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

March

Woolly Bears Awake, Feeding & Soon To Pupate

Isabella Tiger Moths (we call their larvae Woolly Bears) are one of the few moths or butterflies that overwinter as caterpillars. In the fall they produce a chemical which acts like anti-freeze and protects them against damage from freezing and thawing. The caterpillars remain curled up in a protected spot, such as in leaf litter or under loose bark, nearly frozen solid all winter.

When spring arrives and the temperature reaches the high 40’s and 50’s they become active again, feed for a few days, and then pupate inside a cocoon made with their own bristles. Adult Isabella Tiger Moths emerge in about a month, anywhere between April and June, mate, and lay eggs. Within two weeks the eggs hatch. In New England a second generation of woolly bears will be produced and these are the larvae that overwinter.

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Amphibians On The Move

According to Jim Andrews, Director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Project (https://www.vtherpatlas.org), the recent warm rain triggered a significant movement of many amphibians in the Lake Champlain Basin as they left their hibernation sites and migrated towards their breeding grounds.  Blue-spotted Salamanders (& hybrids), Four-toed Salamanders, Spotted Salamanders, Eastern Red-backed Salamanders, Eastern Newts, Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs were among those seen emerging from their hibernacula.  

Keep your eyes peeled on warm (40°+), rainy evenings and see if you discover a popular amphibian road- crossing location.  Check local resources to see if there is a local volunteer group that assists these slow-moving migrants across the road. If not, you could start one yourself – be sure to wear reflective clothing, have a flashlight and report your findings to a local nature center or conservation organization. (Photo: Blue-spotted Salamander by Erin Talmage)

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Virginia Opossum Tail of Woe

Congratulations to Rebecca Weil, the first (of many) NC readers to recognize Virginia Opossum tracks, tail drag and all!

Opossums are a southern marsupial that have extended their range into northern New England in increasing numbers since about 1900.  They are able to survive here, without hibernating, in part due to the fact that they store fat under their skin and in their tail which helps sustain them through long, cold winters. 

Opossums that live in the Northeast are vulnerable, however, to the cold and run the risk of having their relatively hairless ears and tails frostbitten. In fact, it is unusual to spot an opossum that has spent a winter here and not lost at least part of one of these appendages from frostbite (see pictured Virginia Opossum tail after losing its tip).

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Common Grackles Raising Young

Although female Common Grackles do all the incubating, both males and females provide food for their nestlings.  Males average almost two feedings an hour, females almost four. Judging from the size of the larvae the pictured Grackle has in its beak, its nestlings are midway to fledging, perhaps a week old. The older/larger the nestlings, the greater the size of the food they receive.  Male and female nestlings received items of equal quality and quantity.

During the breeding season, both nestlings and adults feed primarily on insects in addition to a small amount of grain (and an occasional fish, small rodent or leech).  During the winter, their diet consists mostly of agricultural grains and tree seeds such as acorns.

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Purple Martins Face Challenges Upon Returning To Breeding Grounds

Many of the Purple Martins that return from South America to the Northeast to breed have flown across the Gulf of Mexico to get here.  Once they’ve made this impressive trip, their challenges are far from over.  The reproductive success of Purple Martins depends not only on their arriving on their breeding grounds, but on surviving once they have arrived. One of the largest challenges that faces them upon their return is related to their diet, which consists exclusively of flying insects.  Purple Martins are particularly susceptible to spells of cold and rainy weather during the spring and early summer which can drastically reduce their supply of food.

Even when the weather doesn’t present them with nutritional challenges, Purple Martins have to contend with European Starlings and House Sparrows, both of which aggressively compete with them for artificial/human-made nest sites. Human intervention and management is often needed in order to protect the martin population. (Photo: male Purple Martin)

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Raccoons Seeking Dens

Pregnant female Raccoons have recently been exploring potential natal dens where they will soon give birth to four or five young. This year’s litters will be well hidden from potential predators deep inside the tree cavities, caves and rock crevices their mothers have chosen.  We won’t see the offspring for another month or two, after they have developed enough motor skills to be able to walk.  Sometime in June or July their mother will venture out of the den at night with her offspring and introduce them to solid food and the great outdoors.

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Mourning Cloak Butterflies Emerging

With the recent warm temperatures, Mourning Cloak butterflies have been seen gliding through fields and leafless woods.  Unlike most butterflies, Eastern Commas, Question Marks, Red Admirals and Mourning Cloaks overwinter as adults, seeking shelter in protected spots such as under loose bark. When spring arrives, they slip out from their winter quarters and take to the air.

