An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

May

Jack & Jill-In-The-Pulpit

There are both male and female Jack-in-the-Pulpits, and nutrition determines which gender a given plant is.  For the first year or two, every Jack-in-the-Pulpit bears male flowers.  Then the amount of nutrients the plant takes up begins to influence the sex of the plant.  Females flowers produce seeds, and it takes a considerable amount of nutrients to do so.  Thus, if there’s an abundance of nutrients one summer, a plant is female the following summer; a lack of nutrients produces male Jack-in-the-Pulpits the following year.

While the flowers themselves are very distinct (females are green knobs, males are threadlike and not green), it can be hard to see them, as the spathe (pulpit) wraps around the spadix (Jack) which bears the flowers at its base. You can often guess the sex of a Jack-in-the-Pulpit by the number of leaves it has. In general, female plants produce two leaves, whereas male plants usually have only a single leaf.  If nutrients are really lacking, the plant typically produces a single leaf, but no Jack or pulpit. (Photo:  female Jack-in-the-Pulpit on the left; male Jack-in-the-Pulpit on the right).

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Common Goldeneye Ducklings Fledging

Common Goldeneyes, also called “Whistlers” because of the noise their wings make in flight, are a boreal-nesting species of duck.  The eyes for which Common Goldeneyes are named have’t always been gold! They are gray-brown at hatching and turn purple-blue, then blue, then green-blue as they age. By five months of age they have become clear pale green-yellow. Adult males have bright yellow eyes, and females pale yellow to white.

Like Wood Ducks, Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes are cavity nesters.   When it’s time to fledge (24-36 hours after the young hatch), the female flies repeatedly to the nest hole, and eventually sits below the cavity calling to her precocial young. They jump from the nest in rapid succession, joining her in the water if the tree is on the shoreline, or on land (they nest up to 8/10ths of a mile from water) if not.

The young swim and feed with ease immediately, and are diving within one to two days of leaving the nest. The female protects them and broods them at night and during bad weather for the first few weeks.  Even so, up to 56% of the young perish during their first week of life due to weather and predation.  (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo op.)

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Hooded Merganser Ducklings On The Water

It’s hard to picture a duck flying straight into a cavity in a tree, but there are several species of waterfowl that do just that in order to incubate their eggs in a relatively safe location.  The female Hooded Merganser selects a nesting site in a living or dead tree cavity or in a handmade nest box. Once mating and egg-laying has occurred, the male disappears, leaving his mate to raise and care for their offspring.

Within 24 hours of her eggs hatching, the female calls to her young from the cavity opening or from the water below, encouraging them to leap up to the opening and hurl themselves out into the world. The entire brood departs the nest within a couple of minutes. As soon as they hit the water, the precocial young ducks are swimming, diving and feeding on water boatmen, backswimmers, diving beetles and other aquatic invertebrates.

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Muskrats Enjoying Fresh Greens

Muskrats remain active year-round and are, for the most part, nocturnal, so daytime sightings usually occur at dawn and dusk.  In the Northeast, Muskrats generally start breeding in June; this early in the spring they are busy foraging for the young, tender, green leaves of cattail that are just beginning to appear.  The stems, leaves, tubers, flowers and fruits of arrowhead, bulrush and water lilies are also among their favorite foods. To a lesser extent Muskrats also feed on snails, crayfish, frogs, turtles and fish.

Muskrats don’t eat while they swim.   Rather, they often nip off vegetation and seek a sheltered spot where they rest on their haunches and tail while holding it with their front feet as they feed. Note the Muskrat’s long nails, used for digging burrows and dens in river and pond banks as well as for holding food.

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Clover Mites

You may have come across a Clover Mite (Bryobia praetiosa) either on your lawn, in the woods or inside your house.  While they are closely related to ticks, there is no cause for alarm as they do not bite and are not harmful to humans.  These tiny, pin head-size mites feed on the sap of clover, grasses and roughly 200 other flowering plants.

All Clover Mites are female — they reproduce parthenogenetically and do not need males in order for their eggs to be viable. The (up to 70) eggs they lay and the larvae are bright red, while adults are reddish-brown. Clover Mites are extremely common this time of year, as well as in the fall.

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Snapping Turtles’ Extensive Reach

When you see a Snapping Turtle on land, its head is often only a few inches out of its shell, but don’t be fooled!  The length of its neck can be up to two-thirds the length of its shell and if threatened it can quickly extend its neck all the way out. (Keeping yourself out of reach is wise.  However, come June, when female Snapping Turtles often are found crossing roads when they leave their ponds to lay eggs, rescuing them from oncoming cars usually calls for close proximity to them. To hold and transport them (to the side of the road they were headed), just grab the back end of the shell, where their head can’t quite reach your hands.)

