An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

June

Velvet-covered Antlers Growing

Male White-tailed Deer grow a new pair of antlers every year starting when they are one year old.  The size of the antlers depends on the age of the deer, genetics, and diet. Before antlers actually appear, structures called pedicles that connect the antlers to the skull develop.  Growth of the actual antlers begins in March or April and as more nutritious food becomes more available during May and June antlers grow more rapidly.

Antlers are one of the fastest growing bones that exist; growth is regulated by hormones which are controlled by the photoperiod, or length of day . Yearling antlers can grow about 1/8-inch a day during the summer, and adults as much as 1/4th of an inch.  While they are growing, antlers are covered with a layer of tissue called “velvet” which is dense with blood vessels that carry nutrients to the antlers. In August the supply of blood to the velvet diminishes and the antlers begin to harden. By September the velvet has dried and is falling off.  Antlers are used as weapons during rut, or the mating season, after which they fall to the ground, providing a valuable source of calcium and phosphorus for rodents. (Photo by Erin Donahue)

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Painted Turtles Laying Eggs

Painted Turtles have been engaging in intricate, underwater courtship (consisting of mutual stroking) and mating since March or April. Females can store sperm for several months, enabling them to delay egg-laying, as well as to lay several clutches of eggs.  Nesting activity peaks in June and early July, when females leave their ponds to dig holes in sandy soil and gravel (lower left photo) in which they deposit 3 – 15 oval, white eggs.  Note in the lower right photo, taken after the turtle had departed, that the turtle buries her eggs and tamps down the earth so effectively it’s hard to detect that the ground has been disturbed.

In August or September Painted Turtle eggs hatch and most of the young turtles head to nearby ponds. Occasionally, in northern New England, the young overwinter in the nest and emerge the following spring. (Photos by Jody Crosby)

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Eastern Chipmunks Nesting

Eastern Chipmunks breed twice a year, typically in March/April and in June/July.  After mating, the female chipmunk outfits a central nesting chamber deep within the ground with leaves.  She will give birth to four to six young in about a month.  When born the young are about the size of a jelly bean, toothless and furless with closed eyes and ears. The mother raises her young by herself and by the time they are a month old, they begin to emerge from their burrow.  At this point they are about two-thirds the size of an adult chipmunk.  (Photo: female Eastern Chipmunk collecting leaves for her underground nest)

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Canadian Tiger Swallowtails Puddling

In April, during mud season, living on a dirt road can be a curse.  But in May and June, when swallowtails emerge, it can be a blessing as you often witness a phenomenon called “puddling.” This phenomenon consists of clusters of butterflies (predominantly males) gathering to obtain salts and minerals that have leached from the soil into standing puddles and moist dirt.

Because butterflies do not have chewing mouthparts they must drink their meals. While nectar is their main source of nutrition, males often supplement their diet with minerals. The sodium uptake aids in reproductive success, with precious nutrients often transferred from the male to the female during mating. This extra nutrition helps ensure that the eggs survive.

Pictured are Canadian Tiger Swallowtails puddling.  They are easily mistaken for Eastern Tiger Swallowtails as they look very much alike and their ranges overlap. To determine which you have seen, look at the underside of the butterfly’s forewing and see if the yellow band along the margin is solid and continuous (Canadian Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio canadensis), or if it is broken up into spots (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus).

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Purple Martins Nesting

In April, North America’s largest swallow, the Purple Martin, returns to New England to breed.  Nesting is now underway, and here in the East takes place almost exclusively in man-made colonial nest boxes.  Prior to 1900, woodpecker holes in snags were the preferred nesting sites, but now only Purple Martins in the West tend to seek them out (unlike Purple Martins in the East, they often are solitary nesters). Even though humans have provided housing which has increased their population, there is still considerable competition from European Starlings and House Sparrows.

When they are not raising a ruckus at their nests, the iridescent dark blue-purple male and duller female Purple Martins can be seen swooping and gliding in the air as they hunt their insect prey.  If there is a cold, rainy spell in the spring or early summer it can reduce their insect food supply and they can suffer great losses.

