Black Bears have just started to emerge from hibernation in northern New England, and their appetite is fierce. Male black bears will typically drop between 15 and 30 percent of their body weight, while reproductive sows can lose up to 40 percent of their weight over the winter. Although omnivores, a black bear’s diet consists of 85 percent plant material, especially in the spring and summer. At this time of year bears favor the tender emerging shoots of sedge and grasses, willow catkins, leaf buds and skunk cabbage. However, these plants are not always available to them when they first become active. Being opportunists, if bears can’t find natural food sources, they go looking for alternatives, such as those provided by humans.
Sunflower seeds are a Black Bear’s dream come true, nutritionally speaking. A bird feeder full of them replaces hours of foraging in the wild. With an outstanding sense of smell (many times greater than a bloodhound’s), Black Bears will find and raid feeders at this time of year when there is a lack of other food sources. Therefore, if you wish to avoid creating a “nuisance” bear, it is advisable to take down your feeders by April 1st. Black Bears have excellent memories, particularly regarding food sources. They will return time after time, and may resort to unwanted (by humans) behavior in order to get more of the food that was at one time available. Once this occurs, their well-being is jeopardized.
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Although spring is arriving a bit later than usual this year, there are beaver ponds where the ice has started to melt and resident beavers have wasted no time in exiting the water. (Where ice is thinning, they are known to bump their heads up against it in order to break through.)
Having had a diet of bark all winter (from the underwater supply of branches they stored last fall), beavers head for a greener diet if it can be found. Skunk cabbage, where it’s present, is the first fresh food of the season for beavers. The rhizomes (underwater stems) of water lilies, as well as the leaves and flowers when they appear, are also favorite foods. As spring advances into summer, grasses ferns, sedges, and all manner of herbaceous flowering plants are eaten.
While Red-winged Blackbirds are present year-round in southern New England, their return is one of the key indicators that spring has sprung further north. Males have just started appearing in northern New England, and females will follow shortly. Hearing these harbingers of spring is as delightful as seeing them.
Both males and females have a repertoire of songs and calls. The male redwing has nine distinct song types, the most familiar of which is its “konk-la-ree” song. Females have three main categories of much shorter songs.
The male sings throughout the year, but most frequently during the breeding season when territories are being established. In addition, he uses this song to initiate female courtship behavior once she is settled on his territory. Initially the female redwing does not answer the male’s song, but she does so frequently once she becomes a regular resident of his territory.
Singing is obviously a successful procreation strategy for male Red-winged Blackbirds, for up to 15 females have been observed nesting on the territory of a single male (although he does not necessarily sire all of the offspring).
To hear Red-winged Blackbird songs and calls, go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-winged_Blackbird/sounds. (Photo: singing male Red-winged Blackbird)
Northern New England and, to a lesser extent, southern New England, are visited by Bohemian Waxwings most winters. This nomadic bird often occurs in large single-species flocks, but sometimes mixes with Cedar Waxwings and/or American Robins. These flocks, varying in size from a few individuals to several hundred, and even a few thousand, range widely during migration and winter. Their dietary preference in the winter for sugary fruits makes crab apple and mountain ash trees (and the ground underneath them) as well as highbush cranberry bushes likely locations to spot them.
Most Bohemian Waxwings begin their migration to their breeding grounds in Alaska and the boreal forests of western Canada in March. Like its close relative, the Cedar Waxwing, it breeds late compared to most birds. Eggs are not laid until mid-June, presumedly in order to time the fledging of their young with the ripening fruits of summer.
Occasionally the desire to share someone’s talent compels me to post about it. This is one such occasion. In my opinion, the next best thing to seeing a live bird or animal is seeing one through the eyes of Calvin Nicholls, a Canadian artist who makes paper sculpture images of birds and animals that are so realistic and appear so three dimensional they draw you in instantly. The illusion of depth through Nicholls’ use of light heightens the finest details in each of his subjects. To think that he accomplishes these realistic likenesses with nothing but finely carved pieces of paper boggles the mind. To read more about Nicholls and his paper sculpture process, go to Cornell’s site https://www.allaboutbirds.org/paper-sculptures/?utm_source=Cornell%20Lab%20eNews&utm_campaign=40248d11a6-Cornell-Lab-eNews-2019-03-11&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_47588b5758-40248d11a6-277956657. Of particular interest is the video illustrating how Nicholls creates his pieces.
Keep your eye out for increasing numbers of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) on open lakes, ponds and rivers. Although these birds can be found in most of New England year-round (some overwinter as far north as ice permits), much of the population overwinters in the Southeast. Hooded Merganser migration northwards begins particularly early in the spring — they often arrive on breeding grounds within days of ice out. (Photo: Hooded Merganser pair, female in foreground)
In the winter Moose feed mainly by browsing on twigs and by scraping bark off of trees. Like White-tailed Deer and other ruminants, Moose lack incisors in their upper jaw; they bite off their food between their lower incisors and a hard pad on the upper gum.
An obvious sign of Moose is the “incisor scrapes” they make when removing bark from trees with their lower incisors. An upwards movement of their head enables them to scrape a strip of bark from the tree. Sometimes instead of a clean scrape, neatly cut at both ends, you will see shredded bits of bark flapping at the top of a scrape. This occurs when a Moose begins a scrape and then grabs the piece of bark between its incisors and hard palate and pulls it upwards, peeling off a strip.
When in Moose habitat, look for the incisor scrapes of Moose on Red and Striped Maple, Willow, Trembling Aspen, Balsam Fir and Mountain Ash. Moose scrapings can be found starting as low as ten inches from the ground and can extend as high as eight feet (most likely made by a Moose standing on snow).