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Nannyberry Terminal Buds

Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) is a native woodland shrub in the genus Viburnum. Nanny goats apparently feed on the ripe fruit (reportedly more so than billy goats), hence the common name. It is also known as Wild Raisin due to the appearance of its dark fruit when dried. 

Like all viburnums, Nannyberry has opposite-branching leaves and flowers in umbrella-shaped clusters, called umbels. One trait that keeps it from looking like every other woodland shrub in the winter is the distinctive shape of its terminal buds. There are two scales protecting the bud, whose edges meet. Some compare the shape of this bud to the bill of a goose, but I find it far more graceful.

Grouse, robins, catbirds, cardinals, bluebirds, waxwings, grosbeaks and finches feed on Nannyberry’s clusters of blue-black berrylike drupes. Humans also consume the fruit, usually in the form of jams and jellies.

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Bobcat Caches & Revisits White-tailed Deer Carcass

Rabbits and hares comprise much of a Bobcat’s diet, but when prey is scarce or hard to capture, adult male and large adult female Bobcats will attack bedded, weak or injured White-tailed Deer. Bobcats often cache prey such as a deer that is too large to eat in one feeding. They scrape up leaves, bark, twigs, soil, snow — whatever is available — and cover their prey, returning soon to eat it. When feeding on a deer, Bobcats bite away the hair to avoid eating it, and this discarded hair is frequently mixed with the debris that the cat drags over the kill to cover it.  

This photograph was taken 24 hours after the deer was cached, and the site has been visited by several predators. A characteristic sign of Bobcat feeding is the amount of hair strewn around the carcass and the lack of broken long bones (see inset). (Bobcats don’t have the strength to break large bones with their teeth.)

(Cache discovered by Lynn & Otto Wurzburg, who observed the Bobcat leaving after caching the deer)

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White-tailed Deer Bucks Shedding Antlers

White-tailed Deer antlers are typically shed in December or January. Once breeding has taken place, cells start to de-mineralize the bone between the pedicle (where the antler attaches to the deer’s skull) and antler, causing the antler’s connection with the skull to weaken — a flick of the deer’s head and one or both antlers go flying, ridding the deer of these heavy, cumbersome, bony appendages.

It’s a win-win situation for both deer and resident rodents, who scarf up these rich sources of calcium phosphate and protein almost as soon as they hit the ground. Take a close look at the tip of each tine in this photograph and you will see that something — most likely a vole, mouse, squirrel or porcupine — has been whittling away on it, and the antler’s probably only been on the ground for a matter of days or weeks at most. (Once a deer sheds its antlers, new growth starts immediately, though visible antler growth is often not apparent for several weeks.)

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Zygodactyl Toe Arrangement

Most birds have four toes, three pointing forward and one back. A quick look in the snow beneath your bird feeder will confirm this. Exceptions to this rule include woodpeckers, owls and ospreys, among others, whose toe arrangement is 2 and 2: two of their toes (the middle two) point forward, and the outer toes point backwards.  The term for this arrangement is zygodactyl

Different species have evolved this toe arrangement to meet different needs.  It enhances the ability of woodpeckers to hold onto limbs and climb up vertical tree trunks, while owls and ospreys can get a better grasp of slippery or wiggly prey.  (Woodpeckers can pivot one of their back toes to the side, and owls can pivot one of their back toes forward, as well.)

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Bohemian Waxwings Dining On Bald-faced Hornet Larvae

We think of Bohemian Waxwings, colorful winter visitors, as primarily consumers of sugary fruits, but their diet is not exclusively frugivorous.  They (and Cedar Waxwings) eat sap drips in the spring and aerial insects, especially emergent aquatic species, in the summer.