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Baltimore Orioles Fledging

6-28-19 baltimore oriole family 0U1A0415After arriving back in Vermont in May, Baltimore Orioles mate, build their nest (female only) near the tip of an outer branch of an isolated tree (discouraging predation), lay eggs and incubate them for about two weeks before they hatch.

After spending the next two weeks in the nest, most nestlings are ready to fledge. It is at this point that you can actually see the nestlings as they cling to the outside of their pendulous nest, or perch on its rim as they noisily await the arrival of a parent with an insect morsel. Upon fledging, they can fly, but not very far. The parents will continue to keep an eye on them and feed them during these vulnerable first two weeks out of the nest until they can fend for themselves. (Many thanks to Nina and Jerry Hickson for photo opportunity.) (Photo: Male (topmost bird), female and nestling Baltimore Oriole)

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Tulip Trees Flowering

6-26-19 tulip tree2 0U1A0105The Tulip Tree,(Liriodendron tulipifera), one of our largest native trees, is a member of the magnolia family. There may not be a more appropriately-named tree in all the land, for the likeness of its orange and yellow goblet-like flowers and the shape of its leaves to that of tulips is undeniable. Although large in size (2” in length) the flowers can go unnoticed because they are usually found high up on the 60 – 90-foot tree, and they don’t appear until the leaves are fully developed.

Tulip Trees flower for only two to six weeks. Pollination must occur when the flowers are young, and they are often receptive only for 12 to 24 hours. The flowers produce large quantities of nectar for pollinating insects such as flies, beetles, honey bees and bumblebees, but they are not very efficient pollinators and many seeds do not develop. Those that do form cone-shaped seed heads that may remain on the tree after the leaves have fallen.

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Male Indigo Buntings Singing

indigo bunting1B0A0717As with many species of birds, only male Indigo Buntings sing. Their distinctive paired notes are often broadcast from the top of a tree during the breeding season. This song serves as a “keep out” signal to other male buntings, as well as a means of attracting a female. (To hear the Indigo Bunting’s song, go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Indigo_Bunting/sounds.)

While some birds hatch knowing the songs they will sing as adults, most songbirds begin learning their songs while still in the nest. They listen to adults, either their fathers or neighboring males, singing around them. According to Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, about 80% of first-year males in their first spring season copy the song of an older neighboring territorial male. Following fledging, young birds attempt to replicate these songs, practicing until they have matched their tutor’s song.

During the breeding season, Indigo Bunting song rates vary with stage of nesting. The greatest frequency occurs in unmated males (680 songs per hour). During nest-building, the frequency drops to 24 songs per hour, but increases once the female has completed laying eggs.

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Snapping Turtles Laying Eggs – Sex Of Turtles Determined By Temperature

6-21-19 snapping turtle 1B0A1038It’s that time of year again, when female Snapping Turtles are leaving ponds, digging holes in sandy soil and depositing up to 80 eggs (20-30 is typical) before covering them up and returning to their ponds. While the sex of most snakes and lizards is determined by sex chromosomes at the time of fertilization, the sex of most turtles is determined by the environment after fertilization. In these reptiles, the temperature of the eggs during a certain period of development is the deciding factor in determining sex, and small changes in temperature can cause dramatic changes in the sex ratio.

Often, eggs incubated at low temperatures (72°F – 80°F) produce one sex, whereas eggs incubated at higher temperatures (86°F and above) produce the other. There is only a small range of temperatures that permits both males and females to hatch from the same brood of eggs. The eggs of the Snapping Turtle become female at either cool (72°F or lower) or hot (82°F or above) temperatures. Between these extremes, males predominate. (Developmental Biology by S. Gilbert)

If the cool temperatures we’ve experienced thus far this spring continue, there could be a lot of female Snapping Turtles climbing up out of the earth come September. (Thanks to Clyde Jenne and Jeffrey Hamelman for photo opportunity)

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Black Swallowtails Laying Eggs

6-14-19 black swallowtail 0U1A0073Looking every bit like the Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) flower buds on which they were laid, the pale yellow eggs of a Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) are next to impossible to find unless one is fortunate enough to see them in the act of being laid. Members of the parsley family (Golden Alexander, Wild Parsnip, Queen Anne’s Lace, Dill, Carrot) are host plants for most ravenous Black Swallowtail larvae, and thus that is where you will find their eggs. As they eat, the caterpillars absorb toxins from their host plant, which does not harm them but makes them distasteful to avian predators.

