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Migration

Snowy Owls Starting Their Return To The Arctic

Every year in North America some Snowy Owls migrate southward during Arctic winters while some remain in the Arctic.  (In some winters — not this one — we see large numbers, or irruptions, of young owls in the Northeast which is thought to be a result of food and weather conditions further north.)  Individuals that spend the winter in New England usually can be found near large, open terrain that resembles their Arctic breeding grounds. Agricultural fields, coastal dunes and airports provide them with an ample diet of small mammals and birds.  Overwintering Snowy Owls begin to head northward in March and April. Occasionally a few owls linger on wintering grounds well into spring and summer (records of Snowy Owls exist in May in Massachusetts and June in New Hampshire).

Much has been learned about the migratory flights of Snowy Owls due to satellite tracking. According to Birds of North America, in February 2012, a transmitter attached to a female at Logan Airport in Boston, MA tracked an owl to Nunavut, Canada. The owl migrated north along Hudson Bay’s eastern shore during spring migration and returned south along Hudson Bay’s western shore during the autumn migration. It eventually returned to Logan Airport the following November, having completed a 7,000 mile round trip.

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Red-winged Blackbirds Returning to Northern New England

Except for the coast, most of northern New England doesn’t see many Red-winged Blackbirds during the winter months.  Numbers usually start increasing the last week of February with males arriving before females.  In the fall it’s the reverse, with males departing after females.

Practically as soon as male Red-winged Blackbirds return, you can hear them singing and see them displaying as they claim their territories.  If you could tell the females apart, you might well recognize some of them, as research shows that nearly half of the females return to the previous year’s territory.

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Common Loons Migrating

Much has been learned about the fall migration of Common Loons in northern New England.  They are diurnal migrants, parents generally migrate first, young loons remain on the lakes where they were born or adjacent lakes until close to when the lakes freeze up, and the greatest number of fall migrating loons occurs in late October and the first half of November.

The very large loons in Maine, New Brunswick, and eastern New Hampshire do not migrate far and primarily over-winter in the Gulf of Maine, while smaller loons from other New England states and New York migrate to Long Island Sound south to New Jersey. Many loons migrate singly but group together on larger lakes referred to as staging areas. Overland migration altitudes range from a mile to a mile and a half, while over water loons often migrate within 300 feet of the surface.  One-and two-year old Common Loons remain throughout year on wintering sites. (Cornell’s Birds of North America)

(Photo of adult and juvenile Common Loons taken in early October, just as molting was beginning at the base of the adult’s bill. By December most adult loons have fully molted into their gray winter plumage.)

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Last of the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Migrating

Most of us in northern New England are probably seeing the last of the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers that nested here this summer.   Unlike most species of woodpeckers (which are year-round residents), a majority of sapsuckers that breed this far north end up migrating further south; southern U.S. and Central America are where most of them overwinter. Females have been observed migrating before males, and spending the winter further south than males.  We don’t often see sapsuckers migrating, as they do so at night and are relatively quiet when flying.  Occasionally you may come upon one during the day resting motionless on a tree, or even briefly drumming.

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Lingering Great Blue Herons

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Most fish-eating birds that breed where most bodies of water freeze over in the winter migrate further south in the fall, including Great Blue Herons.  Movement of this large wading bird takes place largely from September to mid-October. According to Christmas Bird Count data, the Great Blue Heron has the widest wintering distribution of any heron species in North America.

While the number of Great Blue Herons in the Northeast is greatly diminished in November and December, it’s not uncommon to spot lingering birds at this time of year.  Come January, when most bodies of fresh water are inaccessible to herons, sightings become rare until they begin returning in March.

Where open water remains in the Northeast, those Great Blue Herons braving the cold continue to consume fish, insects, amphibians and crustaceans.  Small mammals, especially voles, and birds remain a warm-month delicacy, when mammal hair is cast in pellets and bones are digested.

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Semipalmated Plover Migration Winds Down

10-31-18 semi-palmated plover_U1A1025During the peak of their migration in the fall (August and September), Semipalmated Plover sightings occur inland but are especially concentrated along the East coast.  Sightings are decreasing now as we approach the tail end of their flight from their Arctic and sub-Arctic breeding grounds to their wintering grounds which range from the southern U.S. through southern South America.

