An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

December

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My Very Best Wishes For A Joyous Holiday Season !


Snowshoe Hares’ Fur-covered Toes

Snowshoe Hare tracks are readily discernible because of the paired larger hind feet which land in front of the smaller front feet when a hare bounds over the snow.  When bounding, a hare’s front feet usually land side by side, unless they are traveling at great speed, when one front foot tends to land in front of the other (see photo).

Because they have hairy feet and no exposed toe pads, Snowshoe Hares usually do not leave distinct toe impressions in their tracks.  When they do, you will see four impressions, even though they have five toes on each foot.  In soft snow, the four long toes of each foot are spread widely, increasing the size of these “snowshoes” still more. The fine, sharp claws on their feet may or may not register.

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Admirable Qualities of the Canada Jay

Most of New England never sees Canada Jays (formerly called Gray Jays), but in the northern reaches of the Northeast this bird is familiar to most boreal woods walkers.  It’s not hard to find something to admire about the cleverness of Canada Jays.  Admirable traits include their habit of using their sticky saliva to glue bits of food behind bark or in other vegetation during the summer (as well as the ability to be able to find it again when hungry in the winter), their use of forest tent caterpillar cocoons to hold their nest of twigs together, and their ability to incubate eggs in -20°F during their late winter nesting season.

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Moose Beds

In winter, Moose prefer to use powder snow areas in mixed forests, under large conifers, as bedding sites. They can rest while standing or when bedding on the ground. When standing, a moose’s head and neck are relaxed but its ears are constantly moving in order to detect sound coming from any direction.  When bedded on the ground, a moose’s legs can be tucked under its body or extended (when laying on their side).

A favored resting and sleeping position of antlered bulls is on one side of their body, with legs stretched and one antler touching the ground. Moose have the ability to nearly disappear if they bed down in snow. A bedded moose does not move and looks very much like a stump or rock.  When they rise, they often leave shed hairs and scat in the depression they’ve made in the snow.

A large bed with one or two smaller ones indicates a cow and her calves have bedded down together.  (Thanks to Kit Emery for photo op.)

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Black Bears Scent Marking In Winter

Congratulations to Rinky for being the first person to correctly identify that a Black Bear had been rubbing its back side against a utility pole in Monday’s Mystery Photo!  A vast majority of responses were correct! Because of the relatively warm fall we’ve had and the ample food supply, Black Bears are still active in much of northern New England.  There is a limited amount of time when bears are awake and snow is on the ground, allowing you to see what they’ve been up to.  This year they are still feeding fast and furiously and, as the tracks in the snow confirm, scent marking.

Black Bears of all ages and both sexes engage in scent marking – rubbing their scent on trees and telephone poles (as well as biting and scratching them) that are often located along travel corridors.  Scent marking typically occurs during the breeding season in June, when males, especially, announce their presence by standing with their back to a tree or pole (often one that leans) and rub their shoulders, neck and back against it, leaving their scent.

The tracks in Monday’s Mystery Photo were discovered recently at the base of a utility pole in New Hampshire.  One look at the tracks’ position, pointing away from the pole, tells you that the bear that made them was facing away from the pole and rubbing his back side against it – proof that scent marking is not limited to the breeding season. (Photo: Black Bear scent marking the same pole in mating season, taken by Alfred Balch)

(If you are feeding birds, it would be wise to bring your feeders in at night until we’ve had enough cold weather to drive Black Bears into hibernation.)

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Mystery Photo

Do you think you know who was here and what he/she was doing???  If so, go to the Naturally Curious website, scroll down to and click on “Comments” and enter your answer.  Wednesday’s post will reveal what transpired here.

(Photo by tracker/naturalist/wildlife videographer Alfred Balch.)

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Coyote Breeding Season Beginning

Female Eastern Coyotes only experience estrus once per year for up to ten days and male coyotes only produce sperm during the time females are receptive.  This usually occurs sometime between late December through March.

One unusual aspect of the coyote breeding season is the coyote’s ability to change its breeding habits according to its population status. When their population is threatened and/or pressured, coyote litter sizes go up. They use their howls and yipping to assess coyote populations — if their howls are not answered by other packs, it triggers a response that produces large litters. (I have yet to understand the biological specifics of  this adaptation.)

The normal size of a coyote litter is five to six pups. When their populations are suppressed, their litters get up as high as 12 to 16 pups. Research shows that the number of coyotes in a given area can be reduced by 70 percent but the next summer their population will be back to the original number.