Their long neck allows Snapping Turtles to capture prey such as fish, frogs and crayfish from a distance.  When in shallow water, they can lie on the muddy bottom of the pond with only their heads occasionally exposed in order to take an occasional breath.  If you look closely at a Snapping Turtle’s head (see photo), you will see that their nostrils are positioned on the very tip of their snout, effectively functioning as snorkels.

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Why Do Birds Turn Their Eggs?

5-31-19 C. goose turning eggs 1B0A8783It’s common knowledge that birds periodically turn their eggs when they are incubating them, but have you ever stopped to ask why they do this. One assumes that if this action weren’t critical to the incubation process, it wouldn’t be practiced, and science bears this out. According to Audubon, birds turn their eggs to make sure the embryo gets enough albumen – the white part of the egg that contains water and protein and provides essential nutrients to the developing embryo. Too little albumen leads to an underdeveloped and often sickly chick. (Photo: Canada Goose turning eggs)

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Muskrats Feeding Young

5-29-19 muskrat final 1B0A0292Female muskrats bear one to four litters a summer, with each litter consisting of one and 14 young (average is 6-7). The first litter is born in late April or early May and for the first two weeks they subsist solely on milk, but soon thereafter the parents start supplementing their offspring’s diet with vegetation.

When the young are about a month old, weaning will occur and the young will be out foraging for themselves. Until then, the parents work diligently bringing back the roots, stems, leaves and fruits of aquatic vegetation to their den where their young devour it. (Photo: muskrat bringing cattail leaves back to den)

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Black-capped Chickadee Robbing Peter To Pay Paul

b-c chickadee 1B0A9061The time for nest-building has arrived for Black-capped Chickadees. They most often choose dead aspens and birches as nesting trees, and the punkier the wood the better so that the birds can easily excavate a cavity with their small beaks. While both male and female create the nest hole, the female builds the nest within the cavity by herself.

Most chickadee nests are used only once, and consist of coarse material such as moss for the foundation and finer, softer material such as the hair of rabbits or deer for the lining. The pictured chickadee is only a day or two away from laying eggs, for she is collecting shed fur from red fox kits (they grow three different coats on their way to maturity – gray, sand-colored and red) for the lining of her nest. She found a bonanza of nesting material on the dirt mound at the entrance of an active fox den, where the kits spend much of their time. (Thanks to Jim Block for photo op.)

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Boys, Bears & Birthdays

5-24-19 Otis in bear den2 _U1A8010Happy 4th Birthday, Otis! How brave of you to squat inside a bear’s den which was occupied by a hibernating bear until shortly before you visited it. Four or five months without eating, drinking, peeing or pooping. Think you could do that?

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What Goes On When We’re Not Looking

5-17-19 beaver and ducks_U1A0432A blind is a wondrous thing, allowing you to observe natural behavior in a natural setting. Having watched beavers for over 50 years, I thought I had seen most of what there is to see regarding Beaver behavior, but this particular morning I was witness to a new activity, namely a game of tag.

The resident Beaver spent the better part of half an hour chasing ducks around its pond. A pair of Mallards were subjected to this annoyance first. When approached, the Mallards would swim away together, with the drake quacking loudly, but obviously weren’t put out too much by this game as they tolerated it for about ten minutes before taking off (undoubtedly in search of a more serene body of water).

No sooner had the Mallards left than a pair of Hooded Mergansers arrived. The Beaver greeted the newcomers and proceeded to chase them around and around the pond, occasionally catching up to them, and then restarting the game all over again. Eventually the mergansers, too, departed, leaving the Beaver king/queen of his/her castle. (Thanks to Mike Keating for photo op.)

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Great Horned Owl Nestlings About To Fledge

5-17-19 great horned owls_U1A8938Great Horned Owls do not build their own nests, though they may provide some lining to an existing cavity or nest. Snags, cliffs and man-made structures provide nesting sites, but most commonly Great Horned Owls use the tree nests of other species such as hawks (especially Red-tailed) crows, ravens and squirrels. Most, but not all, nests are used for only one season. Pictured is a Great Blue Heron nest that has been usurped by a Great Horned Owl family – a feat achieved by the owls claiming the nest as early as February, prior to the return of herons.

After incubating her eggs for roughly a month, the female Great Horned Owl then broods her young for two to three weeks. The father’s role consists of bringing food to the female while she is incubating and brooding. She then tears the food up into bite-size pieces for the nestlings.

