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May

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

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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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Oak Catkins A Source Of Protein

5-14-18 gray squirrel eating oak flowers2 _U1A2327It’s common knowledge that you can often find warblers at this time of year by looking up into flowering oak trees, as the male flowers (catkins) attract an important source of protein for birds in the form of insects. Oaks (all parts) are host to more than 550 species of butterfly and moth larvae as well as many other invertebrates, many of which are attracted to catkins.

It turns out that birds are not the only creatures that visit oak catkins in order to secure a meal. Although we think of Gray Squirrels as consumers of nuts, seeds, fruit and fungi (and bird eggs and fledglings), their preferred food in the early spring includes the nutritious buds and catkins of oaks, elms and maples. Apparently their taste buds are not the same as humans’, as people who have consumed catkins say that their taste leaves a lot to be desired. (Photo: Gray Squirrel eating Red Oak catkins. Thanks to Sadie Brown for photo op).

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Changing of the Guard

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In approximately 85% of bird species, both the male and female of a mating pair contribute to the feeding and guarding of their offspring. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are of this ilk. Both members of a pair help excavate a nest cavity, incubate the eggs, brood the young and feed the nestlings for up to 10 weeks after they fledge. As seen in this photograph, when tending to their nestlings, one member of a pair wastes no time in departing as soon as its mate appears.

Thanks to the extension of the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s range northward, even northern New Englanders now have the opportunity to observe the nesting behavior of these medium-sized woodpeckers. (Photo: female Red-bellied Woodpecker leaves nest as food-bearing male arrives. Note continuous red crown on male, which is broken in female.) (Thanks to Sadie Brown for photo op.)

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Muskrats Busy Feeding Young

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Birthing time for Muskrats is late April/early May, so this year’s young are roughly a month old. Weaning begins now and young Muskrats, who have been able to swim since they were two weeks old, begin foraging for themselves. Parents continue to supplement their offspring’s diet during this transition.  Although Muskrats are omnivores, the majority of their diet consists of the roots, stems, leaves and fruits of aquatic vegetation. However, when you’re feeding half a dozen offspring, you harvest whatever is available, including bedstraw (see photo).

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Northern Mockingbirds: Aggressive Defenders of Nest & Young

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Besides being known for their vocal repertoire, Northern Mockingbirds are famous for pugnacious defense of their territory, nest, and young. Even more than most songbirds, Northern Mockingbirds aggressively stand guard over their nestlings as well as their young fledglings. Potential predators risk being mobbed and chased by nesting mockingbirds. While the female incubates, the male spends most of his time perched high on trees or rooftops, acting as a sentinel, and will chase away any animal (including humans) that approaches the nest. Northern Mockingbirds have also been known to join forces with other birds, including cardinals, thrashers and doves, to chase away potential nest predators.

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White Ash Flowering

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In 1935 Walter Rogers wrote a book on tree flowers (Tree Flowers of Forest, Park and Street) in which he described White Ash (Fraxinus americana) in the following words. “The Ashes are important trees with interesting features of form and foliage, but their flowers are among the least interesting.” I am of a different opinion, at least regarding White Ash’s male, or staminate, flowers.

White Ash is dioecius – individual trees have all male or all female flowers. Just before and as the tree is leafing out, the flower buds, located on the shoots of the previous season, begin to open. Male flowers are more noticeable than female flowers, partly because of the size of their clusters — there are between 200 and 300 flowers in each cluster – and their vibrant color (which resembles the fall color of some White Ash leaves). Being wind-pollinated, White Ash’s flowers lack petals as they would impede pollination. The stamens are a purplish-red, raspberry-like color until they mature, at which time the pollen’s yellow color is predominant.  The flowers are soon hidden by emerging leaves, so now is the time to see if you agree with Mr. Rogers!

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Barred Owl Chicks Fledging

5-25-17 barred owl fledging2Unlike most young birds, Barred Owls fledge before they can fly. On average, they leave their nest when they are around eight weeks old, and don’t master flight until they’re about 12 weeks old. Fledging for a Barred Owl consists of climbing up out of the tree cavity where they spent their first two months, onto a nearby limb where its parents will tend to it. More often than not there is a nearby branch which it can hop to.

