An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide – maryholland505@gmail.com

December

Paper Birch Seeds Dispersing

Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), also called White Birch, produces separate male and female flowers on the same tree, both in the form of catkins (cylindrical clusters of flowers). The catkins form in the fall and overwinter in a dormant state. In the spring they mature as the leaves develop, becoming pendulous. Male catkins are 2-4 inches long, whereas female catkins are usually 1–2 inches long. Both male and female flowers lack petals, enhancing wind pollination. After fertilization occurs, the male catkins wither away, while the female catkins droop downward and become cone-like.

The mature female catkins consist of tiny winged nutlets that are located behind three-lobed, hardened, modified leaves called bracts. Both winged seeds and bracts are usually dispersed by the wind during the fall and early winter. Birch bracts are species-specific — different species of birch have different-shaped bracts, allowing one to identify the species of birch that a bract comes from. Those of Paper Birch (pictured) look somewhat like soaring birds.

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Naturally Curious wishes you a…


The Feathered Legs & Feet of Snowy Owls

Snowy Owls, inhabitants of the Arctic, are not only well camouflaged but well insulated with their feathers. Their exceptional density make Snowy Owls North America’s heaviest owl.  Weighing in at about four and a half pounds, they are about a pound heavier than Great Horned Owls and almost twice the weight of Great Gray Owls (North America’s tallest owl).

Most species of owls have densely-feathered legs (exceptions being owls living in southern regions such as Barn Owls, Burrowing Owls, and some tropical species).  Snowy Owls have exceptionally thick feathering on their legs and feet. The toe feathers of a Snowy Owl are the longest known of any owl, averaging 1.3 inches – in comparison, the Great Horned Owl’s (which has the second longest toe feathers) are a mere .5 inch. In addition to their insulative quality,  the feet and leg feathers may also serve to sense contact with prey and to protect against prey that might bite when seized.

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Owls & Eyelids

All birds have three eyelids – like humans, they have an upper and lower eyelid.  Owls are among the only birds that have a larger upper eyelid than lower eyelid. They are the only birds that blink like humans, by dropping their upper eyelids. But when owls sleep, they close their eyes the way other birds do—by raising the lower lids.

Beneath the two outer eyelids birds have a translucent nictitating membrane, sometimes called a “third eyelid.”  This membrane sweeps across the cornea from the inside corner of the eye to the outer edge of the eye. It moistens and cleans the cornea, especially in flight.  It is also drawn across the eye when there is a chance the eye might be scratched or damaged such as when capturing prey, flying through brush or feeding their young.

In summation, one could say that owls have three eyelids for each eye: one for blinking (upper), one for sleeping (lower), and one for keeping their eyes clean and protected (nictitating). (Photo: Snowy Owl sleeping, with lower eyelids raised.)

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Walking Fern

Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum) is a very distinctive looking fern, having leathery arching leaf blades which end in a long, tapering tip. This evergreen fern is often found growing in large colonies on moss-covered limestone rocks.  The derivation of its common name is what makes this plant so unusual — the leaf blades are capable of rooting at their tips and forming new plants at some distance from the parent plant, making it look as if the fern is “walking” over the rocks it grows on. While extinct in Maine and critically imperiled in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, it is locally abundant in much of the rest of New England. 

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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!

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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!

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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

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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

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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.

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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).

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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.