Congratulations to Stein Feick, the first person to correctly identify the Mystery Photo as a Whirligig Beetle! You usually see this aquatic beetle swimming around and around in circles on the surface of a pond searching for prey. A unique feature of most beetles in this genus is their divided eyes. Each eye is completely separated into two portions (see photo). One portion (dorsal) is above the water line and the other (ventral) is beneath the water on each side of their head, allowing them to see both in the air/on the surface of the water as well as under the water. The dorsal eyes have a limited field of view, so these beetles rest one of their antennae on the surface of the water to help them detect any motion caused by prey.
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Can you identify this Mystery Photo? Hint: In all likelihood if you’ve visited a pond, you have seen one. If you think you might know what this creature is, go to the Naturally Curious blog site, scroll down to “Comments” and enter your guess. The mystery will be solved on Wednesday, April 29th.
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.
Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. In the natural world, agents such as fungi and bacteria that turn dead plant and animal matter into air, water and nutrients come to mind. If you broaden the definition of recycling to include the re-use of material, however, many more organisms come into play.
Some humans continue to feed birds in the spring after Black Bears have emerged from their dens. The bears have not eaten for four or five months and once their digestive system adjusts, they are extremely hungry. Available bird feeders are often raided by hungry bears at this time of year, and end up discarded on the forest floor with the seeds they contained ending up inside the bears’ stomachs. Eventually the bears defecate and their feces contain little else but the husks of sunflower seeds interspersed with intact seeds. Keen-eyed Black-capped Chickadees are very quick to take advantage of these recycled sources of protein. (Check the Chickadee’s beak closely.)
Although at this time of year you often find the pollen- and nectar-consuming Red-necked False Blister Beetle visiting Trout Lily (also known as Dog-tooth Violet and Adder’s Tongue), bees are its most common pollen collectors. When a bee visits a Trout Lily flower, it usually removes half of the available pollen in one visit. After packing it into its pollen baskets the bee heads directly back to its hive to unload the pollen. Unfortunately for the Trout Lily, this hampers cross-pollination, as it severely limits the amount of pollen that reaches other Trout Lily flowers.
As compensation for the pollen-collecting habit of its apian visitors, Trout Lily has two sets of anthers – one set opens one day, the other opens the next, preventing a bee from collecting all the pollen from a given flower in one day, giving other insects the opportunity to cross-pollinate. (Photo: Red-necked False Blister Beetle on Trout Lily. Note beetle is on unopened anther; opened anther is to left of beetle.)
This may look like Black Bear scat to many viewers and it is close to being just that, but technically it is a fecal plug. A plug differs from scat in several ways. Rather than passing through and out of the digestive system, it remains in the lower 7-15” of a bear’s intestine for four or five months, while the bear hibernates. Unlike feces, which consist mostly of waste from digested food, a fecal plug, due to the length of time it spends in the intestine, contains a considerable amount of intestinal secretions and cells that have sloughed off the inside of the digestive tract.
Usually you find hair and bedding as well as recently-eaten indigestible food incorporated into a plug. Prior to hibernation, Black Bears engage in grooming — licking and swallowing their fur and the leaves, etc. that are caught in it. These indigestible materials end up in the plug. During winter bears shed the calloused soles, or footpads, of their feet and it’s not uncommon to find pieces of them in a plug, as well.
Most plugs measure 1 ½” to 2 ½” in diameter and 7-15″ long. Fluids have been absorbed from the plug by the intestinal walls, leaving it quite dry and hard, and it has very little scent. If you happen to know where a bear has denned, the surroundings are a prime location for finding a plug, as the bear ejects it soon after emerging from its den in April. (Thanks to Andy Rowles and Erin Donahue for photo op.)