In the fledging depicted, the closest limb was a good 10-15 feet above the nesting cavity. With the help of its strong talons, beak and wings, the fledgling managed to scale the tree trunk up to a somewhat horizontal stub where it could get a good purchase. It may not have been the most graceful ascension, but the fact that it could manage to climb straight up for this distance without the assistance of any grasping fingers was impressive, to say the least.  Fledged Barred Owls continue to be fed by their parents until they can fly and capture their own prey.  (Photo: Barred Owl chick fledging – clockwise, starting from upper left)

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Baltimore Orioles Building Nests

5-26-17 b oriole building nest2 243Although male Baltimore Orioles have been known to partake in nest building, usually it’s the female who selects the specific site within the male’s territory and builds the nest. Located at the tip of a slender branch, this pendulous nest provides its occupants with as much protection from predators as is possible.

The material with which the nest is started usually consists of flexible plant, animal or human-made fibers, and provides support. “Springy” fibers are then woven into the inner bowl and downy fibers are used to line the nest.  The oriole usually brings only a single fiber at each visit, and works it into the nest with a complex series of bill-weaving techniques. The nest is completed in roughly one week.

Construction material includes hair (especially horsehair), twine or string, wool, synthetic fibers (one oriole nest was made entirely of cellophane), various types of plant fibers including grasses, milkweed stems and grapevine bark, cottonwood or willow seed “cotton,” milkweed seed plumes and feathers. Females have been observed flying more than a quarter of a mile in search of construction material. (Photo:  Female Baltimore Oriole on her first day of nest-building)

YESTERDAY’S MYSTERY PHOTO: Once again, Naturally Curious readers outdid themselves with creative solutions to a Mystery Photo. If you want a thoroughly enjoyable 5 minutes of entertainment, read yesterday’s comments! I will let you know if this mystery is ever solved.

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Painted Turtles Hatchlings Emerging From Nests In Northern New England

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Adult Painted Turtles leave their ponds in May, June and July to find a sandy spot in which to dig a hole and deposit their half dozen or so eggs.  In most of their range, Painted Turtles hatch and emerge from their nest several months later, from August through early September. In the northern part of their range, however, the young turtles hatch in the fall but usually overwinter in their underground nest and emerge in the spring.

When turtles hatch, they use a modified scale called an egg-tooth, or carbuncle, located on the front of their upper jaw, to puncture their leathery egg shell.  (Although referred to as an egg-tooth, it is not a real tooth.) Typically the egg tooth disappears in a matter of days or weeks after hatching.  However, Painted Turtle hatchlings in northern New England retain their egg teeth through the winter, and emerge in the spring with it still intact, as this photograph demonstrates.  (Thanks to Nancy and Rob Foote for photo op.)

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Belted Kingfisher Nests

5-18-17 female kingfisher 025I unintentionally neglected to mention the diameter of the holes in yesterday’s Mystery Photo. They were approximately 5” wide. Bank Swallow nest holes, similar looking and also dug into banks, are anywhere from 1 ½” to 3” in diameter. Being colonial nesters, Bank Swallows also typically have many more nests in a given bank (see photo inset) than Belted Kingfishers, which usually have one but may have several in a single bank, only one of which they occurpy during a given season.

After courtship takes place, a pair of Belted Kingfishers flies to a sand bank in a road cut, landfill or sand/gravel pit that is usually near water, and proceed to excavate their nesting tunnel. The male begins to slash and probe the soil with his bill while the female remains perched nearby, calling the distinctive rattling call of Belted Kingfishers. She eventually lends a hand (bill) and they call to each other throughout the construction of their nest.

The tunnel extends three to six feet into the bank, ending with an unlined chamber. (A bed of undigested fish bones, scales and arthropod exoskeletons from regurgitated pellets eventually forms.) Typically the tunnel slopes upward from the entrance, which may help drain any water that accumulates in the nest. Furrows directly below the bottom of the nest hole are made by the feet of the birds as they enter and leave the nest.