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Northern Water Snakes Courting & Mating

9-19-19 mating water snakes by Jeff Mazur IMG_9688 (002)Northern Water Snakes (Nerodia sipedon) are non-poisonous snakes which, as their name implies, tend to be found in the Northeast, in and around water. Females (bottom snake in photo) are heavier and longer than males (as long as five feet) and grow much faster. Since the end of May, Northern Water Snakes have been engaging in courtship rituals and mating. The male snake (top snake in photo) begins by crawling alongside a female while he rubs his body along hers. It is not unusual for more than one male to court her at the same time, with one eventually achieving copulation by twisting and coiling his tail around her body and tail as he attempts to get their cloacae aligned.

Northern Water Snakes are ovoviviparous – the female’s eggs incubate inside her body. The larger the female, the greater the number of live young she’s likely to produce in late August or September. Northern Water Snakes have between 12 and 60 young — judging from the size of the pictured female she’ll have a large litter. (Photo by Jeff Mazur)

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Black-and-White Warblers Raising Young

6-14-19 black-and-white warbler nest 0U1A0066One of the first warblers to return to its northern nesting grounds, the (female) Black-and-White Warbler has already built a nest, laid and incubated 4-6 speckled eggs and is now brooding and feeding nestlings.

Finding a Black-and-White Warbler nest can be challenging – these bark-foraging insect eaters usually build their well-hidden nest on the ground at the base of a tree, rock, stump or fallen log. Tucked into vegetation with the rim often at ground level, their 5-inch diameter nest blends into its surroundings. Bark strips, grass, dry leaves and pine needles are used to construct the nest which is lined with moss, horsehair and dried grasses.

The male helps the female feed the nestlings and defend the nest. Female Black-and-White Warblers have been observed performing “rodent run” distraction displays, in which the bird assumes a hunched posture and drags its tail, luring potential predators away from the nest.

The Brown-headed Cowbird is a major threat to Black-and-White Warblers as it frequently parasitizes their nests. One documented Black-and-White Warbler nest in Michigan contained 10 eggs, eight of which were laid by cowbirds. (Thanks to Susan and Dean Greenberg for photo opportunity.)

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Muskrats & Spatterdock

6-12-19 muskrat eating water lily flower bud1B0A0488Cattails, sedges, rushes, water lilies and grasses make up the bulk of a Muskrat’s diet although these aquatic rodents have been known to occasionally dine on fish, crustaceans and freshwater clams.

Muskrats typically don’t eat their food where they find it – they usually bring it out to a feeding platform in the water, which provides them with some protection from predators. However, they make an exception for Bullhead Pond-lily flower buds (Nuphar variegata), also known as Spatterdock, which they often devour on the spot wherever they find them (see photo). Beavers, Porcupines (yes, Porcupines can swim), White-tailed Deer and waterfowl also dine on the leaves, rhizomes, buds, flowers and seeds of Bullhead Pond-lilies.

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Damselflies & Dragonflies Eclosing

6-10-19 damselfly emerging 0U1A0216It’s time to check emerging vegetation along the shores of ponds for adult damselflies and dragonflies emerging from their larval skins (eclosing). Fully developed aquatic larvae crawl up out of the water onto emergent vegetation and rocks, split the back of their skin and emerge as winged adults.

As the adult slowly pulls itself up and out of its larval skin two things are immediately apparent. Newly eclosed dragonflies and damselflies lack pigment, and they are extremely vulnerable to predation as they hang clutching their old skin, pumping air into their body and liquid into their expanding wings. These newly-eclosed adults must wait in this position, unable to escape predators, until their wings dry and they can fly. (Photo: damselfly eclosing. Note diminutive size of cream-colored wings before they expand.)

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Elm Seeds Important Early Source of Food For Wildlife

elm seeds 0U1A0175Tips of American Elm (Ulmus Americana) branches dropping on the ground alerted me to the fact that something was going on in the crown of the elm tree above me. Sure enough, a Gray Squirrel was busy dropping branch tips after harvesting the elm seeds on them. Because their seeds develop long before most seeds are available, elm seeds are sought after by numerous song birds, game birds and squirrels. This was verified by the presence of the Gray Squirrel, as well as a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and an Indigo Bunting (see photo), both of which took intermittent breaks to sing, but spent most of their time consuming elm seeds.