I consider myself so fortunate that COVID-19 has not diminished my ability to pursue my passion, and I’m sure all of you are celebrating the gifts of nature during these trying times as well. I hope all of Naturally Curious’s readership stays safe and is gifted with daily spring discoveries. It’s reassuring that despite what humans are experiencing right now, the rest of the natural world continues its annual re-awakening without missing a beat. (Thank you to Ginny White for my favorite face mask.)
Crayfish mate in the early spring and females carry the fertilized, developing eggs inside their bodies for 4 to 6 weeks. These developing eggs are then transferred to the outside of the female’s body and glued with a sticky substance called “glair” to the female’s tail. The eggs then hatch by the end of spring.
One of the more interesting facts about crayfish copulation is that it is preceded by a relatively unusual courtship ritual. Females release a steady stream of urine in order to attract a mate. Their urine is an aphrodisiac, attracting numerous males. When males approach the female she responds aggressively, fighting the males in a quest to find the most fit one to mate with. The female only stops resisting if the male can flip her over so that he can deposit his sperm on her underside. (Photo by Owen Astbury)
Have you ever wondered how grapefruit (and larger)-size masses of up to 2,000 eggs come out of a 2- to 3-inch-long Wood Frog that weighs about a third of an ounce? It turns out that a Wood Frog’s eggs are highly compressed into a mass the size of a golf ball when laid! In under an hour they have absorbed enough water to have expanded to the size we usually associate with Wood Frog egg masses. (Photo: three freshly-laid (darker) egg masses amongst older egg masses)
When a Red Fox kit first emerges from its den, its senses are on full alert and much utilized as it gets to know its new environment. Every leaf and stick is picked up and investigated. Every insect that flies by is snapped at. Every scent is caught. Every bird (American Crow, in this instance) overhead is duly noted and watched.
During these first days of April, Common Gartersnakes emerge from their hibernacula and often bask in the sun near the den where they spent the winter. (At this time they are more approachable than later in the season, should you desire a close look at one.) Males usually appear first; when the females appear, the males follow them in hot pursuit.
Common Gartersnakes are known for their impressive courtship ritual. Prior to copulation, as many as a hundred males will often writhe around a single female, forming a mass which is referred to as a “mating ball.” The male closest to the female rubs his chin on the head, back and sides of the female while aligning himself with her and eventually mating takes place. When it does, the other males that were in the mating ball leave and seek out other females. Female gartersnakes mate once; male may mate with several females. (Photo by Sally Fellows)
Usually it’s your ears that tell you that Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) have emerged from hibernation. They are one of the first amphibians to announce themselves, often appearing before snow and ice are completely gone. Male frogs congregate in shallow ponds and vernal pools, where their ardent courtship ensues.
Unlike most frogs, which have a single vocal sac below their mouth, Wood Frogs have two paired sacs, called paired lateral vocal sacs, located on either side of their body just behind their head (see photo). With their mouth and nostrils are closed, male frogs pump air back and forth from their lungs to their inflated vocal sacs which vibrates their larynx and produces a duck-like quacking sound. The vocal sacs act as resonating chambers, amplifying the frogs’ calls so as to attract females from far and wide.
Vocal sacs serve a dual purpose for some frogs. As soon as the eggs of Darwin’s Frog (Rhinoderma darwinii), found in Chile and Argentina, hatch, the male scoops the tadpoles into his mouth and they spend the next six weeks metamorphosing inside his vocal sac. The male does not eat until the tadpoles have matured into adults and exited his mouth.
Ten years ago, on April 4, 2010, the Naturally Curious blog was launched, not because I was suddenly inspired to have a blog but because the publisher of my recently published book, Naturally Curious, insisted on it! My wonderful editor, Rebecca Didier, offered to design it — I just had to provide the photos and texts. Reluctantly, as I’m extremely technologically-challenged, I plunged into the Internet, starting the blog with seven posts a week. After a few years I paired it down to five and then a couple of years ago, when life became a bit more complicated, I went to three posts a week. I envision continuing this schedule indefinitely (with a brief hiatus while I move across the state this summer).