Mourning Cloaks resemble dead leaves so much that from a distance the entire insect seems to disappear when it lands on the forest floor.  Up close you can see the velvety texture of the wing scales, said to resemble the clothing mourners used to wear; hence, their common name. Mourning cloaks live up to ten months — an impressive life span for a butterfly.  As they age, the yellow border of their wings fades to an off-white.

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Bohemian Waxwings Bulking Up For Migration North

Named for the nomadic ranging patterns of their large winter flocks, Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) are winter visitors in northern New England, where flocks can be seen eating the sugary fruits of mountain ash, serviceberry and crab apples, among others. Very soon they will return to their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of Alaska and western Canada.

Adults and some juveniles of Bohemian (and Cedar) Waxwings have variable numbers of red, wax-like nubs on the tips of their secondary feathers. Research shows that these nubs are important in the social hierarchy of a flock. They, and other plumage characters (brightness of yellow tail band and wing-stripe), increase in number and/or prominence with age. The red and yellow carotenoid pigments of waxwing plumage are derived exclusively from dietary sources.

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Clean-up Crew Has Arrived

New England’s skies have been devoid of the wheeling antics of our most prominent avian scavenger, the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) since last October.  The first migrants are returning, and just in time to recycle winter’s roadkills such as the raccoon carcass pictured.

Turkey Vultures have keen vision and road-killed animals are fairly easy to spot, but scientists have wondered for many years how they locate carrion hidden from view, such as those within forests.  It’s been determined that they do so primarily with their highly developed sense of smell. Turkey Vultures have an extremely large olfactory bulb—the area of the brain responsible for processing odors.  When it comes to detecting food by smell alone, the Turkey Vulture has the most finely-attuned sense of smell among nearly all birds and is known to be able to smell carrion from over a mile away.

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Striped Skunks Breeding

The peak of the breeding season for Striped Skunks is in March, which is why their tracks in the snow are fairly easy to come across, and why road-killed skunks are not an unusual sight at this time of year. Both males and females are actively seeking mates and travel as far as 2 ½ miles to scout out other skunks’ winter den sites.

 A female is in estrus for a little over a week; only after mating does she ovulate, thereby increasing the chances of fertilization.  After mating, the female skunk will aggressively attack any subsequent suitors, whereas the polygamous male will attempt to mate with all the females within his territory. (Photo: striped skunk den)

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Beavers Released

Most beavers in northern New England have been trapped inside their lodge for several months, with their only food supply being the branches they cut last fall and piled up on the floor of the pond or river near their lodge. Ice has sealed them in, not only to a life of darkness and dampness, but to a diet of cambium. 

Needless to say, they are quick to take advantage of melting ice that allows them to exit their lodge and make their way to shore to sample fresh food.  One of the first delicacies they dine on, if it’s available, is skunk cabbage.  The rhizomes, leaves and flowers of both yellow and white pond lilies are also favorites.  No longer restricted to woody plants, beavers head for grasses, sedges, ferns, fungi, berries, mushrooms, duckweed and even algae as the water warms.  Their palate must jump for joy with the melting of ice in early March.

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Wild Turkeys Feeding and Making Burdock Balls

Almost every response to this Mystery Photo was spot-on, but “myip2014” was the first NC reader to recognize the signs left by a Wild Turkey feeding on Common Burdock (Arctium minus) seeds. A variety of plant material is eaten by Wild Turkeys in the winter: white pine and hemlock needles and buds, evergreen ferns, lichens, moss, and buds and stems of Sugar Maple, American Beech and American Hophornbeam trees. Especially when there is deep snow, Common Burdock is a favorite due to having seeds that are within reach and usually above the snow.

Turkeys consume these seeds in such a distinctive manner that one can recognize what animal has been feeding on burdock, even if tracks and scat are not present. The burdock burrs, or fruits, are plucked off the plant by the turkey, opened and the seeds are eaten. The burrs end up nearly inside out as a result of the turkey prying them open to get the seeds, and often are stuck together and form “burdock balls.“  The presence of these balls is a sure sign that turkeys have dined on the seeds they once contained.

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Virginia Opossum Tracks

Virginia Opossums have extended their range far enough north that even in parts of northern New England they are present and remain active year-round.  Opossum tracks in the snow provide an opportunity to observe the unusual toe structure of these marsupials. 

