americana. The nuts of both of these species are edible.

The fruit of American Hazelnut is produced in clusters of one to five, with each half-inch brown nut enclosed in a hairy, leaf-like husk with ragged edges. These nuts are maturing now, in September and October.  They are best harvested while the husks are still green, as once they turn brown, there will be stiff competition for them from local wildlife.

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Common Green Darners Migrating South

Monarchs aren’t the only insect that are seasonal migrants.  The Common Green Darner dragonfly and a few other dragonfly species are as well.  However, where Monarchs move northward in the spring over several generations, one generation of Common Green Darners flies all the way from southern U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean in the spring to New England and Canada.  Here they lay eggs which give rise to a second generation that migrates south in September and October. Upon reaching their destination they then breed. A third generation emerges around November and lives entirely in the south during winter.  It’s their offspring that start the cycle again by swarming northward as temperatures warm in the spring.

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Bumblebees Nectar Robbing

Flowering plants have a mutually beneficial arrangement with pollinators.  Insects and other pollinators that visit flowers inadvertently pollinate them when they retrieve nectar and pollen – a win-win situation for both flower and pollinator. Occasionally, however, creatures opt for a short cut to a flower’s nectaries and instead of entering the flower through its natural opening, they bite “robbing holes” that lead directly to the nectaries, bypassing the flower’s reproductive structures; consequently they do not pollinate the flower.

Charles Darwin refers to bumble bees “stealing” nectar from flowers in this manner in his 1859 book, The Origin of Species. Nectar robbers include species of carpenter bees, bumble bees, solitary bees, wasps, ants, hummingbirds, and some songbirds. In this photograph a bumble bee is chewing a hole at the base of a Cardinal Flower in order to access the flower’s nectaries more directly.

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Great Blue Heron “Powder Down”

Hidden beneath the outer breast feathers of Great Blue Herons are patches of special down feathers. These feathers grow continuously and are never molted.  When combed with the fringed, or pectinated, claw on a Great Blue Heron’s middle toe, the tips of these feathers break down into a dust the consistency of talcum powder.  The heron collects some of this “powder down” and applies it to its feathers which protects them against fish slime and other oils. (BirdNote)

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Praying Mantis Well Equipped For Predation

A praying mantis is a formidable predator to all sort of insects and even an occasional hummingbird. Its forelegs are lightning fast – it takes a mantis only 50-70 milliseconds to strike out with its foremost pair of legs and grasp its prey.  Look closely and you’ll see rows of spines on these legs that help a mantis grasp its prey while it eats it.  However, even these adaptations don’t always guarantee a meal.  Seconds after being caught the wasp (in the inset photo) quickly slipped the mantis’s grip and flew to safety.

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Giant Swallowtails Resident Species In Northern New England

Those of us who live in northern New England are enjoying being able to spot the largest butterfly in North America living among us.  With a 5 ½” – 7 ½” wingspread, the Giant Swallowtail’s (Papilio cresphontes) common name is very apt.  This butterfly has experienced dramatic range expansion in the last decade or so, as it was formerly found only as far north as the mid-Atlantic.  Now it is a regular New England inhabitant, primarily due to increasingly warm temperatures, and a common visitor to flower gardens at this time of year.

The larval stage of the Giant Swallowtail is as impressive, or more so, as the adult butterfly. Its defense mechanisms include resemblance to a bird dropping and a forked appendage that emits toxic chemicals (see https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2012/09/08/giant-swallowtail-caterpillar-defenses/).

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Nictitating Membranes

Sometimes referred to as a “third eyelid,” the translucent nictitating membrane visible across this juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron’s eye serves to protect it from foreign objects and to moisten the eye while at the same time allowing the bird to retain some degree of visibility. It extends from the inner corner of the eye to the outer corner, and is drawn across the eye much like a windshield wiper.  The membrane is thinner and more transparent than the fleshier upper and lower eyelids and is used periodically by birds when foraging, flying, diving, feeding young, gathering nesting material, etc.  In this case, the heron’s nictitating membrane was drawn across its eye seconds before it plunged beneath the surface of the water to capture a crayfish.    

Birds aren’t the only animals that possess nictitating membranes – it’s relatively common in fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals (but they are rare in primates).