Belted Kingfishers are starting to lay their six to seven eggs which will begin hatching in three to four weeks. (Photo:  female Belted Kingfisher)

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Mystery Photo

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What are these holes and who made them?  Please post your answers on Naturally Curious website under “Comments.”

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Squirrel Corn Vs. Dutchman’ s Breeches

5-16-17 squirrel corn 130There are two white spring wildflowers that have nearly identical dissected leaves, are both suspended in multiple numbers from a single stalk, and have petals that form long spurs within which nectar is located. Their names are Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis). Although Dutchman’s Breeches usually flowers a week or so earlier than Squirrel Corn, they can both be found flowering now.

As their name implies, Dutchman’s Breeches flowers are shaped like tiny pantaloons hanging from a wash line. Squirrel Corn is a close relative of Dutchman’s Breeches. If you look closely you will see that Squirrel Corn flowers have no yellow “waistband” like Dutchman’s Breeches, and their spurs are more rounded, giving the flower more of a heart shape. Squirrel Corn is named for the yellow underground corms, or storage structures, on its roots which are shaped a bit like corn kernels, absent in Dutchman’s Breeches.

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Barred Owls Parents Tending Chicks

5-12-17 adult owl in nest hole 241For about a month the female Barred Owl sits on her 1-5 eggs (usually 2 or 3) until her white, downy chicks hatch, usually around the end of April or beginning of May. At about two weeks (mid-May) their natal down is being replaced by a white-tipped gray-buff secondary down, and primary feathers are beginning to grow in.  They remain in their cavity nest for their first month.

It is pretty safe to assume that the adult owl in this photograph is a female as she is in constant attendance during the chicks’ first two weeks. The male brings her food which she tears into little bits so the chicks can swallow it. At the beginning of the third week, the female begins leaving the nest frequently to hunt. When she is at the nest, she often takes breaks from the kids and sits at the entrance surveying her surroundings.  At this point the chicks start consuming prey (that is delivered to them) on their own. In a week or two the chicks will also start appearing at the cavity entrance.  By their fourth or fifth week, the still-flightless chicks will leave the nest, but parental provision of food continues until fall.

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Trinity Flower

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Purple Trillium, Large-flowered Trillium and Painted Trillium all flower in the month of May. Another name for trilliums is Trinity Flower, referring to the plant’s parts which are arranged in three’s or in multiple of threes. Three leaves, three sepals, three petals, six stamens, three stigmas and an ovary that has three compartments. (Photo: Purple Trillium, Trillium erectum)

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Squirrels Digging For False Truffles

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Such creative and informed answers to yesterday’s Mystery Photo, and many that were right on the mark!  To set the stage, several 2” to 4”-deep holes riddled the ground under a stand of Eastern Hemlocks. Something had obviously been digging for something, but who and what? Close inspection of the holes revealed two things. The animal that had dug the holes had run into some thick hemlock roots, and with a clean 45° angle cut, had snipped them in order to have access to the soil beneath them. Secondly, some of the holes had pea- to marble-size, spherical tan objects that resembled puffballs both lying at the bottom and wedged into the sides of the holes.

Only because I had read Paul Rezendes’s Tracking & the Art of Seeing years ago did I recognize these holes and spherical structures within as the work of an animal looking for false truffles (a genus of fungi) to eat. By putting the various clues together – a hemlock stand, 3” to 6”-wide holes, clean incisor-snipped roots, and a few remnant truffles – the mystery at to what was being sought was solved.

As to who had done the digging, white-tailed deer, squirrels and porcupines all fancy false truffles. Both porcupines and squirrels have incisors that would make a clean cut through the roots. If porcupines had been digging here, there would likely be scat and/or quills lying about, which there were not. Thus, most likely it was a squirrel that had smelled, unearthed and eaten the false truffles.

Rezendes found that the truffles he discovered had dried spores inside them, and assumed that this made them undesirable to the animal that unearthed them and therefore they were not eaten. The spores of the truffles I found were not dried out, so I have no idea why they weren’t eaten, but I’m very glad they weren’t, as their presence allowed me to solve this mystery and see this phenomenon which I’ve been looking for for decades.