When the nestlings no longer need the heat their mother’s body provides, brooding ends but the mother stays with her nestlings until they fledge at about seven weeks of age. (Pictured: Great Horned Owl mother and two downy nestlings, roughly six weeks old. Thanks to Marc Beerman for photo op.)

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False Hellebore – A Skunk Cabbage Look-alike

5-15-19 false hellebore_U1A0086There are two unrelated plants whose very similar leaves are emerging at this time of year in many wetlands. One is Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), the other False Hellebore (Veratrum viride), also known as Indian Poke. There are foliage differences between these two plants. False Hellebore leaves emerge before its flowers whereas Skunk Cabbage flowers before its leave emerge. In addition, False Hellebore’s leaves clasp the plant’s stem and are elongated and oval, while Skunk Cabbage’s leaves do not clasp the stem and are rounded.

The flowers of these two plants are distinctly different as well. Skunk Cabbage’s yellow, globular flowers are near the ground and have already gone by. In June, False Hellebore produces flowers that are green, star-shaped and borne in large clusters on a tall stalk.

It is not advisable to consume the (raw) leaves of either of these plants. Skunk Cabbage leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals which cause a severe burning sensation in the mouth and the leaves of False Hellebore contain alkaloids which are highly toxic.

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Watching For Warblers

5-13-19 yellow warbler_U1A8433Spring migration has begun in earnest and we are at the height of warblers arriving in and passing through New England. These little jewels, especially the colorful males, are a sight to behold as they flit about in shrubs and trees, constantly gleaning insects amongst the branches, flowers and emerging leaves. Getting and keeping a warbler in your binoculars can be challenging, to say the least — these busy little birds give the Energizer Bunny a run for its money.

As to when to look for warblers, the best times (“fallouts”) are when there’s a south wind (saves birds flying north considerable energy) and a change in the weather, such as a storm. The birds are forced to seek land, which is where we find large concentrations referred to as “waves” feeding furiously to fuel the rest of their journey.

The pictured Yellow Warbler, weighing 1/3rd – 1/4th of an ounce, left its wintering ground in Central or South America and travelled perhaps as far as 4,000 miles or more in order to return to Vermont this spring.

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Great Blue Herons Building & Renovating Nests

5-6-19 great blue heron with white pine2_U1A7932A visit to a Great Blue Heron colony at this time of year will be rewarded with a great deal of avian activity, for their nesting season has begun and renovations are going full tilt. Males usually arrive first and settle on nests (more often as not using a different nest from last year) or begin building their own. Courtship then begins.

Great Blue Heron nests are found primarily in trees, up to 60 feet or more above the ground. Where trees are not available, herons will nest on the ground (usually only on predator-free islands). Males gather sticks and other nesting materials from the ground, nearby trees and shrubs, or from unguarded and abandoned nests, and females are usually responsible for the placement of the sticks into the nest. Nests are often reused for many years. Pictured is a Great Blue Heron returning to its nest with a branch from a White Pine tree which will be used for lining the nest. Nesting material is added throughout the nesting period.

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Porcupines Giving Birth

porcupine IMG_3096Towards the end of April/beginning of May, Porcupines give birth to one offspring. The newborn is covered with quills, but they are soft and enclosed in a sac, which protects the mother as she gives birth to her young. The young Porcupine’s eyes are open, and it is fully alert. Its quills harden within an hour. The Porcupine starts supplementing its mother’s milk with vegetation after the first two weeks, but isn’t completely weaned for four months.

During the day the young Porcupine stays hidden in a crevice or at the base of a tree near the tree in which its mother rests. Instinct takes over immediately in the face of danger, as it tucks its head down, turns its back to the predator and vigorously flicks its tiny, two-inch tail. When night falls, the mother and young Porcupine reunite. (Photo: days-old Porcupine)

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Painted Turtles Basking

5-1-19 painted turtle_U1A7417Water temperature of fifty-nine degrees Fahrenheit is the magic number for Painted Turtles in the fall. Below it, their metabolism slows to a near standstill – their heartbeat slows to only one beat every few minutes and they do not breathe through their lungs (if conditions allow, they may absorb oxygen dissolved in the water through specialized skin cells near the tail). Their body temperature averages 43°F. when hibernating in the mud at the bottom of ponds. Occasionally a Painted Turtle is seen swimming under the ice, but for the most part, hibernation rules from October to April in northern New England.

When the water reaches 59°F.- 64°F. in the spring, Painted Turtles become active again. In addition to foraging, they immediately start basking in the sun. Being cold-blooded, or ectothermic, they need this external source of heat to warm their body, but the UV light also regulates their metabolism and breeding as well as helps produce Vitamin D3, which is essential for the health of their bones as well as their internal organs.