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Hummingbird Clearwing Moths Pollinating Flowers

The Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) is a familiar sight to anyone with a garden full of beebalm, phlox, verbena or butterfly bush.  Clearly named after its similar appearance and hovering behavior to hummingbirds (as well as its partially transparent wings where scales have fallen off) this day-flying moth is an excellent pollinator.

Because its tongue, or proboscis, is so long, the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth can reach nectar located at the base of tubular-shaped flowers.  If you look closely at this photograph, you’ll see a tiny clump of pollen near the base of the moth’s proboscis.  The structure of the Beebalm (Monarda sp.) it’s visiting is such that the stigmas (tips of the pollen-bearing male structures, or stamens) projecting from the upper lip of the flower are located where the moth will come in contact with them as it inserts its proboscis down into the flower’s nectaries. Hummingbird Clearwings carry their proboscis rolled up under their head and unfurl it when approaching a flower. (Thanks to Sally Fellows and Terry Marron for photo opportunity.)

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Blue Cohosh Seeds Ripening

This is the time of year when Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) comes into its own, brightening the forest floor with its fruit-like seeds which bear fleshy, blue seed coats. Botanically speaking, these blue structures are seeds, not fruits. A fruit is the seed-bearing structure in flowering plants that is formed from the ovary after the plant flowers, while seeds are formed from ovules, the structure that contains female reproductive cell of plants. Because the ovarian wall of a Blue Cohosh flower is shed during the early phases of seed development, the fruit can be considered a “naked” seed.

We think of gymnosperms (conifers, cycads, ginkos) as having naked seeds, lacking both flowers and ovaries, and flowering plants as typically having ovaries which develop into seed-containing fruits. The exposure of the seeds as in Blue Cohosh is an unusual condition for flowering plants. By bearing its seeds openly, Blue Cohosh is vulnerable to predators that would eat the seeds. The plant counteracts this vulnerability with the toxicity of its seeds, which are poisonous to many species including humans, under certain circumstances. (St. Olaf College Natural Lands)

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A Monarch’s First Instar

Monarchs, like other butterflies and moths, undergo complete metamorphosis — they have an egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult stage. During a monarch’s larval stage it eats almost constantly, pausing only to shed its skin. The period between each shedding of the skin, or molt, is called an instar.  Monarchs have five larval instars and during their larval stage grow to almost 2,000 times their original mass.

The first meal a monarch larva has is its eggshell and it quickly moves on to milkweed leaf hairs.  Soon thereafter it begins to eat the leaf in earnest, often making an arc-shaped cutting. 

During this first instar, which typically lasts one to three days, the larva’s appearance changes considerably. When it hatches, the monarch larva is pale green or grayish-white, shiny, and almost translucent. It has no stripes or other markings. It’s about 2 mm long, with front tentacles appearing as tiny little bumps. Its back tentacles are barely visible.  By the end of the first instar it begins to have a pattern of black (or dark brown), yellow and white bands, and the 6mm-long body no longer looks transparent and shiny.

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Gray Treefrogs’ Self-cleaning Toe Pads

Scientists have discovered that the angle of the toe pads and a secretion of mucus are involved in a treefrog’s ability to stick to wet, smooth leaves, rough, dry trees and other surfaces. They also allow the toes to “self-clean.” 

To make their feet sticky treefrogs secrete mucus. They increase their adhesion by moving their feet against the surface of what they are clinging to in order to create friction. As a frog moves across a surface, its feet accumulate dirt, which impedes its ability to stick to the surface it’s walking on. Scientists have discovered that the mucus combined with this friction-creating movement not only allows the frog to adhere to the surface but simultaneously rids their feet of accumulated dirt and debris as they walk.

This remarkable adaptation may provide a design for self-cleaning sticky surfaces, which could be useful for a wide range of products, especially in contaminating environments such as medical bandages and long-lasting adhesives. (Thanks to Janice Perry for photo opportunity.)

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Ambush Bugs Ambushing

This Eight-spotted Forester Moth, Alypia octomaculata, didn’t have a chance once it decided to feed on the nectar of this Queen Anne’s Lace flowerhead. Hidden below the tiny white flowers waiting patiently for the next unsuspecting visitor was a Jagged Ambush Bug (Phymata sp.). The moth alighted, started drinking and suddenly the ambush bug grabbed the moth with its powerful front legs, injected an immobilizing and digestive fluid, and then drank the liquefying nutrients from the prey’s body. Unlike spiders, which have a pair of fangs, ambush bugs have their mouthparts arranged into a single straw-like beak (visible in photo). As is evident, ambush bugs often capture insects much bigger than themselves.