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Eastern Coyote Pups Exploring

6-5-19 standing coyote pup2 1B0A1576When they are three weeks old, Eastern Coyote pups emerge from their dens and see the world for the first time. At first they stay very close to the den, but within a short time the pups are exploring the surrounding territory. Soon they will be accompanying their parents on their forays, learning how to hunt.

Looking and acting much like Red Foxes, one discernible difference is the color of the tip of their tail. Unlike Red Foxes, which have white-tipped tails, Eastern Coyote pups’ dusky-colored tail tips (hard to see in photo) eventually turn black. (Thanks to Marc Beerman, http://www.oldmanphotography.com for photo op.)

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Indian Cucumber Root Flowering & Fruiting

6-29-18 wild cucumberroot_U1A9795

Indian Cucumber Root, Medeola virginiana, lives up to its name, as its rhizomes have a mild cucumber taste. Equally as enticing are its flowers — delicate and oh so intricate.

This member of the Lily family has one whorl of leaves if it isn’t going to flower (too young or without enough energy to reproduce), and two if it is. If there are two whorls of leaves, look under the top whorl and you will find flowers unlike any other you have seen. The pale petals fold back and from the center emerge three long reddish styles and several purple stamens (reproductive parts). Occasionally the flowers are above the topmost leaves, but typically they are below.

The change in position that Indian Cucumber Root flowers undergo as they develop into fruit is as fascinating as their appearance. The pedicels, or stalks, of these flowers become more erect once the flowers have been pollinated and fertilized, to the point where the dark blue berries mature above the upper whorl of leaves. You can see both stages in this photograph (styles have yet to fall off the developing fruits).

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Insect Populations Decline In Number And Diversity

6-27-18 common milkweed IMG_7097Thirteen years ago I went and sat in a field full of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). The photographs I took of insects visiting the fragrant blossoms ended up being the subject of my first children’s book, Milkweed Visitors. The number and diversity of invertebrates in that patch of milkweed was astounding. Over a decade later I find milkweed flowers alarmingly free of insect visitors. I first noticed this several years ago, and unfortunately the trend has continued. An occasional honey bee or bumblebee, perhaps a swallowtail butterfly or a red milkweed beetle or two can be seen, but nowhere near the number or variety of insects that you found just a few years ago.

Recent studies show that insect populations are declining dramatically not only in milkweed patches, and not only in North America, but in many parts of the world. A global index for invertebrate abundance showed a 45 percent decline over the last four decades. (Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies). Researchers say various factors, from the rampant use of pesticides (in particular, neonicotinoids), the spread of monoculture crops such as corn and soybeans, urbanization, and habitat destruction contribute to this decline.

This phenomenon affects everything from pollination to the documented decline in bird populations that feed on flying insects. However, thus far, only the decline of honey bee populations has received widespread public attention, in large measure because of their vital role in pollinating food crops. The rest of the insect world has been widely ignored. Insects play a major role not only in pollination but as predators of insect pests and as food for birds, amphibians and bats. Who knows how many plant species live in symbiotic relationships with highly specialized insects.

Given the importance of insects for agriculture, biodiversity and the health of ecosystems, one hopes that studies regarding the decline of insects will increase in the near future.  We can all contribute to a greater understanding of what is happening by participating in “citizen science” projects which undertake monitoring of specific insect species. A list of such projects and how to get involved can be found at https://xerces.org/citizen-science/.

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Five-day-old Common Loon Chick Seeking Shelter & Rest

6-27-18 common loon chick3


Common Loon Chicks Hatching

6-27-18 loon chicks3_U1A9901

Newly-hatched Common Loon chicks can swim as soon as they hit the water, which they do as soon as their down dries after hatching, usually within 24 hours. Their buoyancy and lack of maneuverability, however, leave them vulnerable to predators. Parents usually don’t stray far from their young chicks due to the omnipresent threat of eagles, hawks, gulls, large fish and snapping turtles.  During their first two weeks, young loon chicks often seek shelter (and rest) on the backs of their parents.

