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

May

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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Male American Redstarts

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Warblers — small, active, insect-eating birds — are often referred to as the “butterflies of the bird world” due to the striking breeding plumage of many of the males.  One warbler that’s hard to overlook due to its brilliant orange and black plumage is the male American Redstart.  Like most warblers, it is a very active feeder, flitting from branch to branch looking for insects.  However, it also occasionally feeds like a flycatcher — perching and flying out to capture insects in mid-air, giving you the opportunity to get a good look at it.

The breeding behavior of the American Redstart is of particular interest, in that not only is the male occasionally polygamous, as are many other bird species, the two females he mates with at the same time do not nest in the same territory.  The male holds two separate territories that can be separated by as much as a quarter-mile.  The male begins attracting a second female after the first has completed her clutch and is busy incubating the eggs.  Perhaps the bird world would benefit from a “Me Too” movement.

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Blister Beetles Mating

5-9-18 blister beetles mating_U1A1519Blister beetles derive their name from the fact that they secrete a yellow blood-like substance called hemolymph which contains the blistering compound cantharidin. Severe burns and even poisoning can occur if the quantity encountered is large enough. (Baled hay containing the carcasses of blister beetles can be lethal to livestock that eat it.)

Defense isn’t cantharidin’s only function, however. Cantharidin is secreted by the male blister beetle and given to the female as a copulatory gift during mating. Afterwards, the female beetle covers her eggs with it as a defense against predators.

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Beaked Hazelnut Flowering

5-7-18 beaked hazel flowers _U1A1724

Some of the most dazzling flowers this time of year are easily overlooked due to their diminutive size and the fact that they are not found on the ground. The flowers of Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), a native shrub, are in this category. The shape and position of the male and female flowers illustrate their respective strategies for successfully producing seeds.

The female flower, located at the tip of the branch (where other branches don’t obstruct it) extends its tiny, star-like pistils into the air in several directions so that they easily collect pollen.

Down below the female flowers hangs the pendulous male catkin, dangling its pollen-laden stamens so that the wind can easily disperse the pollen. Because it is positioned below the female flower, there is a reduced likelihood of self-pollination.

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False Morels

5-19-17 false morel 010

At this time of year, many people are foraging for (true) morels to eat. Also found fruiting in the woods right now are false morels – species of morels that contain varying levels of the chemical monomethyl hydrazine (MMH). MMH causes vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, and sometimes death. Some false morel species contain very little, others contain lethal amounts. MMH levels also vary among geographic regions within a single species. While they are harvested in certain parts of the U.S., nobody knows with any certainty how toxic any false morel will be in any location. Thus, it is important to be able to tell them apart from true morels.

First, make note of the cap shape. False morels tend to be more rounded; true morel caps more cylindrical. Most false caps are “wavy” or “lobed.” They appear to be bulging outwards. True morels have a more uniformly shaped cap with pits or ridges; they appear to be pitted inwards rather than bulging. Also, the cap of the false mushroom typically hangs freely from the stem. A true morel has a cap that is usually attached to the stem. Lastly, if you slice a true morel open from top to bottom it will be hollow inside. A false one will usually be filled with wispy cotton-like fibers or chunks of tissue. (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo op.)

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Dutchman’s Breeches Corms

5-16-17 dutchman's breeches corms IMG_9125Dutchman’s Breeches has corms similar to Squirrel Corn, but they are pink, not yellow!

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Snapping Turtles Mating

jim bloc-snappers mating ct156p-snapping-turtles

Although Snapping Turtles may mate any time between April and November, much breeding activity takes place during April and May. Snapping Turtle mating appears fairly aggressive, with the male chasing the female, grasping the posterior end of her carapace and then mounting her.  He holds on to the edges of her shell with all four legs, often biting her head and neck while he inseminates her.

