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June

Hemlock Varnish Shelf & Pleasing Fungus Beetles

Two beauties in one place – Hemlock Varnish Shelf (Ganoderma tsugae), an aptly-named polypore fungus that is found growing on Eastern Hemlocks, and Pleasing Fungus Beetles (Megalodacne heros) devouring Hemlock Varnish Shelf in large numbers.

The dry, shiny upper surface of the growing Hemlock Varnish Shelf caps is brightly colored, often in flaming shades of red or orange.  Similarly, the beetles are bright orange and black, appearing to match the color of their host fungus. The combination is eye-catching, to say the least.

Although these beetles are not rare, they are seldom noticed perhaps because the adults are nocturnal. They sometimes congregate under bark or rotting wood usually within 25 feet of Hemlock Varnish Shelf-infested trees and stumps. They emerge at dusk to feed throughout the night. Females lay their eggs on the fruiting bodies of shelf fungi in the genus Ganoderma and other wood-rotting fungi. Pleasing Fungus Beetle larvae hatch and feed in the woody fruiting structures of shelf fungi, as do adults.

A wide variety of fungi serves as hosts for the family as a whole, but each Pleasing Fungus Beetle species seems to be specific to a certain group of fungi. In this case the beetle Megalodacne heros is associated with Hemlock Varnish Shelf.

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American Redstarts Co-Parenting

American Redstarts, lively and colorful little warblers, share much of the parental care of their young.  He selects and presents her with a choice of nest locations.  She chooses the site and builds the nest.  He feeds her while she incubates the eggs. Both parents collect insects and feed their nestlings as well as remove fecal sacs (small packets of waste produced by nestlings). She does much of the brooding of the young. When their young fledge, the mother and father divide responsibility for the fledglings, with each parent separately caring for a portion of the young.

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Male White Pine Cones Opening Up & Releasing Pollen

Itchy eyes, runny nose and scratchy throat may have told you that this is a banner year for tree pollen. White Pines (Pinus strobus) get much of the credit. They bear both male and female cones on the same tree (monoecious), as do most conifers.  The familiar female (seed) cones are between four and eight inches long, woody and dark brown.  The male (pollen) cones are much smaller (1/2”), papery and light in color. They are borne in clusters and have tightly overlapping scales that open up when the pollen is mature, releasing massive amounts of pollen into the air which is distributed by the wind.  (To see this phenomenon, go to https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/watch-pine-tree-unleashes-huge-fluffy-pollen-cloud-180969048/.) Pollen can remain airborne for up to 11 hours, and can travel up to 1,800 miles in a short amount of time. Once the pollen is dispersed, the male cones fall off the tree and disintegrate quite quickly.

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Wood Turtles Laying Eggs

This Wood Turtle is climbing up a sandy hill in order to find a high elevation site in which to lay her eggs, one where the soil temperature is just right and where flooding is not likely to occur. 

Twice a year, in the spring and fall, Wood Turtles engage in a mating ritual that involves both turtles “dancing” with each other prior to copulating in the water.  Once mating has occurred, the female seeks out a suitable habitat in which to lay her 3-20 eggs, usually near a stream.  Once the nest cavity has been dug, the eggs laid, and the cavity filled with dirt and/or leaves, the female departs, never to provide care for her young.  The eggs hatch and the hatchlings emerge from the nest sometime between August and October.  Unlike most turtles, the sex of the hatchlings is determined genetically and not by the temperature of the eggs.

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Tadpoles Vulnerable To Drought

Congratulations (again!) to Kathie Fiveash, the first Naturally Curious reader to correctly identify the rough patch in Monday’s Mystery Photo as tadpoles that were stranded in a puddle that was drying up.

Most tadpoles acquire oxygen in a number of ways — through gills, through their skin, and by breathing air into their lungs. In this case, a lack of access to oxygen in the water has left them high and dry, as their lungs are not developed enough to provide them with the necessary amount of oxygen from the air. A sad ending for these young frogs, but a goldmine for scavenging raccoons, skunks, foxes and birds.

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Mystery Photo

Photo: a 15′ x 5′ puddle in a grassy field after many days without rain. Any guesses as to what the rough patch is? Please submit all interpretations under “Comments” on the Naturally Curious blog site. Answer will be revealed on June 18th.

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The Perils Of Being A Duckling

Recently I encountered a single Common Goldeneye duckling frantically peeping as it swam around and around a pond with no other ducks or ducklings in sight. The gray-brown color of its eyes and the remains of an egg tooth at the tip of its bill indicated that it had hatched very recently. Because it couldn’t fly (it takes 50-70 days for most ducklings to attain flight status) nor swim fast enough to escape predators (such as largemouth bass, northern pike and other big fish, bullfrogs, snakes, snapping turtles, foxes, mink, raccoons, hawks, owls, gulls, crows and herons), it was extremely vulnerable. 

In addition to predation, weather conditions threaten duckling survival.  While their fuzzy down feathers are an excellent source of natural insulation in dry weather, they are of little value when wet. In addition, ducklings also lack the thermal protection of adult contour feathers. Cold, rainy, and windy conditions can lead to death from exposure (hypothermia) and may reduce food availability.

There was no obvious explanation for why this duckling was not in the company of its mother and siblings.  One can only hope that they were reunited in short order, as there is a bit more safety in numbers. Hopefully the fortitude it took for this youngster to leap from its nest cavity to the water below will serve it well in the days to come.

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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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