During the winter, in addition to fruits, Bohemian Waxwings also feed on protein-rich foods when they are available.  Pictured is one of many Bohemian Waxwings that found a goldmine of protein —  dead Bald-faced Hornet larvae.  While the hornet queen overwinters under loose bark or a similarly protected area, the larvae that are developing within the nest when a hard frost hits are killed.  Bohemian Waxwings apparently recognize this rich source of protein.  Scale insects and tree buds (American Elm and ash species) are also consumed in the winter and spring. (Photograph by Terry Marron)

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Drumstick Truffleclub Fruiting

Finding a mushroom in January is a delightful discovery, especially finding one that is only 3” high with a yellow stipe, or stem, (when in its prime) and a tiny, bumpy brown cap.  Drumstick Truffleclub (Tolypocladium capitatum) is unusual not only for its size, but for the late timing of its fruiting period (typically November/December) and the fact that it is a parasite of another fungus.  If you were to dig down beneath a Drumstick Truffleclub, you would likely find that it was attached to a species of truffle (another fungus). (Photograph by Sally Fellows)

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Red Foxes Mating

Red Foxes spend much of the year living a solitary life, but come January and February, during their courtship period, males join females.  Nocturnal barking ensues and their pungent urine begins smelling strongly like skunk spray.  Vixens come into heat for 1-6 days during this time and up to a week or two prior to this there is much interaction between a pair, when they often hunt and cover ground together.  Once breeding takes place, they part ways.  In about two months, when their young are born, the parents rejoin each other and raise their young together.   

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Promethea Moths Pupating

Now is a perfect time to look for cocoons, with leaves off deciduous shrubs and trees. Giant silk moth cocoons are especially evident, due to their large size (often 2″-4″).  The Promethea Moth caterpillar (Callosamia promethea), one of several giant silk moths in the Northeast, hatches in the summer and reaches its full size by fall.  It then chooses a leaf and reinforces the leaf’s stem, or petiole, with silk so as to make it less likely that the leaf will detach from the branch it is growing on.  The caterpillar then spins its silken cocoon inside the curled leaf, and spends the winter pupating inside the cocoon. Look for their well-camouflaged cocoons on low-hanging branches. 

Come May or June, the moth will emerge, and if it’s a female, will produce pheromones that may attract males from as far as several miles away.

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Pine Grosbeak: Crab Apple Mashers

Congratulations to Gail Coffey, the first NC reader who recognized the signs of Pine Grosbeaks feeding on crab apples! Snow discolored by bits of uneaten fruit usually indicates feathered consumers have been in the tree whose branches are above the snow. The litter can consist of sumac seed coats, bittersweet bits, crab apple flesh and parts of other fruits that are available in winter, as many readers suggested. There are many birds that remain in or visit the Northeast in winter and consume fruit (Northern Cardinals, Crows, European Starlings, Blue Jays, Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings, Eastern Mockingbirds, American Robins, etc.). 

When it comes to crab apples, most birds tend to swallow the entire fruit, leaving some bits on the snow, but nowhere near the amount pictured in the Mystery Photo. Pine Grosbeaks, occasional winter visitors from further north, are crab apple eaters but unlike most other species they tend to mash the crab apples in their stout beaks and swallow only the seeds. The fleshy uneaten parts of the apples accumulate on their beaks until the load becomes heavy enough to fall to the ground, coloring the snow below red.

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Mystery Photo

What might have caused the snow to turn red?  This question has many possible answers, one of which will be revealed on 1/2/23.

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Species Specific Nests

Snow falling on abandoned bird nests forms distinctive white caps that are easy to detect. Because the builders of these nurseries are long gone, most with no intention of re-using their nest, we are afforded a unique opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of them.

There are many clues that help to identify the builder of a nest — habitat, size, and material used being the most obvious. A given species of bird builds a nest that greatly resembles the nest of every other member of that species, and builds it in a similar habitat. Thus, every American Goldfinch nest bears a strong resemblance to every other American Goldfinch nest, every Gray Catbird nest looks like every other Gray Catbird nest, etc. The two American Goldfinch nests pictured were both located in overgrown fields, they are both roughly three inches wide and a little over that in depth, and both are made of fine fibers and lined with thistle and cattail down.