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Beavers Grooming

Beavers spend an inordinate amount of time grooming themselves (and each other). Both inside their lodge and on land a beaver tucks its tail between its legs, sits up on its hind legs and spends up to an hour at a time fastidiously combing through its fur often multiple times a day. 

Both front and hind feet are pressed into service.  The two inner toes on each hind foot are modified for grooming – the second toe has a “split nail” with a nail and a horny growth between the nail and the toe which has a finely serrated upper edge that serves as a fine-toothed comb.

Grooming serves two purposes.  One is to remove debris from the coat, from algae to burrs and parasites.  The other is to waterproof the beaver’s coat. A beaver applies an oily substance from its anal glands to the outer layer of hair with the help of its toes, thereby preventing its inner, denser, underfur from getting wet.

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Caspian Terns Feeding

Watching a Caspian Tern (our largest tern) feeding in deep water is a lesson in persistence and grace.  Flying back and forth it circles the water below, its bill pointed down as it searches for fish. A Caspian Tern’s dive is impressive. Once a tern sees a fish it hovers briefly, flexes its wings and then plunges straight down like a bullet.  When it hits the water, it typically completely submerges itself.

Most fish captured are consumed on the wing, unless they are delivered to offspring. Fish bones and scales are difficult for terns to digest; they solve this situation by casting one or two pellets a day that consist of these indigestible parts.

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Did you know…

…that mating butterflies face away from each other? (Photo: mating Banded Hairstreaks)

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Ospreys Continue To Add Material to Nest Throughout The Nesting Season

The nesting season for Ospreys is well underway – chicks appear larger by the day, and before long they will be fledging.  As advanced as the nesting season is, Osprey nests are still being reinforced with material retrieved by the adults. 

The pictured Osprey took off from its nest, swooped down to a nearby roadside and scooped up a sizable clump of mowed grass with its talons which it then delivered back to its nest where its mate was sitting with two chicks.  Even late in the nesting season all manner of material, not all of it natural, is added to Osprey nests – among other things, paper, plastic bags, rope, nylon mesh bait bags, dried cow manure and beach toys have been documented.

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Green Lacewings: Active Pest Controllers

Lady Beetles and Praying Mantises are well known to be excellent pest controllers, but there are other insects that are equally beneficial, including Green Lacewings. These distinctive green insects with golden eyes and lacy wings feed mostly on nectar, pollen and honeydew (a sweet liquid excreted by aphids). However, in their larval stage (when they resemble miniature brown and white alligators) they are referred to as “aphid lions” due to their voracious appetite for aphids and other soft-bodied insects.

Lacewing eggs are as distinctive as the larval and adult stages. Each is perched on the tip of a hairlike stalk that is about ½-inch long.  Entomologists believe this helps reduce cannibalism of the eggs by sibling larvae. 

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Eastern Kingbirds Rule The Sky

The Eastern Kingbird’s scientific name, Tyrannus tyrannus, reflects its aggressive nature (“tyrannus” meaning tyrant, despot or king).  This feisty insectivore can be found perched on a tree or shrub often near wetlands where it periodically darts into the sky to retrieve its unsuspecting meal. When not securing food for itself or its young, it demonstrates its fierceness by defending its nest, mate and territory with vigor.  Whether vocalizing, displaying, chasing, or actually fighting with an interloper, Eastern Kingbirds are quick to establish dominance.

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Dog Vomit Slime Mold

Slime molds were once considered fungi, but no longer – neither are they plants, animals or bacteria.  Biologists define them as organisms that can live freely as single cells (when food is abundant), but can also aggregate together to form multicellular reproductive structures (when food is scarce).

During the part of their life cycle referred to as plasmodium, some slime molds look like gelatinous slime that slowly flows over the ground or substrate consuming fungi and bacteria. When they reach their reproductive stage, they release spores light enough to be dispersed by the wind.

Dog Vomit Slime Mold (Fuligo septica), also known as Scrambled Egg Slime, is harmless to people, pets and plants. In fact, it is actually edible. In some parts of Mexico people scramble it like eggs (and call it “caca de luna”).

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