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

January

Horned Larks Aplenty In Vermont’s Champlain Valley

Along the sides of plowed roads flocks of brown birds called Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) may rise up as you drive by, fly in undulating fashion for a while and then settle back down on the roadside where they resume foraging for the seeds of ragweed, foxtail, crab grass and other weedy plants. 

With its tiny feather tufts looking like miniature devil horns, this winter visitor from the north and the only native lark of North America will rarely if ever be seen perched in a tree or even a low shrub, for it is a creature of the ground where it both feeds and nests.

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Fishers Can, But Don’t Often, Climb Trees

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While fishers are known for their ability to climb trees, it is actually a behavior reserved primarily for when they are being harassed. They are basically a terrestrial animal. Even so, it’s possible to find evidence now and then of their arboreal prowess.

 You can occasionally find a fisher’s body imprint in the snow at the base of a tree, made when it jumped off the tree trunk (see https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/fisher-landing-imprint/). Less common are visible fisher tracks running up the length of a snow-covered tree.  Fishers have the dexterity this feat demands in part because of their semi-retractile claws. Their agility is enhanced by the fact that they can turn their hind feet nearly 180°, allowing them to descend trees headfirst.

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Praying Mantis Egg Cases Overwintering

In the fall, after mating, the female Praying Mantis lays up to 400 eggs in a frothy liquid produced by glands in her abdomen. This one to two-inch long mass is attached to vegetation, often grasses and goldenrod stalks, about a foot or two off the ground. The frothy structure hardens, providing a protective case for the eggs.

In the spring, miniature (wingless) mantises, called nymphs, will hatch from this egg case. When hatching, the nymphs appear all at once, crawling from between tiny flaps in the case and then hanging from silk threads about two inches below the case. Within an hour or two, after drying out, they disappear into nearby vegetation. (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo opportunity.)

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Harlequin Ducks: Aquatic Acrobats

Picture a roiling sea off the coast of northern New England, foaming with white caps with waves crashing onto a rocky shore.  Then imagine yourself just a few yards offshore, diving down and being able to both find and capture a snail, crab or barnacle as the water bounces you up and down and sideways.  Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) not only choose this turbulent habitat in the winter, but embrace it in the summer when they seek out fast-flowing white water rivers and streams on which to breed. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology states that the Harlequin Duck’s ability to swim and feed among the boulders of a raging river is unmatched. Small wonder that they have been found to have more broken bones than any other species!

According to birdsoftheworld.org, the Harlequin Duck’s name derives from a character of traditional Italian comedy and pantomime, the harlequin, who appeared in costumes of multicolored triangular patches and displayed histrionics (tricks) – note scientific name of genus and species. They are also known as sea mice, due to their squeaky vocalizations when interacting with each other.

Sadly, the East Coast wintering population is estimated at no more than 1,500 and this species has been listed as Endangered in Canada. (Photo: from left to right – two females, two males and a female Harlequin Duck mid-wave)

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Black Bears Giving Birth

It’s hard to imagine at this time of year, but sometime between the last half of January (the full moon in January is often called the ‘bear moon’) and the first part of February Black Bears give birth to between one and five (usually two) tiny, blind, almost hairless, 9-inch long, one-half pound cubs, each about the size of a chipmunk. The cubs are totally dependent on their mother for food and warmth.

Most dens are exposed to the cold air, as they are located under fallen logs and brush, or are dug into a bank. Occasionally they are on the ground with little or no cover; in all of these locations, the mother acts like a furnace, enveloping her young and breathing on them to keep them warm. The cubs do not hibernate, but nap frequently. Like human mothers, Black Bear mothers sleep when their young sleep, and are alert when their cubs cry and let them know that they are in need of attention. (Photo: taken in March of two-month old Black Bear cubs)

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Winter Cutworms Active In Winter

One of the last things you expect to see on top of snow is a caterpillar, but it can happen.  Certain species can withstand the cold of northern New England winters and remain active throughout the colder months. Among them is the “Winter Cutworm,” or larval stage of the Large Yellow Underwing Moth (Noctua pronuba), a relatively common Noctuid (a family of moths that typically has dull forewings and pale or colorful hind wings).