Opossums have five toes on all four feet.  The toes on their front feet can spread wide apart, often resulting in a star-shaped track.  The inside toe of their hind foot, or “thumb,” is opposable, has no nail, and often points in the opposite direction of the other four toes. (Thanks to Connie Day for opossum track photo op.)

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Why You Don’t Feed Birds In The Summer (if you live in bear country)

Unfortunately, habituated bears often have very short lives.  They lose their fear of humans, become “nuisance bears” and often end up being killed.  Do not worry about the birds that have been visiting your feeder all winter.  Your bringing your feeder in will not negatively affect them, as they get the majority of their food from natural sources.  Also, when birds are nesting many feed their young insects and aren’t frequent visitors to feeders. Feeding enables humans to get a close view of their winged neighbors, but it is not necessary for the birds’ welfare.

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Miterwort Flowering

Miterwort (Mitella diphylla), also known as Bishop’s–cap, is named for the resemblance of its seed capsules to the hats (known as miters) worn by bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. If you examine a flower closely, you will see its delicate, 5-pointed, snowflake-like design. Each tiny flower is in the shape of a small cup, with dissected petals arising from the rim of the cup, resembling fine lacework. There is a glandular ring of nectar-producing tissue inside the cup which attracts small bees, flies and ants.

Once pollinated, the flowers produce open seed-containing capsules. Water, not animals, is the dispersal agent for Miterwort’s seeds. The capsules orient themselves so that their opening faces upward. When it rains, the falling rain drops splash the seeds out of the capsules, dispersing them up to three feet away from the parent plant.

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Spring Beauty Pollen-Specialists

We hear a lot about honey bees and other species of social bees (that live in colonies) pollinating crops and other flowering plants, but there is another, larger,  group of bees, called solitary (nesting) bees, which plays a significant role in pollinating plants.  These bees live alone, forage for pollen for their larvae and in the process pollinate vast numbers of flowers.

Mining bees make up one group of solitary bees.  They are small and nest individually in the ground.  One species of mining bee you often see on Spring Beauty is Andrena erigeniae.  Females are hairy and often loaded with Spring Beauty’s pink pollen.  Males are smaller, slimmer and less hairy. The thing that sets this species of mining bee apart is the fact that it is a “pollen-specialist” —  it collects pollen from only two plant species, Virginia (or Narrow-leaved) Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) and Carolina Spring Beauty (C. caroliniana).

Pollen from these blossoms is formed into balls and placed into underground brood chambers the female bee has dug with her jaws and legs. She deposits a single egg on each ball of pollen for the larva to eat when the egg hatches.  During the summer the larva pupates and by late autumn development of the adult is complete. Winter is spent in the adult stage within the brood chamber and the bee emerges in the spring just as Spring Beauty flowers.  Male and female bees emerge at roughly the same time and their mating, as well as their food collection, is said to take place on the flowers of Spring Beauty. (Photo:  male Andrena erigeniae on Carolina Spring Beauty)

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Happy Mother’s Day


Male and Female Tamarack Cones Maturing

Tamaracks, or American Larches (Larix laricina) are non-flowering plants (often found growing in bogs) that reproduce using seeds that are borne on the woody scales of cones.  Conifers (Tamarack is one of about 20 deciduous conifers, but the only one in New England) have both male and female cones.  The male cones produce pollen which is distributed by the wind and the female cones contain ovules which, when fertilized, develop seeds.

The male (pollen-bearing) cones look like little, round buttons (less than 1/5th of an inch wide), and consist of brown to yellowish pollen sacs with papery scales at their base. After maturing in early spring, they shed their pollen and then wither. The female cones of Tamarack are also small – less than ½ inch – and initially resemble tiny, maroon roses.  As in all conifers, the scales open temporarily to receive pollen, then close during fertilization and maturation, and then re-open again at maturity to allow the seed to escape.

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Male Hermit Thrushes Returning

During the past week a familiar and ethereal song has been emanating from nearby woodlands.  Male Hermit Thrushes have returned, as have their flute-like songs. These songs are made with a syrinx (not a larynx like humans have), an organ unique to birds. It is not much bigger than a raindrop in most birds and is extremely efficient, using nearly all the air that passes through it. (A human creates sound using only 2% of the air exhaled through the larynx.)