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Male Green Frogs Defending Territories

6-25-18 green frogs2 _U1A9296Male Green Frogs are extremely territorial. During June, July and August they establish a series of territories, often claiming each one for less than one week before moving on.

The desirability of a given territory is of utmost importance – the better the quality (amount of vegetation) of your territory the more likely it is that a female will choose you to fertilize her eggs. The more time a male spends in a high quality territory the greater the number of mates he will acquire.

Considerable aggression is displayed against other males when an individual is claiming and maintaining a territory. When a competing male arrives, a wrestling match often ensues (see photo).

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Vulnerable Ducklings

6-20-18 woody & ducklings IMG_8636

There is a reason why ducklings remain with their mother for their first month or two of life. It takes 50-70 days before most ducklings can fly, and survival during this period is highly variable, ranging from less than 10 percent to as high as 70 percent. They are at their most vulnerable during this stage. The most common causes of duckling mortality include predation, adverse weather conditions, starvation, disease, and parasites. The mother offers her young a degree of protection from some of these factors while they are under her care.

Predation is arguably the greatest threat to young waterfowl. Ducklings are sought after by nearly every type of predator, including other birds (eagles, hawks, owls, herons, crows), fish (largemouth bass and northern pike), amphibians (bullfrogs), reptiles (snakes and snapping turtles), and mammals (foxes, raccoons, and mink).  Their odds for survival increase dramatically when the ducklings obtain the ability to fly.  (Photo: female Wood Duck and ducklings)

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The Emerald Euphoria Beetle: A Distinctive Scarab

6-20-18 emerald euphoria beetle_U1A8526

Beetles comprise almost 40% of described insects and 25% of all known animal life-forms. There are about 30,000 beetles known as scarabs or scarab beetles in the family Scarabaeidae. They make up about 10% of all known beetles. You may be very familiar with scarab beetles without even being aware that that is what they are – they are as close as the nearest Japanese Beetle or June Bug (beetle).

Scarabs are generally oval-shaped and stout. The smallest are about .08 inches and the largest (Hercules beetles) can reach 6.7 inches. Most scarabs are black or brown, but many, especially tropical species, have bright colors and intricate patterns. They have distinctive, clubbed antennae composed of plates called lamellae that can be compressed into a ball or fanned out like leaves to sense odors (see photo). Their diet is extremely varied and includes plant material, fungi, fruit, carrion, insects and even the slime left by snails.

One fruit- and flower-eating species is the Emerald Euphoria beetle, Euphoria fulgida (pictured). It is usually bright green or bluish. Emerald Euphoria beetles belong to the subfamily Cetoniiae, the flower or fruit chafers. One of its most distinctive characteristics is its ability to fly (using its second pair of wings) while its first pair (the hardened, colorful elytra) remain closed — most beetles open and extend their elytra during flight.

Unlike most scarabs, Emerald Euphorias are diurnal, making it possible to see this species visiting flowers in order to consume nectar, pollen and petals.  (Thanks to Richard Wyatt for photo op.)

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Showy Lady’s Slippers Flowering

6-18-18 showy lady's slipper_U1A7885

Showy Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium reginae) can be found growing in five of the six New England states (all but Rhode Island). They are ranked as “extremely rare” in three of these states (CT, MA and NH), and uncommon in Vermont and Maine. To gaze upon a flowering clonal cluster of these striking orchids is a thrill no matter where you are in the Northeast.

Given their rarity and distinctive appearance, all populations of Showy Lady’s Slippers are well documented. However, one can still unexpectedly come upon them. In Vermont, where they are on the “List of Rare and Uncommon Native Vascular Plants,” an historical population that had not been seen since 1902 was rediscovered by the Green Mountain National Forest staff in 2009. It consisted of more than 1000 plants.

When you’re traveling through wetlands (forested or open) and moist woods, generally in limy sites, at low to moderate elevations, keep an eye open for these rare beauties. Showy Lady’s Slippers dramatically announce their presence at this time of year with their distinctive and colorful blossoms. (For more natural history on this species, go to the Naturally Curious blog, scroll down and on the right-hand side, search for “Showy Lady’s Slipper.”)

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