The female Snapping Turtle can keep sperm viable in her body for several  months (and perhaps years).  Thus, there can be multiple paternity in egg clutches and it may even be  possible that a female’s eggs are fertilized in years when she does not mate.  (Thanks to Jim Block for photo.  To see a photo series of Snapping Turtles mating (and many other very fine nature photographs), go to http://www.jimblockphoto.com/2010/04/snapping-turtles/)

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The Ubiquitous Yellow-rumped Warbler

5-6-16 yellow-rumped warbler 031The Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), formerly referred to as a Myrtle Warbler, is not hard to find during its migration due to the large numbers that pass through (as well as stay to breed in) central and northern New England.  These tiny jewels, also known as “butter-butts” because of their bright yellow rumps, are common and widespread.

Yellow-rumps are known for the diversity of their feeding techniques as well as their diet.  You are as likely to find them clinging to a tree, probing under bark or foliage gleaning for insects as you are finding them taking short bursts of flight off of a branch to snag an insect in the air.  These warblers are insect-eaters during the summer and consume a large amount of fruit during the winter.  Their ability to digest the waxes in bayberries makes them unique among warblers, and allows populations to winter along the coast as far north as Nova Scotia.

The presence of “pantaloons” on this image of a male Yellow-rumped Warbler may be due to courtship behavior.  Males hop from perch to perch, fluff out their feathers, raise their wings, erect their crown-feathers, and continuously chip in an effort to attract a female.

Should you choose to use your ears to locate this coniferous forest-loving warbler, its song can be heard at http://musicofnature.com/mary-holland/yellow-rumped-warbler/ . (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com)

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Red Fox Kits’ Hierarchy Established

red fox kits  IMG_2123An average Red Fox litter consists of five young.  For about three and a half months, an underground den is the center of their universe.  While the first month or so is spent inside the burrow, the kits spend much of the next two to three months above ground in the vicinity of the den.  At about four weeks of age, the young foxes establish hierarchy, which involves much out-of-sight altercation.  By the time they are stepping foot outside their den for the first time and we are setting eyes on them, each kit has its place in the dominance hierarchy and peace has returned to the kingdom.  Aggressiveness has turned into the playfulness and comradery we associate with young foxes.

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Bald Eagles Tending Young Eaglets

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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.

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Dutchman’s Breeches Flowering

5-6-16 Dutchman's Breeches IMG_9223

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.

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Female Big Brown Bats Forming Maternity Roosts

5-7-15  big brown bat 022Big Brown Bats have emerged from hibernation and have been active for several weeks. It is in the spring that a female Big Brown Bat becomes fertilized with sperm she has stored in her uterus over the winter. Reproductive female Big Brown Bats collectively form a maternity roost at this time of year and each bat typically gives birth to a single pup in June, after about a 60-day gestation period.

While both Little and Big Brown Bats were affected by the fungus causing White Nose Syndrome, the Big Brown Bat population has not been decimated like the Little Brown Bat population. In some locations, Big Brown Bats have even thrived, taking over summer roosting spots formerly occupied by Little Brown Bats.

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Ruffed Grouse on Nests

ruffed grouse on nest  020A Ruffed Grouse’s nest is pretty basic – just a shallow bowl on the forest floor, created by the hen grouse tossing leaves over her shoulder and having them fall on her back, slip down to the ground and form a bowl. Ruffed Grouse lay anywhere from 9 to 14 eggs at intervals of 25 to 30 hours, which means it takes about two weeks for a hen to lay an average clutch of 11 eggs. Each of her eggs weighs about 4 percent of her body weight — the entire clutch will be equal to about half of her weight. Once incubation starts (when the last egg is laid) the hen’s behavior goes from wandering around and feeding voraciously, to sitting on the nest and barely moving. Because of this behavior, as well as her cryptic coloration, an incubating Ruffed Grouse hen is much more likely to see you before you see her. She will stay motionless on her nest, even in the face of danger, hiding her eggs. Once she is certain she has been spotted, she will fly off the nest, exposing her eggs. Foxes, crows, ravens, chipmunks, skunks, bobcats and raccoons are some of the predators responsible for the loss of 25% – 40% of grouse nests each year. After the precocial Ruffed Grouse chicks hatch during the first two weeks of June, they will be led away from the nest site by the hen. Within 24 hours they will be feeding on insects and within a week they may double their weight! (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo op.)