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To Naturally Curious Readers and Their Families & Friends…


The Origin Of Christmas Tree Candles And Lights

Unlike the cones of most conifers, those of Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) don’t hang down but grow upright.  After their first year, the cones mature, seeds ripen and both the seeds and scales of the cones drop to the ground, leaving woody spikes standing at attention.  It’s considered likely that these spikes, when snow-covered, inspired Germans to decorate their Christmas trees with candles and lights.

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Great Blue Heron Tracks In Snow

The number of Great Blue Heron sightings in northern New England starts to diminish in the fall and by late December most of these birds have departed for the coast or more southerly locations where open water is more of a sure thing.  Some do linger, however, even through the winter, if they can find open water. 

While it’s not unusual to find Great Blue Heron tracks in the mud along the shores of ponds and lakes in warmer weather, it’s a bit more unusual (and unexpected) to come across their tracks in the snow. Unfortunately, the maker of the pictured tracks found ice had formed between it and its potential meal.

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Cedar Waxwings: Voracious Fruit Lovers

Cedar Waxwings are among the most frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds in North America.  During the winter their diet is almost completely fruit.  Historically cedar berries (hence their name) were the fruit of choice, and still is where cedars are plentiful, but ornamental fruit trees such as Mountain Ash, crabapples, and hawthorns as well as alien honeysuckles have become a major source of food for Cedar Waxwings in recent years in the Northeast. 

Research shows that in May an abrupt change in waxwing diet composition occurs, with fruit dropping to about 15% of their diet, while flowers comprise 44%. In June, frugivory spikes back up to about 65% as current-season fruits ripen, and fruit use progressively rises for the remainder of the summer until it nears 100% for several winter months. (Photo: Cedar Waxwing eating Common Winterberry fruit)

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Winter Bogs: A Profusion of Reds

Typically the low-growing vegetation found in northern bogs would be hidden under a blanket of snow at this time of year, but thanks in part to climate change we can still admire the fall crimson-, scarlet- and claret-colored plants of these acidic wetlands well into winter.  Pitcher plants, cranberry and sphagnum moss create a mosaic of textures and colors seemingly designed for the coming holidays.

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Signs of Gray Squirrel Nest-Building

Gray Squirrels use cavity and leaf nests throughout the year. Both types of nests are retreats used as shelter from the elements and protection from predators, as well as rodent-rearing homes.  Signs of nest-building are plentiful at this time of year, when cold weather is around the corner. Evidence of this activity is present in the form of leafy ball nests (dreys) in trees as well as bare branches discarded on the ground that have had their bark stripped off and shredded.  Squirrels line their nests with dried grasses, lichen and the soft fibers they remove from branches.

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Evening Grosbeak Irruption Taking Place

Two years ago there was a massive irruption of Evening Grosbeaks across eastern North America.  This year’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted a similar southward movement of these big-beaked finches this year and it has begun to be realized.  Evening Grosbeaks have been spotted throughout southern Canada, New York and New England and even further south – a welcome sight for all, as Evening Grosbeak populations have declined by 92% in the past 50 years, the steepest decline of any land bird in the continental U.S. or Canada, and sighting one has become a rarity.

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Black Bears Still Active

Black Bears often enter into hibernation in November, but their exact timing depends in large part on the weather as well as the availability of food such as hard mast (acorns, beechnuts, etc.).  Cold temperatures and scarce food hastens their entry, and warm weather and ample food delays it.

As long as bears are active (and they still are in the Northeast due in part to relatively warm weather), one would be wise to delay feeding birds. Even though a Black Bear’s metabolic rate during hibernation can drop to a quarter of its (nonhibernating) basal metabolic rate, it still needs to put on a considerable amount of fat (some bears double their weight) in order to sustain itself while it fasts through the winter.

A pre-hibernation feeding frenzy by Black Bears is why putting up bird feeders prematurely (before Black Bears hibernate) is discouraged by most northern Fish & Wildlife Departments.  If a bear comes upon a filled bird feeder it is very likely to return to it repeatedly until it goes into hibernation. A Black Bear’s memory is very impressive and most are unable to resist a free lunch.  If you can’t put off feeding the birds for another few weeks, it’s a good idea to bring feeders inside at night if you live in bear country. 