In general, plovers (Charadriidae) are small to medium-size, plump shorebirds with long wings and short necks and rounded heads.  The Semipalmated Plover, during the breeding season, has a black crown, eye patch and single breast band.  These areas are brown in nonbreeding adults (pictured).

Fortunately, there is no evidence that the estimated breeding population of 200,000 birds is diminishing. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “The Semipalmated Plover is among the few plovers whose numbers are apparently increasing, perhaps owing to its versatility in food and habitat choice, its wide-spread coastal winter distribution, or its habitat expansion in the sub-Arctic as a result of disturbance by both humans and arctic geese.”

For those curious about this shorebird’s name, “semipalmated” in a wading bird’s name indicates that its toes are webbed for part of their length (barely detectable in photo, but if you look hard you’ll see partial webbing in the left foot).

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Dark-eyed Junco Numbers Increasing

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Although Dark-eyed Juncos can be found year-round in New England, their numbers increase dramatically at this time of year, and they become much more noticeable. In addition to our year-round residents, many individuals that have bred further north migrate to the Northeast and even further south to overwinter. For this reason they are sometimes referred to as “Snowbirds.” From late September through October their numbers build and remain high until next May, when many return to their Canadian breeding grounds.

During the winter Dark-eyed Juncos can often be found in flocks, hopping and scratching on the ground as they forage for the seeds that make up 75 percent of their diet. Their two-toned white and gray plumage, and their white outer tail feathers are distinctive.

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Broad-winged Hawk Migration Peaking

9-17-18 juv. broadwing_U1A7043The migration of raptors has begun, and one of the first species to migrate in the fall is the Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus). While it is quite secretive when nesting, it is one of the more conspicuous species of birds when migrating.  This is for two reasons. They are one of the few North American raptors that flocks during migration, and much of their migratory behavior is concentrated in the Northeast in a two-week period around the middle of September.

Migrating Broad-wings conserve energy by frequently soaring in thermals and mountain updrafts. Flocks of birds, or “kettles”, soar up the heated columns of air, peel off and glide to the next thermal where they repeat the process. Very little wing-flapping is necessary in order to cover a lot of ground. The flocks, or “kettles,” range from several individuals to thousands of birds (larger kettles generally occur nearer their Central and South America wintering grounds).

The number of birds migrating often grows following a cold front, when winds die down and thermals increase. Fall migration of Broad-wings in the Northeast is associated with good visibility, moderate favorable winds, high temperatures, and afternoons (vs. mornings). (Photo: juvenile Broad-winged Hawk)

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Green Herons Starting To Migrate

8-24-18 green heron2 20160916_0770Green Herons breed throughout the eastern half of North America.  After their nesting season is over they tend to wander, often to more favorable foraging areas. This dispersal merges gradually into a protracted fall migration for birds in the Northeast, beginning around the end of August, with most birds having left by mid-October.

Most Green Herons from eastern United States migrate south to winter along the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, Caribbean islands, Mexico, through Central America to northern South America.   We usually see our first Green Herons returning in mid-April, earlier than other herons.  This may be due to their crepuscular feeding habits, which gives them a longer span of time to feed each day.

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Eastern Gray Squirrels Swimming

e-gray squirrel swimming by Erin 2_H6A2563 copy (002)Imagine coming upon a stick floating in a large pond only to discover the “stick” had a head and tail and was making a beeline for the shore.  The fact that an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) had paddled half a mile to get from one shore to the opposite shore of a pond shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, as this rodent has a long history of migratory swimming behavior, but it’s such an incongruous and unexpected event that it made my companion and me initially question our eyesight and then laugh out loud.

Historical reports suggest there have been many massive Eastern Gray Squirrel migrations in the United States, beginning in 1749 in Pennsylvania.   Records show the state paid three cents for each squirrel killed; over 640,000 squirrels were turned in for bounty.  One migration from Wisconsin in 1842 lasted four weeks and involved a half billion squirrels. Because of the numerous squirrel migrations, John James Audubon was erroneously convinced that the squirrels on the move were a separate species from the Eastern Gray Squirrel and gave them the scientific name Sciurus migratorius. (This proved to be inaccurate.)