This blog which I agreed so reluctantly to has become the focal point of my life. I love every aspect of it, from spending hours in the woods and fields in order to find something “blog worthy” to photograph, to researching the subject photographed, to writing about it and posting it in a timely manner. Ask anyone who knows me — I am almost never without my camera, and am never not looking for something I think might hold readers’ interest (even while driving).
You have been there through the thick and thin of my personal life, and supported me and my family every step of the way. Your comments and questions have fueled my curiosity and increased my knowledge about natural history. I feel a very strong connection with you because we share this curiosity about and reverence for the natural world. Thank you for inspiring the past ten years of peering and poking in every nook and cranny. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to share my discoveries with kindred spirits.
If you are fortunate enough to have a beaver pond near you, you should give the lodge more than a cursory glance this time of year. It is common to find Canada Geese nesting on beaver lodges, for obvious reasons – safety from most land predators. While Common ravens have been known to raid Canada Goose nests for eggs and goslings, the overall rate of survival of the goslings of lodge-nesting geese is very high.
A Canadian study showed that ponds with beaver lodges (and therefore Beaver activity which warms the water and thaws the ice) thaw at least 11 days sooner than ponds without Beavers, allowing early access to water for Canada Geese returning for the spring nesting season. Battles between pairs of geese vying for these coveted nesting sites are not uncommon.
Canada Geese have much to thank Beavers for. Not only can geese get an early nesting start on beaver lodges, they have a relatively safe spot to incubate their eggs and raise their young.
Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) is one of our earliest spring wildflowers. Sometime in April or May the creeping, leathery, evergreen leaves of this plant suddenly come alive with white or pink tubular flowers. While they are delightful to look at, their fragrance is what truly sets them apart from many other plants that flower this time of year.
Because there aren’t that many insects about this early, nor flowering plants, insect predators can have a challenging time finding prey. The pictured crab spider chose its perch wisely: bumble bees are the main pollinators of Trailing Arbutus, and queens are out scouting for food as they begin to establish their colonies.
Muskrats, or “rats,” as they’re sometimes derogatorily called, are semi-aquatic, mostly plant-eating rodents that live in ponds, streams, lakes and marshes. During the winter they seek shelter in lodges that they build out of grasses, reeds, cattails and sticks. Muskrat lodges are much smaller than Beaver lodges, which are constructed out of mud and sizable branches, sticks, stones and mud.
In the spring Muskrats often build nests by burrowing into a stream or pond bank, which they enter under water. Muskrats are also known to set up residence in active Beaver lodges. After dining on aquatic vegetation, the pictured Muskrat made a beeline for the beaver-occupied lodge nearby, and dove under as it approached it. Beavers and Muskrats tolerate each other’s presence in the same pond (and lodge) even though they both consume much of the same vegetation. Unlike Beavers, Muskrats supplement their diet of plants with frogs, crayfish, clams, snails, and fish. It may be that when cohabiting a lodge, they may help one another keep an eye out for predators. (Photo: Muskrat eating pond vegetation)
If you’ve never witnessed what a Belted Kingfisher does to subdue its prey once it has caught it, you owe yourself this experience now that most bodies of water are open and kingfishers are present. Unlike many other avian fish-, frog- and crayfish-eaters, kingfishers don’t simply spear or clasp their prey with their bill and swallow. They beat the daylights out of it by pounding it repeatedly against the branch they fly to after they’ve caught something. Kingfishers will do this with their head turned sideways, and even upside down, as pictured in the photo inset. The frog in this photograph was not only stunned, it was beaten to a pulp by the time the kingfisher swallowed it. (Photo: male Belted Kingfisher with Wood Frog)
Coltsfoot – a Dandelion look-alike, a harbinger of spring, and a medicinal as well as invasive plant. This early-blooming flower can quickly be distinguished from a Dandelion. Coltsfoot usually flowers and often goes to seed before its leaves appear (ignore young leaf in photo!), whereas a Dandelion’s rosette of leaves are apparent when the plant flowers. In addition, the flower stems of Coltsfoot are covered with woolly hairs and scaly bracts while Dandelion stems are smooth.
