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

February

Mystery Photo

Using all the information provided above, do you know who has been here and why? If so, enter your answer by scrolling down on the Naturally Curious web page, clicking on “Comments” and writing your answer. Mystery will be solved on Monday, March 8th.

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American Tree Sparrows : Winter Visitors

One of New England’s common winter visitors from the far northern tundra is the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea), often spotted in large flocks in weedy, snow-covered fields moving from one spot to another as they feed..  These seed-eating sparrows are known to beat weeds with their wings and then fly to the surface of the snow beneath the weeds to retrieve seeds they have caused to fall.  

Their common name is a misnomer, for American Tree Sparrows feed on the ground and often breed and nest on the ground above the treeline.  They apparently reminded European settlers of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus), a cavity-nesting bird which has very different habits than the American Tree Sparrow. 

In part because of the loss of weedy old fields and other open habitats, the American Tree Sparrow population has declined by 53% over the last 50 years.  Even so, they are a common sight during the winter in fields, on road sides and at feeders throughout the northern half of the United States.

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White-winged Crossbills Foraging

Most of New England is privileged to see White-winged Crossbills (Loxia leucoptera) only during the winter, when these nomadic birds forage south of their far northern boreal forest breeding grounds for conifer seeds during poor cone crop years. 

Spruce seeds are the preferred food of White-winged Crossbills. Their crossed mandibles allow them to pry open cone scales and they then extract the seeds with their tongue.  Individuals can eat up to 3,000 conifer seeds a day!

These birds have been documented nesting every month of the year.  As long as they can find a source of food that is sufficient for egg formation and that is likely to remain for the next month or so when they’ll be feeding nestlings, they will breed.  The larger the spruce cone crop, the longer a span of time crossbills typically nest.  Nesting usually declines by November although young do occasionally fledge in December and January. (Photos of a male White-winged Crossbill by Erin Donahue.)

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Gray Squirrels Mating & Making Nests

Gray Squirrels have two breeding seasons, one from December – March and another May – July (most females mate in the latter season and only mate once a year).  At this time of year, polygamous male Gray Squirrels are aggressively chasing and checking out females to see if they are in estrus and if they are receptive. (An unreceptive female squirrel lets all suitors know in no uncertain terms – using claws and teeth – that she is not interested.)  Male Gray Squirrels can smell females in estrus as far as half a mile away, so the woods are full of hopeful males these days.

Frequently litters this time of year are born in a tree cavity, while the second, late-summer litter is born in a leaf nest (drey).  Cavities obviously offer more protection from the elements and predators than do leaf nests. Most den cavities have been created by decay, lightning, or woodpeckers and are lined with dry leaves, shredded bark and grasses. (Photo:  Gray Squirrel collecting American Beech leaves to be used as a lining for her cavity nest.)

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Spiders On Snow

The internal body temperature of spiders is variable and tends to fluctuate with their environment.  This means that the cold temperatures of winter pose a challenge. Spiders meet this challenge in one of several ways.  A majority (as many as 85%) of species crawl under the leaf litter, shut their metabolism way down and become dormant; some species mate, lay eggs and die; and some remain active. 

It is not unusual to come across tiny active spiders on top of the snow, especially on sunny winter days. If it’s particularly cold, they may have their legs pulled in and appear lifeless.  When their body is sufficiently warmed up, they will resume crawling across the snow. 

The metabolism rate of spiders that remain active through the winter is elevated, making starvation as big a threat as freezing.  They must find food (springtails and other invertebrates) in order to sustain themselves.  Some of these spiders can remain active until their body temperature is 25 F degrees when they will go dormant like other spiders. They cannot survive If their internal temperature drops to 19 F. degrees. (Source, Vermont Center for Ecostudies) (Photo: active spider surviving despite loss of one leg)

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Meadow Vole Circles

Congratulations to “Maine Naturalist” and Stein for identifying not only that a Meadow Vole made the mystery tracks, but why they were circular! Thank you all for your comments, many of which were laughter-producing!    