During the 1800’s, thousands of squirrels would periodically move en masse across roads, fields and forests, and swim across lakes and rivers (including the Mississippi and Connecticut Rivers) in an effort to disperse. The consensus is that these mass movements were a response to local food conditions. They occurred mostly during the month of September following a year in which there was a large production of food (acorns).

The most recent mass migration of Eastern Gray Squirrels in eastern U.S. occurred in 1968, when a bumper crop of acorns in 1967 was followed with a corresponding bumper crop of young squirrels in 1968. By fall, as the first litter of the year left the nest, there was a severe shortage of food. As a result, massive numbers of acorn-eating squirrels dispersed in search of food.

One Eastern Gray Squirrel swimming across a New Hampshire pond does not a migration make, but it might not be a bad idea to keep an eye out for excessive numbers of paddling squirrels and/or road-killed rodents come September. (Photo by Erin Donahue)

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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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A Vagrant Brant

12-1-17 pale-bellied brant 049A7777Brants are small geese that travel long distances (up to 3,000 miles) several thousand feet up in the air between their Arctic breeding grounds and their coastal wintering grounds. No other species of goose nests as far north, and few migrate as far. The subspecies that overwinters off the middle of the East Coast, the Atlantic or Pale-bellied Brant, typically migrates from northern Canada to James Bay, where it remains for several weeks building up fat reserves. From there most birds fly nonstop to their wintering grounds in Jamaica Bay and other nearby estuaries of greater NYC and New Jersey, arriving in late October and early November.

Occasionally migrating birds, often juveniles, veer a bit off course (often due to weather-related causes) and end up where they don’t belong. Brants are common winter residents in coastal areas during the winter, but are not often seen far from salt water. This fall a lone juvenile vagrant Pale-bellied Brant appeared one day on the shore of a lake in central Vermont, giving inlanders the opportunity to view a Brant up close. While adult birds have a very sophisticated mechanism for plotting their migration from one point to another and for getting back on course if they are displaced because of weather, first-year birds often lack this skill.

Had this Brant been blown off course in this manner 75 years ago, there would have been concern for its survival, as Brants used to feed almost exclusively on intertidal seagrass during the non-breeding season. However, in the 1930’s a disease devastated eelgrass and consequently the Brant population dropped. Brants that survived adapted to an alternative diet which included sea lettuce, saltmarsh grass and lawn grass, making it possible for a 21st century Brant to exist just fine in the interior of New England, at least long enough to refuel before continuing on its way.


Snow Geese Migrating

11-10-17 final snow geese2 049A7452The eastern population of Snow Geese, one of the most abundant species of waterfowl in the world, migrate in very large flocks from their high Arctic breeding grounds to their wintering grounds along the Atlantic coast during October and November. Their migration is characterized as a combination of long stopovers with rapid and distant flights between areas. Birds from the same breeding population use many of the same stopovers sites, or staging areas where they rest and refuel, each year. Here they forage and eat the stems, seeds, leaves, tubers and roots of grasses, sedges, rushes in addition to waste grains such as wheat and corn in fields where crops have been cut.

Most of the eastern Snow Geese stage on the St. Lawrence estuary and many then migrate over Lake Champlain and fly southward along the Hudson River to their wintering grounds along the east coast, where the highest numbers occur along the shore of Delaware Bay. Those of us lucky enough to live near a staging area keep our ears tuned this time of year for the sound of baying hounds, for that is what an approaching flock of thousands of Snow Geese sounds like. (Photo taken at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, Addison, VT)


Hooded Merganser Numbers Increasing

10-23-17 hooded mergs 011The number of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) is beginning to build as their fall migration from eastern Canada breeding grounds to southeastern U.S. gets under way. Late migrants, Hooded Mergansers won’t reach the peak of their migration until mid-November. They will not completely vanish from sight, however, as many Hooded Mergansers remain in New England on open marshes, ponds, rivers and creeks where they can find fish and crustaceans to feed on throughout the winter.


Ruby-crowned Kinglets Migrating

10-13-17 ruby-crowned kinglet 049A6145The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is named after the male’s red patch on the top of its head, which is barely discernible (see photo) unless the bird is excited or agitated. Often the only glimpse you get of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet is the constant flicking of wings as it actively forages in shrubs and trees for insects or fruit. Keep an eye out for this tiny bird (one of North America’s smallest songbirds) as this is the peak of its fall migration from its breeding grounds in Alaska, northern New England and Canada to southern U.S. and Mexico.