These larvae actively feed on the roots and foliage of plants (grasses, weedy plants and a variety of garden vegetables) through the winter, and on warm days can appear on top of the snow.  They pupate and emerge as adults in spring and early summer. (Photo: Winter Cutworm that appears to have been caught short by a sudden drop in temperature.)


Where Do Common Loons That Breed in New England Spend The Winter?

In northern New England, Common Loons nest and raise their young on inland lakes and ponds.  By late fall, when most of the lakes have started to freeze over, the majority of loons head for the East Coast although some do overwinter on open, inland, freshwater lakes.  Loons that migrate spend the winter in their new, drabber plumage off the Northeast coast where they apparently have no problem adapting to salt water and the change of diet which that entails. 

Predominantly fish-eaters, Common Loons favor yellow perch, pumpkin seed and bluegill in addition to other species of fish, crayfish and aquatic invertebrates.  In the winter they feed primarily on flounder and herring, as well as crustaceans.  Most of their food is consumed under water, but a large fish or crustacean, such as a crab (see photo) or an occasional lobster, is usually eaten after surfacing. One adaption that serves them well in the winter is a salt gland that excretes excess salt that they ingest while feeding in the ocean. 

Just as they have territories on their breeding lakes, many wintering loons return to the same area year after year, occupying a 6-12 square mile “home range” area for the duration of the winter. Common Loons typically stay close to shore and their large size makes them relatively easy to spot. (Thanks to Susan Holland for photo opportunity.)

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North American River Otters Use Abandoned Beaver Lodges As Dens

North American River Otters use dens (called holts) for giving birth and for shelter from weather extremes.  Den sites are usually close to the water line of rivers and lakes, and have multiple entrances underwater as well as on dry land.  They are often excavated under trees or rocks or in river banks, but otters also use abandoned muskrat burrows and beaver lodges as shelters (cohabitation with beavers has also been documented – see https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/beaver-otter-cohabitation/).

One of the most obvious and distinctive signs of otter occupancy of a den is the presence of their scat in the vicinity.  It usually has little form; rather, it consists of loose piles primarily composed of fish scales. Pictured is an abandoned beaver lodge that is currently occupied by several otters whose scat in the foreground and tracks and slides in the vicinity confirm their presence. A lack of any beaver sign indicates the lodge has been abandoned by its original inhabitants.

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Downy Woodpeckers Foraging For Overwintering Insects

Three-quarters of a Downy Woodpecker’s diet consists of animal matter, mostly beetles, weevils, ants, wasps, bees, true bugs, caterpillars, spiders and snails.  The pictured male Downy has located and is consuming some overwintering wood boring beetles.  

 Notice he is on a small branch.  Research shows that male Downys tend to forage on small-diameter branches and stems of weeds, whereas females are often found on larger branches and the trunks of tree.  

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Blue Eastern Cottontail Urine

A recent (1/22/21) Naturally Curious post on the color of Eastern and New England Cottontail and Snowshoe Hare urine mentioned that occasionally it turns blue after a few minutes in the sun due to consumption of the twigs and bark of the invasive shrub, European Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). At the time of the post I had not had the opportunity to photograph it, but recently came across some so thought I would share it with you today!

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Eastern Gray And American Red Squirrel Food Caching Strategies

Red and Gray Squirrels both store food for the winter, but their food caching strategies are very different. Gray Squirrels store many hickory, oak and beech nuts by engaging in “scatterhoarding” – burying one nut at a time, each in a different spot.  Most popular are acorns, which fall into two groups — those grown by white oak species , and those from the group of red oaks. The acorns of red oaks have delayed germination, making them ideal for storage through the winter.  Those of white oaks germinate sooner, in the fall, so are more readily eaten than buried.  (If a Gray Squirrel chooses to bury an acorn from one of the white oaks, it often removes the embryo before doing so, which kills the seed and prevents germination.)  

