In the Northeast, Bald Eagle eggs are hatching and the heads of the one-to-three chicks can be seen bobbing up and down, anxiously begging for a tidbit of food from one of their parents. For the first two or three weeks, their mother stays with them 90 percent of the time, keeping them warm and tearing food brought by their father into little pieces that she feeds to her chicks. Eventually food-gathering is shared equally between the parents, and is usually sufficient to produce a weight gain of 3 ½ ounces a day for male chicks, and 4 ½ ounces per day for the female chicks. (Female raptors are typically larger than the males.) The chicks in these photos are approximately two weeks old and are covered with their darker, second coat of down, which comes in when they are a little over a week old.
How incongruous that a spring ephemeral as beautiful as Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is extremely debilitating to any cow that eats it. The most common bovine symptom of poisoning by Dutchman’s Breeches is a staggering gait (it’s referred to as “staggerweed” by some farmers) and a decrease in milk production. However, according to the Veterinary Medicine Library at the University of Illinois, there are far more severe symptoms. “Experimental feeding of these plants to steers caused sudden trembling which increased in severity, frothing of the mouth, ejection of partially digested stomach contents, and convulsions. The eyes became glassy, and the animals went down and moaned as if in pain.” Certainly this is a plant one should admire and experience visually, not gastronomically.
Many of my posts are the result of a call from someone familiar with my “natural curiosity” as well as my need for five interesting subjects to photograph and write about each week. A naturalist friend who shall remain anonymous (for reasons that will become apparent) sent me a photograph asking me to identify something he had discovered partially submerged, clinging to a rock in a freshwater pond several miles away.
I was unfamiliar with any invertebrate aquatic species that even vaguely resembled this organism, and immediately thought it would make a great “mystery photo” for my blog. The only trouble was that I needed to know what species it was in order to solve the mystery for my readers the following day, so I knew that if it was possible I needed to see this creature for myself.
It was a stretch to hope that it would still be in the same location 24 hours later, but I felt it was worth the trip to this pond just in case luck was with me. After getting specific directions to the location of the rock I visited the pond, and to my total delight the subject I was searching for was there, exactly where it had been seen the day before. With a 400mm lens I was able to photograph it (after slipping knee-deep into the pond trying to get as close as I could to it). Long story short, hoping beyond hope that this actually was a very rare, if not totally new, species, I took hundreds of pictures of it in an attempt to get its “tail” to show. Strong winds caused tiny waves to wash over it every other second, making this quite difficult, but I persevered, and came home very excited to have achieved the unlikely accomplishment of having actually found and photographed this bizarre-looking creature.
Only after downloading and blowing up image after image did I realize that my wet feet were for naught… I spent several hours, considerable gas, over 1,000 photographs and got my feet soaked all for an algae-covered fishing lure, or something man-made, perhaps a spring of some sort. Waking up this morning, I realized Mother Nature had royally succeeded in April fooling at least two naturalists, at least one of whom is feeling very humbled.
Hooded mergansers are present in most of the Northeast year round where there is open water, but many move south and southwest in winter. Some actually migrate north to spend winters in the Great Lakes and southern Canada. Their numbers swell in March and April, when migrants are passing through as well as returning. Often within days of when the ice goes out, this smallest (and arguably the most beautiful) of the three North American merganser species appears.
The courtship ritual of hooded mergansers takes place in groups of one or more females and several males. The males raise their crests, expanding the white patch, and engage in behavior known as head-throwing. They jerk their heads backwards until it touches their backs, while giving a frog-like croak. Females court by bobbing their heads and giving a hoarse quack.
Female breeding hooded mergansers select suitable cavities in both live and dead trees in which to nest. Stumps and snags near or in forested wetlands are their preferred nesting sites. Nest boxes are also used by this species, with those over or near water being the most sought after. After a month or a little more, the eggs hatch and downy, day-old chicks jump to the water (or ground) below, in response to their mother’s vocal urging.
Wolf spiders can already be seen scurrying around fields, active after a long winter’s nap deep inside tussocks of grass where they stay until the temperature begins to rise. Some are tiny and black, while others, such as the pictured wolf spider, are larger (1 ½”) and a shade of brown. These spiders hibernate in the winter, but other species have different survival strategies. Some, like the black-and-yellow argiope, or garden spider, only live one season and die during late fall or winter, leaving behind their egg sac for next season. Many of the more active species that hunt prey rather than trap it in a web, spend the winter as nymphs, or juveniles, becoming full grown in the spring or early summer. In several species of spiders, young spiderlings hatch out in the fall and then remain in a communal egg sac through the winter.
Although the temperature hovered around 32°F. last night in central Vermont, wood frogs and spring peepers were on the move. Usually it is above 40° or 45° before you see the earliest of our breeding amphibians, but a few hardy souls ventured forth to their breeding pools and ponds under cover of darkness and rain yesterday. Those that breed in vernal pools are in a hurry to take advantage of every day, as the eggs they lay must complete metamorphosis by the time their pool dries up, often in mid- to late summer.
Both of these species of frogs are freeze tolerant. Wood frogs are coming out of a state in which they haven’t taken a breath and their heart hasn’t beaten for several months. Prior to hibernation they convert glycogen in their bodies into glucose, a form of antifreeze that helps prevent the water within their cells from freezing, which would kill them. However, the water outside their cells does freeze. Amazingly, wood frogs can survive having up to 65% of this water frozen, yet when warm weather arrives, they thaw and move about in a matter of hours.
If you rescue these woodland amphibians that are crossing roads (where so many of them get run over at night) during their migration to their breeding pools, take note of the temperature of their body. Often they are still quite cold to the touch — colder than the air, even – which fortunately makes it difficult for them to move fast enough to escape your helping hands. (Photo: Amorous wood frogs getting a head start as they cross a road to get to breeding pool.)