It may interest some to know that false truffles and Eastern Hemlocks have a symbiotic relationship. The fungi are attached to hemlock roots, so the minerals and water they absorb are available to the hemlocks. The hemlocks provide the fungi with sugars that they (hemlocks) produce through photosynthesis. Squirrels (and porcupines and white-tailed deer) and eastern hemlocks have a similar mutually beneficial relationship in that hemlocks provide the truffle-eaters with food, and the squirrels, porcupines and white-tailed deer disperse the spores of the truffles they’ve eaten. (Caution: Do not eat false truffles – they are considered toxic to humans.)

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Mystery Photo

5-8-17 mystery photo 019Who has been digging here, and what have they been digging for? This hole is roughly 4” wide at the surface of the ground and about 2” deep. There is a marble-size indentation in the soil at the bottom of the hole. Careful scrutiny will give you another hint.

Please post your answer under “Comments” on Naturally Curious’s blog site. (Difficulty: 10 on a scale of 1-10, 10 being most difficult)

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This Year’s Black Bear Cubs Growing Up Fast

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It’s hard to believe that four months ago when it was born this Black Bear cub weighed less than a pound and measured about eight inches in length! Most Black Bears mate in June, but because of delayed implantation their fertilized eggs don’t implant in the uterine wall and the embryos don’t begin developing until the fall (if the mother has had a sufficiently nutritional diet), just as the mother is entering hibernation.

The cubs are born in January, after only a few months inside their mother. They are just a fraction of one percent of the mother bear’s weight, compared to an average human baby that is about seven percent of its mother’s weight. The cubs nurse constantly for the next four months (during which time their mother is not eating or drinking).  The fat content of Black Bear milk can be as high as 20-25 percent. Human milk is comparable to cows’ milk, generally ranging between three and five percent fat. (A biologist who had the opportunity to sample Black Bear milk reported that it was similar in taste to sweetened condensed milk.)

In April, when the cubs emerge from their den, they weigh about six pounds.  Milk production and intake now increases four-fold. Peak lactation (45 ounces of milk per day per cub) occurs in June and July. As a result, the cubs have a huge growth spurt their first summer and will weigh between 40 and 60 pounds by the end of it.

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Hobblebush Flowering

5-5-17 hobblebush 065At this time of year moist, rich woods are brilliantly lit up with the white flowers of a scraggly shrub called Hobblebush, whose name is derived from the tendency of its sprawling branches to trip people walking through the woods.

Hobblebush’s inflorescences consist of clusters of blossoms that together can measure six to eight inches across. The smaller flowers in the center (still buds in this photo) are fertile, possessing both stamens and pistils, while the larger flowers in the outermost ring are sterile. The inner fertile flowers produce fruit if pollinated and fertilized. The larger outer flowers, being sterile, do not produce fruit — their sole function is to attract insects to pollinate the central mass of fertile flowers.

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Meaty Morsels For Red Fox Kits

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All too soon Red Fox kits will have to fend for themselves, but as of right now, they are still enjoying having most of their meals delivered to them by their parents. If you were to sit and watch what tasty morsels were caught and presented to them, you would see many small rodents, especially squirrels, chipmunks, voles and mice, along with insects, birds and more often than you would think, snakes (see photo). Their diet will expand to include fruits and fungi as the summer progresses, but at this stage fast-growing youngsters need the protein that prey provides.

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Bigtooth Aspen Male Catkins

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Aspens, cottonwoods, poplars – all are names for certain species of trees in the genus Populus. These trees, as well as birch, hickory, oak and willow trees, produce their flowers on spikes called catkins. Telling the catkins of these trees from one another is challenging, to say the least, yet some of NC’s readers correctly identified the catkins in the photograph as those of Bigtooth Aspen, Populus grandidentata. This tree blooms for one to two weeks in the spring and its mature male catkins open and extend to two to four inches in length. The wind, as opposed to insects, disperses the light, fluffy yellow pollen as the catkins dangle in the breeze. Some of the pollen remains intact even after the tree has shed its spent catkins onto the ground.