Red Squirrels, on the other hand, practice “larderhoarding” –  collecting green cones in the fall (up to 15,000 or more) and storing them in one place (generally in the middle of their territory) where they are fiercely protected. A large pile (midden) can result, under which new cones are placed. This cool, moist environment keeps the cones sealed, protecting the seeds from being eaten by mammals and insects that are unable to open the cones.  Middens can contain enough food to last one to two seasons. (Photo: Exceptionally large Red Squirrel midden submitted by Steve Bird of the Coastal Mountains Land Trust, Belfast, Maine)

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Colorful Cottontail & Hare Urine

With snow on the ground, it becomes evident that the urine of Eastern Cottontails, New England Cottontails and Snowshoe Hares is occasionally colored red or blue!  This is not indicative of disease — it is a result of their diet. 

Phytochemicals are responsible for this oddity. Plants contain compounds that contribute to the plants’ color, taste and smell. When the plants are eaten by a rabbit or hare, these compounds pass through the animal’s system and come out in its urine, affecting the urine’s color. I am not aware of which plants produce the more commonly seen red urine, but compounds in the twigs and bark (the fruit is not often eaten by hares and rabbits) of the invasive European Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) can turn rabbit and hare urine blue. (Initially the urine is yellow, but after about ten minutes’ exposure to the sun, it turns blue.) 

As winter progresses, your chances of seeing blue urine increase, as much of the easily accessible nutritious food has been harvested and rabbits and hares resort to eating the less desirable twigs and bark of European Buckthorn. (Photo: Snowshoe Hare tracks and urine)

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Birds Gathering Grit On Dirt Roads & Roadsides

Birds compensate for their lack of teeth with a two-parted stomach, the first of which (proventriculus) secretes digestive enzymes and the second of which (a muscular gizzard) grinds the food they’ve eaten into small digestible bits.  Birds that eat hard seeds and nuts tend to have thick, muscular gizzards, while those species that eat very easily-digested foods such as soft-bodied insects, soft fruits, or nectar often have very small and thin-walled gizzards.  Many birds whose diet consists of hard substances, including seed-eaters, swallow grit (often why you see them on dirt roads or the sides of plowed roads where dirt has been exposed) to enhance the gizzard’s ability to pulverize food.

At this time of year, American Goldfinches, Common Redpolls, Snow Buntings, Tree Sparrows and Eastern Bluebirds (among others) can be found swallowing roadside grit to help grind up the seeds that they consume.  (Photo:  While a majority of their summer diet is insects, Eastern Bluebirds consume many fruits (containing hard seeds) during the winter, a change in diet that allows them to remain in northern New England throughout the year.)

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Muskrats Foraging

Usually at this time of year, Muskrats are restricted to foraging beneath the ice and eating their mostly herbivorous diet inside “push-ups” — huts made out of excavated vegetation that have been hollowed out and serve as protective outposts where they can eat and rest. Because of warmer weather this winter, many ponds have retained open areas where Muskrats (and Beavers) can climb out of the water and enjoy sunshine (if they’re lucky) and fresh air while they eat.

Unlike Beavers, which store their winter food in a pile adjacent to their lodges in the fall, Muskrats forage for food on a daily basis throughout the winter. While occasionally they eat small fish, clams, snails and turtles, Muskrats’ preferred diet is the roots, stems, leaves, and fruits of many water plants, such as cattail, water lilies, and rushes. Equipped with a thick, waterproof coat of hair, they are capable of remaining submerged up to 15 minutes collecting food due to a decreased heart rate and oxygen stored in their muscles.

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Snow Buntings Feeding

Congratulations to Kathie Fiveash, the first NC reader to correctly identify the tracks and feeding sign in the latest Mystery Photo as those of Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis).  These birds began arriving in the northern half of the United States from their summer home on the northern tundra last fall and will remain here until March, when they begin migrating back to their breeding grounds.