The syrinx is located where the trachea splits into two bronchial tubes. In songbirds, each side of the syrinx is independently controlled, allowing birds to produce two unrelated pitches (one from each half of its syrinx) simultaneously.  Hermit Thrushes can produce rising and falling notes at the same time, creating the melodious and haunting song that greets our ears early in the spring. This renowned songster can be heard at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Hermit_Thrush/sounds

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American Toad Succumbs To Winter Challenges

Last fall most American Toads burrowed below the frost line, digging backwards one to two feet into the ground before beginning their winter hibernation. This spring, as soon as the temperature is consistently above 40°F., they will emerge.

Unfortunately, it seems that the pictured toad emerged too early during one of our warm spells this winter (of which there were many). One can’t know for sure, but it looks as though this is what happened, and without an adequate food supply it died of starvation or froze when the temperature dropped back down.  To the left of the desiccated toad is some scat which looks very much like American Toad scat to me.

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American Crow Diet & Hunting Techniques

One would be hard pressed to name all of the different types of food that American Crows consume. The diet of these omnivorous birds runs the gamut —  small birds, bird eggs and nestlings, tadpoles, frogs and toads, snakes, turtles, small mammals, fish, insects, clams, nuts, fruits and carrion.

Crows use a number of techniques in obtaining their food. They find most of it as they’re walking on the ground, occasionally they probe just under its surface.  You often see them lifting and flipping leaves, cow pies, sticks and small stones to see what creatures live beneath them.  Crows have also been known to stand belly-deep in water as they hunt for fish. In addition, they sometimes hunt from a perch, pouncing on prey they see, and catch flying insects and small birds on the wing. Crows have even been observed using “tools” such as pieces of wood to probe for insects.

If their prey is large, crows will place it under one or both feet and tear pieces off with their bill (see pictured American Crow with road-killed Eastern Chipmunk it retrieved).

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Wild Bird Seed

Humans have a long history of feeding birds. As early as 1500 BC Hindus provided birds (as well as dogs, insects, “wandering outcasts” and “beings of invisible worlds”) with rice cakes.  In 1825 one of the first bird feeders was constructed out of a modified cattle trough.  Bird feeding grew in popularity in the 1900’s and by 2019 roughly 60 million people in the U.S. were feeding birds, spending more than $4 billion annually on bird food. Bird feeding has become such a common practice that many people may wonder how seed-eating birds survived long, cold winters before humans fed them.

In fact, birds do very well without a helping hand from humans. A large number of winter bird species in the Northeast, especially sparrows and finches, are seedeaters (granivorous) and there are multiple wild sources of food for these birds, many found along roadsides and in fields.  These plants, called weeds by some, are known for the copious amounts of seeds they produce.  Ragweed, Pigweed, Bindweed, Thistle and Smartweed are some of the plants that are popular with seed-eating birds.  Some of the more familiar flowering plants such as Sulphur (or Rough-fruited) Cinquefoil, Mullein, St. John’s Wort, Black-eyed Susan, Evening Primrose, Queen Anne’s Lace, Yarrow and Goldenrod also feed a host of birds with their bounteous seed crops.

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A Feathered Visitor

For the past six winters a Barred Owl has been a daily visitor at my house.  For most of these years, he roosted (and slept) all day every day from December through February on a White Birch tree just outside my door.  Although I usually try not to interfere with the natural rhythm of things, one year when the snow was exceptionally deep, making hunting quite challenging, I decided to offer the owl a daily treat – one small rodent.  Enough to entice him but not to satiate him or make him dependent upon this source of food. (I once opened up the gizzard of a road-killed Barred Owl and discovered five small rodents – they average about this amount per day.) Thanks to the Listserv in my town, I could appeal to residents for small rodents (trapped, not poisoned) which they generously deposited in a specially marked box outside the Town Hall, freshly frozen.

 

Every afternoon like clockwork the Barred Owl would become alert and open his eyes.  If he had left his perch during the day, he would return at dusk, precisely at 4:30 p.m. His timing appeared to be in sync with the amount of daylight, as he arrived a bit later as the days lengthened.  Most mornings I would take a mouse from the freezer and let it thaw (when I forgot, the microwave came in handy!).  I would take the mouse outside, dangle it by its tail to alert the observing owl, and place it on the railing of my porch. Practically before my hand released the mouse the owl would fly in, grasp the mouse on the fly in its talons and disappear into the woods. More than once I felt the tips of his wings brush against me.

Six years, 60 days a year, comes to 360 days…this owl has spent nearly a year, one-tenth of its life, outside my door.  I came upon the remains of a Barred Owl not even a quarter of a mile from my house this week.  I can only hope it wasn’t my friend.

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The Peace of Wild Things