Because Bigtooth Aspen, and most species of Populus, are dioecious (male and female flowers develop on separate trees), there are only male flowers in this photo and beneath this tree. After fertilization, female flowers remain on the tree and form capsules which contain several small seeds embedded in tufts of fine, white hair. They will fill the air in several weeks looking like bits of floating cotton.

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Bumble Bee Queens Searching For Nest Sites

5-1-17 bumblebee 008This is the time of year when queen bumble bees have emerged from hibernation and are exploring for good nest sites, using both sight and smell. When searching for a suitable place in which to build a nest, a queen bumble bee flies in a distinctive zig-zag pattern low over the ground. If a certain cavity or hole interests her she will land on the ground and investigate by going into the crevice or hole.

Nest sites vary between bumble bee species. Most of the more common species prefer dry, dark cavities. Some nest underground, in places such as abandoned rodent holes, under sheds and in compost heaps. Of those that nest above ground, some make nests in thick grass, while others make nests in bird boxes and in trees.

Bumble bee nests are quite small, as they house only around 400 bumble bees (as opposed to a honey bee hive with a colony of 50,000 bees). At the end of the summer, if the nest has been successful in rearing new queens, they will leave the nest to mate and then go on to hibernate somewhere in the soil – ready to emerge the following spring to start their own colony. The original queen and the rest of the bees die as cold weather approaches.

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Northern Watersnakes Mating

5-26-16  mating water snakes by Sue Elliott DSCN7482Active both day and night, Northern Watersnakes can be found basking near or swimming in ponds, rivers, lakes and marshes in the Northeast.  Late May through June is the peak of their mating season, when they engage in courtship rituals prior to mating.  Initially the male approaches a female side by side and rubs his body against hers, sometimes simultaneously using his chin to rub her head, neck or body.  When they are ready to mate, the male coils his tail around the female’s body and tail in an attempt to align his cloaca (single opening for digestive, reproductive, and urinary tracts) with hers.  Once that is accomplished he inserts one of his two hemipenes (penises) and releases sperm.  Four to six months later she gives birth to between 12 and 60 live snakes, each of which measures between six and twelve inches.  (Thanks and credit go to Sue Wetmore for this remarkable photograph.)

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Canadian Tiger Swallowtails Puddling

swallowtails puddling 515Once in a while, if you are traveling on dirt roads, you may come across a cluster of butterflies in the road, such as the pictured Canadian Tiger Swallowtails, that are so engaged in what they are doing that you can approach them fairly closely.  The butterflies, predominantly males, have gathered to obtain salts and minerals that have leached from the soil into standing puddles and moist dirt. The act of acquiring nutrients in this manner is referred to as “puddling.”

Because butterflies do not have chewing mouthparts as adults, they must drink their meals. While nectar is their main source of nutrition, males often supplement their diet with these minerals. The sodium uptake aids in reproductive success, with the precious nutrients often transferred from the male to the female during mating. This extra nutrition helps ensure that the eggs survive.

Canadian and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are very similar, and their ranges overlap. To determine which you have seen, look at the underside of the butterfly’s forewing and see if the yellow band along the margin is solid (Canadian Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio canadensis), or if it is broken up into spots (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus).

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Changing of the Guard: Hairy Woodpeckers Sharing Parental Duties

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When their offspring are very young, Hairy Woodpeckers feed them by regurgitation.  As the nestlings mature, the parents bring food back to the nest.  Most species of birds (85%) engage in bi-parental care, where the male and female contribute equally to feeding and guarding their young.  Often the male does more of the food gathering and the female more of the brooding.

In some of these species the male and female both brood as well as gather food.  Hairy Woodpecker parents share these duties equally for the month that their young remain in their cavity nest.  They both brood their young, with males typically getting night duty, and both gather food for their nestlings.  Lawrence Kilham, a New Hampshire MD and ornithologist, found that male Hairy Woodpeckers foraged farther from the nest, made fewer feeding visits, and brought larger prey to nestlings, whereas females remained closer and fed young three to four times as frequently as males.  (Photo: female Hairy Woodpecker arriving with arachnid food, male about to depart. Thanks to Suzanne Weinberg for photo op.)

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