(Photo: blood droplets where a female coyote in estrus urinated. Photo taken 12/4/19)

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Mystery Photo

Can you tell who has been here and what they were doing?  If so, share your explanation on the Naturally Curious website by scrolling down to “Comments.”  (Hint:  those are acorns scattered on the dirt.) Answer will be revealed on Wednesday, December 4. (Photo by Ashley Wolff)

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Happy New Year!

12-31-18 happy new year's 049A7456

A sincere thank you to all Naturally Curious readers for your patronage, comments and contributions in 2018.  I have loved sharing the past year of discoveries with you, and look forward to seeing what 2019 presents us with!


Merry Christmas!

12-24-18 MH and cub - 200 ppiIMG_0282

This  Black Bear cub and I wish you the happiest of holidays! May the magic of  natural discoveries enrich your life today and every day.

Naturally Curious posts will resume on Wednesday, January 2nd.

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


Winter Solstice

12-21-18 winter solstice IMG_1706The tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation gives different parts of the planet exposure to the Sun at different times of the year, providing seasons.  In December, the Earth’s North Pole turns away from the Sun, giving the Southern Hemisphere the most sunlight.

The annual winter solstice brings us the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The date and time of the solstice vary each year, though it typically falls between Dec. 20 and Dec. 23.  This year’s winter solstice is at 5:23 p.m. Eastern Time today. At that moment, the sun appears directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23.5 degrees south latitude. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun takes its lowest and shortest path through the southern sky. The day will feature just 8 hours and 49 minutes of daylight — compared to our typical 12 hours or so.

This year’s winter solstice won’t be quite as dark as usual (weather permitting). On Saturday, the first full day of winter, a full moon will brighten the long, dark night. The December full moon, also known as the Cold Moon or Long Night’s Moon, arrives less than a day after the solstice, at 12:49 p.m. on Dec. 22. The last time the full moon and the winter solstice occurred less than a day apart was in 2010, and it won’t happen again until 2029.

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Pileated Woodpeckers Foraging For Last of Wild Grapes

12-17-18 pileated woodpecker and grapes IMG_7731

Carpenter Ants and wood-boring beetle larvae are the mainstay of the Pileated Woodpecker’s diet.  Long slivers of wood in trees and logs are removed in order to expose ant galleries, creating large rectangular excavations.  The woodpecker’s long, pointed, barbed tongue and its sticky saliva enable it to catch and extract ants from the ants’ tunnels.

While ants and beetle larvae are consumed year-round, fruits and nuts are eaten when available. A study that took place in the Northeast found seasonal shifts in primary food items: fruit in fall, Carpenter Ants in winter, wood-boring beetle larvae in early spring, and a variety of insects in summer.

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Distinguishing Small Weasels

12-21-18 ermine_U1A8001New England has two small weasels: Long-tailed and Short-tailed.  Both of these predators molt twice a year, from brown to white in the fall, and white to brown in the spring.  The name “Ermine” can refer to either of these two species, but it is most commonly used when referring to the Short-tailed Weasel.

Telling the two species apart can be challenging. Long-tailed Weasels are the larger of the two (head to tail = 12-14 inches), while Ermine are slightly smaller (head to tail = 7-13 inches).  Unless you have both species in front of you, however, their size is hard to assess.  A more helpful distinguishing characteristic is the length of their tail relative to their body length. Long-tailed Weasels have a tail longer than half their body length with a black tip. Ermine have a tail length which is around a third of their body length — it also has a black tip. (Photo:  Ermine (Short-tailed Weasel). Thanks to Sharon and Chad Tribou for photo op.)

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Foxes Scent Marking

12-14-18 fox tracks_U1A8060Foxes, like all canids, tend to mark their territories frequently with both scat and urine.  Both convey information to other foxes regarding hierarchy and sexual status, in addition to marking territory. As these Gray Fox tracks crossing a pond illustrate, it’s rare for an elevated object in a fox’s line of view not to be visited and anointed. Research shows that when scavenging, foxes urinate up to 70 times an hour, allowing just a small amount of urine to be left in any one place.  In addition to rocks, stumps and other raised objects, the remains of a meal are often urinated on, indicating that the nourishing portions have already been consumed.

Red Foxes are generally solitary animals, except during their courtship period, which occurs any time between December and February.  At this time mates pair up, so it is not unusual to see two sets of fox tracks together.  This is also the time of year when the males’ urine acquires a strongly pungent, skunk-like odor detectable from hundreds of yards away.