In the winter, 97% of a Snow Bunting’s diet is weed seeds, including those of knotweed, ragweed, amaranth, aster, goldenrod, grasses and grains. These birds forage on the ground, collecting seeds from the protruding stems of tall weeds, occasionally reaching or leaping up to take seeds from taller stems, jumping against stems to scatter seeds or bending stems over by stepping on them. (Birds of the World, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology)

While foraging, Snow Bunting flocks are constantly restless, frequently flushing rapidly and low over the ground for short distances.  A flurry of birds, much like snowflakes, fills the air nearest the ground for a few seconds while they relocate to a new area. Birds at the back of the flock fly forward to the front, creating the impression that the flock is rolling along.

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Mystery Photo

If you think you know who has been feeding here, go to the Naturally Curious blog (www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com) and enter your answer under “Comments.” (Hint: photo taken in large agricultural field in Champlain Valley of Vermont.) Answer will be revealed on Monday, January 11. (Difficulty 1-10 = 10)

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What Determines The Internal Air Temperature Of An Active Beaver Lodge In Winter?

Regardless of the outside temperature, the interior of occupied beaver lodges has a fairly stable temperature of about 32°F.  This is due to several factors, one of which is insulation. Beavers spend much of the fall collecting and stuffing mud into the cracks between the branches that provide a framework for their lodge (leaving a mud-free air vent at the top of the lodge).  This mud as well as any snowfall that occurs during the winter help keep out the cold and retain the warmth that the resident beavers’ bodies radiate. 

A comparison of the (cooler) interior temperature of bank dens and that of open-water lodges confirms that the temperature of the substrate underlying a lodge also contributes to the air temperature of the chamber.

Lastly, heat produced by beavers raises the temperature of a lodge above that derived from the lodge substrate.

(Photo: beaver lodge on a morning cold enough to show “beaver breath” escaping through the air vent that runs up through the center of the lodge to its peak. Thanks to Kay Shumway for photo op.)

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Wild Turkeys Foraging on Sensitive Fern Fertile Spores

Congratulations to Deb Marnich, the first of many Naturally Curious readers who identified the Sensitive Fern fertile frond visitors as Wild Turkeys.  I had neglected to check and make sure I hadn’t addressed this subject recently on this blog, which is my custom with every post, and indeed, just a year ago there was a post on this very subject.  Judging from the number of correct entries, either I have a very informed readership or their memory is better than mine – quite possibly both!

Wild Turkeys usually forage in flocks as they search the ground for food. Acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, ironwood and white ash seeds, hawthorn and witch hazel fruits make up a lot of their diet in fall, winter and spring. In the summer, seeds of grasses and sedges as well as invertebrates are eaten. In winter, when snow has accumulated, leaves of sedges, evergreen ferns, hemlock buds, burdock seeds and spore-covered fronds of sensitive ferns tend to be more accessible and readily eaten.

The fertile fronds of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) persist all winter, sticking up out of the snow as if beckoning to hungry turkeys. Upon finding a clump of these fertile fronds, a turkey will peck repeatedly at them, causing the sori (clusters of sporangia which produce and contain spores) to burst and release thousands of spores onto the surface of the snow.

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Mystery Photo

Any idea who has been visiting these Sensitive Fern fertile fronds?  If so, go to the Naturally Curious blog, scroll down to “Comments” and enter yours.  Answer will be revealed in Friday’s post.

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White-tailed Bucks Shedding Antlers

White-tailed Deer bucks grow and shed a pair of antlers annually.  The main purpose of these bony growths is to serve as weapons against rival bucks during rut, or mating season.  During this time in the fall, prior to their 24-hour receptive period, does release chemicals to signal their readiness to bucks.  These chemicals keep the bucks’ testosterone level high, which in turn keeps antlers firmly attached to their heads.  Once rut is over, does stop emitting these chemicals, and as a consequence, the bucks’ testosterone level drops significantly.

When a buck’s testosterone level drops, it triggers cells called osteoclasts to become more active in the buck’s pedicles, the permanent bony bases which anchor the antlers to the buck’s skull. As a result, calcium is extracted from the pedicles which weakens the antlers’ connection to the buck’s skull, and eventually the antlers drop off.