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Miterwort Flowering

5-28-14 miterwort _0328Miterwort, also known as Bishop’s–cap, is named for the resemblance of its fruits 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 beauty. Each flower is in the shape of a tiny 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. The distance traveled by the seeds is dependent upon both the size of the raindrop and the distance that it has fallen before landing in a capsule.

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Red Fox Vixen & Raccoon Encounter

5-27-14 red fox & raccoon 197While observing the antics of a litter of red fox kits recently, I was witness to an encounter between the kits’ mother and a very large raccoon. The vixen started barking incessantly when she saw the raccoon, and slowly moved closer and closer to it until she was within 10 feet of it. After a short standoff, the raccoon lunged towards the fox, which ran a few feet away and then turned and chased the raccoon in the opposite direction. They took turns chasing each other until the fox eventually drove the raccoon away from her den and kits. While raccoons are omnivores, and a large part of their late spring diet is animals (mainly frogs, fish, crayfish and invertebrates, but also mammals, including squirrels, rabbits and young muskrats). I have never heard of raccoons preying on fox kits, but the mother fox’s behavior indicated that she was not comfortable with the raccoon being so close to her litter. (The following day I noticed that the nose of the runt of the litter had been bitten multiple times. Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.)

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Make Way For Ducklings

5-26-14 mallard & ducklings  470After having spent a month or so incubating her eggs, the mallard hen begins to hear her ducklings vocalizing from inside their eggs, roughly 24 hours before they start to hatch. She responds with quiet calls, and begins turning the eggs frequently. Within 36 hours the ducklings crack open (“pip”) their eggs with the help of an egg tooth that is lost soon after they hatch. The down of the ducklings dries within 12 hours and often the morning after her young hatch, the hen leads them to water (not necessarily the closest water to the nest). She encourages them to follow her by quacking up to 200 times a minute as they travel over land to their watery destination. The ducklings can feed on their own, consuming mostly invertebrates and seeds. Once in the water, if the ducklings start to scatter, the mother can be heard repeatedly and softly quacking to her brood to gather them around her. She will continue to provide them with cover and warmth for the next couple of weeks, especially at night and during cold weather.

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Avian Parents Hard At Work

robin with food 077To appreciate the parental demands on birds, consider the feeding habits of a pair of American Robins with a nest full of young. Both parents feed their 3 – 4 nestlings, delivering 6 – 7 feedings an hour, each one to a single nestling. (Parents tend to arrive with food at a particular location on the nest rim, so there is much jockeying for a position near this spot on the part of the nestlings.) Each nestling gets 35-40 feedings per day. This amounts to almost half a pound of food delivered to the nest every day for the 13 days that young are in the nest. Even then, the parents’ work is not done, as they continue to feed their fledglings for up to three weeks after the young leave the nest.

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Painted Turtle Nest Predation

5-21-14 painted turtle nest 016Painted Turtles mate in March or April, soon after emerging from hibernation, and females leave their ponds in search of a sandy spot in which to lay their eggs between May and July, usually in the late afternoon. Often they dig several 4-inch deep holes, choosing one in which to lay their 2 – 20 leathery eggs. Many turtles dig numerous “false” nests, in what is thought to be an attempt to mislead predators. If so, this tactic doesn’t appear to work very well, as skunks, foxes and raccoons have little difficulty locating Painted Turtle (or any other species of turtle) eggs, as seen in this photograph. Even though the nest is covered with soil and is well camouflaged by human standards, predation of turtle nests is very high and usually occurs within twenty-four hours of nest construction. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Joan Hadden for photo op.)

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Porcupettes Being Born

5-20-14 porcupine IMG_3143This newborn porcupine is about a foot long from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail, weighs roughly a pound and has quills about one-inch long. It will nurse from its mother for the next two months, but within two weeks will be feeding on vegetation as well. Because its offspring is precocial (capable of traveling and feeding on its own soon after birth), the porcupine’s mother provides care for her one offspring only for a week or two before leaving it to fend for itself.

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