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American Basswood Buds

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Bark, silhouettes and buds are the three keys to identifying trees in winter. Buds of different tree species are so distinctive they are an excellent identification tool. American Basswood, also known as American Linden,  (Tilia americana) has plump, oval, asymmetrical reddish or green buds, which bear only one or two bud scales.

The bud that forms at the end of a branch is referred to as the terminal bud and those along the length of the branch are lateral buds.  In the case of Basswood, the bud at the tip of the branch is a “false” terminal bud, because it is actually a lateral bud that has assumed the function of the terminal bud.  When the growing tip of the branch withers or falls away, the closest lateral bud to the twig tip substitutes as a terminal bud.

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Eat And Run Strategy

12-10-18 grouse IMG_2368

Ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer and moose, all prey species and all plant eaters, share certain characteristics that have to do with food consumption and digestion.  They all tend to eat large quantities rather quickly in one spot, and then move to another, safer, spot to digest their food.  This technique minimizes the amount of time that they are likely to be out in the open and focused more on eating than on predators.  Eating quickly and storing the consumed food in a chamber and digesting it later at their leisure, under cover, makes a lot of sense.

All three animals have a multi-chambered stomach and microorganisms efficient at breaking down cellulose and extracting nutrients from plants.  After browsing on branches and buds, deer and moose seek shelter where they then regurgitate and chew their cud. Grouse do not linger over their meals – 20 minutes of foraging will sustain them all day. Leaves, buds and twigs are stored in their crop (a wide portion of the esophagus) until the grouse seeks shelter, where the food eventually reaches their gizzard.  Here, with the aid of gravel, it is ground up.

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Mystery Photo

12-5-18 mystery photo2 _U1A2595The icing over of ponds has begun as a result of the recent cold weather. Holes are appearing in the (thin) ice of some ponds.  How do you think these one-to-three-foot holes are formed? Responses may be submitted by going to the Naturally Curious blog site (www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com) and scrolling down to “Comments.”  The answer will be revealed on Friday, 12/7/18.

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


Some Of My Favorite Natural History I.D. Guides

12-3-18 books IMG_5296 (002)I have a fairly extensive natural history book collection which is heavily used for research.  It occurred to me that if there’s a naturalist, or a budding naturalist, on your holiday gift-giving list, or if you would like to expand your own natural history library, you might appreciate some suggestions.  The three books I’ve chosen are not fresh off the press.  One was published 15 years ago.  But they are all in print, and each of them has solved many an identification mystery for me.

March Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks & Sign covers a wide range of categories – photographs and extensive text regarding North American mammal tracks, scat, trails and a million other signs.  David Wagner’s Caterpillars of Eastern North America has never failed me when I’ve found an unfamiliar caterpillar.  He includes photographs and information on habitat, range, common food plants and more.  And who hasn’t found a bird feather and wondered what species it came from?  In addition to Scott and McFarland’s photographs of feathers in Bird Feathers, they go into the history, structure and types of North American bird feathers.

Any one of these books would answer most identification questions in their respective fields.  If you have a naturalist in mind to give one to, you might want to subtly check to make sure these aren’t already in his or her possession.  Of course, this post was written with the assumption that the lucky person who receives your gift already has Naturally Curious and Naturally Curious Day by Day! I hear the author also writes children’s nature books for the very young (3-8).

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

 


A Joyous Season To All!

12-22-17 Otis3 049A7987I wish each and every Naturally Curious reader a holiday season filled with joy, laughter, kindness, compassion and love. If you need confirmation that there is still goodness in this world, find a two-year-old…their innocence and joy is undeniable and irresistible! (Photo:  Otis Brown)

Naturally Curious posts will resume on January 3rd.

 


Spinning Ice Discs

12-18-17 mystery photo by Martha Kent, submitted by Paula Kelley 20171215_151548(3) (003)The latest Mystery Photo is of an ice disc – a large disc of ice spinning in a river. It’s thought that this relatively rare natural phenomenon is likely caused by cold, dense air coming in contact with an eddy in a river, forming discs ranging anywhere from 3 to 650 feet in diameter.

While eddies contribute to the spinning, they are not the only cause. If they were, small discs would spin faster than big discs, and this is not the case. Discs of all sizes rotate at roughly the same rate. One would also expect that discs in still water, where there aren’t any eddies, wouldn’t start spinning, but they do.