Basking can also help relieve aquatic turtles of ectoparasites. Leeches are a blood-sucking ectoparasite that can cause anemia in reptiles. Drying out in the sun causes the leeches to shrivel up and die. Algae on basking aquatic turtles can also dry out and fall off, allowing the shells to retain their aerodynamic nature.

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March Flies Emerging

5-30-18 march fly_U1A4814If you’ve been spending time in fields and meadows recently you may have been witness to the mass emergence of a species of fly known as the March Fly (Bibio albipennis). Their common name is a misnomer, for they are usually seen in April and May in the Northeast. The hatching of March Fly eggs in the soil produces larvae that feed mostly on decaying organic matter. After the larvae pupate and emerge as adults, you find dozens of flies clinging to grass and other vegetation.

Another species of fly in the same genus is known as “Lovebugs,” due to the habit of the males remaining “plugged into” the females during long copulations. Entomologist Stephen Marshall has this to say about their presence in southeastern U.S.: Even though adult Bibionidae are innocuous non-biting insects, the sheer number of fornicating flies fouling car windshields, pitting paint jobs and clogging up radiators renders Lovebugs a well-known Bible Belt nuisance.

The male and female March Fly are sexually dimorphic, differing in appearance. Like many other flies that form male swarms, the males have large heads with massive eyes. The females’ eyes are much smaller. Both are common on flowers and can be significant pollinators of fruit trees.

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Male American Redstarts

5-14-18 blackburnian_U1A3390

 

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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Red Fox Kits Maturing

5-25-18 red fox kit_U1A4366Time is marching on…the blue eyes of Red Fox kits are turning brown, as they do once a kit is around two months old. Their coat is slowly being replaced by the reddish hairs for which they are named. While kits still spend most of their time close to their den, individuals will take short exploratory walks by themselves. Frequently they accompany their parent on forays during which they are instructed on the finer points of being a successful predator.

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Barred Owls Fledging (But Not Flying Yet)

5-21-18 barred owl fledglings3 _U1A3239

If you heard Barred Owls calling this winter, and have occasionally spotted one in the same vicinity this spring, now is the time to start looking up at the canopy to see if they produced any young owls. Having spent four or five weeks in a tree cavity being fed and cared for by their parents, Barred Owl nestlings get the urge to spread their talons (and eventually their wings) and leave their nest about this time of year. It will be roughly another month before they begin short flights; until then the fledglings are referred to as “branchers,” as that is where you will find them, perched and begging for food from their parents, who will continue to feed them until late summer or fall. (If you know a youngster who is captivated by owls, they might enjoy reading Otis the Owl by yours truly!)

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Dwarf Ginseng Flowering

5-21-18 dwarf ginseng2

This perennial wildflower is 3-8” tall and graces the forest floor at this time of year with its globular mass of tiny, white flowers. Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) is related to the Ginseng used for herbal medicine, but because it’s not used for this purpose, its population is not threatened like that of its larger relative.

The flowers of some plants are all staminate (male), while the flowers of other plants are perfect (male & female). You can distinguish them from each other by closely examining the flower parts. Each staminate flower has a single non-functional style (stalk that connects the pollen-collecting stigma with the ovary), while each perfect flower has 3 styles. Individual plants are capable of changing their gender from year-to-year. (Photo: staminate Dwarf Ginseng flowers)

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Common Ravens Fledging

5-18-18 common raven2 _U1A2937

Amazingly, there are birds that are fledging from their nests this early in the spring, among them Common Ravens. The intelligence of this species is well known, but perhaps less familiar are their antics, especially those of young birds.

Common Ravens have been observed “sliding down inclines on their belly, lying on their side grappling sticks, dropping and catching objects while in flight, hanging upside down by one or two feet, snow “bathing,” giving vocal monologues, caching inedible items, playing “tug-of-war” or “king-of-the-hill” with other ravens, and pecking predators on the tail.” (Birds of North America Online) If you hear their guttural call from above, be sure to look up and enjoy the show. (Photo: Common Raven fledgling. Thanks to Erin Donahue and Charlie Berger for photo op.)

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Stinking Benjamin – A Fly-eating Spider’s Best Friend

5-16-18 fly, spider and red trillium_U1A2889

Red Trillium (Trillium erectum) has many common names, among them Stinking Benjamin, due to its unappealing smell. It has no nectar to attract insects, so it uses its scent and the color of its petals (which resembles rotting meat) to lure pollinating insects, the majority of which are carrion flies and beetles.

Apparently this strategy has not gone unnoticed by certain insect-eating predators, such as spiders. As you can see in this photograph, a spider has snared and is eating (drinking) a fly in the web it spun on top of the trillium’s pollen-laden stamens.

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