Painted Ladies On Their Way

9-28-17 painted lady2 IMG_1979For the past few weeks we have been witnessing the migration of thousands of southward-bound orange butterflies, a vast majority of which are not Monarchs (although they are having a good year, too) but Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui). Both their large numbers and the length of time that they have lingered in the Northeast this fall are unusual.

This was a good year for Painted Ladies — they migrated north earlier than usual, arriving in mid-April, possibly giving them time to have an extra generation, reproducing twice instead of once during the summer. In addition, the unusual weather we’ve been having has not been great for migrating. The butterflies have spent a lot of time fueling up on nectar while waiting for a wind out of the Northeast to assist them in their flight to the Southwest. With the prevailing wind change we’re now experiencing, it’s likely many of them will resume their migration today.


Ospreys Migrating

email-osprey 014Adult female Ospreys begin their fall migration in August, before their young are completely independent. After females leave, males continue to feed this year’s young and don’t reach the peak of their migration until the middle of September. Ospreys tend to migrate during the day, except when crossing over large bodies of water, which they do at night. Unfortunately, the nocturnal flights of northeastern Ospreys over the Caribbean (a 25-hour nonstop flight) on their way to their wintering grounds in South America often coincides with the hurricane season. As treacherous as this is, 80 percent of adult Ospreys survive migration, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

 


Sapsuckers & Hummingbirds

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The Morse Code tapping of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers has just started reverberating in northern New England woodlands once again – a sure sign of spring. There is an interesting relationship between sapsuckers and hummingbirds, with hummingbirds reaping most of the benefits.   It is thought that the Ruby-throated Hummingbird may time its migration north to coincide with that of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in some areas. In northern New England, hummingbirds arrive on their breeding grounds about a month after sapsuckers, insuring that sapsucker-drilled sap wells will be waiting for them. The reason this is important is that these wells are an important source of nutrients (both sap and insects attracted to it) for hummingbirds as well as sapsuckers.  In addition, and not surprisingly, hummingbirds often place their nest near sap wells. This affinity for sap continues well past the nesting season – – hummingbirds have been observed following sapsuckers throughout summer days. (Photo:  male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker & male Ruby-throated Hummingbird)

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Wood Ducks Returning

4-7-17 wood ducks 288Among the first groups of birds to move north in the spring are waterfowl. Many ducks, geese, and swans begin migrating as soon as frozen lakes and marshes start to thaw. Although an occasional Wood Duck is spotted in northern New England during the colder months, most winter further south (band recoveries indicate that in eastern U.S. about one-third of Wood Ducks are permanent residents and the others are migratory). They begin to be seen in open water in February and March but it is April before their numbers really swell, and sometimes it seems that on every stream and in every flooded field you can find at least one pair. With their distinctive plumage, it’s hard to miss them, especially the males. Soon they will be seeking out natural cavities in trees, including Pileated Woodpecker holes, in which to nest.

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Snow Geese Resting & Feeding on Staging Areas As They Migrate North

3-28-`7 snow geese090Most of the U.S.’s eastern population of Snow Geese has been wintering along Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts to South Carolina, and will breed in the subarctic and arctic tundra near the coast.   These Snow Geese depart North Carolina and Virginia for Delaware Bay mid- to late February. After resting and refueling at Delaware Bay, they depart and migrate through western Connecticut, the Hudson River, and Lake Champlain throughout March and early April, stopping to rest and refuel along the way at various locations (referred to as staging areas).  Most Snow Geese arrive at their Arctic breeding grounds by mid- to late May.

During spring migration, flocks of family groups and individuals migrate both day and night.  These flocks consist of anywhere from 35 to 400 birds. Many factors influence the timing and duration of spring migration from year to year, including inconsistencies of weather and the availability of food at stopover sites and on breeding grounds. Snow Geese tend to migrate with southerly or southwesterly winds, high temperature, falling pressure, low humidity, good visibility, and no precipitation. Their northerly progress is closely related to the disappearance of ice and snow – they can feed only after both have melted and perennial vegetation is exposed.

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American Woodcocks’ Wintry Arrival

3-20-17 A. Woodcock 014Over the past decade or so, there appears to be a trend of increasingly early American Woodcock arrivals on breeding grounds in Vermont. It used to be that when March arrived, you started looking for the very first returning migrants. Now you need to keep your eyes open for this forest-dwelling shorebird in February.