More NC readers have witnessed this phenomenon than I would have imagined – the tracks were made by a Meadow Vole that had neurological problems which could have been caused by a brain parasite, brain tumor, inner ear infection, or a stroke. While the exact nature of an affected vole’s neurological impairment cannot be confirmed without the vole in hand, it is highly likely that a common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, is responsible for a vole running in circles.

The snow-covered corn field where these tracks were located was just down the road from a dairy farm, where it’s likely cats could be found. This is relevant because cats pass this particular parasite on to rodents (and birds) who eat the cats’ feces.  The parasite goes to work on the brains of animals that have eaten cat feces, causing them to become disoriented (to the point where they lose their fear of cats).  Cats then eat the fearless rodents and the cycle continues.  When infected and disoriented, the rodents will often run in circles – hence, the unusual track pattern in the snow.

 T. gondii can infect humans, too, through consumption of under-cooked foods, contaminated drinking water, and through contact with cat feces.  This is why pregnant women are discouraged from tending kitty litter boxes, as the parasite can infect their unborn children.

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Mystery Photo

What or who do you think is responsible for these tracks in a snow-covered corn field?  To respond, go to the Naturally Curious blog (www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com ), scroll down to “Comments” and enter your solution to this mystery!  Answer will be announced this coming Friday, 2/5/21.

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Red-winged Blackbirds Returning to Northern New England

Except for the coast, most of northern New England doesn’t see many Red-winged Blackbirds during the winter months.  Numbers usually start increasing the last week of February with males arriving before females.  In the fall it’s the reverse, with males departing after females.

Practically as soon as male Red-winged Blackbirds return, you can hear them singing and see them displaying as they claim their territories.  If you could tell the females apart, you might well recognize some of them, as research shows that nearly half of the females return to the previous year’s territory.

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Eastern Gray Squirrels Lining Nests

Congratulations to Wanda Rice, the first Naturally Curious reader to recognize sign made by a squirrel collecting nesting material. Many people thought it might be a porcupine at work, but porcupines, as “hellomolly” pointed out in her comment, do not leave strips of bark hanging, while squirrels do.

In the Mystery Photo, an Eastern Gray Squirrel had been shredding and collecting the thin bark of a Maple Sugar sapling to line its nest with.  Gray squirrels nest throughout the year, but nesting activity peaks during their two mating seasons (December -March, and May – July).  They build two types of nests – large, round, leafy nests among tree branches (dreys) and cavity nests, the latter being preferred during the colder months. Abandoned woodpeckers nests as well as natural-formed cavities provide additional protection in the winter from predators as well as the elements. (Drey broods are 40 percent less likely to survive than squirrels born in tree cavities — a hole no wider than three or four inches protects them from large predators such as raccoons.) Both types of nests are lined with soft material such as lichen, moss, grass, pine needles and shredded bark.

The effect of a squirrel’s stripping a tree’s bark depends on the extent of the damage. Usually a young tree is chosen due to the thinness of the bark and the ease with which it can be stripped.  Although a tree can survive with some of its bark removed, it will die if the damage is too severe or bark is stripped off around the tree’s circumference.  Stripped bark not only provides nesting material but the process of stripping the bark exposes the tree’s cambium layer which contains the nutrients and sugars a tree has produced and which squirrels readily consume. (Eastern Gray Squirrel photos by Margaret Barker Clark)

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Mystery Photo: A New Perspective

In my desire to show a close-up of the shredded nature of the bark-stripping in Friday’s Mystery Photo, I didn’t take into account that knowing the height of the stripping was as crucial to solving the mystery as the shredded bark!  Today, instead of revealing the creature that is responsible for this activity, I am posting a photograph that gives the viewer the perspective necessary to correctly identify the sign-maker. Please feel free to resubmit a guess with the aid of this added information if you would like to.  The photograph was taken within the last two weeks, and the sign was very fresh. The bark stripper’s identity will definitely be revealed on Wednesday, February 26th!

