An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

January

Some Cedar Waxwings Have Orange Tail Tips

1-23-19 cedar waxwing with orange tail tip_u1a2642Cedar Waxwings can be found in most of New England year-round. They are one of the few North American birds that specializes in eating fruit, particularly in the fall and winter. Unlike the Pine Grosbeak (see 1/16/19 post), which crushes the fruit and consumes only the seeds, Cedar Waxwings eat the whole fruit. If it has fermented, they will feel the effects and, like humans, become somewhat tipsy.

If you look carefully at a flock of Cedar Waxwings you may spot one that has an orange-tipped tail, rather than yellow. This has to do with the bird’s diet. Morrow’s Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) was imported in the late 1800s for use as an ornamental, for wildlife food and cover as well as for soil erosion control, but it is now recognized as an invasive plant. Its fruit contains red pigment in addition to the normal yellow pigment found in honeysuckle berries. If a Cedar Waxwing happens to eat enough of the fruit of Morrow’s Honeysuckle at the time of feather formation (they molt between August and January), its tail feathers will have orange tips instead of the usual yellow. Cedar Waxwings with orange tail tips began appearing in northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada in the 1960’s.

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Coyotes Investigating Beaver Lodges

1-21-19 beaver lodge img_6186Over the past century beaver trapping has declined and beavers have returned to many of their former habitats. Wolves also have come back in a few areas (not the Northeast yet) — but most places where beavers now live remain free of wolves. As a result, the beaver population has continued to increase, limited only by a few predators, primarily humans and Eastern Coyotes.

Coyotes are major beaver predators and have established themselves throughout the Northeast partly because of the abundance of prey and partly because of the absence of wolves, who keep coyotes out of their habitat. During most of the year, coyotes can take advantage of beavers that leave their pond to feed on land. When they are in their lodges, however, beavers are fairly safe from coyote predation, especially if their lodge is surrounded by water. Come winter, when ponds freeze and beavers remain in their lodges, coyotes can easily approach an inhabited lodge by walking over the ice. Thanks to the lodge’s two to three-foot-thick walls of frozen mud and sticks, the beavers within are safe. (Photo: signs showing a coyote’s attempt to access a beaver lodge)

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Leaf Marcescence

1-14-19 beech leaf _u1a9125Deciduous trees typically lose all of their leaves by late autumn. However, when snowshoeing or skiing through the woods this time of year, one is likely to find a scattering of deciduous trees that still have leaves clinging tightly to their branches. These plants are exhibiting marcescence, the trait of retaining plant parts after they are dead and dry.

Most deciduous trees form a layer of cells called the abscission layer at the base of each leaf’s stem, or petiole, where it attaches to the branch. This layer is composed of thin-walled cells that break easily, allowing the leaf to drop. A thin layer of corky cells seals the tree at the spot where the leaf was attached. Abcission layers are not formed on marcescent trees such as oaks and the American Beech, all members of the family Fagaceae. Therefore, their leaves do not fall off as readily, and many remain attached through the winter.

The evolutionary reasons for marcescence are not clear, though theories include defense against herbivory (e.g. browsing by deer), protection of leaf buds from winter desiccation, and as a delayed source of nutrients or moisture-conserving mulch when the leaves finally fall and decompose in the spring.

Leaf marcescence is most often seen on juvenile trees, and on the lower branches of older trees.

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Pine Grosbeaks Irrupting in Northern New England

1-16-19 pine grosbeak _u1a0130If you live in northern Maine, you see Pine Grosbeaks year-round as this is the southern border of their breeding grounds. Those of us living in central Maine and northern New Hampshire and Vermont, if we’re lucky, will glimpse this member of the finch family only during major winter irruptions. (The rest of New England rarely sees a Pine Grosbeak.) It is an infrequent winter visitor in northern New England, irrupting less frequently and remaining further north than other boreal finches.

This is an irruption winter. Because of the dearth of mountain-ash berries and conifer seeds further north in the boreal forest, Pine Grosbeaks are seeking out crabapple and mountain-ash trees in northern New England.

A flock of Pine Grosbeaks will descend on a tree and strip it of its fruit in no time. Anyone who has watched these entertaining birds feeding knows that they are incredibly agile acrobats, stretching their necks and contorting their bodies in order to reach all available fruit. Once they grab ahold of a crabapple, they squash it with their short, conical beaks. They can look quite comical as the fleshy pulp accumulates on the tops and sides of their beak, as well as on the ground beneath them. The object of their desire and efforts is the seeds within the fruit, which they consume with gusto. If disturbed they will fly en masse to the tops of nearby tall trees where they remain until the perceived danger has passed and then return to continue feeding. (photo: female Pine Grosbeak in crabapple tree)

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Mink and Fisher Tracks

1-16-19 fisher and mink tracks img_2238As members of the weasel family (Mustelidae), Fishers and Mink have five toes on both front and back feet. Often all five digits do not register, but in prime tracking snow, you can sometimes see them. Typically, mink tracks are found near a body of water, and fisher tracks are found under a canopy, not in the open. Where you have both water and trees, it’s possible to see signs of both animals.

In general, the larger the animal, the larger its tracks. Mink weigh one to three pounds; fishers four to eighteen pounds. In this photograph, the mink tracks (smaller, in the middle) are heading towards the top of the photograph, and the fisher tracks (top most and bottom most) are heading towards the bottom of the photograph. They were both traveling on a frozen woodland stream.

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Second Edition of Naturally Curious to be Released in June

jpeg FINAL COVERWhen I announced last year on my blog that my book, Naturally Curious, was going out of print, the decision by Trafalgar Square Books to issue a second edition had not been made. Happily, they asked me to make some updates, and I can now announce that a new edition is being published and will be available this coming June. It will be available in independent bookstores in June, and can be pre-ordered now on several online bookstores. You can also sign up for notification to pre-order on the publisher’s site, https://www.trafalgarbooks.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=NACUNE.


Track Stories

1-9-19 coyote gets vole_u1a8956Finally – a snowstorm not followed by rain! Tracking has been challenging, to say the least, this winter in central Vermont. However, 36 hours after the latest snowstorm, there was a plethora of track stories to read in the snow. A ruler or measuring tape and a good field guide to tracks (Mammal Tracks & Sign by Mark Elbroch and Tracking & The Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes come to mind for indoor resources, and the smaller Mammal Tracks and Scat: Life-Size Pocket Guide by Lynn Levine for keeping in your backpack) will allow you to determine who’s been where and what they’ve been up to. Signs of feeding, marking and seeking shelter are just a few of the things these stories reveal.

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