The start of the Woodcock migration northward and the rate of their progress is said to be greatly influenced by photoperiod and weather. With the unusually warm weather we had in February and early March this year, American Woodcocks, as well as several other migratory species, have been returning earlier than normal. Since their return, we have had early thaws interspersed with hard frosts and several days in a row staying below freezing which created a hard crust on what snow remained. This was followed by a storm that dumped one to two feet of snow on the ground and colder than usual temperatures.

Migration is demanding enough on birds, but those fortunate enough to reach their destination then have to find food and stay warm.  It is most challenging for those species with a fairly limited diet, such as Woodcocks, whose diet consists primarily of earthworms. In a typical year there are frequently brief freezes after Woodcocks return, and even storms that leave several inches of snow. But it warms up relatively quickly and there are usually ditches and wet, thawed areas where long bills can probe the soil for life-sustaining food. Not so this year – a deadly combination of early arrivals and late frigid weather spells disaster for American Woodcocks.

The Raptor Center, a wild bird rehabilitation center in New Jersey, reports that during a recent 24-hour period, they admitted more Woodcocks than in all of 2016. After flying hundreds of miles, these birds are exhausted and very hungry when they arrive on their breeding grounds. Should you find one in distress, you can locate a wildlife rehabilitator that accepts birds (in all states) by going to www.owra.org/find-a-wildlife-rehabilitator .

Special thanks to Maeve Kim and Ian Worley for the data and information in this post.

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Waterfowl Returning To Northern New England

3-1-17-wood-ducks-084Northern New England birders starved for the sight of colorful waterfowl in their binoculars and scopes are celebrating the timely arrival of waterfowl in open bodies of water. Both ducks that will remain and breed here, such as Wood Ducks, as well as those that are just stopping to refuel on the way to their more northern breeding grounds, such as Green-winged Teal, have made their appearance in recent days, and many more will follow in the coming weeks.

Wood Ducks can be found year-round as far north as southern Vermont and New Hampshire, but further north we lose them to the south in the winter. Like most ducks, migrant Wood Ducks depart shortly around sunset or shortly thereafter, and are thought to fly most of the night at speeds of 37 miles per hour or more. As the sun rises, they descend to rest and refuel. Look for them in rivers, swamps, marshes and ponds, where they refuel during the day.

Green-winged Teal typically migrate in large bunched flocks of up to a few hundred individuals, mostly at night. They tend to spend days during their migration in shallow inland wetlands and coastal marshes, typically with heavy vegetation and muddy bottoms.  (Photo:  Wood Ducks)

(Please excuse absence of Naturally Curious posts this week due to illness and lack of internet access.)

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Snow Buntings Starting To Head North

2-24-17-snow-buntings-on-ground-img_6743Flocks of Snow Buntings have been observed more frequently lately, perhaps because male buntings have begun their migration back to their nesting grounds on the tundra.  They are the first migrants to arrive in the Arctic in the spring (in early April), when it can be -20°F. Females arrive four to six weeks later, when days are warming and snow is beginning to melt.

It is thought that the males’ early return is related to the fact that, unlike most Arctic songbirds, buntings nest in rock cavities, for which there is great competition. Deep inside narrow cracks, nesting buntings can largely avoid nest predation, but their eggs are susceptible to freezing and require longer incubation than eggs laid in the open. As a result, females remain on the nest throughout much of the incubation period and are fed by the males. This arrangement shortens incubation time and provides the eggs with constant protection from freezing temperatures. (Photo:  can you find the lone Lapland Longspur?)

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Fox Sparrows Passing Through

11-7-16-fox-sparrow-049a1364Fox Sparrows are named for the red hue of their plumage, but their coloration varies and not all Fox Sparrows are as rusty red as those we see migrating in the spring and fall through New England. Many of these birds have spent the summer breeding in the boreal forests of northern North America, and are currently on their way to the southeastern U.S. to spend the winter. Most passed through the Northeast during October, but a few stragglers can still be seen under feeders, scratching in leaf litter for insects and seeds. Although the number of Fox Sparrows is relatively high and they aren’t a species of special concern, their population has declined by about 51% in the past 50 years.

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