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Mystery Photo

Who has been hard at work on this young Sugar Maple tree?  If you think you might know, go to the Naturally Curious blog site, scroll down to “Comments” and enter your guess.  The answer will be revealed on Monday, February 24th.  (Photo by Margaret Barker Clark)

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Blackberry Seed Gall

Galls, abnormal plants growths caused by many agents including insects, are formed during the growing season on the buds, leaves, roots and branches of plants as a response to chemicals or physical irritation. Many of these galls serve as shelters and a source of food for their developing inhabitants.

Blackberry is host to numerous gall-making insects, including mites, midges and gall wasps, and their temporary homes (galls) are most obvious in the winter. The Blackberry Seed Gall is caused by a tiny cynipid gall wasp, Diastrophus cuscutaeformis.  A cluster of small, globular, seed-like galls within which the gall wasp larvae live are pressed together in a lump surrounding the cane.  These galls derive their species name from their resemblance to dodder (Cuscuta) fruits. Each of these 1/10th-inch diameter chambers bears a spine, and together they create a reddish-brown hairy mass.

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New Children’s Book Release

“Animals are all around us. While we may not often see them, we can see signs that they’ve been there. Some signs might be simple footprints in snow or mud (tracks) and other signs include chewed or scratched bark, homes or even poop and pee (traces). Children will become animal detectives after learning how to “read” the animal signs left all around. Smart detectives can even figure out what the animals were doing! This is a perfect sequel to Mary Holland’s Animal Anatomy and Adaptations series.” (Arbordale Publishing)


Snowshoe Hare Pellets

Snowshoe Hares digest their food twice in order to extract the most nutrients possible from their food.  Two kinds of pellets are produced by hares: hard pellets (twice digested) and soft pellets called cecotropes (digested once).  Food is ingested and passes through a sac-like structure between the small and large intestine called the cecum.  Bacteria in the cecum synthesize proteins and vitamins and as a result of this synthesis, cecotropes have twice the protein and half of the fiber of the typical hard pellet. They also contain high levels of vitamin K and B vitamins.  In order to obtain the nutrients produced in the cecum, Snowshoe Hares eat and redigest the soft cecotropes (often produced early in the morning which is why we rarely see them). These pellets which have been digested twice provide up to 20 percent of a hare’s daily protein.

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Winter Adaptations of the Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse have both behavioral (diving into the snow on cold nights) and physical strategies for dealing with the cold, snow and ice of New England winters.  Three of the physical changes that take place in the fall are evident by looking closely at a grouse’s legs, feet and beak. The feathers on its legs grow thicker and further down towards its feet, to provide better insulation.  Small comb-like growths of skin, called pectinations, develop along either side of each toe.  These increase the surface area of a grouse’s foot, and serve as snowshoes in deep snow.  They also help the grouse cling to icy branches while it quickly snips off poplar and other buds at either end of the day.  And on its beak, feathers expand downward to cover its nostrils, slowing the cold air and giving it a chance to warm up before it is inhaled by the grouse.

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Great Horned Owls Courting & Mating

Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest species of birds to breed in the Northeast. Their intense hooting begins in late December or early January, about a month before actual mating takes place. Males call during most seasons of the year, but the period when the males are hooting vigorously lasts for a month or six weeks. During the mating season the deep, rich tones of the males are occasionally interspersed with the higher and huskier notes of the females. The answering calls of the females are typically heard for only a week or two, toward the end of the six-week period.

Eventually, when a male and female approach each other, they do a sort of courtship “dance.” The male cocks his tail, swells his white bib (see photo), and with much bobbing and jerking utters a series of deep sonorous calls that elicit calling responses by the female. He cautiously approaches the female, continuing much tail-bobbing and posturing. The owls nod, bow, and spread their wings as well as shake their heads. Courting pairs have been observed engaging in high-pitched giggling, screaming, and bill-snapping. Mutual bill rubbing and preening also occurs. Copulation concludes the courtship ritual, with both owls hooting at a rate of 4 or 5 hoots per second throughout copulation, which lasts 4 – 7 seconds.