Coltsfoot, named for the shape of its leaves, is of Eurasian origin, but was introduced into North America as a medicinal plant over a century ago (for its expectorant properties). It has long since escaped culture and become a widespread weed, invasive in some cases, especially in clay and moist soils. A pioneer plant, Coltsfoot often appears in disturbed areas, and with its dense broad leaves it chokes out native plants. It’s a sun lover, though, and therefore tends to gradually disappear as trees and shrubs move in and create dense shade.
After spending their first five weeks under the ground, young red foxes get big and brave enough to come out and see the world for the first time. The gray coat which they have had since birth will soon be replaced by a sandy-colored coat. This second coat matches the sandy soil outside of the den and thus helps camouflage them. A third reddish coat, the adult coat and one for which they are named, grows in when they are about three months old. (Note white hind foot on this wild red fox kit.)
Greetings, Naturally Curious readers. I wish to clarify yesterday’s inaccurate “Hiatus” post. I had surgery scheduled on my shoulder for next week, which would have curtailed any photographic activity and blog-writing for quite some time. The improvement in my shoulder and the thought of a spring and summer without a camera in hand have convinced me that surgery could and should be postponed, hopefully for a long time, but definitely through the summer. I was in the middle of writing a post about having to stop the blog for a while due to surgery when suddenly, after typing in just the title, the post was sent to you without my even knowing it. In the time since that happened I made my decision to put off surgery. My apologies for the confusion. Here’s to more spring discoveries, photographs and uninterrupted blog posts!
Congratulations to Elizabeth Hall, the first reader to correctly identify the trail blazer in the previous NC post!
As you can see from the dirt piled on this Snapping Turtle’s head, it has just emerged from hibernation. After extracting themselves from their muddy hibernacula, Snapping Turtles have two missions: to raise their body temperature and to secure food. According to Jim Andrews, Director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas (https://www.vtherpatlas.org/ ), the first movement of the year for these turtles is often to seek shallow water where they can bask in the sun and heat their internal organs. They also are on the move in order to get from their overwintering site (shallows of ponds, marshes, and lakeshores, in a spring or a stream) back to a feeding area. It won’t be long before they will be searching for mates.
Whose tracks are these? This is a loaded question, as these particular tracks are not something you come across every day in the snow. Hints: You would not find these tracks in the dead of winter. The width of the pictured trail is roughly 12” – 16”. It ends in a shallow, open wetland. The photograph was taken two days ago.
Responses may be submitted by going to the Naturally Curious blog site (www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com) and scrolling down to and clicking on “Comments.”
Yesterday was the kind of day when you could not take a step without knowing you were crushing hundreds of Snow Fleas, or Collembola, those tiny black specks on the snow. Their presence is a hopeful sign in northern New England, as it often signals the coming of spring, which we are more than ready for.
This non-insect arthropod is a type of springtail (not a flea). Springtails are no longer considered insects, but are classified as hexapods. These miniscule creatures sometimes come to the surface of the snow on warm winter days but are active year-round in leaf litter, feeding on algae, fungi and decaying organic matter.
Snow Fleas do not bite, nor do they sting. What they do do is catapult themselves impressive distances by means of an appendage on their underside called a furcula which snaps and propels them through the air. They have a soft landing due to three anal sacs that they evert from their anus just before launching themselves. (To see a photograph of these sacs go to a 2012 NC post on Snow Fleas: https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/snow-flea-mystery-appendage/) (Photo: Snow Fleas clustered in the track of a Black Bear that recently emerged from hibernation)
The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
a cloud come over the sunlit arch,
And wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.
A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn’t blue,
But he wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom.
— Robert Frost, excerpt from Two Tramps in Mud Time