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Mimic Makers

Biomimicry, which refers to innovations by humans that are inspired by nature, happens to be one of my favorite topics, and I particularly love introducing the concept to children.  Occasionally I come across a natural history book which is so compelling that I want to share it with Naturally Curious readers, especially at a gift-giving time of year.  Mimic Makers: Biomimicry Inventors Inspired by Nature by Kristen Nordstrom is one of these books.  

Written for elementary school readers, it engagingly presents ten “mimic makers” who come up with technological inventions based on the natural world (leaf-inspired solar panels, beetle-inspired water collectors, maple seed-inspired drones, etc.).  It’s biomimicry at its very best, guaranteed to captivate young (and not so young), inquisitive minds. (Photo: Red Maple seeds/samaras)

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A Few Avian Songsters Remain In New England Year Round

Anyone tuned in to bird songs is aware that the skies become fairly quiet once migration has taken place. 75% of North American songbirds head to warmer climes in the fall and when they disappear, so do their songs.  Among those birds that remain in New England year-round are some species that actually continue to sing throughout the year as well.  Northern Mockingbirds, Black-capped Chickadees, and Northern Cardinals are among them, as is the Carolina Wren (pictured), whose range has extended north as our climate has warmed.

Male Carolina Wrens sing year-round defending their territory. Unlike other wren species in its genus, only the male Carolina Wren sings. An individual can have from 17 to 55 song types. He will sing a song type an average of 15 times before switching to another song type, usually after a pause in singing. To hear a Carolina Wren, go to  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Carolina_Wren/. How fortunate we are that their voices can be heard now and even in the dead of winter.

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Buck Rubs: Bright Beacons Of Scent Communication and Visual Signals

As fall unfolds and the breeding season approaches for White-tailed Deer, testosterone increases in bucks, triggering the drying and shedding of velvet from their antlers.  Bucks rub their antlers against shrubs and trees in order to remove the dried velvet, a process which is normally completed within 24 hours. Generally small-trunked, smooth-barked trees and shrubs ½ to 4 inches in diameter and without lower branches are preferred (Staghorn Sumac is often chosen, as depicted).  Research shows on healthy habitat, rub densities can vary from a few hundred to nearly 4,000 rubs per square mile. 

Rubs are far more than just a velvet-removal site, however. They serve as billboards posted for deer of both genders. Through specialized forehead skin glands, a buck deposits pheromones that convey social status, suppress the sex drives of younger bucks and stimulate does.  Aggressive rubbing as well as increased testosterone strengthen neck and shoulder muscles, equipping them for battle with another buck should it vie for the same doe.

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Everything Affects Everything

When you see Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) flowering and pussy willow buds opening in November, you know climate change is affecting life in your own back yard. How do late-blooming flowers in the fall as well as increasingly early flowering in the spring affect our ecosystem?  

For one, think about the timing involved when it comes to pollination.  Insects have synchronized their pollination activity to take place when their sources of pollen and nectar are available. Climate change may increase the chance of plants and pollinators becoming out of sync, with plants using up energy flowering in the fall after pollinators have disappeared, and flowering too early in the year for the insects that pollinate them. And then there are the migrating insect-eating songbirds whose return is coordinated with the presence of food on their breeding grounds…It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly. – Martin Luther King, Jr.


Eastern Chipmunks Soon To Retire Underground

Unless global warming extends the normal activity of Eastern Chipmunks, most have or will shortly disappear into their tunnels where they have gathered and stored their winter food supply underground in a special chamber, or larder.  Up to half a bushel of nuts and seeds can be stored here.  They will visit this chamber every two or three weeks throughout the winter, grabbing a bite to eat between their long naps. 

In order to minimize the number of trips taken to fill their storage chamber, chipmunks cram their cheek pouches as full as possible.  The contents that researchers have found in one chipmunk’s two pouches include the following (each entry represents the contents of one chipmunk’s pouches):   31 kernels of corn, 13 prune pits, 70 sunflower seeds, 32 beechnuts, 6 acorns.

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