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Coyotes Scent-marking & Mating

You may have been hearing Coyotes howling more than usual lately.  This is because their mating season has begun, and they are much more vocal prior to and during it.  Another Coyote sign to be aware of this time of year is the abundance of Coyote scent-marking, with both urine and feces.

Female Coyotes come into heat, or estrus, only once a year for two to five days, in late January or February in the Northeast.  It is not unusual to come across spots where both male and female Coyotes have scent-marked during this time.  Often one will mark on top of or next to its mate’s marking.  Sometimes the female’s blood can be seen in her urine, or, in the case of the pictured marking, her blood dripped onto the snow as she investigated her mate’s urine.

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American Black Ducks Vs. Mallards

2-27-19 black ducksAmerican Black Ducks (Anas rubripes), found year-round in all parts of New England except for northern Maine, are nearly identical to Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) in size, shape and voice. Both have rounded heads, thick bills, and bulky bodies. Like other dabbling ducks they sit high in the water with their tails high. These two closely related species often keep company with each other and it can be challenging to tell them apart, but it is possible to distinguish them with some certainty.

Most of the year male (drake) Mallards have a distinctive iridescent green head, a white neck ring and a yellow bill. However, the female (hen) Mallard’s plumage is very similar to that of both drake and hen Black Ducks. One of the most dependable ways to tell these two species apart is to look for the dark chocolate-colored body of the Black Duck, which is noticeably darker than the hen Mallard’s. At rest, the Black Duck is a uniform very dark brown from the bottom of its neck to its tail. The hen Mallard is a much lighter brown in this area, and in addition has a pale whitish patch on the belly. The color of the bill can also help with identification — the hen Mallard’s bill is orange and black, whereas the Black Duck’s bill ranges from a dusky yellow (drake) to a drab olive (hen) color. All of these identification clues go out the window when hybrids of these two species are encountered! (Photo: American Black Duck drake (L) and hen (R) )

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Porcupine Quills

2-25-19 porcupine IMG_6292Porcupines possess roughly 30,000 quills — hollow, modified hairs which are made from the same material (keratin) as feathers,claws, scales, hairs and fingernails. They cannot “shoot” their quills anymore than we can shoot our hair, but their subcutaneous muscles can cause the quills to become erect as well as loosen them so that when touched, the quills are easily released. Each quill possesses between 700 and 800 barbs along the four millimeters or so nearest its tip. It is these barbs that help a quill remain embedded in the tissue of a predator.

Researchers have found that barbed quills penetrate deeper into muscle than quills without barbs, and require half the penetration force. They have been found to be four times harder to pull out than barbless quills. It has been suggested that the barbs ease the quill’s penetration by concentrating force along the edges of the barbs, similar to how the serrations on a knife blade make cutting meat easier.

Fortunately for porcupines, their quills are covered with a natural antibiotic which protects a porcupine from infection should it be impaled by one of its own quills or one from another porcupine. (Photo: porcupine with quills from another porcupine embedded in nose)

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Male Woodchucks Out and About

2-22-19 woodchuck burrow IMG_0555Hibernation, the true slowing down of one’s metabolism (a Woodchuck’s body temperature drops from 99 degrees F. to 40 degrees F. and its heartbeat drops from 100 beats per minute to 4 beats per minute) is one way an animal conserves energy. Male and female Woodchucks use the energy they’ve conserved very differently in early spring.

At the end of February and in March, males arouse themselves about a month prior to the mating season and spend long periods visiting females and defending their territory. Muddy tracks and trails can be seen near their winter burrows (see photo) at this time of year. Females remain in their burrows in a state of hibernation, saving as much energy as possible for the birth and raising of their young. After confirming the presence of females on their territories, males return to their burrows for the next month or so, awakening along with the females in time for their mating season.