It is rare that both antlers drop at the same time – usually there are four to eight days between the loss of the first and the second antler. I assumed that bucks needed to knock their antlers against something hard, such as the trunk of a tree, in order to get them to fall off.  However, years ago I witnessed a buck shedding an antler simply by dropping his head and then quickly flicking it upwards, sending an antler flying through the air. (Note pedicle where antler used to be attached. Photo by Alfred Balch)

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Coyotes Scavenging

Coyote tracks from three different directions led to an area where a deer’s well-cleaned skull was the only remnant of a communal meal. It had been dug up from a spot nearby where it had been cached, and carried to a more protected area to work on.  Coyotes are omnivores, but about 90% of their diet consists of mammals.  Coyote scat I’ve examined has included, among other things, the hair of Muskrat, Snowshoe Hare, White-tailed Deer and small rodents as well as feathers, grass and apples.

Coyotes are commonly blamed whenever there is a decline in the White-tailed Deer population.  Studies involving the removal of deer populations in a given area have not found any evidence that Coyote removal caused an increase in the deer population, nor did it affect the overall deer population growth. The fact that Coyotes are not causing deer populations to decline can also be seen in the devastating effect White-tailed Deer are having on forest ecosystems throughout the eastern United States as the Coyote population increases.

That’s not to say Coyotes don’t hunt deer – they do, primarily in the spring (fawns) and in the winter, especially when there is enough snow and/or crust to slow deer down but not Coyotes. However, much of their venison consumption is a result of their scavenging deer carcasses, which they do any time of year. Examine Coyote scat and the chances are great you will find deer hair in it; chances are also great that it came from a carcass, not a living deer.

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North American River Otters Sliding & Gliding

North American River Otters spend much of their time foraging.  They often have a circuit they travel along rivers and lakes which takes them up to a week or more to complete.  In between bodies of water, they travel overland on well-used paths, often during the day in winter.

These circuits are miles long, and for much of the time otters lope along in typical weasel fashion.  However, in winter the snow permits them to occasionally flop down on their bellies, tuck their front feet next to their chest and push off with their hind feet as they slide effortlessly on top of the snow, both down slopes as well as along flat surfaces.  Once they obtain a certain speed, they give their hind legs a rest and lift them off the ground so as not to slow them down as they slide (see photo).  Otters have been clocked up to 17 miles per hour running and sliding in this manner.

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Beavers Foraging

Even in the coldest of winters, there is often a thaw around this time of year that frequently allows beavers to escape the cold (+/- 34°F) dark lodge where they reside during most of the winter.  Our most recent thaw was such that in many beaver ponds, ice didn’t even have to be broken in order for resident beavers to forage for food on land.

When beavers are confined to complete darkness (under the ice) their 24-hour circadian cycle extends to a 28 hour day. During this time beavers sleep for longer periods at a time and thus need less food.  As spring approaches and the days lengthen, the slightest exposure to daylight will reset the beaver’s biological clock back to the circadian cycle. (Leonard Lee Rue, Beavers)  (Photo by Alice Trageser)

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American Goldfinch Plumage Anomaly

Molting, the replacement of all or some of a bird’s feathers, occurs in response to a mixture of hormonal changes brought about by seasonal changes. This process serves to replace worn feathers (they cannot repair themselves) and can play a part in seasonal camouflage as well as attracting a mate.

All of our small songbirds have a complete molt, replacing all of their feathers in late summer. In addition, many species have a partial molt (replacing body feathers but not wing or tail feathers) in the spring.

According to David Sibley, American Goldfinches begin to molt all of their (alternate/breeding plumage) feathers in September, with the males replacing their brilliant gold feathers with much duller feathers by November.  Come spring and the breeding season, male goldfinches replace their dull (basic/non-breeding) body feathers (but not the wing or tail feathers) with new, bright feathers.

Imagine my surprise when I spied a brilliantly colored American Goldfinch at my feeder this week.  According to ornithologist George Clark, it’s usually March before one starts to see an American Goldfinch in breeding plumage. One can only wonder what prevented this individual from molting its breeding plumage in the fall. (Photo: male American Goldfinch, winter plumage; inset – male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage in January)

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