The melting of the ice disc contributes to its spinning as well. When an ice disc starts to melt, the melted ice water is denser than the ice, and thus sinks below the disc. This movement causes the water to spin, which in turn spins the disc. (Thanks to Martha Kent for photo submitted by Paula Kelley)

 


Mystery Photo

12-18-17 mystery photo by Martha Kent, submitted by Paula Kelley 20171215_151548(3) (003)What do you think is going on here? Answers should be entered under “Comments” at the bottom of this post on my blog at www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com. (Photo by Martha Kent, Winooski River, Richmond, VT on 12/15/17)

On another note: I have recently received a number of inquiries regarding how one can donate to my blog. Everyone has been so generous with my daughter and grandson’s fund that I have hesitated to put a donation option back on my posts, but I have been encouraged to do so and it will return in January. Meanwhile, in response to those who have recently inquired about supporting my Naturally Curious blog with a donation, you can go to www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on “Donate,” or send a check made out to me to 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT 05089. Thank you so very much.


Polyphemus Moth Cocoons

12-15-17 polyphemus cocoon2 IMG_4455The Polyphemus Moth is a giant silk moth, a member of the Saturniidae family which includes some of the largest species of moths. Giant silk moths derive their name from both their size as well as the fine silk they use to spin the cocoons which serve as protection for the pupal stage in their life cycle.

Most Polyphemus Moth cocoons start out attached to a tree branch, although some are spun among leaves or grasses on the ground (see pictured cocoon). They are oval, roughly 1 ½” long and nearly an inch wide. Cocoons in trees are susceptible to attack by squirrels and woodpeckers, whereas mice are the biggest threat to cocoons on the ground.

The moth overwinters as a pupa inside the cocoon. Unlike most other giant silk moths’ cocoons, the Polyphemus Moth cocoon lacks an escape “valve” at one end. In order to emerge (as an adult) from the cocoon the summer after it spins it, the moth secretes an enzyme that digests and softens the silk at one end. Then it moves about the cocoon in a circular pattern, tearing the softened silk with two spurs located at the base of each wing on its abdomen. Eventually it escapes  by splitting the silk and pushing the top up.


Gray Squirrel Dreys

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With most deciduous trees having lost their leaves, squirrel nests, or dreys, are more noticeable. Red Squirrels, Eastern Gray Squirrels and Flying Squirrels all build dreys. Those of the Red Squirrel are round, grassy balls, 8” – 10” in diameter. In contrast, Gray Squirrel nests are usually larger and made of sticks and leaves. Flying Squirrel dreys are so high that they are rarely observed.

The dreys most commonly seen are made by Gray Squirrels. Usually 30 or more feet high, these shelters are typically built near the main trunk of the tree, in a crotch where several small branches meet, or on a strong, thick limb. Construction takes place in the summer or early fall, before trees have formed the abcission layers that cause leaves to separate and fall from branches. Therefore, the leaves on a drey’s branches tend to remain for quite some time, forming an effective water-shedding outer layer.

Branches are loosely woven into a foot-wide hollow sphere. The drey is lined with insulating grass, moss, leaves, and shredded bark. Usually there is one entrance/exit hole, facing the trunk (so as to keep rain out). Often squirrels build two dreys, giving themselves another shelter option should one nest be disturbed by a predator or overrun with parasites.

A drey is usually inhabited by one squirrel, but two are known to occupy a single drey in order to keep warm in the winter. Gray Squirrels give birth in late winter and again in the summer. A more protective tree cavity usually serves as a nursery in the winter, and the drey in summer. The average drey is only used for a year or two before it is abandoned.


Snowy Owl Gets Mouthful When Hunting In Tall Grass

12-8-17 snowy owl and meadow vole3 049A9802Only Naturally Curious readers would come up with flossing!

If lemmings are in short supply and you’re a Snowy Owl, head for tall grass where small rodents dwell. This juvenile female Snowy Owl successfully caught a Meadow Vole (along with a footful of grass) in its talons and proceeded to swallow the vole whole, along with some of the grass. However, most of the grass remained hanging from the owl’s mouth after the vole had been consumed, so it proceeded to grasp the grass with its foot and pull it out of its mouth (yesterday’s Mystery Photo).

Although many people are under the impression that hard weather forces Snowy Owls farther south some winters, the reason for Snowy Owl invasions or irruptions turns out to be linked to either prey population crashes in the north, high productivity breeding years (producing more predators than the prey can support) or a combination of the two. New research has shown that the abundance of Snowy Owls seen in the eastern U.S. during the winter of 2013-14 was the result of a particularly good nesting season on the Arctic tundra. A population boom of lemmings, the Snowy Owl’s primary food source, translated to a population boom of owls.

 

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