The timing of Woodchuck procreation is not a relaxed affair. It is quite precise, in fact, for very good reasons. If Woodchucks mate too early in the spring, their young won’t be able to find food once they are weaned. If they mate too late, their young won’t have the time necessary for putting on weight and storing fat before hibernation begins. Now is the time to look for signs indicating male Woodchuck activity near their winter woodland burrows.

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Virginia Opossums Breeding

2-18-19 opossum 025If you see a Virginia Opossum in your travels, it could well be on the hunt for a mate at this time of year. It’s even possible you may hear one if you are close enough and the timing is right, as male opossums attract females by making clicking sounds with their mouth.

The breeding practices of this marsupial are unusual, to say the least. The male opossum has a bifurcated (two-pronged) penis (see photo inset), and the female has two vaginas. Not only is their reproductive anatomy somewhat unusual, but the behavior of their sperm is as well. During maturation, sperm pair up inside the male reproductive tract and remain paired after entering the female. Just prior to fertilization the sperm pair separate (into two spermatozoa). This phenomenon occurs only in American marsupials, and not Australian. No definitive explanation exists for this, but perhaps paired sperm increase motility in the female reproductive tract.

(NB: Having an opossum on your land is a real asset – according to biologist Richard Ostfeld, one opossum can kill and eat some 5,000 ticks in a single season. Opossums are said to destroy roughly 90 percent of all the ticks they encounter.)

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Meadow Vole Tracks & Tunnels

2-4-19 meadow vole_U1A2759Tracking animals can be an elusive endeavor because so many things can alter the condition of the tracks. Have recent flurries erased the details of an imprint? Has the sun melted and enlarged a track? Was every toe registering? Did wind-blown snow cause the tracks to vanish into thin air? Was the animal walking, loping or tunneling or a combination of all three?

The reason you use more than just one track to gather information, such as the stride of the animal and the width of its trail, is that sometimes the individual tracks defy the hard and fast rules of some tracking guides. A commonly accepted generality is that Deer and White-footed Mouse tails leave drag marks, and Meadow Voles’ shorter tails don’t. However, in the right conditions, even a vole’s one-inch tail can drag (see photo), though not creating as long a line as a mouse’s tail would. The Meadow Vole whose tracks are in this photograph was loping along when it suddenly decided to seek cover under the snow and began to (try to) tunnel. Perhaps a predator instigated this behavior.

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Black-capped Chickadees Singing Their Spring Song

2-11-19 chickadee 007Would it surprise you to learn that Black-capped Chickadees have at least 16 different vocalizations? The two most common are its “chick-a-dee” call and its “fee-bee” song. The “chick-a-dee” vocalization for which these birds are named is sung by both sexes throughout the year, but it’s especially common in fall and winter. This call is used to convey a number of different messages. It’s given when a bird is separated from its mate or flock, when chickadees are mobbing a predator (lots of dee notes), to notify others when a predator has left, and when a new food source is discovered.

The two-noted, whistled “fee-bee” vocalization is given mostly by males, although not exclusively. While it can be heard throughout the year, this song is most common in late winter and spring and thus is referred to as the chickadee’s spring song. When chickadees are singing their “fee-bee” song, they are advertising their territories and attempting to attract mates.

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Beavers Breeding

2-6-19beaverimg_3683Beavers are in the middle of their breeding season, which means copulation takes place under the ice, undetected by human eyes, making information about their reproductive habits hard to come by. What is known about the breeding practices of North America’s largest rodent is that beavers form permanent breeding pairs and are monogamous through consecutive breeding seasons. Should a beaver’s mate die, a new one will take its place. In a colony, only the adult (individuals which are at least three years old) pair breeds. Mating usually takes place in January or February, and typically occurs at night in the water. Gestation is roughly 128 days and three or four kits are born in May or July.

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